THINGS I LIKED SATURDAY:
1. USING PLAY FAKES FROM THE I-FORMATION: The shotgun is here to stay, but there is more liberal use of the I-formation and using play fakes to freeze the linebackers with Coach Larry Fedora calling the offense now as the coordinator. Chris Leak played in the shotgun for four years of high school and it's still a staple in this offense, but he showed Saturday that he is equally comfortable under center. He saw the field well and handled the ball like a magician. On the first play from scrimmage with the first offensive unit, Leak executed a perfect play fake from the I to Ciatrick Fason that froze both the linebackers and safeties. That freed up Jemalle Cornelius in the middle of the field where Leak hit him for what turned out to be a 40-yard pass completion. On the second series, Leak hit tight end David Kenner across the middle after a play fake and this one gained 20 yards. The threat of the run with any one of the Gators four top tailbacks is going to be good enough this year that play fakes are going to open the middle of the field as well as the deep routes. <>
2. MOBILE OFFENSIVE LINE: Back to back plays during an 80-yard first unit touchdown drive showed that the line is not only big, but quite mobile. On a sweep that netted 14 yards for Fason, Butler was three yards ahead of the tailback still engaged with a defender when Fason was tackled from behind. On the next play, Jon Colon and Butler got out in front of Cornelius on a reverse that netted 35 yards. Colon was actively engaged with defenders a full 20 yards down the field. When Cornelius was finally driven down at the eight, Butler was in the end zone taking on another defender. Mike Degory, Steve Rissler and Randy Hand all took turns getting out in front on running plays, creating more space and more yards. The first unit line is shaping up as one of the most mobile that's been seen at UF in years. The first unit offensive line was responsible for 108 yards in 17 running plays.
3. IMPROVED PLAY FROM DEFENSIVE ENDS: In last Monday's first scrimmage, Jeremy Mincey showed up big, but Joe Cohen was a lost ball in the tall weeds. That changed Saturday. Mincey once again made his presence felt with a sack, but Cohen also recorded a sack, had a couple of nice quarterback pressures and showed that he can be a big hitter. Tree Morant had another sack with the second unit, and Derrick Harvey got in on Chris Leak late in the scrimmage. Another one who's shown big improvement here is McKenzie Pierre, who has had two sacks in each of the two scrimmages. He chased down Gavin Dickey for one of his sacks, showing serious speed.
4. ACTIVE LINEBACKERS: Because the first defense was in a nickel package a good portion of the scrimmage, only two linebackers were necessary. Both Channing Crowder and Earl Everett continued to show tremendous speed pursuing the ball. In the nickel package, quite often Travis Harris drops down to defensive end where he showed he has not forgotten the pass rushing skills he learned last year when he spent the entire year on the line. This is starting to shape up as a very good unit. Todd McCullough, the top backup at all three linebacking positions, was held out of Saturday's scrimmage as he is still recovering from a sprained ankle. With the second unit, both Javier Estopinan and Brandon Siler showed definite improvement from one scrimmage to the next. Over-pursuit, a problem for both freshmen in the first scrimmage, was held to a minimum. Siler showed nice jets and the ability to chase down plays from behind.
5. THREE GOOD CORNERS: With Vernell Brown stepping up his game with another outstanding scrimmage and another very consistent week of practice, there are now three very good corners ready to play. Reynoldo Hill is continuing to step his game up. Dee Webb, the largest and most athletic of the three, had an inconsistent week of practice, but he has the most big play ability of the corners. Coach Ron Zook was seen talking to Webb long after practice Friday, perhaps helping his young corner to understand the need to become a consistent playmaker. The battle for the fourth corner seems to be coming down to Deshawn Carter and Dawayne Grace, the true freshman. Grace is learning on the job, but showing nice potential. Carter has all the physical skills but occasionally seems lost in the shuffle.
6. STRETCHING THE FIELD: The screen is still part of the offensive arsenal and it took on the look of a real weapon because second unit corners and safeties got torched early and often downfield. The increased number of shots taken downfield in the passing game made the screen a real weapon. Cornelius took a slip screen 19 yards for a touchdown and Andre Caldwell made a 13-yard bubble screen look very easy. But, the yards on the screens were made possible by the vertical passing game. Cornelius had what is his best scrimmage by far. He will be a consistent weapon this year. Dallas Baker continues to be uncoverable in the fall. Mike McIntosh is going to be hard to keep off the field. He had the longest pass play of the scrimmage, a 62-yard touchdown reception from freshman quarterback Cornelius Ingram. The increased tendency to go downfield combined with the effects of a power running game should create tremendous opportunities for big plays.
7. CHRIS LEAK: What's not to love here? He went 14-18 for 224 yards and four touchdowns. Of his four incompletions, one was a spike to stop the clock, two were dropped. Only one pass was uncatchable, an overthrow in the flats to fullback Billy Latsko who got a shoulder into a defender to protect Leak before hustling out into the pattern. He's seeing more of the field, showing more poise and best of all, an ability to distribute the ball to all his receivers. He did not make a single bad decision with the football Saturday and has made only one questionable throw in two scrimmages.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE SATURDAY:
1. INCONSISTENCY OF SECOND UNIT OFFENSIVE LINE: The first unit offensive line is looking outstanding, but the second unit needs to step up its consistency. Second unit quarterback Gavin Dickey was sacked five times and hurried into at least four bad throws. Mo Mitchell worked at guard with the second O-line Saturday and he had some very good moments, but center Billy Griffin was overpowered consistently by Ray McDonald and then later was outquicked by Clint McMillan. Freshman tackle Phil Trautwein had some problems with Joe Cohen but he's got nice feet and is quite unlikely to redshirt. Jason Watkins got beaten twice by McKenzie Pierre. The second unit O-line has a lot of good looking athletes and all had some decent plays Saturday, but they need to have a solid week of improvement to provide solid depth along the line. The second O-line should get a boost from the return of a healthy Tavarous Washington at tackle, which will allow Anthony Guerrero to move back to guard and stay there.
2. PUNT COVERAGE: Both Nick Fleming and Eric Wilbur got off fine punts but the coverage wasn't consistent. Vernell Brown had one very nice return that needed only one more block to spring him to go the distance. Zook has worked hard with the punt coverage during the first two weeks and while definite improvement is obvious, this is still an area that has to be vastly improved by game three when the Gators go into Dollywood to play a Tennessee team that always has outstanding special teams.
3. BACKUP DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Other than McMillan, who had two sacks including one for a safety of Dickey, the second unit defensive tackles continue to need a lot of work --- either that or the first unit offensive line is just that good. Kenny Parker had a couple of plays, but his back problems are well documented so counting on him for more than 10-12 snaps a game is probably out of the question. Brandon Daniel, Mike Hill, Mike Brown and Eric Holcombe got in plenty of plays but none of them distinguished themselves. This is an area of real need. At least three in this group have to step forward to provide depth for McDonald and Marcus Thomas.
4. MORE CONSISTENCY FROM BACKUP QUARTERBACKS: Dickey is firmly entrenched as the second unit quarterback, in part because Justin Midgett's sore elbow has kept him from getting in many reps either in practice or in the two scrimmages. Dickey is throwing the ball better than ever before, but he still tends to hold it a little too long. It would be nice to see an option package developed into the offense that would allow Dickey to utilize his running skills. Midgett has a gun of an arm. The ball does get there in a hurry, but the sore elbow is impeding his progress. Ingram has shown he has big time legs, but he's getting his first real coaching at quarterback. He's got all the skills, but he's really raw. Perhaps seeing Dickey or Midgett working behind the first unit offensive line would calm some of the fears here. The increased protection might make both of them look a lot better.
5. SECOND UNIT LINEBACKER PLAY: McCullough is still the key to the play of the second unit and his absence has been strongly felt. Estopinan, Siler and Jarvis Moss need to be playing with an experienced linebacker on the field who can make the right calls that get them positioned before the snap to make plays. Siler, Moss and E-Stop have a world of ability, but they are raw and still learning. Having Middle Tennessee State and Eastern Michigan on the schedule the first two games will allow them to get extra and truly needed reps.
SURPRISES OF THE SCRIMMAGE:
1. MCKENZIE PIERRE: He had his second straight two-sack scrimmage. He has excellent speed and he's a fine pass rusher. While he's still not all that he needs to be against the run, he would not be a liability in pass rush situations. He has nice size at 6-4, 258.
2. CLINT MCMILLAN: He is one of the strongest players on the team already. He is quietly climbing into the mix at defensive tackle. He's got the upper body strength to fight through blockers and make plays. He's 6-1, 280. Keep an eye on him. He has a future.