Scouting Florida: Offense could have big day against Gators

No. 10 Florida features a dominant QB-TE connection but a suspect defense.
Missouri defensive back Khalil Oliver breaks up a pass from Florida's Kyle Trask to tight end Kyle Pitts in the end zone. The Tigers dropped their first home game of the season 23-6 against the Gators on Nov. 16, 2019. Photo by Andrew Moore

Missouri, as coach Eli Drinkwitz lamented in his press conference on Tuesday, will face their fourth top-25 team in their first five games: No. 10 Florida.

The Gators come in at 2-1, after missing the previous two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak in its locker room. They rode a dominant offense — led by an emerging quarterback and the best tight end in the country — to a 2-0 start, but the flaws in their defense were exposed against Texas A&M in Week 3.

The Maneater spoke with The Alligator sports editor River Wells for an inside look at Florida.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

The Maneater: Florida’s COVID situation can be generously described as “less than ideal.” How did it get this bad?

River Wells, sports editor of The Alligator: That’s a good question. Obviously, you have the [Texas] A&M game. And after the A&M game, some players were reporting some symptoms. They weren’t feeling good. They came back, got tested. Initially, after the A&M game, they had five positive tests, and the outbreak spread quickly after that. We reported 19 positive cases a little after that, and then it got worse from there. After the 19, they had about 21 a day or two later. And then of course as you know, coach [Dan] Mullen got COVID sometime after that. He’s recovered now, but yeah, it happened after the A&M game and spread from there.

TM: You mentioned coach Mullen. A couple days before the outbreak was reported, he said that they should “Pack the Swamp” with 90 thousand people. How much blame do you give him for what he said and what he’s done for what’s happened in Gainesville?

RW: Someone asked our athletic director Scott Strickland about this, and he said “Dan’s really good at calling plays.” He is not the foremost expert on COVID. If you want my personal opinion, I think those comments were very irresponsible. I think doubling down on it afterward was not a great look for him, especially in a state where the governor has made COVID regulations increasingly lax. It seemed, really, that he was trying to blame the loss to A&M on something else when in reality there were plenty more problems than fans being there. I was there in College Station for that game. The student section was packed. That’s not why they lost. We asked [quarterback] Kyle Trask how much the crowd really affected them the same day that Mullen made those comments, and he said that it didn’t affect them that much.

TM: The loss to Texas A&M in Week 3 seemed shocking, given how both teams had looked through two games. How did that happen, and what can Florida take away from it?

RW: I think Florida’s defense had always been suspect up to that point. They gave up quite a few yards to Ole Miss [in Week 1]; I think it was over 400. They obviously played a little better during the South Carolina game [in Week 2], but they still gave up quite a few yards and some scores. The offense has been seen as kind of invincible with the Kyle to [tight end] Kyle [Pitts] connection and all the weapons that Trask has, and the run game has improved. But when you make mistakes like UF did with the Malik Davis fumble, there’s no room for error with a defense like UF’s. UF has given up 100 points in three games so far, and that’s really, really, really bad. We ran some calculations and it’s some of the worst defense UF has had since World War II. The defense has been playing horrible, and the offense has to essentially play perfectly to win those shootouts. If it makes mistakes like it did against Texas A&M, then that’s how it loses.

TM: Kyle Trask has impressed a lot of people this season. What is he doing this year that he wasn’t doing last year?

RW: In my eyes from what I saw from Kyle last year, he made good decisions with the football but his throwing speed wasn’t anything to write home about. He fired the ball off pretty slow, he was a little stiff in the pocket last year, for sure, and he was just coming into himself as a starting quarterback, I think. Definitely managed games well, but I always said last year that if he had to make a deep ball to win a game, I didn’t think he was the quarterback to do that. This year, things have definitely changed. The ball comes out much faster and he fires it like a laser. He’s still a little stiff in the pocket, but he’s improved his pocket presence. He’s making the right decisions, and he’s got tons of weapons.

TM: Onto the other Kyle — Florida pretty clearly has the best tight end in the country. What makes Kyle Pitts so good?

RW: When you match him up one-on-one, he kind of reminds me of Rob Gronkowski. Not necessarily the size, but when you match up someone one-on-one with him you know he’s gonna come down with the ball if it’s thrown his way. If Trask can find him, he’s gonna come down with the football. He runs very well for his size, he’s very dominant with jump balls and he’s a pretty good route runner. It’s not his strong suit, but he’s getting better in the blocking game too. All of that combined, he’s pretty much unguardable at this point one-on-one and he’s still a threat in double coverage.

TM: Who are some players for Florida who aren’t necessarily household names but have made important contributions?

RW: The defense as a unit is very bad, but the two stand-outs of the defense are definitely Ventrell Miller, a linebacker, and Kaiir Elam, a corner. Elam is a great coverage corner and Miller is all over the field, both in the run game and the pass game. They both play very well. The rest of the defense? Not so much. Trevon Grimes as a wide receiver, definitely a really big wide receiver, definitely a great matchup against a lot of cornerbacks in college football. And I’ll give a shoutout to Kardarius Toney, too, he’s been a favorite target of Kyle Trask for a little bit. I don’t know if it’s been every game, but he’s definitely caught his fair share of touchdowns, and his route running has become much better since he started working with receivers coaches in the offseason. He’s become a more complete receiver — he used to just line up in wildcat and be a gadget player, but he’s definitely committed to becoming a receiver and it shows.

TM: What’s a matchup against Missouri that Florida can exploit?

RW: Missouri did give up 41 points to LSU in a win, and Florida puts a lot of points on the board. They did hold Kentucky to 10, which was a good defensive performance by them. It comes down to the offense for Florida, because the defense is a liability for the team, and the offense has to play perfectly. [Florida will] exploit anything, and the only way that they’ll win is if they give up more points than they allow.

TM: Final score prediction?

RW: It’s gonna be a really high-scoring game. Probably along the lines of 45-38 Florida. I think Missouri will score a ton of points, but I think Florida might score a few more. I think it’s a win for Florida, but I think it’s pretty close, and I would not be surprised if Missouri pulled off this victory.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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