GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It really does seem that nothing is going to come easy for the Florida football program this season. No plan is safe. Not even for a full half.
Most fans need no review, but here’s a quick summation for those who have missed the last six weeks.
Expected top playmaker Antonio Callaway and six others suspended indefinitely in the middle of preseason camp, leading all to project that the Gators would lean on veteran running back Jordan Scarlett. … Until Scarlett and yet another teammate were then suspended days before the season opener for their involvement in the same credit card fraud matter.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks wins a tightly-contested preseason quarterback battle, only to get yanked in the third quarter in two of his first three starts while missing a prime opportunity to build confidence when Florida’s Week 2 game against an FCS team is cancelled due to a hurricane.
And after making a quarterback change to start veteran Luke Del Rio this week against Vanderbilt in hopes that his veteran poise and command of the offense could give the Gators a lift, Del Rio is forced out of the game in the second quarter with an apparent injury to his non-throwing shoulder.
Back to Franks, who ultimately gave the Gators what they needed.
Coach Jim McElwain talks often about “creating chaos” for his team in practice and through the preseason. These Gators have carried that over to Saturdays as well.
And yet they keep winning, collecting a 38-24 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday to move to 3-0 in the SEC.
This one wasn’t as nail-bitingly tense as the last two. Florida didn’t need a last-second touchdown or defensive stand to get by the Commodores, but it did need to shift plans on the fly yet again.
No official update has been provided on the severity of Del Rio’s injury, but until told otherwise, it looks like Franks is back in charge again.
Florida had given the young QB a fair three-game audition before concluding that he wasn’t quite ready for everything the job entailed, or at least not as ready as Del Rio.
With the coaches showing no sign of giving graduate transfer Malik Zaire another chance, they now may have to again strap themselves in for the ups and downs of Franks’ learning-on-the-job growing pains.
Football is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line Saturday is that Franks led the Gators down the field for a field goal at the end of the first half and then contributed to three touchdown drives in the second half.
He deserves credit for that, especially for that beautiful 49-yard bomb to Tyrie Cleveland that set up the game-tying field goal at the end of the half. Franks had just taken over, and for the second time in two home games at The Swamp he and Cleveland connected on a perfect deep post.
That was a huge spark for the Gators in the wake of Del Rio’s injury and Vanderbilt taking its first lead of the game on the previous series.
Again, Franks has real upside. That has to be acknowledged. He also doesn’t look as comfortable or smooth running the offense as Del Rio. That’s understandable given his limited experience, but that too has to be acknowledged.
On Florida’s go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter, Franks did a nice job to find tight end Moral Stephens open twice for big gains for 16 and 29 yards.
The next series wasn’t quite as fluid, but it netted the same result with another touchdown.
Franks bobbled a snap, delaying a handoff to Mark Thompson that ended up going nowhere, but he also threw a dart to Cleveland for an 18-yard gain on third-and-13 to keep the drive moving. Florida later was flagged for two false start penalties, turning a third-and-1 into a third-and-10, but they found a way yet again with a 9-yard run by Thompson and a 4-yard run from Lamical Perine on fourth down. It’s not clear that Franks had any culpability in the back-to-back penalties, but those things don’t seem to happen as much with Del Rio in the game.
Franks later had a pass potentially intercepted, but it instead tipped off the defender’s hand and somehow landed in the grasp of wide receiver Freddie Swain for a 33-yard pick-up to the Vanderbilt 2.
The good, the bad and the lucky all in one series for the Gators.
All the while, though, Florida’s rushing attack provided the stability the offense needed. The Gators rushed for 223 yards, getting key contributions from freshman Malik Davis (17 carries for 124 yards and a 2 touchdowns), Perine (58 rushing yards and 3 TDs) and Thompson (24 rushing yards, 5 catches for 39 yards).
That’s the recipe the Gators need to replicate moving forward.
Franks, meanwhile, will remain the wild card if Del Rio is indeed out. He finished 10-of-14 passing for 185 yards in a little more than two quarters Saturday. Can’t argue with the results. He gave the Gators everything they needed. He deserves credit.
Any game that ends in a victory formation with the home crowd chanting “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” is a good afternoon.
If Del Rio’s injury is serious, though, then Florida fans simply need to expect that it won’t always be smooth and easy.
But they’ve probably already learned that about this team.
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