Behind Enemy Lines: Florida beat writer’s take on season opener
To get the inside scoop on the No. 17 Florida football team, we at the Daily reached out to our counterparts at The Alligator, the student-run newspaper at the University of Florida. On Wednesday afternoon, we spoke on the phone with Ethan Bauer — a sports writer at The Alligator and the Florida Gators correspondent for the Miami Herald — to talk about the upcoming game between No. 11 Michigan and the Gators.
Here’s a look into our conversation:
The Michigan Daily: What’s the biggest storyline following the Florida football team this year?
The Alligator: As of a couple hours ago, it’s definitely all these suspensions (Florida) had to hand out. They just gave out their third round of them today, so especially going into week one, they’re going to be down 10 players. It remains to be seen how soon those players can come back. They’ve lost a starting receiver, a starting running back and a lot of guys that could provide depth.
TMD: Have you gotten any indication of how Florida is responding to these suspensions?
TA: It’s hard to say, really. Yesterday we talked to (running back) Jordan Scarlett, who just got suspended today. He had been suspended before for marijuana. Somebody asked him, “You guys recently had a another guy suspended for marijuana. What did you tell him being that you went through it?” Scarlett said, “Just make good decisions. It’s all about the decisions,” and then he gets suspended the next day. It’s hard to really see how seriously they’re taking this stuff. They all say that it’s all well and good, and sometimes you can tell they don’t really mean it. I haven’t gotten that impression. It seemed to me that they seem to really think things are still good. We’ll see if that continues after this latest suspension.
TMD: What does Florida lose most without Scarlett and wide receiver Antonio Callaway? (Both Callaway and Scarlett were suspended)
TA: I think Scarlett was a much bigger blow than Callaway. Callaway’s probably the better player of the two, but Florida — for the first time in a long time, at least in my mind — has a lot of depth at wide receiver. I think that they’ll be able to make up for Callaway. Obviously you’d like to have him out there, but I don’t think that was a make or break thing. With Scarlett, there is some depth behind him, but it gets really thin once you get behind his main backup. I think that was a huge loss for them.
TMD: You mentioned the depth at receiver. Who do you think is the guy that maybe a lot of people don’t know about but could be a big threat on offense for Florida?
TA: The name that comes up a lot is Dre Massey. He was a slot receiver last season. He had been really hyped up as this guy who can play running back, play receiver, return kicks and return punts. And (Florida coach) Jim McElwain had really hyped him up as this big offensive weapon they got from junior college. On the first kickoff, he tears his ACL and is out for the season. So he’s back. He says he’s at 100 percent. He’s looked good in practice. That’s one guy who could pick up the slack.
I think wide receiver Josh Hammond, kind of underrated and a guy you don’t hear about, but he’s going to be the one starting for Antonio Callaway. I think he has really good play making potential. Really sure-handed guy. And then also Tyrie Cleveland who had a 98-yard touchdown catch against LSU last year.
TMD: Who would you pick to be Florida’s starting quarterback in Dallas this weekend?
TA: My pick would probably be Feleipe Franks, and I’ll explain why in a second. I’ll break down the three quarterbacks first. Luke Del Rio — he’s the very basic choice. You know what you’re getting. As he says himself, his biggest strength is consistency. A lot of times that was good last year. He led them to a 5-1 record, and the one loss came when he was suffering a serious injury during the game. That was good enough last year, but I think Florida’s defense took a big hit with some of the departures to the NFL in the offseason. So I just don’t think that (Del Rio) will be good enough anymore.
Then there is Malik Zaire, the transfer from Notre Dame. If you would’ve asked me this question maybe three weeks ago, I would’ve said absolutely Malik Zaire is going to start. He just hasn’t looked great in practice. He looks good until he lets go of the ball. His accuracy has been kind of wild. He can move in the pocket, and he’s very athletic, more so than the other two.
And Feleipe Franks is a good combination of both. I think he’s a little bit more athletic than Del Rio. He’s got the prototypical size. He’s got the strongest arm of all of them for sure. Talking about leadership is kind of cliché, but you can really see it from him in practice. You can see the encouragement and the confidence he has. There hasn’t been a whole lot of separation as far as their actual play, at least to me. I think Franks has looked the best, so I’d go with him.
TMD: Six Florida defensive players went to the NFL after being the second-best passing defense in the nation. What have you been hearing about how they can reload the backfield?
TA: I think they’ve got most of the pieces to have a really good starting defense again. I think the defensive line is going to be really excellent and better than it’s been in past years. They’ve got six or seven guys who can legitimately make a difference at defensive end. Florida is a little bit thinner at defensive tackle, but the two starters they do have — Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark — are really good players. Behind them the depth is a little shaky, but assuming those guys are passable, I think it’s a really good defensive line.
In the defensive backfield they lost a lot of guys, but I think they have enough coming back. It’s not going to be as good obviously when you lose guys like Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor (both now in the NFL). Florida has players like Duke Dawson, Nick Washington and Chauncey Gardner, and these are really good players. I don’t think the drop off there will be too much.
The same thing at linebacker. You lose a guy like Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, and those were two really good guys, but even last year when (Davis and Anzalone) were out, the guys behind them like David Reese and Vosean Joseph, who will be back, had really stepped up and kept it to that same level. I think they’ll be fine as far as the starting defense.
Now if anybody gets injured, it’s a different story. There are so many unknowns. They have six freshman defensive backs that are all listed on the depth chart. You have a linebacker (Jeremiah Moon) who was out all last year with an injury, and now he’s a redshirt freshman, and every one’s talking about how he’ll be a big difference maker. But you don’t know until he gets in a game. The defensive line I do think has some level of depth, but aside from that I think depth is the real concern on defense.
TMD: Both Michigan and Florida lost a lot of guys to the NFL Draft. If Florida is to come out on top, who will be the key difference maker for the Gators?
TA: It’s definitely whoever the quarterback is. Florida is gonna go as their quarterback goes. I think the Callaway suspension and the Scarlett suspension — Scarlett especially — are going to have a big effect on the offense, but I do think they have a much improved offensive line and a lot of weapons, more so than they’ve had in past years. Whoever the starting quarterback is, that’s going to the best difference in the game.
TMD: The offensive line has been a question for Florida in past years. Who do you see coming out on top in the battle between Michigan’s defensive line, with guys like Rashan Gary, and Florida’s offensive line?
TA: That’s something we’ve talked about a lot around (Gainesville) the last couple of days. I don’t know how much I believe Florida’s offensive linemen and coaches when they say that they’re a lot better. I know they have a new coach (Brad Davis) who seems to really know what he’s doing — maybe even a bit more than the other coaches. I think that’ll help. The O-line lost one starter from last year but just about all these guys have played significant minutes and are all experienced. The defensive linemen for Florida have said they’re seeing a difference in the (Gator’s offensive line). If I had to bet, I would probably bet on Michigan’s defensive line just because they have so many established guys. But it’s really hard to say.
TMD: One last question. Florida kicker Eddie Pineiro hit an 81-yarder over the summer. Has he talked about how far he thinks he can actually hit a field goal in a game?
TA: This was actually a big conversation last week. (Pineiro) was talking, and he said that the important thing was that Coach McElwain was out there to see it. Then we asked McElwain, and he said he didn’t remember it at all and (the video) had to be doctored somehow. He’s got a really strong leg. McElwain said he trusts him from 56 or 58 yards, which is a pretty long trust range — possibly longer if necessary.
TMD: Awesome. Thank you, Ethan. Looking forward to seeing you Saturday up in the press box in Dallas.