In some ways, the storylines surrounding Florida are the same as they were when the No. 21 Gators (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) were originally scheduled to play LSU on Oct. 8 in Gainesville.
In other ways, the storylines are completely different as the No. 16 Tigers (6-3, 4-2) prepare to host Florida at noon Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
To find out more about Florida, we bring you our Pick 6 series – a Q&A with a beat writer covering LSU’s opponent – for another week. Nick de la Torre, who covers the Gators for GatorCountry.com, kindly joined us (again) to answer our questions about LSU’s permanent cross-divisional opponent.
1.) Let’s get to Florida’s injuries first because, well, there are quite a few. Of the seven injured starters, the Gators will be missing their top-three tacklers against LSU and at least two starting offensive linemen. Generally speaking, do you feel Florida is deep enough to handle the attrition?
The biggest losses are on defense. Florida will be without starting linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone who, in my opinion, were one of the best duos in the country. The third leading tackler, and vocal leader, Marcus Maye broke his arm during the first quarter last week and he’s done for the season as well. I think when you look at LSU and what they do well on offense not having these three guys will hurt.
Redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and true freshman David Reese played well last week in their first career starts (Reese led the team with 11 tackles) albeit against a bad South Carolina offense. This week will be the first true test for the pair at linebacker but Florida has veterans at safety in redshirt juniors Nick Washington and Marcell Harris. Both of the safeties are very good against the run but can be suspect in coverage, so that’s something to watch Saturday.
On offense the Gators offensive line took the blow of losing starting left tackle David Sharpe and backup center Tyler Jordan in stride. T.J. McCoy filled in at center and received his first extended action. He was fine and the line actually looked better with left guard Martez Ivey sliding out to tackle with reserve Kavaris Harkless filling in at guard. Florida should get Tyler Jordan back this Saturday so it will be interesting to see if he goes back to his normal position at right guard, replacing Fred Johnson who filled in during Jordan’s absence, or if Florida will stick with McCoy.
Arden Key is entering LSU’s game against Florida with a number in mind: three.
2.) Are there any one or two injuries that hurt Florida the most in your eyes?
The two injuries that hurt the most are Davis and Anzalone. The pair was leading the team in tackles and were veteran leaders on one of the best defenses in the league. Anzalone and Davis played off of each other and both made sure the rest of the defense was in position before the snap. Both players were very active on the sideline last week against South Carolina coaching up the freshmen that replaced them and I’d expect that to continue this week in Baton Rouge.
3.) One of the injured starters is quarterback Luke Del Rio. Austin Appleby, who had started in place of Del Rio earlier in the season, once again proved he could be effective in Del Rio’s absence against South Carolina. Do you believe Appleby was the right man for the job all along?
I don’t. I think Del Rio won the job outright early on in spring camp, although Jim McElwain wouldn’t name him the starter until fall camp. Del Rio isn’t an All-SEC type of player but when he was healthy he did exactly what the coaches wanted him to do. He took care of the football, played within himself and within the offense and facilitated to the playmakers Florida has at the skill positions.
I think Del Rio’s knee injury set him back and then I believe he hurt his shoulder against Missouri but continued playing with it and that is what caused his numbers to drop. McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier did do a good job last week playing to Appleby’s strengths as a runner. They’ll continue that this week as well, giving Florida a wrinkle on offense that they simply didn’t have with Del Rio.
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4.) In our previous Q&A, we asked about you about running back Jordan Scarlett’s lack of consistent carries. If the South Carolina game was any indication, that seems to have changed. He rushed for a career-high 134 yards on 20 carries. How much better is the Gators offense when he’s getting more touches?
This is one of those things that seemed so clear to everyone outside of the program the entire season. Jordan Scarlett is Florida’s best running back, followed by true freshman Lamical Perine. To his credit, Scarlett has been a team player and said all of the right things while splitting carries, but has admitted at times this year that he thrives when he can string together multiple carries, that it helps him get into a rhythm and a flow, see holes opening up better and that he gets stronger as a runner as the game goes on.
He’s a physical runner who won’t shy away from contact but he has some burst to give Florida chunk plays on the ground, something they’ve been lacking as the running back carousel continued to spin up until last week. Expect Scarlett to get close to 20 carries again this week, followed by Perine.
5.) The two freshmen linebackers you mentioned – Reese and Johnson – didn’t look inexperienced when they were thrown into action against the Gamecocks, combining for 18 tackles. What impressed you their performances last week?
The most impressive thing for me was their communication. Reese was responsible for getting the calls from the sideline and relaying it to the rest of the defense. Reese enrolled early in the spring and, given Anzalone’s injury history, was immediately given a ton of reps with the first string defense. We could tell that linebacker coach Randy Shannon knew Reese getting extended playing time at some point this season was a real possibility and they put Reese on the fast track to learn the system. They achieved that and Reese’s play Saturday is proof.
The most impressive thing about Johnson is that he was a safety in high school and began his career at safety when he got to Florida. About midway through 2015 the defensive staff decided to switch him to linebacker while he was redshirting. The way Johnson has taken on the new position and the skills he has in coverage because of his time playing safety impress me.
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6.) This is a huge game for several reasons, but the stakes don’t get any higher for the Gators. Florida wins the SEC East with a victory against LSU. Despite all the injuries, how confident is this Gators team heading into Saturday?
It’s been interesting this week. All season long the Gators have not shied away from talking trash but this week they’ve stayed pretty quiet, instead letting the Tigers do most of the talking. I think the players know what is at stake and they’re really focused in. I haven’t seen this kind of quiet confidence; I do feel that the team is confident, all season. However, I’m not sure how that will work out for Florida, as they’ve been a team that kind of needs to talk and boast. They feed off of that and it has fueled them through the season to this point. It’s interesting to see the change of demeanor this week.