Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (2024)

GAINESVILLE — Florida’s third Orange and Blue game under Billy Napier was an improvement from last year’s 10-7 snoozer but not necessarily a cause for celebration.

The Blue squad, featuring UF’s first-team players, edged the Orange 19-17 on a 37-yard field goal by Trey Smack as time expired, sending his teammates running onto the field as spring football came to a close.

Both squads and a host of players had encouraging moments. The Gators also failed to score in the third quarter a season after UF recorded a goose egg after intermission three times and just three points three other times during a 5-7 campaign.

Here a three takeaways.

1. Receiver Tre Wilson needs a supporting cast.

Wilson will be a star, along with the workhorse in the Gators’ passing attack.

“We’re going to get our money’s worth out of Tre Wilson,” Napier said. “I can promise you that.”

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (1)

Wilson is worth the price of admission, even if the game was free for an announced crowd of 48,000. The sophom*ore led the Gators with 8 catches for 128 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown from sixth-year senior Graham Mertz.

The other Blue team pass-catchers totaled 8 grabs for 117 yards and didn’t score. Veteran Khaleil Jackson’s 50-yard reception included 34 yards after the catch on a perfectly time pass Mertz dropped over the defender.

For the Orange squad, notable performances came from redshirt junior Marcus Burke (3 receptions, 63 yards) and sophom*ore Aidan Mizell, a former Orlando Boone standout who left his defender behind on a 22-yard score over the middle from true freshman DJ Lagway. True freshman TJ Abrams displayed speed on a 20-yard play, 18 after he caught the ball.

But Wisconsin transfer Chimere Dike (2 catches, 20 yards) didn’t factor as expected. Sophom*ore STAR Sharif Denson outmuscled him to intercept a Mertz pass over the middle. Tight end Arlis Boardingham’s 18-yard reception set up Smack’s game-winning 37-yard field goal but was his only catch.

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (2)

The day’s best hook-up featured Lagway finding redshirt junior Taylor Spierto for 32 yards behind the cornerback across the field on the far sideline and before safety help arrived. Spierto is an undersized former walk-on who appears among the team’s more reliable receivers.

When the transfer portal opens Tuesday, the Gators will be in the market for a receiver, if not two of them.

2. Will the defensive performance translate this time?

The Gators’ D was active, athletic and applied a good bit of pressure, finishing with 7 sacks — 6 by the Orange squad.

But a 9-sack day during the 2023 spring game did not prove to be harbinger when the season arrived. The Gators managed just 22 sacks, the fewest since 2013 when an injury-riddled 4-8 team got to the quarterback 21 times.

Napier is optimistic Saturday’s effort would not be the peak of the pass rush.

“We have height, length, depth,” Napier said. “The rush has improved throughout the spring. We have numerous players that can be effective.”

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (3)

Begin with 6-foot-5, 254-pound sophom*ore TJ Searcy, who recorded the only sack for the first-team defense. Northern Illinois transfer George Gumbs Jr. (6-4, 246) had 1.5 sacks and could develop into a quality situational rusher. Former Orlando Olympia standout Kam James (6-5.4, 274) tallied a sack.

Penn transfer tackle Joey Slackman registered the sole sack with from an interior rush, displaying the effort he used to become the 2023 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.

The back end of the defense forced Mertz and Lagway to hesitate and gave the front time to close ground.

Fourth-year starter Jason Marshall had one of 5 pass breakups by the Blue squad, along with 5 tackles; sophom*ore Ja’Keem Jackson, who starred at Kissimmee Osceola, had a pass breakup for the Orange; and Denson and redshirt freshman Aaron Gates each shined at the STAR position.

“The rush and the coverage worked well together,” Napier said. “You could see that they did a nice job affecting the quarterback.”

3. Napier isn’t going to change who he is.

Napier’s conservative style is ingrained in him, even in a spring game.

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (4)

Consider the opening drive by the Blue team and the Gators’ first-team offense. A 17-play, 59-yard grind ended with Smack’s 31-yard field goal. It was one of seven field-goal attempts on a day when Napier played it close to the vest a little too much — even for his own liking.

“We all understand red-zone touchdowns are important,” he said. “There were a couple borderline go-for-it situations where we maybe can manage the game a little bit better first, second, and third down.”

Facing 3rd-and-5 from the Orange 37 during the Blue squad’s lengthy opening drive, Napier called consecutive running plays to get the a first down. UF converted with Montrell Johnson Jr. runs of 3 and 2 yards, but this longstanding philosophy runs counter to hopes Napier will open up the offense in 2024.

Yet when the Orange squad faced 4th-and-2 from the 6, Napier sent in the field-goal team. Redshirt junior Hunter Smith missed the 34-yarder.

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (5)

The aim to simulate true game situations is understandable. Taking chances in the spring is the time to do it.

Napier said he and his staff will learn from experience.

“That will be part of the lesson from the game,” he said.

However, Napier’s track record at UF is of a coach whose squad struggles in the red zone, often zigs when he should zag and is not explosive often enough offensively.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com

Gators’ spring game ends with Tre Wilson, UF defense in starring roles (2024)

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