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Florida Gators-Can They Bring the Chomp Back to the Swamp?


Endzone in Ben Hill-Griffin Stadium-Gainesville Florida
Photo Credit - bjmcdonald via Flickr

The Florida Gators have taken a step back the last two seasons, posting back-to-back 6-7 records, the latter under first-year head coach Billy Napier. But they have weapons on offense returning in 2023, and a new starting quarterback in former Wisconsin signal-caller Graham Mertz.


 

Graham Mertz to Lead the Florida Gators in 2023

Mertz posted a 19-13 record as a 3-year starter with the Badgers. In 2022, Mertz passed for 2136 yards, 19 TDs, and 10 INTs. He completed 57% of his passes. Some of that could be blamed on the fact that he was running for his life in a primarily run-heavy offense and was sacked 23 times.


But Mertz is battle-tested in the Big Ten with wins over teams like Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan. Since he arrived in Gainesville, Mertz has worked hard, learned Napier’s system, and become a leader on the field for the Gators.

Mertz threw multiple-touchdown passes in a game five times last season, including 3 TDs vs New Mexico State in a 66-7 win, and 5 TDs in a 42-7 win over Northwestern. However, he did not play in the bowl game against Oklahoma State.


 

Florida Has Weapons on Offense

Florida has two running backs able to put pressure on a defense. Montrell Johnson (who Napier brought with him from Louisiana) rushed for 841 yards and 10 touchdowns. Johnson posted three 100-yard games.


Trevor Etienne rushed for 719 yards and six scores. He averaged 6 yards per carry. Etienne posted two games with over 100 yards rushing. Etienne rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown while averaging over 7 yards per carry in the loss to Florida State.


In the wide receiver room, Ricky Pearsall is the leader. He caught 33 passes for 661 yards and 5 touchdowns. Pearsall averaged 20 yards per catch. Against Florida State, Pearsall caught 5 passes for 148 yards and 2 TDs in a losing effort.


The offensive line returns two starters from a unit that ranked in the Top 30 in sacks allowed with just 17. On paper, Mertz looks to have better protection with the Gators than he had with the Badgers.


 

Will the Florida Defense Have Teeth?

The Gators have just five starters, plus other contributors returning on defense in 2023. These include:


• DL Prince Umanmielen: 39 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles.

• CB Jadon Hill: 24 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 pass breakups.

• CB Jason Marshall: 29 tackles, 1 INT, 1 tackle for loss.

• DE Justus Boone: 24 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack.

• LB Shemar James: 47 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble.


Florida ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in every defensive category. The Gators must step up their game on that side of the ball to be more competitive this season.


 

The Schedule and Outlook for 2023

According to Phil Steele, Florida has THE toughest schedule in the nation. With that said, the Gators can still win six, or maybe even seven, games this season with their weapons on offense. The critics and nay-sayers think Mertz will flop for the Gators. Some have mentioned his 57% completion percentage last season. But remember, Anthony Richardson was drafted #4 overall in the NFL Draft by the Colts and completed just 53% of his passes in 2022.


Look for Mertz to play with a gator-sized chip on his shoulder this season.


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