Takeaways from Florida Gators’ spring football game

GAINESVILLE — Florida’s Billy Napier era had its soft opening Thursday night in the Gators’ spring game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Here are some takeaways from the exhibition, in front of an announced, estimated crowd of 45,000:

Anthony Richardson is QB to beat — by a lot

Anthony Richardson, right, looks poised to be the Gators' starting quarterback this season.
Anthony Richardson, right, looks poised to be the Gators’ starting quarterback this season. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel via AP ]

This is not a surprise, given how much potential Richardson flashed at times last year as a redshirt freshman. But his performance of him (coupled with Emory Jones’ decision to transfer) should dismiss any notion of Florida having a quarterback competition during preseason camp.

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He unofficially finished 18-of-25 for 207 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a 12-yard score.

“Standing behind him back there, it wasn’t too big for him,” Napier said. “He communicated well, and the ball went where it was supposed to go.”

Richardson’s top challenger, Ohio State transfer Jack Miller, threw an interception in the end zone. Richardson looked healthy after having knee surgery, and his sky-high ceiling remains unchanged. If he isn’t the starter for Week 1 against Utah, something has gone wrong.

Running back is a strength

Montrell Johnson was the top rusher in the Gators' spring game Thursday.
Montrell Johnson was the top rusher in the Gators’ spring game Thursday. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel via AP ]

Running back Montrell Johnson, who followed Napier from Louisiana, rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He ran with power and looks ready to contribute immediately.

“He belongs out there,” Napier said.

So, too, does Lorenzo Lingard, a former five-star recruit who started his career at Miami. He showed explosiveness over his five touches and will be in the rotation if he can finally stay healthy. His action on him was limited due to a hamstring injury.

Game-changers weren’t quite special

Instead of the traditional name of “special teams,” Napier refers to the unit as “game-changers” because he wants that phase to, well, change games. The Gators’ specialists—err, game-changers—said there are few, if any practical differences, other than an extra stated emphasis on it.

The change didn’t show up. Demarkcus Bowman — a former five-star transfer from Clemson — fumbled the opening kickoff, and Chris Howard ended the first drive by missing a 32-yard field goal. Florida’s other kicker, Adam Mihalek (Wiregrass Ranch High), made field goals of 52 and 47 yards but also hit a kickoff out of bounds.

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The performances weren’t a big cause for concern, but it’s something to monitor.

Dante Zanders is a name to know

Zanders appeared on the defensive line in all but one regular-season game over the past two seasons but moved to tight end this spring to aid an injury-riddled position. The move is working out.

The 6-foot-5, 261-pound redshirt junior had a game-high 56 receiving yards off fivees, and Napier called his emergence catch “the story of the spring.”

“He’s had my back,” Richardson said of Zanders, “and I’m thankful for that.”

Tampa Bay remains big for Gators

Defensive back Jordan Young (Gaither High) had a standout performance with six tackles. After appearing in only three games last season, he looks poised for a bigger role.

There were offseason questions about the future of Amari Burney (Calvary Christian) and whether he would fit into the new regime. His 11 tackles and a pass breakup were indications that he can keep contributing.

UF has different feel under Napier

The Gators moved the game from Saturday to Thursday in part so they would not have to compete for recruiting visits against exhibitions at Georgia, Alabama, Miami and elsewhere. The game drew a massive amount of prospects — more than 300, according to the recruiting site On3 — including cornerback Cormani McClain, a top-five talent out of Lakeland’s Lake Gibson High School. It’s clear that Napier emphasizes recruiting in a way his predecessor, Dan Mullen, did not. We’ll see if the results follow.

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One change Thursday that will be temporary: a turnover chain used after safety Donovan McMillon’s interception.

“Nobody ran that by me,” Napier said. “That won’t be happening.”

Napier did not specifically address the future of the Gators’ touchdown chain, which looked more industrial than the bedazzled turnover chain at Miami.

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