Photo by University of Florida Athletics (@GatorsFB)
By Tucker Harlin
No. 11 Tennessee (2-0) opens its SEC schedule with a trip to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to take on Florida (1-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The game will air on ESPN.
The history between these two tilts in favor of the Gators. Florida leads the all-time series against Tennessee 31-21, and it has now been 20 years since the last time Tennessee emerged victorious in Gainesville. Between 2005 and 2023, the Vols had just two wins over the Gators, one of which was a 38-33 survival a season ago.
But this Florida team has had a bumpy start to 2023. The Gators began their season with a trip to Utah, and it ended in a 24-11 loss. The Utes were without their starting quarterback, but they were able to take advantage of mistakes the Gators made in critical situations. Last week, Florida handled business at home with a 49-7 win over McNeese.
So what key pieces will Florida utilize in its SEC opener?
On the ground, Florida has a pair of potent running backs in Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne.
Johnson and Etienne are in the conversation for best backfield tandem in the SEC. Johnson led the way with 841 yards and 10 scores on the ground in 2022. Etienne is the younger brother of former Clemson Tiger and current Jacksonville Jaguar running back Travis Etienne, and he finished 2022 with 719 rush yards and six rush touchdowns.
The Gators ran effectively against McNeese, but it has not been the easiest start to 2023 for the ground game. Etienne and Johnson combined for 31 yards against Utah, and sack yardage pushed Florida down to just 13 yards for the game.
A lot of Florida’s struggles on the ground in the opener were attributed to a porous offensive line.
Gators center Kingsley Eguakun will play this week after missing the first two contests due to injury. The right side of the line is held up by guard Micah Mazzccua and tackle Damieon George, transfers from Baylor and Alabama. The left side sees guard Richie Leonard and tackle Austin Barber move into starting roles, but they only fielded six starts in 2022.
Graham Mertz is the man throwing the ball for Florida this season. Mertz transferred in after four years at Wisconsin where he threw for 5,399 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions.
Unlike Anthony Richardson, Mertz does most of his work from the pocket. In the Utah game, the vast majority of Mertz’s passes short to medium range with minimal deep shots.
Mertz’s favorite target this season has been wide receiver Ricky Pearsall.
Pearsall transferred in from Arizona State last season. He was quick to make an impact as he led the team with 33 catches for 661 yards and five receiving touchdowns in 2022. This year, Pearsall has recorded a team best 15 catches for 214 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Gators feature many new pieces in 2023.
The front seven has lost its three best linebackers and its top defensive lineman to the NFL. Additionally, the defensive line suffered a devastating blow pre-season as defensive end Justus Boone tore his ACL in fall camp.
The Gators’ top returnee on the defensive line is defensive end Princely Umanmielen. Umanmielen finished 2022 with 39 tackles and four and a half sacks.
On the interior, Florida will rely on Desmond Watson and Caleb Banks. Watson is a freak of nature, weighing in at 435 pounds, and his size will pose a challenging matchup for opposing offensive fronts.
Banks transferred in from Louisville during the offseason. He was hardly utilized in his time as a Cardinal, but Florida will rely heavily on Banks to clog holes in 2023.
At linebacker, Florida brings back Mike linebacker Shemar James and Star Jaydon Hill. James is the top returning tackler from last season. So far, James is well ahead of the rest of the Gator defense in tackles this season. Hill has been a consistent piece for the last couple of seasons in Gainesville, finishing 2022 with 24 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
The Florida secondary is full of new faces, and its lone returning starter is corner Jason Marshall. Last year, Marshall led Florida in pass breakups with eight and finished the season with 29 hits. At the other corner, Florida expects to field either Jalen Kimber or Devin Moore.
Safety is a position at which the Gators will rotate multiple players. At strong safety, expect to see heavy doses of veteran Kamari Wilson and true freshman Jordan Casteel.
At free safety, the Gators brought in Michigan transfer RJ Moten. Moten will rotate in and out with Miguel Mitchell in the back end.
In the third phase of the game, return specialist Xzavier Henderson transferred to Cincinnati at the conclusion of 2022.. Ricky Pearsall is playing that role for the Gators in 2023.
Other than Henderson, the Gators returned every other key piece they had in 2022 on special teams. Trevor Etienne is returning kicks for the Gators again this season. Kicker Adam Mihalek is back for another round at Florida after going 14 of 22 with a long of 52 in 2022.
Jeremey Crawshaw is back to handle punting in Gainesville this season. Crawshaw made the All-SEC Second Team last year as he averaged close to 48 yards a punt.