5 final thoughts from Florida’s season-opening loss to Michigan

ARLINGTON, Texas — Perhaps Florida defensive end Jordan Sherit said it best Saturday night after the Gators’ humbling 33-17 loss to No. 11 Michigan.

“After tonight and after tomorrow watching the film and learning from mistakes, I’m trying to say I won’t think about it, but o bviously it hurts and I will think about it,” he commented.

As much as Florida fans also would like to forget the debacle in Dallas (fine, Arlington), the season-opening setback was revealing.

The frustrating offensive play-calling has been and will remain a paramount issue, one that was acknowledged Saturday night by coach Jim McElwain and will be harped on plenty more to come this week, but here are five other final thoughts to carry out of Texas.

The Gators may have a real problem on the offensive line

Perhaps this is pointing out the obvious, but where else to start?

For all the preseason praise the unit generated, there was always a wait-and-see caveat needed after the unsteady play up front in McElwain’s first two seasons.

Well, everybody saw Saturday, and it wasn’t what Gators fans had been waiting for.

Now the concern becomes, maybe improved chemistry, added experience and the like isn’t enough to make a pronounced difference. Maybe the personnel is simply limited and last season was a fair reflection of what to expect.

Maybe. Or maybe Michigan was just that impressive up front and the Gators offensive line will steady itself in time for SEC play. But after watching the line get “whooped,” as McElwain put it Saturday night, the time for unbridled optimism has passed.

If Florida gets the same performance from the line it got last season, it can win games — some Saturdays will be better than others — but it’s hard to see how they win the big games.

What if Malik Zaire had started Saturday?

This exercise is of no value now, of course, but it’s possible Florida would have fared better against Michigan if it had put the offense in Malik Zaire’s hands from the start.

Sure, he didn’t lead the Gators to any points while playing the final quarter and a half and finishing 9-of-17 passing for 106 yards with 5 sacks.

But all momentum had been squandered by the time he entered. The offensive line already was physically and perhaps mentally beaten by that point.

After a quick three-and-out on his first series, including a stuffed QB keeper everybody in the stadium knew was coming, Zaire looked quick and decisive on the next possession. He completed 4 of 5 passes for 35 yards in that stretch and got the Gators across midfield before being sacked.

It would have been easier to get him in rhythm if he started in the first quarter when the line was fresh and not already reeling, and maybe Florida gets Michigan on its heels with Zaire’s rushing ability posing an extra dynamic rather than as a predictable change-of-pace after Feleipe Franks.

That’s not saying Franks shouldn’t get another start or was to blame for the outcome Saturday. But especially in hindsight, between his 2 fumbles (1 lost), falling down on two dropbacks and being unable to get the offense out of the mud once things bogged down, he didn’t seem like the right pick for this particular matchup and pressure-packed setting. Especially while making his collegiate debut.

It’s also likely the coaches overestimated the protection Franks would operate with in the pocket. He’s showed some mobility of his own, but all things considered, it would have been interesting to see what Zaire could have done against that defense with his own game plan in place.

CJ Henderson will play a major role as a freshman

This is not just because CJ Henderson scored on a 41-yard interception return for touchdown in his first college game.

It’s because of how much he played and his potential to remain an impact contributor all fall.

The Gators were in nickel a significant number of snaps against Michigan, which is not the most aggressive passing attack they’ll face, meaning this was a good gauge of his usage. Fellow freshman cornerback Marco Wilson slid into that nickel role when needed while Henderson stepped in at cornerback.

It’s worth noting that Henderson was the highest-rated of Florida’s six DB signees this year, ranking No. 16 nationally at the position according to the 247Sports composite, and the program’s fourth-highest-rated recruit overall this year.

Henderson, a track star in high school, also fielded kick returns during pregame warmups and could yet earn opportunities in that role. Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland handled kickoff returns Saturday, but he may be too valuable to risk exposing to extra injury on special teams.

Wilson and freshman safety Shawn Davis were the newcomers earning the most buzz in the preseason, but Henderson looks primed to be every bit as important this fall.

For that matter, Florida’s young secondary in general will remain a pivotal storyline for the Gators, especially with senior safety Nick Washington trying to play through shoulder injuries and sophomore standout Chauncey Gardner Jr. seen exiting the stadium with a walking boot and crutches Saturday night.

Tyrie Cleveland’s time has arrived

While some preseason buzz was exposed as overblown Saturday (see first point), Tyrie Cleveland looked very much like the breakout candidate many expected.

The gem of Florida’s Class of 2016 signing class, Cleveland had 4 catches for 56 yards against Michigan as the Gators’ steadiest playmaker and should be in for a big sophomore season.

He had a couple big catches in the opener despite depressed passing totals overall for the team. When junior Antonio Callaway returns, perhaps this week, he’ll command a large share of an opponent’s focus while theoretically freeing up Cleveland for even better matchups.

The numbers should follow.

Not so polite

Sophomore defensive end Jachai Polite came to play against Michigan with 6 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack.

More than just the numbers, he was easy to spot. He was noticeable when he was on the field, looking productive as a pass rusher.

When it comes to defensive end, CeCe Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga dominate the spotlight for the Gators. Jordan Sherit is the veteran presence and stamped his return from a knee injury with 2 sacks Saturday. And vaunted Class of 2016 prospect Antonneous Clayton maintains the fans’ curiosity, waiting to see if he’ll live up to his lofty recruiting profile.

Defensive end is one of the more interesting position groups for Florida, but don’t forget about Polite.

He tallied 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss as a freshman and could be in line to do a lot more damage this fall.

The post 5 final thoughts from Florida’s season-opening loss to Michigan appeared first on SEC Country.

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