Gators
The Gators football team huddles up in their win against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Molly Kaiser.

Where Gators Football Stands At Bye Week

The Florida Gators are 5-2 entering their bye week in this chaotic 2023 football season. The Gators play the hardest remaining schedule in the country, facing four teams ranked in the AP Top 25 in their remaining five games.

There is still room for optimism for this season despite the tough sledding ahead. Surprising quarterback play and emerging young talent are two major reasons why the Gators (3-1 in the SEC) have found success.

HeisMertz

Gators quarterback Graham Mertz has brought a positive presence to the offense. Coming into the campaign, media outlets across America ranked Mertz at the bottom of the SEC quarterback rankings. In January, when Mertz committed to the Gators, fans were not pleased Florida coach Billy Napier elected the former Wisconsin Badger over Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman and North Carolina State’s Devin Leary. So far, Mertz has outperformed than both Hartman and Leary.

In his first seven games, Mertz has thrown for 1,897 yards with 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. To put Mertz’s season in perspective, he has more passing yards, fewer interceptions, more total yards per game and a 10% higher completion percentage than Tim Tebow’s Heisman-winning season entering the bye week.

Turnovers were a concern for Mertz over his four years at Wisconsin. In his 34 games in Madison, Mertz threw 28 interceptions. In his time in Gainesville, according to PFF, Mertz has thrown just one “turnover-worthy” pass this season.

If Florida wants to upset the likes of Georgia, LSU and Florida State, the Gators need Mertz to be as good as he has been so far.

Young Guys Stepping Up

With six Gators drafted in the 2023 NFL Draft and an additional 17 players electing for the transfer portal, Napier needed to revamp his roster. Florida signed the 12th best recruiting class in 2023 according 247sports, with 70% of the signees being at least a four-star recruit. Of the 20 signees, 12 used their redshirt already. Also, 11 freshmen have played in every game so far this season and no other team in the country has reached eight.

After redshirting his freshman year, tight end Arlis Boardingham has emerged as a matchup nightmare. Boardingham’s first start was against Charlotte, and since then, he has been lights out. He leads the team in touchdowns with four and has racked up back-to-back 50+ yard games.

Another freshman weapon for Mertz is wide receiver Eugene Wilson III. Wilson, from Tampa Bay, is second on the team in receiving yards and scored his first touchdown against Vanderbilt. In the limited touches on the ground, Wilson has been electric. He averages 12 yards per carry and during the South Carolina game, Wilson had two crucial rushes that went for first downs to help the Gators win 41-39.

On the defense, T.J. Searcy and Jordan Castell are the standout freshmen. Searcy has been a positive force in the run game and recorded his first turnover in the Vanderbilt game. His forced fumble stopped Vandy’s momentum and was a big factor for Florida pulling out the victory. Castell was the only season-opener starter that is a freshman. He has been excellent in the secondary and will most likely be apart of the AP All-Freshman team.

The Gators’ next matchup comes against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs 7-0, 4-0) Oct. 28 in Jacksonville. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. (CBS, ESPN 98.1-FM/850-AM WRUF). Napier has the chance to get his biggest with Florida.

Notes: The Nov. 4 game against Arkansas has been sold out, the Gators Ticket Office announced Friday. Kickoff and television coverage will be announced Monday. … Mertz was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week on Monday, while kicker Trey Smack was named SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Week. … Former UF standouts Earnest Graham and Joe Haden will be inducted into the 2023 Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame on Friday as part of Florida-Georgia weekend. … Gator great Shane Matthews was selected to the 2023 SEC Football Legends class.

About Nick VanZandt

Nick VanZandt is a senior journalism student at the University of Florida and this is his third semester working for WRUF.

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