Florida football takeaways: DJ Lagway flashes, Gators work in progress after 2024 Orange & Blue Game

By OnlyGators.com Staff
April 14, 2024
Florida football takeaways: DJ Lagway flashes, Gators work in progress after 2024 Orange & Blue Game

Image Credit: Molly Kaiser, UAA

As the Florida Gators concluded the 2024 Orange & Blue Game on Saturday afternoon in front of an announced 48,000 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, it was clear the team looked better … or the same … or worse than it did a year ago. OK, maybe not worse — at least not based on the scoreboard. Blue beat Orange 19-14 (or 19-17 if you count the 3 random points awarded to the latter squad because it accomplished something in practice), and while far more offense was shown than last year’s 7-7 tie (10-7 after an untimed field goal to break that tie), there were again no touchdowns scored in the second half this year.

Redshirt senior quarterback Graham Mertz completed 15 of 27 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown for the winning Blue team. Freshman backup DJ Lagway, in his first (unofficial) action wearing the orange & blue (well, orange & white), completed 12 of 21 for 173 yards and two scores. Both signal callers threw an interception, one after another on consecutive possessions. Lagway flashed as fans hoped. Mertz looked relatively poised.

All in all, it was a mediocre viewing experience given spring games are only so exciting these days. Also of note is that Florida chose to again play the Orange & Blue Game when a large portion of the sports world is distracted with Round 3 of the 2024 Masters — just 5 hours up the road in Augusta, Georgia. The Gators may want to consider choosing a different weekend in the future or playing the game on a weekday, as they did in 2023.

Let’s take a look at what could be ascertained from the Orange & Blue Game (formerly the far-better-named Orange & Blue Debut).

2024 Orange & Blue Game takeaways

Plenty has changed in 12 months: It was just one year ago in this space that the main reaction to the spring game was that “this quarterback room is trouble for Florida.” Not only was that proven incorrect (again, spring games can only tell you so much), Mertz proved his spring performance to be an aberration. Plus, the addition of a five-star passer in Lagway has the Gators boasting one of the most interesting and closely watched QB rooms in the nation.

“I do think that those guys have been awesome,” head coach Billy Napier said of his quarterbacks. “I can’t compliment those two guys enough. Just to see them, you have a guy — it’s like polar opposites, right? You have a guy that started 43 games, who is incredibly aware, smart, different type of player than DJ. And then DJ, obviously, you can see he is athletic. He can make plays with his feet, and he has no experience.

“To see those guys collaborate, to go back and forth throughout the spring, and today you can see DJ has made some progress.”

Napier later added: “We’re going to look back, and we’re going to say that it’s one of the best things that happened to the University of Florida is Graham Mertz came back for another year while DJ Lagway was a true freshman. It’s going to benefit both guys.”

Mertz is in no danger of losing his job. And to his credit, Lagway seems to fully understand that. Still, the freshman phenom showed enough Saturday to whet the appetites of Gators fans nationwide and provide hope that he could fill in this season (in exciting fashion) should it become necessary at any point. Most likely is that Lagway has a package of plays so he contributes frequently, like Tim Tebow in 2006. The key for him will be development; he is still a raw talent, in many respects, and it will be incumbent upon Napier to tap into his potential.

“We have to get DJ to a place where he’s confident and then a place where we trust him and his teammates trust him. He’s definitely proven to be mature enough. His work ethic is outstanding. He’s developing nicely,” Napier said. “He can make us different, right? There are some wrinkles there that can cause issues for defenses, and we have to understand we’re taking 15 off when we put him out here. I’m excited about how that can make us more difficult to defend.”

Teams still not-so-special: Florida added another special teams senior analyst to Napier’s extended off-field staff this season — one particularly experienced in the kicking game — despite UF needing a dedicated on-field coach in that role. And wouldn’t you know it, operational issues remained in the spring game for one of the few teams in the nation without an on-field special teams coordinator. There were not one but two special teams plays where only 10 men were on the field. Sure would help to have someone allowed to communicate with the entire unit on the field to ensure such incidents didn’t happen, huh?

It’s immensely tough to evaluate special teams in a spring game setting, but what became clear is that the Gators have no semblance of a backup kicker. Redshirt junior walk-on Hunter Smith went 0 for 3 from distances of 34, 52 and 38 yards — a couple not even coming close to finding the middle of the uprights. Meanwhile, junior starter Trey Smack was perfect, hitting from 31, 38, 39 and 37 yards in succession. Quite a change from last year when Smack went 0 for 2 in the scrimmage.

Speed kills: Sophomore wide receiver Eugene Wilson III again showed his breakout potential with eight receptions for 128 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown from Mertz. He looks poised to become a true No. 1 receiver for a Gators team that has badly needed a field-stretcher. “We’re going to get our money’s worth out of Trey Wilson. I can promise you that,” Napier said.

Also impressing was freshman running back Jadan Baugh, who gave fans reasons to believe the loss of Trevor Etienne may not sting too badly, picking up 77 yards on 12 carries. Senior Montrell Johnson Jr. took limited snaps out of precaution, and he will obviously lead the backfield unit once again.

Just a taste: Sophomore WR Aidan Mizell only got one touch in the scrimmage, while classmate Andy Jean sat out with both players dealing with nagging injuries. But as far as that Mizell touch, he took it 22 yards for a touchdown with his elusiveness on full display.

Confidence is a plus: Despite national expectations that Florida will struggle this season — particularly given it faces one of the toughest schedules of college football’s modern era — Napier sees a lot of positives about his roster and the composition of the team entering Year 3 with the Gators. “We’re deeper. We’ve got more height and length. We’ve got more veteran players, and I think the young talent, the freshmen and the portal players, are going to help us,” he said. “That to go along with the changes that we made after evaluating the season, I feel good about where we’re at.”

Highlight of the day: For the second straight year, redshirt junior WR Marcus Burke made perhaps the most notable play in the spring game. Last season, he made Ja’Keem Jackson look a bit foolish by pinning a pass to the cornerback’s back for a 39-yard reception. This year, he made an athletic finger-tip grab of a Lagway through that was headed toward the ground as an incompletion.

“I’ll tell you, he finished the spring strong. He stacked up,” Napier said of Burke. “Practice 13 was probably his best, and then he had a good day Thursday, and then today. So, we need Marcus Burke to grow up and mature. This offseason, he’s proven that he is capable. I’m excited about 88, as I call him. I’m proud of the way he has grown as a person. Ultimately, we’re seeing that the football is better because of that.”

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