Florida braced to face LSU star QB Jayden Daniels when Gators visit Tiger Stadium
After three days in concussion protocol, Daniels was set for a non-contact practice Wednesday, coach Brian Kelly said on the SEC teleconference. Barring any setbacks, Daniels would practice at full capacity Thursday.
Kelly did not commit to starting Daniels, the nation’s top-rated passer, over Garrett Nussmeier, the son of former Gators’ offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
But while younger Nussmeier is capable, Daniels is a Heisman candidate. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior leads all FBS players in yards per game (386.2) and has accounted for 33 touchdowns, including 6 rushing to go with 684 yards on the ground.
“Jayden’s ability to run is the great equalizer,” Florida coach Billy Napier said.
Daniels’ status for Saturday night’s game became uncertain after a brutal hit under his chin by Alabama’s Dallas Turner at the end of a down-field throw on Saturday.
Kelly said he sent a video of the play to the SEC for review.
“We want to protect the quarterback,” he said. “They must’ve felt it wasn’t targeting. We felt it checked all the boxes.”
While Daniels checks all the boxes, Napier praised Nussmeier’s ability to run the offense, especially with receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. combining for 21 score and 1,920 yards.
“He’s accumulated reps in the system and they have fantastic front and skill players around him,” Napier said. “Either way, it’s a great challenge there and one that is going to require us to be at our absolute best.”
Youth movement will pay off
At several key points of Florida’s crushing overtime loss to Arkansas, the Gators fielded at least four true freshman defenders.
Seven played 10 or more snaps during the course of the 39-36 defeat in the Swamp, featuring a 481-yard day by the struggling Razorbacks. Fourteen true freshmen overall played.
UF’s youth movement has not always been smooth but should deliver long-term dividends.
“It’s part of building the program,” Napier said Wednesday. “You’ve got to go through some of the growing pains now, but I do think it’ll be beneficial.”
Napier’s reliance on first-year players has been born of necessity, given injuries, talent deficiencies, transfer misevaluations and depth concerns.
Safety Jordan Castell, for example, was a high school cornerback standout at West Orange who switched to safety in the spring as an early enrollee. Castell eventually beat out Michigan transfer RJ Moten, a former starter in the Big Ten.
The 19-year-old leads all UF defensive backs with 51 tackles, including a career-high 11 against Arkansas to go with his first career interception. Listed at 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, Castell also missed some tackles and was run over by 6-foot-3, 247-pound veteran quarterback KJ Jefferson.
Eugene Wilson III leads all FBS true freshmen with an average of 6.4 receptions and is third with 416 receiving yards after recording 19 catches for 164 yards and 3 touchdowns the past two games.
“We’re going to play the the best players, and sometimes that may be a rookie,” Napier said. “We’re willing to do that.”
Recruits are sure to notice, though Napier said many prospects are attuned to potential playing time.
“These kids are well-informed,” Napier said. “There’s so much information, they know the depth chart; they know the players on the team. They sense that there may be opportunity.”
Pyburn attacks recovery
UF sophomore defensive end Jack Pyburn tore his ACL against Arkansas but wasn’t down for long.
Napier said Pyburn was back the weight room, wearing a knee brace, even before he undergoes surgery.
“He’s already back to work,” Napier said. “Jack is the ultimate example: the discipline, the work ethic, his approach, his intensity, he’s a great teammate, he’s smart, he’s got perspective.
“He’ll come back better than ever.”
Pyburn injured his knee during kickoff coverage. The injury occurred the play after a Gators TD following a Razorbacks’ fumble that Pyburn helped force and defensive back Jaydon Hill recovered.
“It’s tough,” Napier said. “Injuries are hard. I do think once they get through it and have a little bit of perspective, they appreciate being healthy, being able to play.
“You develop some toughness and some discipline by going through that surgery and rehab process.”
Edgar Thompson can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@nospmohtge