Florida is the defending SEC East champions, yet has received little preseason attention. Thus, the Gators enter year two under Jim McElwain just like they did year one – almost as an afterthought.
There again are concerns about the offense, and the first three games should provide an opportunity to get the offense on track before a September 24 trip to Knoxville; Florida has won 11 in a row against the Volunteers.
The Gators have the talent, especially on defense, to win another division title. But they need some inexperienced players to jell quickly to make another run to Atlanta.
BACKFIELD: This unit will be deeper and more talented than in recent seasons. Quarterback should be in much better shape with Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby than it was at the end of last season. The one area that Del Rio needs to prove he can handle is throwing the ball vertically; he tends to check down, taking the quick throws as they are given. This is not a bad thing, but this offense needs to stretch the field with Antonio Callaway. Appleby and true freshman Kyle Trask would be the next two options. Both have strong arms and can really spin it. The running backs should be one of the best groups on the team. JC transfer Mark Thompson appears primed for a big season, and sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett are power runners who can provide big plays.
RECEIVERS: Callaway is back after leading the SEC in yards per catch (19.4) last season. Holdovers Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and C.J. Worton will be a part of the rotation when the season begins. Fulwood has the most potential, while Worton has elevated his play during fall camp. A trio of freshmen – Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland – should provide a spark; Hammond and Swain went through spring practice. Each is an upgrade over what the Gators have been lining up with the past five seasons. Slot receiver Brandon Powell is healthy after offseason foot surgery, and JC transfer Dre Massey will surprise some people from the slot. DeAndre Goolsby leads a talented group of tight ends. He has the athleticism and speed to get deep.
LINE: This group struggled last season; Florida was 13th in the league in rushing (126.9 yards per game) and surrendered a nation's-high 45 sacks. There is promise for improvement this season. Junior LT David Sharpe and sophomore Martez Ivey – who can play guard and tackle – are the top two players. Sharpe had a great spring and showed improved physicality. G Tyler Jordan and RT Fred Johnson are sophomores who, like Ivey, received a lot of playing time as true freshmen last season. Junior Cam Dillard is the center. The season-ending injury to junior G Antonio Riles hurts from both a talent and experience standpoint. Top backups are T.J. McCoy at center, Nick Buchanan and Richerd Desir-Jones at guard and Jawaan Taylor at tackle. Taylor is a true freshman; the other three are redshirt freshmen. The Gators have 14 healthy scholarship offensive linemen; 10 were signed by McElwain and his staff in the past two recruiting cycles.
LINE: The line lost two key players, both of whom were drafted, but depth shouldn't be a problem. The starting ends should be senior Bryan Cox Jr. and junior Jordan Sherit. Cox is a high-motor guy who has the potential and skill set to lead the team in sacks; he had 3.5 last season. The backups look to be sophomore Keivonnis Davis and redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga. Davis had an excellent spring, while Zuniga started turning heads in bowl practice. True freshmen Jordan Smith and Antonneous Clayton also could provide help. The tackles are led by junior Caleb Brantley, who is poised for an all-conference-type season. Senior Joey Ivie and sophomores Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark also are in the mix. The wild card is sophomore CeCe Jefferson, who should play some three technique inside and also provide pass-rush help off the edge. He might be the biggest playmaker on the interior when it's all said and done.
LINEBACKER: The Gators return front-line experience and talent at linebacker in senior Jarrad Davis, who will be one of the best linebackers in the SEC. Oft-injured junior Alex Anzalone could be a tremendous player if he can stay healthy; if he does, that would give Florida one of the better combos in the country. Senior Daniel McMillan, who has not reached his potential, would be the other linebacker in the base 4-3 defense. But linebacker coach Randy Shannon has his work cut out for him: He will have five freshmen backing up those three – redshirt freshmen Kylan Johnson and Rayshad Jackson and true freshmen David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Jeremiah Moon. Johnson is a converted safety who looks comfortable in space. Moon has the potential to be an effective player off the edge.
SECONDARY: Despite losing two first-round picks and another key player, this group has the potential to be the best in the nation. In CB Jalen Tabor and S Marcus Maye, Florida has proven commodities who should vie for All-America honors. Tabor had four interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns, and 14 pass breakups last season. Maye had two picks, six breakups, 82 tackles and five forced fumbles. Junior Quincy Wilson, who started nine times last season, will play the corner opposite Tabor, while junior Duke Dawson should take over the nickel spot. Juniors Nick Washington and Marcell Harris have played a lot of football and provide experience at safety; Washington seems the likely starter opposite Maye. Chauncey Gardner is the freshman to watch on the back end, likely at safety and nickel. He made an immediate impact during spring practice as an early enrollee. Freshman McArthur Burnett and JC transfer Joseph Putu also will be in the mix at cornerback.
Junior Johnny Townsend should be one of the best punters in the country. He finished 12th in the country in yards per punt (45.36) and helped Florida rank first in the league and third in the nation in net punting (42.1 yards per punt) last season. Callaway is a game-changer as a punt returner; he was second in the league at 15.5 yards per return and took two back for TDs. The kicking game has been a huge issue – the Gators missed 10 field goals and five extra points last season – and JC transfer Eddy Pineiro is supposed to solve that. But Pineiro will have to prove he can do it in front of big crowds; he never has attempted a field goal in a game, having focused exclusively on soccer in junior college and mostly on soccer in high school. Powell, Swain, Massey and Thompson provide options on kickoff returns.
The Gators open the season with three consecutive home games, against Massachusetts, Kentucky and North Texas. Kentucky should provide a good challenge, as the Wildcats nearly beat UF last season. The stretch that begins with Tennessee on September 24 is a critical one. The Gators play at Tennessee and Vanderbilt in back-to-back weeks, then welcome in what should be an unbeaten LSU team. There's also a tough back-to-back against Georgia in Jacksonville on October 29 and at Arkansas on November 5. The Gators close the season at FSU, which has won three in a row in the series.
Facts and figures
Last season: 10-4 overall, 7-1 in SEC; lost to Alabama in SEC championship game, lost to Michigan in Citrus Bowl
Past five years, overall: 39-25
Past five years, SEC: 24-17 (includes 0-1 record in SEC championship game)
Past 10 years, overall: 95-37
Past 10 years, SEC: 57-27 (includes 2-2 record in SEC championship games)
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(You can follow Brady Ackerman on Twitter @bradyack)
© 2016, Brady Ackerman. All rights reserved.
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