2018 Gator Preview

It’s déjà vu all over again.  The Florida football program has to push the reset button and start anew, and Dan Mullen has the task of rebuilding the Gator brand across the board – talent, coaching, facilities, and trying to heal the damaged psyche of the Gator Nation.

Mullen has been dealt a crappy hand in many ways by the Swamp Donkey, Jim McElwain.  Recruiting, especially on offense, has proven difficult.  Many prospects are in a wait-and-see mode, and many blue-chip guys have already committed elsewhere, choosing NOT to wait.  The QB room is a complete question mark, the O-Line has no proven depth behind the starting five, and the LB corps was it’s weakest in perhaps decades.  The fan base has lost enthusiasm, and football facility upgrades are still a few years away as other projects get finished.  To his credit, Mullen has soldiered through all of these negatives and question marks, employing his “relentless effort” manta to his handling of the responsibility of being the Head Coach at Florida.  He has embraced the pressure and expectations that come with it, instead of shrinking from them.

Regarding his new coaching staff, he has assembled a nice mix of experienced and younger coaches, most of which seem to be connecting with the current players and recruits.  New Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham promises an attacking style.  WR coach Billy Gonzales and OL coach John Hevesy have been with Mullen going back to Mullen’s years as the Offensive Coordinator at Florida, and will share the OC responsibilities.  Perhaps the most important addition to the staff is new Strength and Conditioning coach Nick Savage.  The players are very excited about the results already gained since January, which will result in better conditioning, less injuries, and better play late in games.

Coach Mullen has more rebuilding than reloading to do the next few seasons to restore the brand and begin to approach the expectations of not just the fan base, but of his own.  There are so many roster unknowns that predicting results for 2018 is extremely difficult……but that’s why I’m here!

Offense

Will the offense finally carry it’s fair share of the load for the Gators?  There is quality and depth at all the skill positions, but adjusting to a new scheme, lack of depth along the O-Line, and various question marks at QB could tell the tale of 2018.

The QB depth chart does not inspire optimism.  Feleipe Franks may be mentally damaged goods along with not being a natural fit for Mullen’s spread offense; Kyle Trask seemingly has the mental capacity to understand the offense but has zero college snaps; Emory Jones has the athletic ability and familiarity with the style of offense, but zero experience other than one spring and fall practice.  It’s Mullen’s job, along with the new staff, to instill confidence in the players and put them in position to succeed.  Most of the attention will certainly be on his development of the QB position.  His track record in developing various styles of players into productive, SEC-level QBs is undeniable, but he has a unique and challenging task to find someone in the current QB room to take the lead and perform.  Unless someone comes forward to provide some balance with a functional passing game and occasional effective running, this could be another disappointing season, renewing the disenchantment of Gator Nation.  I expect to see all 3 QBs in some capacity during September, with Franks getting the first shot at becoming the starter.  Mullen will see what they can do in live action and make his decision on a starter for the rest of the season.

New running back coach Greg Knox inherits a talented and deep RB corps.  Jordan Scarlett returns from his suspension in 2017 and has established himself as the lead back.  Malik Davis played very well as a true freshman last season, but is coming off of knee surgery and should not be overworked early – he is likely the best home-run option.  Lamical Perine has had moments, but needs to show consistency.  True freshman Dameon Pierce has impressed in fall camp with his size and toughness, and likely gets some snaps this fall.  Adarius Lemons would be in the rotation at almost any other school, but likely sees most of his action as a kick returner.  Finally, true freshman Iverson Clement has moved over to the defense to help out at the thin safety position, as he would not see the field as a RB with all of the depth and talent ahead of him.  This is one of the best rotations in the SEC, and should help ease the transition of the QBs into a new offense.  I expect the RBs to also be used more prominently in the passing game to help the QBs and O-Line.

The wide receivers are by far the most talented and deep group since Mullen’s previous stint at Florida.  New WR coach Billy Gonzales has plenty of capable players, but has to instill confidence, while also selling them on run-blocking in a spread scheme.  Tyrie Cleveland has shown flashes in his first 2 seasons, but has to prove he is ready for a lead role.  The transfer in of Van Jefferson from Ole Miss should pay immediate dividends – he is by far the most accomplished WR on the roster, and has ideal size and speed.  Kadarious Toney gives the Gators a weapon in the slot, and will also get the occasional snap as a wildcat QB because of his playmaking ability.  Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes has great size and potential, and could make a huge leap into the rotation.  For returning WRs Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain, it’s now or never to prove they deserve more than limited duty.  Dre Massey seems to have become the forgotten man, and may become more of a contributor on special teams.  Daquon Green has raw talent, but little experience.  Finally, true freshman Jacob Copeland could make an impact as he works his way into shape after minor knee surgery in August – he was one of the top WR recruits in the country, and brings playmaking ability and some swag.  There is more than enough size, speed, and playmaking in this group to keep defensive secondaries from stacking the line of scrimmage and providing balance to the offense……if the QBs can find them consistently.

The tight end position has received a huge infusion of new talent, but it lacks experience.  C’yontai Lewis is the only senior and returns as the only proven receiving threat, but has struggled with drops and focus.  Kemore Gamble has to potential to be a 3-down player, but has to prove to new TE coach Larry Scott his physical and mental toughness.  New arrivals Lucas Krull, Dante Lang, and Kyle Pitts all have prototype 3-down size and pass-catching potential, but are unproven.  At least one of them is going to get a chance to play this season.  If as I suspect the running game is leaned upon for most of the season, the guys that demonstrate in-line blocking ability will increase their chances of playing time.  There is more potential than proven ability at this position for 2018, but a lot of future promise.

New offensive line coach John Hevesy has 6 guys that he can count on as SEC-level players, but after that it’s a mixed bag of inexperienced and underachieving guys – he has a lot of work to do to identify at least 2-3 more guys he can trust.  The starting tackles will be Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, but there is little proven depth behind them.  Holdovers T.J. Moore, Kavaris Harkless, and Stone Forsythe, Texas transfer Jean Delance, JUCO transfer Noah Banks, and true freshman Chris Bleich are all in the mix as backups.  At guard, Tyler Jordan and Brett Heggie appear to be the starters, with returning players Nick Buchanan and Fred Johnson, and true freshman Richard Gouraige, all vying for backup time.  The most competitive position on the O-Line is at center.  Last year’s starter T.J. McCoy doesn’t seem to be adapting to the new scheme, and this has opened the door to Buchanan and Nick Villano to possibly start.  Ideally Heggie would be the center, as he is the best interior lineman on the team, but the lack of depth a guard will likely leave him there this season.  Coach Hevesy is known as an excellent position coach and technician, so perhaps he unlocks some of the unrealized potential of this group.

Defense

Fortunately there is plenty of SEC-level talent on defense to (again) shoulder a majority of the load with even a modicum of help and consistency from the offense.  There is experience along the D-Line and playmaking ability in the secondary.  If the defensive staff can get decent play out of a nondescript LB corps, this should be another solid Gator defense.

New defensive line coach Sal Sunseri has plenty of experience with winning teams both in college and the NFL.  He has a lot of talent and depth to work with this fall.  Khairi Clark, Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe comprise a solid rotation at tackle, and have the size and strength to hold up against the run and command the occasional double-team.  The DE rotation could be one of the best in the country.  CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite, and Antonneus Clayton all have speed and pass-rushing ability, and Zach Carter will provide solid depth at both end and tackle.  Jefferson and Zuniga especially have flashed elite pass-rushing skills, while Polite has been a terror in fall camp.  There is enough depth that a few injuries shouldn’t significantly affect the performance of this group.

The linebacker corps is the biggest question mark on the team, and has the most to prove.  It remains to be seen if the new scheme, along with new LB coach Christian Robinson, can find a way to maximize the talents of junior David Reese (not to be confused with freshman David Reese), Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and Jeremiah Moon.  All have only occasionally flashed promise, and none are 3-down players.  There is talent in the freshman group – Ventrell Miller, James Houston, Nick Smith, Reese, and Andrew Chatfield – and they will have to be counted on for depth.  It would not shock me if one of them gains starter snaps later in the season.  I would not be surprised to see a lot of 4-2-5 lineups to emphasize the strength at DL and in the secondary, while masking some of the deficiencies at LB.  Reese could be asked to play some at safety because of injuries there, while Chatfield comes in with potential all-SEC pass rush ability.

If Todd Grantham wants to employ an attacking, blitzing defense, he certainly has the cornerbacks to do it.  Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson are the best young duo in the country, with sold depth provided by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the slot.  True freshman Trey Dean has impressed in fall camp and will play early.  The safety position is a mixed bag, and lacks quality and quality depth.  Jaewon Taylor, Shawn Davis, and Brad Stewart will rotate as starters and have shown glimpses of being SEC-caliber players, but none have shown yet they are consistent contributors.  Donovan Stiner is a solid special teams player but his coverage skills are suspect, while Quincey Lenton is lost for the season with an achilles injury.  Iverson Clement has the athleticism to be a good one, but is just learning the position.  New Safety coach Ron English will have his hands full developing a cohesive group – any more injuries here and the entire scheme may need to be altered.

Special Teams

This was one of the best units in the country in 2017, featuring perhaps the best PK/punter combo in the nation in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend.  Both are now gone to the NFL, and this unit becomes a big question mark.

True freshman Evan McPherson will battle 5th-year senior Jorge Powell for the placekicking duties.  The competition has been even throughout the spring and into fall camp.  McPherson has the stronger leg, but no college experience, while Powel has had the opportunity to see limited action the past 3 seasons.  One of these two has to grab the role and do well, to help an offense that hasn’t proven yet that it can score touchdowns instead of stalling out short of the end zone.

There will still be a Townsend punting for the Gators – this time younger brother Tommy.  He has performed well in practice, but it’s an entirely new experience when the games count.  Hopefully he has learned enough from his older brother about the mental aspect of handling the pressure.  If he can even approach the job that Johnny did, he will be just fine.

Finally, Coach Mullen has brought a renewed emphasis on special teams in regards to both kick coverage and the return game.  He will not hesitate to install some starters to do both.  Massey, Lemons, Toney, and Cleveland have all taken turns returning punts and kickoffs in practice – evidence that Mullen wants the return game to be feared once again and a real weapon to flip the field and potentially help win a few close games.

Schedule and Outlook

Florida’s schedule is as manageable as it’s been in many years, and the opportunity exists for 9 or more wins with any sort of competent QB play.  Kentucky, LSU, and South Carolina are the key home games, while the games away from Gainesville are the real challenge.  Trips to Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida State will be tough, along with the annual game against Georgia in Jacksonville.  This staff should actually be able to coach up and develop the players, and have a game plan each week that can be executed.  By the end of September, both the ceiling and floor of what the season can be will become apparent.

Charleston Southern – Win

This game will get a lot more scrutiny than your typical opener against an outmanned opponent.  Gator Nation is restless, and will (likely) have unfair expectations for the offense to come out rolling in it’s very first game in Mullen’s spread scheme.  Any QB who plays will be watched closely and critically, and (hopefully) all 3 guys get a chance to play and shake off any nerves.  Other than a very few special plays, I expect a basic, workmanlike game plan by both the offense and defense.  Work on the base plays and schemes that will be used against every opponent, and develop some depth along the O-Line and at LB.  Most importantly – no injuries, please.

Kentucky – Win

The first SEC game is critical for the Gators to start out on the right foot in conference play.  The streak is now 31 straight over the Wildcats, and after stealing the game in Lexington last year, I just don’t see the Wildcats coming into the Swamp and winning unless the Gator offense melts down with a bunch of turnovers.  Mike Stoops will always field a solid defense, and the score may be close into the second half, but I think the Florida running game wins this one.

Colorado State – Win

The Gators start with 3 straight home games, and this should prove beneficial in establishing what the team is asked to do under the new staff before 2 straight important SEC road games.  The Rams are usually a decent team, and this could be a trap game for Florida if the Gators are caught looking ahead.  Again, I’m hopeful that the staff doesn’t have to show too much of it’s hand on film before hitting the road.  This one could also be closer than many expect, especially if the Gators come out flat early.

@Tennessee – Win

A huge game for both programs, with new coaching staffs trying to get the upper hand.  Florida cut out the hearts of the Vols (again) last season, and that alone will provide a lot of motivation for their players and fans.  The Gators will come in with much more game experience and more returning starters, which could prove to be the difference in a hostile environment.  Expect anything and everything from Tennessee, as Jeremy Pruitt tries to bring the winning ways from Alabama to Knoxville.  I can see this game coming down to a 4th quarter finish (again), but I am giving the edge to Coach Mullen with his experience as a head coach.

@Mississippi State – Loss

The Bulldogs have had this game circled on the calendar ever since Dan Mullen left for Gainesville.  Unfortunately for the Gators, this is likely the most talented and deepest team MSU has had since 2014, and Florida has historically struggled against SEC West teams, especially on the road.  QB play will be key in this game, and, despite the Gator coaching staff’s familiarity with the Bulldog roster, Nick Fitzgerald has a huge advantage over any current Gator QB.  Florida’s best chance to win is to ride the defense all game, finding a way to stop the MSU running game and to generate turnovers.

LSU – Win

The second straight visit to the Swamp by the Tigers, the result of the Hurricane Irma fiasco of 2017.  After choking away last year’s game, the Gators will have plenty of motivation in this one.  Two similar teams – good defense, good running game, lots of questions at QB.  Here’s hoping that by now Florida has sorted out it’s QB situation better than LSU, and that home-field advantage actually means something this time.  Likely another close, 4th-quarter battle.

@Vanderbilt – Win

This could be a trap game for Florida, coming after 3 straight tough SEC games.  The Gators traditionally sleepwalk through this game, especially in Nashville.  The Commodores lost a lot of their best defensive players, and will have to rely on QB Kyle Shurmer to pull an upset.  I’m counting on a legitimate coaching staff to keep the team focused well enough to grind out a win.  The Gators will need this win for momentum going into the next game.

Bye Week

  1. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

All the hype is around the Puppies these days, and everyone wants to know if they can sustain last season’s success.  Georgia lost a lot of starters on both sides of the ball, and we’ll see if they have the replacements in place to fill those losses.  They still have an experienced O-Line and capable RBs, but more pressure will fall on QB Jake Fromm to make plays, instead of being a caretaker.  Florida has fallen behind in regards to overall talent and recruiting, and Coach Mullen knows he has to show that last year’s blowout loss isn’t a sign of things to come in the series.  Despite having a week off to prepare and the motivation of last year’s humiliation, I just don’t see the Gator offense being ready to lead the way and carry it’s weight against a tough opponent.  This one should be very entertaining.

Missouri (Homecoming) – Win

Back home at the Swamp for 3 straight games.  This could be a trap game after the Cocktail Party.  This is another chance for the Gators to avenge a humiliating loss, rolling over and quitting last season at Missouri.  The Tigers are led by QB Drew Lock, who is getting a lot of preseason hype.  I feel Missouri took advantage of a lot of teams that were tanking by the time they played them last year, and won’t have such an easy time of it.  Florida should be able to control the ball with it’s running game and wear down the Tigers.  This could develop into a high-scoring affair.

South Carolina – Win

The Gamecocks and QB Jake Bentley are getting a lot of run after beating up on a bad SEC East last year.  By the time they come to the Swamp this fall, I think some of the shine is going to be off of them.  Won’t Misschump will be motivated to beat Florida again for payback after (justifiably) getting fired, and their defense should be solid.  I could see this one going either way at the end of the typical SEC grind, but again I will place some faith in a vastly-improved Gator coaching staff to find a way to win this one.

Idaho – Win

This game should afford a breather, and hopefully the staff gets the opportunity in the second half to empty the roster and have some extra preparation time for the final regular season game.  The Vandals will get a nice paycheck for their troubles.  Stay healthy – please!

Florida State – Loss

Florida has now lost 7 out of 8 to the Criminoles.  At least F$U will not be coming into this game with the advantage of coaching stability, as Slick Willie Taggart continues his carpetbagging across the country by returning to the state of Florida.  FSU will still have an edge in overall talent and depth, and coming off of an ACC schedule that is not the same gauntlet that is the SEC.  The Gators are capable of winning this game, but must be healthy, have an established QB that is also a leader, and a consistent O-Line.  Being in Taliban City will likely be the advantage F$U needs to win this one, but the Gators need to show that the tide is turning in the series with a competitive game.

Overall Record          9-3

SEC Record              6-2

2018 is a very important year for Dan Mullen and the players to show progress on offense and energize the fan base and recruiting.  He has done a fine job so far in developing the roster and instilling confidence in his players, but will it translate to the field?  He has to develop a competent starting QB – having to juggle 2-3 guys in order to give the Gators the opportunity to win is not a sustainable formula for success.  The schedule is actually the most manageable it’s been in many years, and provides an opportunity to get off to a quick start and build belief between the coaches and players.  My prediction on a 9-win season may be wildly optimistic given the questions at QB, LB, and the O-Line.  It reflects confidence in Mullen’s track record in developing QBs along with continuity within much of his staff.  If Florida can manage to win 9 games while exhibiting progress on offense and improving a young but talented defense, that will set up things for a very bright future.  However, inconsistent QB play, lack of scoring, and a defense that starts to show cracks as the season progresses will slow any momentum, and the win-loss record will more closely resemble the floor of 6-7 wins.  This is going to be another challenging year for the Gators, but they have the talent and coaching to make it a fair fight.  This season may be very successful, or stressful…….but it will certainly be interesting.

It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

About TonyPapas