Gator Football Preview

Where to begin?  With the disruption of ‘normalcy’ and routine because of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps any effort at previewing and predicting what will happen this fall is folly.  That being said, the SEC is giving it the old college try – so to speak – along with the ACC and Big 12/11/10/whatever, while the Little 10/11/12/13/14/whatever and LAC-12 are currently either delaying their start even longer or tappng out and already feeling the ramifications from fans, players, recruits, and communities for doing so.

There will be a modified schedule this season with 10 games, all within the conference.  That will significantly increase the difficulty for SEC teams, with no cupcake games for a breather.  The meat-grinder that is the SEC will really be evident, even with a few open weeks built into every team’s schedule to provide some respite along with flexibility if a game or games have to be rescheduled due to virus outbreaks.  The NCAA is allowing for any play in 2020 to not count against eligibility limits, so coaching staffs can at least play freshmen as much as they want to potentially ease any depth issues (provided they have the luxury of a large enough lead in a game).  Additionally there are actually rules in place that could lead to postponement of a game if a certain number of players at a particular position are unavailable due to the virus.  Talk about a crazy possibility. 

Dan Mullen has led the Gators to two consecutive double-digit win seasons and New Years Six bowl wins.  The foundation is finally starting to settle in, but now he will be working with almost exclusively players he and his staff have recruited, and there have been some missteps along the way that have left some talent and/or depth holes in the roster to be managed by the coaching staff.

Offense

It all starts with QB Kyle Trask, who stepped in cold for an injured Feleipe Franks in last year’s Kentucky game, led a stirring comeback win, and essentially saved the season for Florida.  His performance in 2019 was a revelation, and nothing that 2020 throws at him will be intimidating.  There is some room to improve regarding reading some defenses and improving his deep throws (which may be helped by a now-healthy knee after the injury against Auburn and playing hurt the rest of 2019).  Emory Jones could probably start for most of the other SEC teams, and I would not be concerned if he had to step in due to injury or performance issues from Trask.  He filled in admirably when Trask went down in the Auburn game, and got plenty of experience in every game.  In case the O-line struggles again run blocking, he may actually get more snaps due to his own running ability in order to keep defenses more honest.  True freshman Anthony Richardson is a physical beast already, and looks like the prototypical Mullen QB with his running and strong arm.  The QB room is the best it’s been since 2009.

The running backs will be led by junior Dameon Pierce, who is in line to get the first crack at replacing the graduated Lamical Perine.  Pierce, Malik Davis, and transfer Lorenzo Lingard have big shoes to fill, but the raw talent is there.  Pierce is a physical runner who also has decent hands in the passing game.  Davis still has to prove he is physically and mentally back from his leg injuries, while Lingard himself is coming off of a knee injury.  Nay’Quan Wright may be one of those South Florida diamonds in the rough that pops out if given the chance.  Lots of potential here, but no proven commodity……yet.

The WR corps lost a ton of talent and production with Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland, and Josh Hammond all making it to the NFL.  Florida was very fortunate to have Trevon Grimes elect to return for his senior year to lead a young group that lacks experience but has some elite physical tools.  Jacob Copeland gets his opportunity to show out, while Kedarius Toney has one last chance to prove he can be a more consistent threat as a true receiver instead of making only 2-3 splash plays a game on sweeps and screens.  Transfer Jordan Pouncey brings experience, but there’s a group of talented freshmen that will get their chance for plenty of meaningful snaps.  Trent Wittemore, Ja’Markis Weston, and Xzavier Henderson (brother of CJ) all have enough ability to force their way into the rotation this fall – hopefully at least one of them does and provides some quality depth.  Finally, Florida received great news on the transfer waiver request for Justin Shorter – he was a big-time recruit for Penn St., and could be a huge boost to the WR group as he was the top high school WR prospect in the 2018 class.

The Gators have perhaps the most dangerous TE in the country in Kyle Pitts, who was Trask’s favorite target last year and a matchup nightmare for defenses.  His numbers may actually go down this season as he garners more attention, but that only opens up the field for the WRs to step up their production.  There is not much proven production behind him, as Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer both need to show the coaches they are ready to step up their game.  Perhaps Shorter, with his size, could actually be a solid backup to Pitts this fall.

Finally, we come to the much-maligned (and deservedly so) offensive line.  This group was terrible run blocking last season, and not much better in protecting the QB, especially the tackles.  Trask’s quick decisions and Perine’s pass-pro skill helped mask some of those deficiencies, but this group has to improve in order for Florida to make a run at any championships.  The interior of the line actually looks to be SEC-caliber, with Ethan White moving from guard to center and the combination of Brett Heggie and transfer Stewart Reese at guard.  There are still huge questions at the tackle spots – Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance return but they each had serious struggles last season.  Richard Gouriage had some good moments there in 2019, but has to become a consistent performer.  Unless one of the young and inexperienced guys like Joshua Braun or MIchael Tarquin can hold up in the rotation, Resse may have to slide out to try and stabilize the unit.  Coach Hevesy is on the clock to roll out a SEC-worthy unit this fall – the time for talk is over, and he needs to stop trying to fit guards into the tackle spots.

Defense

Florida lost some playmakers in DEs Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, CB CJ Handerson, and 4-year starter David Reese at LB.  However, there is actually more depth at those respective positions that may very well make up for their key contributions.

The biggest question mark will be the defensive line, especially along the interior.  Luke Ancrum and Adam Shuler have graduated, but neither was a consistent performer nor 3-down player.  Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell have shown flashes the past 2 seasons, but now are seniors and must step up as leaders and increase the number of snaps they play each game.  Zach Carter came on the second half of 2019, and is starting to look like a Jon Bullard-type player that can play inside and out – he will be needed more at tackle as the DE and Buck posiitons are loaded with talent and numbers.  The one freshman that could be a factor at DT could be 5* recruit Gervon Dexter, already a man-child at 6’7″ and 270 lb. with freakish athletic ability.  This group needs to stay healthy this fall or else inexperienced and undersized players will be forced to play, not a good recipe in the SEC.

There is a lot of youth at DE and Buck, but the talent is undeniable.  Jeremiah Moon returns for his senior season as the leader and best pass rusher – his decision to come back was crucial and hopefully pays major dividends.  Mohamoud Diabate, Khris Bogle, and Andrew Chatfield saw a lot of action as freshmen, and are now being counted upon to make the leap to established SEC starters.  Lloyd Summerall and Princely Umanmielen are freshmen that will be forced into early playing time to provide some depth.  If this group struggles, Zack Carter may be forced outside, which will hurt the rotation at tackle.  Plenty of talent along the line, but much of it is still young and must grow up quickly.

Losing Reese hurts at LB, but there will be more athleticism and depth there than since 2016.  Ventrell Miller and James Houston are the returning starters with the most experience, but both need to show consistency.  The major upgrade will be 5* Brenton Cox, who transferred from Georgia and unfortunately did not get his waiver approved to play in 2019.  He is tearing it up in fall practice and will be a force outside and as a pass rusher on occasion.  Amari Burney is a freak athlete, but needs to find a position – he played both OLB and Star at times in 2019, but was simply not good enough in pass coverage at Star – I really hope Grantham leaves him at OLB to improve the pass coverage against TEs and pursue the run.  Freshmen Tyron Hopper, Derek Wingo, and David Reese (different Reese – I know, confusing) all have athletic talent, and will need to grow up quickly to provide some depth.  Again, a less experienced group than going into 2019, but I believe a more athletic and talented one overall.  The pass coverage in the intermediate zones should be much-improved – this has been a sore spot and an area that has been exploited since Todd Grantham arrived.

The secondary will be significantly reconfigured with the loss of CJH and the movement of key contributors from 2019 to new positions.  However, I think the overall production and quality of pass coverage will improve.  Marco Wilson returns as the leader of the unit, and likely will be the starter at the Star position.  Kaiir Elam came on the last month of 2019 and has established himself as a starter at CB.  The only question is who fills in opposite him at CB – the hope is that the combination of Chester Kimbrough, CJ McWilliams, and Jaydon Hill is adequate.  If that group struggles, however, Wilson may need to move outside and a combination of Trey Dean and Brad Stewart slide down from safety to Star.  Which leads me to the safety position – probably the most experienced group, but one that still has more questions than it should.  Dean seems to have accepted his move here, as he struggled mightily in coverage at CB last season.  Stewart’s play regressed, and he is wasting his physical gifts with poor mental preparation and is now down to his last season of eligibility to make his mark.  Shawn Davis is the best player here, showing good coverage skills and hard tackling.  Donovan Stiner will get plenty of snaps in the rotation, but is simply not a SEC-caliber player.  Tre’Vez Johnson, Mordecai McDaniel, and Rashad Torrence are 3 freshmen who could be future SEC stars that will get the chance to provide some additional depth and gain experience as they will be counted upon heavily in 2021 when 4 seniors depart.  This group can show significant improvement both in deep zone pass coverage and in taking proper angles for open-field tackling.

Special Teams

I am really excited to see how this unit will contribute this fall.  Florida has one of the best placekickers in the country in junior Evan McPherson, who has proven to be one of most important recruits for Dan Mullen at Florida.  Unfortunately, the 6-year run of the Townsend brothers at punter has come to an end, and the Gators need to find a competent replacement.  It looks to be a battle between Jacob Finn and Australian Jeremy Crenshaw for the job.  Whoever gets the chance has big shoes to fill.  

Once again my wishes for a playmaker in the return game remained unanswered.  Swain performed the punt return duties, but more for ball security than for breakaway potential.  Toney may get first shot, but has to be a north-south runner in that role as opposed to his usual wild, freewheeling style.  Freshmen Fenley Graham may get an opportunity when he recovers from a fractured forearm sustained early in fall practice.  It’s still a mystery as to who Mullen will give kickoff return responsibility to  – Toney or one of the young receivers could get an early look.  Plenty of raw athletic talent, but who will step up?

Schedule and Outlook

The 10 game SEC-only schedule will likely be a real grind – no cupcake games to rest starters and get younger players experience.  This could really show which coaching staffs have the ability to develop and motivate a team, and expose weak links.  Additionally, the Gators will not play Florida $tate for the first time since 1957 – too bad, as the Criminoles are in a world of hurt, and I was looking forward to another beatdown in Taliban City and turning more recruits off to that cesspool.

@Mississippi – Win

Lame Kiffen returns to Power 5 football, and is going to have a rough go in his own division, let alone having to open with the Gators.  The Rebels have a ton of roster turnover along with experiencing many players contracting the virus or opting out of 2020.  Too much uncertainty and a lack of talent on defense.  The only way this one stays close into the fourth quarter is a combination of Gator turnovers and first-game sloppiness.

South Carolina – Win

Won’t Misschump will always have an axe to grind against Florida, so his team will have extra motivation.  However, they still lack playmakers on offense, and it’s likely their defense will wear down in the second half of games – again.  THis one is likely close at halftime, but Florida pulls away in the second half.

@Texas A&M – Loss

The Aggies are seemingly always a mystery – some elite talent, but always coming up short and laying some eggs along the way.  They will be pointing to this game as a springboard to a big season.  Will Kellen Mond finally show up in a big game?  Florida historically struggles with at least one SEC West team each season, and this could be the game.

LSU – Win

Tiger fans will tell you that Florida gave them their toughest test in 2019.  Since then, their roster was gutted like a fish due to the draft, early departures, and opt-outs, and they also lost both coordinators.  They had their magical season, and are gonna experience some payback.  HIstorically this is a close game, but the Gators have too much experience and a solid QB – enough to get the win.

Missouri – Win

The Tigers are hurting for talent and depth, and breaking in a new coaching staff and QB.  Never a good combination in the SEC, and they are going to have a rough go of it this fall.  The Gators could experience a hangover from the previous week, but this one could get ugly.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss

Florida has the advantage at QB, while the Puppies have what could be a generational defense.  Dan Mullen is still winless against UGA as a head coach, and one of the hardest things to do is get off the struggle bus.  I have to see Mullen and the staff put a 4 quarter game plan in place and win this one to believe.

Arkansas – Win

Feleipe Franks could be the starting QB for the Razorbacks when they come to the Swamp, which is fine.  I’ll get to see him turn the ball over and help the Gators win.  Arkansas is far behind the elite SEC teams in talent and depth.

@Vanderbilt – Win

The Commodores were really bad in 2019, and don’t have any better talent this season.  The only reason this one could stay within 3 TDs is the Gators sleepwalking through this one, as they have historically done.

Kentucky – Win

Terry Wilson was a surprise in 2018, and sadly had perhaps the best game of his career against Florida.  Since then, the rest of the league has seen the tape, and there isn’t much to scare you – he’s a good runner and an inaccurate passer.  The Gators are due to put a beatdown on the Mildcats after too many close games the past decade.

@Tennessee – Win

Volsheimers is almost always in effect at the end of each season, as Tennessee finishes the year with 4 or 5 straight wins against a garbage schedule and proclaims themselves ‘back’.  Florida will relish the chance to shut the Dollies up to end the season on a high note.

Overall Record          8-2

SEC Record              8-2

2020 could be remembered as the most challenging and weird season ever.  With so much uncertainty for every team even before the games begin, coupled with the unknown of whether a virus outbreak could derail a season, it may be an exercise in futility to try and predict what could happen.  Florida has some built-in advantages – an intact coaching staff, stable QB room, and (so far) no large virus outbreaks reported that have undermined practice (and performance) already for other Power 5 teams.  In a vacuum, the Gators look to be better than anyone on their schedule except maybe Georgia.  There’s a lot of talk in the media that this is the year the Gators win the East and return to Atlanta, but there are still some major hurdles to overcome – winning at Texas A&M, getting by LSU at home, and of course shutting up Kirby Smart.

Additionally, with only 20-25% fan capacity in stadiums, any home-field advantages may simply not exist.  Florida must remain healthy along the O-line and D-line, and someone in the WR corps has to take up the slack behind Grimes.  The coaching staff seems quietly confident in this group, which is a good sign.  Finally, can the Gators navigate 2020 by staying healthy on – and off – the field?   

It’s that time again (I hope)……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!

About George Foote

Co-owner & Publisher of MySanMarco.com