2016 Season Preview

It’s Year 2 under Jim McElwain, and he has undoubtedly put his mark on the program in all areas – coaching, recruiting, dealing with the media, and player discipline (unfortunately given more chances than expected).  Despite having a season under his belt at Florida, it almost feels like starting over, given the roller-coaster second half of 2015.  A strong 6-0 start was followed by the Will Grier saga, then struggling on offense with Treon Harris while losing the last 3 games, including the embarrassing loss to Michigan.  Hopefully the defense will benefit from a consistent offense and kicking game through the entire 2016 season, and not wear down and finally crack as it did last year.  Coach Mac will also have a new Athletic Director to work with going forward, as Jeremy Foley has announced his retirement this fall.  There is positive momentum regarding facilities improvements (plans for additional football-specific operations, updated dorms, etc.) that the new AD and President Kent Fuchs should continue to champion.  Finally, the addition of “ambassador” Steve Spurrier should pay dividends in regards to fundraising and re-energizing the older part of the fan base.

Offense

Finally, Florida’s offense has some continuity with the same Offensive Coordinator and staff in place.  Unfortunately, many new faces will again make this unit an uncertain group until the games begin.

It all starts at quarterback, with Luke Del Rio being named the starter during fall camp and inheriting huge expectations.  He has been coached previously by Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier at Alabama, and has an advantage in being a coach’s son.  He certainly showed command of the playbook in the spring game, delivering the ball accurately and making good decisions reading the defense.  He isn’t a top physical specimen, but doesn’t have to be for the Gators to have success this fall.  He simply needs to make quick decisions, protect the football, and play efficiently.  Austin Appleby transferred in from Purdue as a senior with plenty of experience against quality teams, and is truly a qualified backup.  If he is forced into service, there won’t be the staggering dropoff in output that was seen under Treon Harris last season.  He is physically ready for SEC play as well.  Freshmen Kyle Trask and Felipe Franks have a lot of raw ability, but hopefully won’t be needed this year.

The running back position is in good shape under coach Tim Skipper, and the graduation of Kelvin Taylor should not be felt.  JUCO transfer Mark Thompson is a beast physically and also a surprisingly good pass catcher.  He will get plenty of opportunities to become the main ball carrier – as long as he protects the ball.  Jordan Cronkrite has emerged as the other lead RB during fall camp, showing toughness and also receiving ability.  Jordan Scarlett surprisingly has fallen behind on the depth chart for now, but injuries or fumbling problems by Thompson will get him back into the lineup in a hurry.  He has all of the physical attributes, but mentally has been lacking focus, to go with offseason behavior issues.  It would be a shame to see him waste his talent, but sadly this is a common theme in sports.  Finally, true freshman Lamical Perine comes out of Alabama with a maturity beyond his years, along with enough talent and effort to get into the rotation without a redshirt season.

The wide receiver group is an even larger mystery than at QB.  Other than Antonio Callaway (who is coming back from his own offseason troubles), there is no proven player.  Brandon Powell was average at best in the slot while struggling with a foot injury, Ahmad Fulwood simply plays too soft despite terrific physical size and skills, and C.J. Worton had attitude and injury issues.  JUCO transfer Dre Massey has turned heads since the spring and seems to be the starter in the slot, showing playmaking ability sorely lacking last season.  True freshmen Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond(brother of former Gator Frankie), and Rick Wells all come in with great credentials and have shown enough flashes in practice that possibly all see the field in some capacity this fall.  I expect the freshmen to make a significant contribution this season.  There are a lot of “ifs” with this unit – if Powell can stay healthy, if Fulwood can at least become an adequate threat, if Worton has finally turned his attitude around, and if the freshmen can deliver on their promise, this group could blossom into a functional, SEC-level unit.  They should benefit from consistent QB play as well.

The tight end position will again be more of a receiving threat vs. being involved in the running game.  The loss to graduation of Jake McGee is a large hole to fill.  C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return as proven threats on seam and wheel routes, which should help keep opponent LBs honest.  Camrin Knight and Moral Stephens provide depth, but are unproven as reliable backups.  Coach Mac is still looking for true two-way players at this position that can stay on the field for any down-and-distance situation.  In the meantime, he and Nuss will continue to flex out the TEs and scheme around their in-line blocking deficiencies.

Finally, while the offensive line wasn’t the most scrutinized unit in the offseason, there are still plenty of concerns.  Poor recruiting by the previous staff continues to hamper the development of a quality performing group with capable depth and proper roster numbers.  Coach Mike Summers was able to cobble together a decent group last season from, quite frankly, little talent and depth.  However, after Grier was suspended, Harris wasn’t able to mask their deficiencies with either quick decisions or his legs.  At least in 2016 the returning starters have more experience, more players are available after redshirting, and even a few freshmen are good enough to provide depth and occasionally get in to the rotation.  At tackle, David Sharpe has emerged as the leader on the unit at LT, Fred Johnson has earned the RT spot, while redshirt freshman Nick Buchanan and true freshman Jawaan Taylor will be in the rotation.  Taylor has been impressive in fall camp and could be a future star.  Martez Ivey should be the starter at RT, but is needed inside.  The interior of the line is where the main concerns lie.  At guard, Ivey again will slide inside from his natural tackle positon to fortify the position at LG, and Tyler Jordan looks to be solid as the starter at RG.  After those two, it’s unknown who can play, and play effectively.  Redshirt freshmen Brandon Sandifer, Richard Desir-Jones, and T.J McCoy, and true freshmen Brett Heggie and Stone Forsythe will all likely play.  The center position is led by Cam Dillard, but that is nothing to be comfortable with.  He is not the physical presence needed against SEC competition, and his shotgun snaps are still inconsistent.  Jordan is actually the better prospect, but is needed at guard.  McCoy is the likely backup.  The loss of Antonio Riles in fall practice to a knee injury really hurts this group.  Once again, Summers has a large task ahead of him.  The development and health of this group as the season progresses will influence the effectiveness of the entire offense, especially if they struggle.  At least he has much more to work with this season, but as a whole, this group is still not a typical SEC-level unit top to bottom.

Defense

Once again, this unit will be counted on to lead the team, and will have to carry their weight plus some until the offense can find it’s way.  Despite the loss of key talent to the NFL (Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal), there is a lot of returning quality talent to compete against anyone in the country.  There may be a little drop off in terms of elite talent, but as long as the newer players can eventually find their way and the unit is consistent and minimizes big-play breakdowns, this is a defense good enough to get back to Atlanta.  Hopefully, the offense and special teams actually carry some of their own weight as the year progresses so the defense doesn’t wear down late in games.

The defensive line again appears to be solid despite the loss of Bullard, and has plenty of experience and quality players to establish itself as one of the best units in the SEC.  CeCe Jefferson and Caleb Brantley will be the leaders at the tackle position, with Taven Bryan, Joey Ivie, and Khairi Clark in the rotation providing quality depth.  At end, there is a wealth of both experienced and young players ready to wear out opponents, led by Bryan Cox, Jr. and Jordan Sherit, with Keivonnis Davis and Jabari Zuniga ready for increased playing time.  True freshmen Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton come in with high expectations, and likely will not redshirt and see some playing time.

The Linebacker corps is thin in terms of experience and proven depth, but Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone will be one of the best duos in the SEC.  Coach Randy Shannon has to develop a mix of underperforming upperclassmen and redshirt/true freshmen as the season progresses to keep the main guys fresh and healthy, while not suffering a significant dropoff in performance by the unit.  Daniel McMillian, Rayshad Jackson, and Kylan Johnson are likely first up as backups, with early-entry freshman David Reese seeing significant snaps based on a fine spring.  There are a lot of question marks behind the 2 main guys, and Shannon will have his hands full developing some depth.  Injuries at this position could be devastating.  The only saving grace is that Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins likes to play a lot of 4-2-5 schemes, so it’s infrequent to see more than 2 LBs on the field for most plays.

The secondary will again be a strong unit which will be one of the best in the SEC and country, barring injuries.  Leading the way is All-American candidate Jalen (Teez) Tabor at cornerback, who is excellent in coverage, shows toughness in supporting the run game, and also has good ball skills.  Opposite will be Quincy Wilson, who has been overshadowed by previous talent at DBU, but gets his chance to shine this season.  He’s another CB with good size and cover skills.  At safety, Marcus Maye is the leader and should be an all-SEC candidate.  Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris, and Nick Washington are experienced players, and are solid, if unspectacular.  The difference from last season is that the rotation at all positions will be filled by less-experienced players.  JUCO transfer Joseph Putu has looked good in fall camp, and will see snaps at both CB and safety.  True freshmen Chauncey Gardner, Jeawon Taylor, and C.J. McWilliams will play out of necessity.  There may be some growing pains from this group, but they have the athletic ability to play in the SEC, and the experience gained this season will pay dividends in the future.

Special Teams

This unit was boom-or-bust in 2015, both in kicking and the return game.

Johnny Townsend was a revelation as the punter, becoming one of the best in the country in terms of distance and hang time, while also showing a knack for placing kicks inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.  He is a weapon in the field position game, in which those hidden yards are so valuable, especially against tougher opponents.  The punt coverage team benefited from his performance, finishing as one of the best statistically in the nation.

The placekicking was a disaster.  Austin Hardin had one shining moment with his game-winner against Vanderbilt, but completely imploded otherwise, with accuracy and height issues leading to a horrific performance.  Jorge Powell was barely adequate in relief until his season-ending knee injury.  In comes Eddy Pineiro, one of the most-hyped recruits in the country.  He’s already become an internet legend with his long-distance FG kicks and tremendous hang time.  Now it’s all about translating that to the field in live situations.  He certainly looked good in the spring game, and already has the players and coaching staff excited about his impact on the overall team’s performance.  Last year’s debacle directly affected the possible outcome of a few games and also the mentality of both the offense and defense.  If Pineiro is simply good in 2016, Coach Mac will have that added advantage in managing the game.

Punt returns will again be handled by Antonio Callaway.  As a true freshman, the Miami native stepped right in and became a terror for opponents.  He is simply one of those players that shows a knack for reading his blocking, avoiding the initial gunners, and then turning the ball upfield quickly and decisively to become a scoring threat.  His 2 TDs came in critical times at LSU and against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game – you can’t get more clutch than that.  Kickoff returns, on the other hand, were underwhelming.  Brandon Powell was surprisingly ineffective avoiding tackles and staying upright even with minimal contact.  As of now he appears to be the first and most experienced option, but JUCO newcomer Dre Massey, Chris Thompson, or perhaps a true freshman will get their chance.  At Florida, it should be a given that there is someone capable of being a home run threat, as this is just another way to impact a game.

Schedule and Outlook

Gator fans approach 2016 with some trepidation – again.  Despite the obvious ability of Coach Mac to lead a program and also game plan on offense, another unproven QB and questions about the OL are still legitimate concerns.  The stench of horrific offensive recruiting by Won’t Misschump lingers, and it may take another season before the overall talent and depth is SEC-level.  The defense will again be relied upon to lead this team until the offense (hopefully) develops consistency and rhythm.  At least it appears that the new QBs have the mental maturity and physical ability to provide hope of that.

Massachusetts – Win

A chance to break in many new players – especially on offense, and use this as an advanced scrimmage.  Stay healthy – please!

Kentucky – Win

The last 2 games have been close, and the Mildcats still believe they are on the rise.  However, Florida now has a year in the new offensive system, and is more talented.  This one may be close at halftime, but the Gators should pull away for a comfortable win.

North Texas – Win

Another glorified scrimmage, but a chance to clean up any mistakes from the Kentucky game, and an opportunity to get extra game-planning in for the big SEC East showdown the following week.  Stay healthy – please!

@Tennessee – Loss

It’s déjà vu all over again, as Florida visits the annual preseason SEC East champs.  The hype for the Volunteers has been in full effect all offseason, and now it’s time (again) to see if they back it up.  This could be the single make-or-break game for the entire 2016 season for the Vols, and they are feeling the pressure.  They have had no reason to lose the last 2 games to the Gators, and yet have not taken advantage of all the struggles and distractions Florida has been dealing with coming into this game.  I do feel that Elevenessee has a talent advantage on offense and enough overall experience that this is finally the year they end the streak.  However, the Gators are so deep into their heads that I would not be surprised to see another dramatic win at Rocky Top.  I’ll hate it if the Gators lose, but it’s going to happen sometime.

@Vanderbilt – Win

A second consecutive road trip to Tennessee.  The Commodores almost pulled off a shocker in Gainesville last season, but no such scenario this time.  Vandy will have a stingy defense, but their offense lacks quality talent, and that’s a bad matchup against a tough Gator defense.  The only way this stays relatively close is if Florida comes in with a post-Tennessee hangover.

LSU – Win

Back home in the Swamp to welcome the Tigers, who may have enough talent to win the SEC this season.  Florida has lost 5 out of 6 in the series.  This game is usually close and often has some strange things happen, usually in LSU’s favor.  The Gators played tough at Death Valley last year, and are a match physically.  Will RB Leonard Fournette continue to be the difference?  It’s incumbent of Florida’s offense to control the clock and score early to prevent the Tigers from playing in their comfort zone and grinding out another win.  Barring a rash of turnovers by either side, this should be another classic.  Special Teams and trickeration could be the difference……are you listening, Coach Mac and Coach Nord?

Missouri (Homecoming) – Win

Missouri came back to earth last season, and had an offseason from hell on and off the field.  The Tigers still have some talent on defense, but their offense has many new faces.  A new coaching staff is in place.  Not the recipe for success on the road in the SEC.  The rest of the league still has some payback to return, and the Tigers are going to learn their place……their first 2 years in the SEC were an aberration that won’t be repeated.

Bye Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Win

This is a difficult game to predict.  Georgia has a new Head Coach in Kirby Smart, who comes into this season riding the hype of Alabama’s success.  We’ll see if he was riding Nick Saban’s coattails or not as a defensive coordinator, and if he can develop an offense, unlike Misschump.  He will have a new QB, lack of playmakers at WR, and plenty of turnover on defense.  Georgia will likely rely on an excellent running game with an experienced OL and quality RBs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.  Despite all of the offseason excitement, the Puppies found a way to lose the past 2 seasons to Treon Harris.  Smart also has to overcome the mindset of the Gators winning 20 of the last 26 Cocktail Parties.

@Arkansas – Loss

Trap game between 2 emotional East Division games.  The Razorbacks lost a lot on offense after last season, but will still have a solid running game and be coming off of a bye week.  Florida has not lost to Arkansas since the Hogs joined the SEC in 1992, but I have a feeling they could be tripped up in this one.  This is only the 3rd trip to Fayetteville for the Gators – not a venue they are familiar with.

South Carolina – Win

The Big Payback.  The gloves are off after Won’t Misschump petulantly trashed Florida when his ass was deservedly kicked out.  Then he negatively recruited against Florida while at Auburn in 2015, many kids of which he had also attempted to recruit for the Gators.  His poor coaching, egregious offensive recruiting, and terrible roster management created a hot mess for Jim McElwain to clean up.  No prisoners – no mercy.

Presbyterian – Win

A relaxing scrimmage to rest up after another brutal SEC season.  This should give the staff the opportunity to empty the roster and extra preparation time for the road trip the following week to Taliban City.  Stay healthy – please!

@Florida State – Loss

Florida has lost 5 out of 6 to the Criminoles, and the Gator fan base is getting restless.  Sadly, F$U has been able to take advantage of the bumbling Misschump era on the field and in recruiting.  They have the edge in quality depth, and home-field advantage at Ron Zook Field.  The Gators are capable of winning this game, but I’m not confident that the offense or defense by the end of the SEC grind will have enough left in the tank to pull it off.  The health of each team coming into this game could be a major factor.

Predictions:
Overall Record          9-3
SEC Record              6-2

It seems I can copy and paste a majority of the 2015 Season Preview.  The perception of the Gator program is one of skepticism – again, especially on the offensive side of the ball – again, from knowledgeable observers and recruits.  Everyone outside of the players and coaches is in wait-and-see mode – again.  I saw enough from the first half of last season on offense to be confident that Coach Mac can build a sustainable and effective offense.  Sadly, he has to prove it again starting with another new QB, plenty of new faces at the skill positions, and a still-developing OL.  The defense will again be capable of winning a championship with support from the offense and special teams.  The 2016 edition of the Florida Gators could very well end the season as a better overall team than in 2015, despite a lesser win/loss record.  The signs are there that Coach Mac is rebuilding the program the right way, and I’m excited about the future.

It’s time for good things to happen to Florida Football – again.

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