Jim McElwain begins his 3rd season as head coach with the most balanced roster of his tenure. He has finally been able to build depth at all positions, and is not relying solely on heath, transfers, and good luck to survive an entire SEC season at any particular position. New energy has been infused into both coaching and recruiting with the addition of Brad Davis as the OL coach, Ja’Juan Seider as RB coach, and Corey Bell as secondary coach. All 3 have the juice to energize their players and also recruits. The offense, which has struggled mightily at times since 2011, finally has enough legitimate talent and depth to compete against anyone. The defense actually carries more question marks coming into 2017, moreso due to loss of experience than to the talent returning. Randy Shannon moves into the Defensive Coordinator role, and will have to scheme around a lot of young players who will have to contribute from the start. Overall, there is more positive momentum coming into this season than there has been in a long time, and it is welcome.
It’s time for the offense to carry it’s fair share of the load for the Gators, and to even lead the team. There is quality and depth at all positons, but inexperience at QB could tell the tale of 2017. Coach Mac and Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier are tired of the criticism, and are ready to put a consistent, competent product on the field.
At quarterback, it appears that redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks has taken the lead in fall practice and will begin the season as the starter. He is being thrown into a tough position, as he has no college experience, had a lot of hype coming in as a recruit, and has an impatient Gator Nation ready to see a quality offense. He has all of the physical tools to be very good, but will need to be coached well to overcome the inexperience and take advantage of what he can do well right now. Fortunately he redshirted last season in order to learn the offense.
Luke Del Rio will be vying with Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire as the backup. Both have starting experience, but come with question marks of their own. LDR has to prove he’s healthy, while Zaire is behind on learning the playbook. LDR knows this offense better than the others, while Zaire is a very good athlete and provides a running dynamic that sets him apart. I would not be surprised to see all three guys get snaps throughout September, both to give the Gators the best chance at winning, but also to give the players the chance to prove who can be most effective in live action.
Coach Seider inherits a talented and deep RB corps from Tim Skipper, who is now coaching the LBs. Jordan Scarlett returns as the leading rusher from 2016, and has established himself as the lead back. Lamical Perine played very well as a true freshman last season, and should receive more snaps this year. Mark Thompson returns with the strongest physical presence, but still has to prove he’s mentally focused every snap and has improved his ball security. True freshman Malik Davis impressed in fall camp, and likely gets some snaps this fall. Each of the returning RBs is also comfortable with catching passes – this could be an important way to take pressure off of whomever is playing QB.
The wide receivers are by far the most talented and deep group under McElwain’s watch. Coach Kerry Dixon will need to scheme around the suspension of Antonio Callaway at least against Michigan, but there are plenty of capable players ready to step in. Tyrie Cleveland showed flashes as a true freshman in 2016, and now must show he is ready for a lead role. The return of Dre Massey from injury gives the Gators a weapon in the slot. Josh Hammond saw limited duty as a true freshman, but has stepped into a starting role with a strong offseason. Brandon Powell provides senior leadership and consistency, while true freshmen Daquon Green and James Robinson have enough raw talent to contribute right away. The x-factor will be freshman Kadarious Toney, a high school QB who enrolled early and immediately made an impact with his running ability. He will be a slot receiver, but will also get snaps in the wildcat formation at QB – he is a dangerous playmaker. There is now enough speed and size in this group to keep defensive secondaries from stacking the line of scrimmage and allowing the running game room to really shine.
The tight end position will again be more of a receiving threat vs. being involved in the running game. C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return as proven threats on seam and wheel routes, which should help keep opponent LBs honest. Both must catch the ball more consistently. True freshman Kemore Gamble has to potential to be a real 3-down player that can stay on the field for any down-and-distance situation. Until any of these three prove they are effective in-line blockers, Coaches Mac and Nuss will continue to flex out the TEs to scheme around their blocking deficiencies. If they can improve in the running game, that will lessen the predictability of the play-calling based on the personnel on the field.
For once, the offensive line isn’t the primary concern. Coach Davis has enough talent and depth to field a solid SEC-level rotation at each position. At center, TJ McCoy was a revelation when finally given the chance to play, and has entrenched himself as the starter. The guard position has been a shaky one the past 2 seasons, but Fred Johnson, Tyler Jordan, and Brett Heggie are a solid group that hopefully stops the inside penetration that has hampered the offense. Antonio Riles returns from missing 2016 due to injury to provide depth. The tackle position is in excellent shape in regards to the starters. Martez Ivey finally gets to play his natural position of left tackle, and could be an all-SEC player this fall. Jawaan Taylor was a true find as a lightly-regarded recruit last year, and excelled as a true freshman at right tackle. Kavaris Harkless, Nick Buchanan, and true freshmen Kadeem Telfort and T.J. Moore will back up both positions. Most of these guys have cross-trained at other positions, so a few injuries shouldn’t derail the overall performance. This is still a young group overall in regards to experience, but a very capable one that could provide the foundation for (finally) an SEC-competent offense.
The defense had led the Gators since 2011, but will have a lot of new faces and some inexperience to overcome. Florida was hammered with the loss of early NFL entrants DT Caleb Brantley, LB Alex Anzalone, and CBs Jalen Tabor and Quincey Wilson, along with the graduation of LB Jarrad Davis and S Marcus Maye. The overall talent left behind and from the incoming freshman approaches that level, but that loss of experience is difficult to overcome immediately, if at all. Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon will earn his salary this year in trying to mold together a cohesive unit that limits mistakes and can stand up to a tough schedule. Hopefully the offense finally shares the load again, and can keep these guys fresher and healthier as the season progresses.
Defensive Line coach Chris Rumph will have a lot of talent to manage. He has plenty of depth this fall, but it is young and needs to be developed quickly. The defensive line loses Joey Ivie as well as Brantley at tackle, and it will be a rotation of upperclassmen Taven Bryan, Jachai Polite, Khairi Clark, and freshmen Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, and Elijah Conliffe holding down the fort. Shannon’s schemes usually doesn’t require the DTs to be the playmakers – instead asking them to hold the point of attack and allowing the LBs to clean up. The freshmen will get a lot of snaps by necessity, and at least have the size to hold up against physical SEC O-Lines. The DE rotation could be one of the best in the country. CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Jordan Sherit, Keivonnis Davis, and Antonneus Clayton all have pass-rushing ability, and freshman Zach Carter will play as well (perhaps sliding down to tackle if necessary). Jefferson and Zuniga especially have flashed elite pass-rushing skills. There is enough depth that a few injuries shouldn’t significantly affect the performance of this group.
Tim Skipper moves from coaching the RBs to the LBs, but has coached that position at previous stops. He has a strong nucleus returning that was forced to learn and grow out of necessity last season due to injuries to Davis and Anzalone, but has little depth and experience behind the starters. He will have to manage this group carefully and hope they stay healthy. Sophomores Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson, and David Reese will start, with Jeremiah Moon and Christian Garcia the only backups with experience. True freshmen Ventrell Miller, James Houston, and Nick Smith all have promise, but will have to be thrown to the SEC wolves this year to try and keep the starters fresh while not seeing a major dropoff in production. It will be interesting to see how often Shannon chooses to run a 4-2-5 scheme based on the performance of the D-Line; this could help keep the LB corps healthy throughout the season. Shannon is one of the best LB coaches in the country, and will be a huge help to this group.
After more than a decade of skill, depth, and playmaking ability exhibited by the secondary, 2017 will be a transition year for DBU. Coach Bell has perhaps the most difficult coaching assignment of the staff this fall, and will have to find a way to manage the little experience he has returning, while integrating many talented freshmen into the rotation at both cornerback and safety. Going into fall practice it looks like Duke Dawson will move from the nickel position to CB, with Chauncey Gardner moving from safety to the other CB slot. JUCO transfer Joseph Putu, and freshmen CJ Henderson, Marco Wilson, and C.J. McWilliams will all be in the rotation, with Wilson having locked up the nickel position. The safety position is a mixed bag as well. The offseason loss to injury of Marcell Harris is a huge blow. Nick Washington is the only upperclassman, and will be charged with getting the others lined up correctly pre-snap and providing leadership. Jaewon Taylor received more playing time as a freshman the last month of 2016 and is slotted in Harris’ position. True freshmen Brad Stewart, Brian Edwards, and Shawn Davis, and redshirt freshman Quincy Lenton will all play. Davis has moved ahead of the others for now, with Lenton battling foot injuries. Gardner may be forced to move back to safety if injuries or lack of production occur, or (better yet), the young guys develop rapidly at CB. Stewart comes in with a lot of hype, and already has looked the part in fall practice. He is athletic enough where he could be asked to also play some at CB if necessary. There is a scary lack of experience – if either Dawson or Gardner are injured, it could be a long season.
This is one of the best units in the country, featuring perhaps the best PK/punter combo in the nation in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Both are strong All-SEC and All-American candidates.
Pineiro was a revelation in 2016, especially after the disastrous previous season with Austin Hardin. Already an internet sensation, he showed it on the actual field of play. He became an immediate weapon on kickoffs, either generating touchbacks or pinning opponents inside the 25 with his high kicks. Where he really impacted the season was with his FG kicking, where he became an accurate, long-distance weapon. This provided Coaches Mac and Nuss a lot of leeway in playcalling once the offense had crossed midfield. He is good enough to actually consider leaving early after 2017 for the NFL if he repeats his success.
Townsend again was one of the best punters 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 vitally important in the field position game, in which those hidden yards are so valuable, especially against tougher opponents. The punt coverage team benefitted from his performance, finishing as one of the best statistically in the nation.
Schedule and Outlook
Florida has one of toughest schedules in the country for 2017. The home schedule is perhaps one of the most loaded – ever, with 4 preseason ranked teams coming into the Swamp. In addition, the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville could be a showdown for the SEC East, while conference road games at Kentucky and South Carolina will pit the Gators against very motivated opponents with their own reasons for wanting to win that game – badly. Navigating this schedule successfully will be a huge undertaking for the entire coaching staff and the players. This season will test the patience of the staff and the depth of the roster they have developed.
vs. Michigan – Win
No easing their way into things. The opener at AT&T Stadium in Dallas on national television is a massive game that can set the tone for a successful season or shake the confidence of the entire team. I’m going to lean on the side of an inspired effort that benefits from an entire fall camp devoted to the game plan. Feleipe Franks has to perform well and move the offense, or this could be another ugly loss to the Wolverines. Fortunately, Michigan is replacing 18 starters, and even with a lot of returning talent, they are very young and inexperienced at almost every position. I believe that’s enough to give the edge to Florida.
Northern Colorado – Win
No matter the result against Michigan, this will likely be a sloppy performance against an outmatched opponent in a sandwich game. Stay healthy, and hopefully get a lot of players some snaps. This should allow the staff to peek ahead to the following game.
Tennessee – Win
Payback time for the Gators. The Volunteers finally ended an 11-game losing streak in the series last year, but were gutted by graduation and will be facing a very motivated Florida team. This one could stay close into the second half as Franks (or whoever the QB may be) acclimates to the starting role. As long as the Gators avoid turnovers and any defensive meltdowns, they should return to their winning ways against the Inbreds.
@Kentucky – Win
The first SEC road trip comes against a team that Florida has defeated 30 straight times. The Wildcats are talking proud about how this is the year they take a step up, but have yet to prove it. They will have enough playmakers on offense to test the inexperienced Gator defense, but still do not have the quality depth on defense to give their offense enough opportunities to win. It can be dicey when a young team goes on the road for the first time, especially if they have struggled against either Michigan or Tennessee.
Vanderbilt – Win
Florida has gutted out two close wins under McElwain, but this year’s offense has more quality and playmakers that should allow for a more comfortable game. The Commodores have a good running game, but lack the QB play and defense to stay competitive for 60 minutes. However, historically this has been a sloppy game, and that could continue as Florida may be thinking about their upcoming Homecoming opponent……
LSU (Homecoming) – Win
Wow. This has quickly turned into a nasty game, especially after LSU and their AD, Joe Alleva, called out the Gators for rescheduling last year’s game at the Swamp because of Hurricane Matthew. All Florida did was then allow L$U to whine their way into playing the game at Baton Rouge, then sticking it to the Tigers to win the SEC East and a return trip to Atlanta. The dramatic goal-line stand to win that game will not be forgotten – by either team. There’s bad blood on both sides, and I expect a lot of penalties and mistakes from both teams. The Gator coaching staff has to rein in the emotions and get the team to focus on execution. This is going to be a classic SEC showdown.
Texas A&M – Loss
Huge trap game for Florida, after the emotional game against LSU and before a critical SEC East showdown. The Aggies will have their usual talent on offense and challenge the Gator defense. The Florida offense had better be ready to score some points and try to control the clock. This would be a disappointing loss, but not a shocking one. Kevin Sumlin is coaching for his job in 2017, and will be even more unpredictable and wide-open on offense.
vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
This one is tough to predict. Florida has won 21 out of the last 27, and is completely in the heads of the Puppy players. However, Georgia could have a distinct edge at QB, and have a senior-laden defense returning. This one is feeling like the 1997 game, after Steve Spurrier had neutered the Puppies 7 straight times, but came in with a team fighting through a tough schedule and physically beaten up, as well as playing multiple QBs. Given even terms, I give the coaching edge to Coach Mac over Kirby Smart any day, but an off week prior to this game may not be enough.
@Missouri – Win
Trap game between 2 emotional East Division games. The Tigers struggled mightily last year, as their season cratered under the weight of losing defensive talent, playing legitimate SEC East division teams again, and the controversy swirling around their campus and team in regards to myriad poor decisions by the school administration. What a mess, and an embarrassment to the SEC. I wish the SEC had never admitted them and could find a way to kick them out. Missouri will have some threats on offense with a wide-open passing game and talent at RB, but the Gators should have enough talent on defense to slow them down, while the offense should be able to move the ball successfully. This one may simply come down to the mental strength and focus of the Florida players.
@South Carolina – Win
Another chance to kick Won’t Misschump’s ass after he gutted the talent level and depth of Florida’s offense while trashing the Gator brand. He will certainly have his team ready to play to get back at Florida. It remains to be seen if he can put together a competent offense, while he is rebuilding a defense that hasn’t been SEC-level for several years now. This will be another emotional game that the Gator players have to get up for and avoid a letdown. I’m sure Coach Mac has his own motivation to pay back Misschump for the mess he’s had to clean up, and hopefully he can rally the team to close out another brutal SEC season.
Alabama-Birmingham – Win
Normally this game would be a relaxing scrimmage to rest up before the big game the following week, but UAB made some noise last season, including winning at Mississippi State. That should be enough to make the players take notice, and give the coaching staff something to get their attention. 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. Stay healthy – please!
Florida State – Loss
Florida has lost 6 out of 7 to the Criminoles, and Gator Nation is restless. Watching this game has been brutal recently, and it’s time for Florida to get back on even footing. F$U will come into this game with the advantages of stability in the coaching staff and a strong defense. They still have an edge in overall depth and will be coming in off of an ACC schedule that again is not the same gauntlet that is the SEC. The Gators are capable of winning this game, but must be healthy and have an established QB that is also a leader. Being in the Swamp will be a huge help, but the offense has to finally score a touchdown in this game for the first time since 2014, and continue to score.
Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 6-2
2017 is a huge year for Coach Mac to finally show progress on offense and energize the fan base and recruiting. He has rebuilt the depth chart, balanced the roster, and generated momentum from a big recruiting summer. Once again he has to develop a QB in Feleipe Franks and/or juggle 2-3 guys in order to give the Gators the opportunity to win a return trip to Atlanta. The schedule is daunting and will test the entire staff and roster. If Florida can manage to win 9 games playing a big-time national schedule while exhibiting progress on offense and managing a young defense, that will set up things for a very bright future. However, inconsistent QB play, lack of scoring, and a defense that starts to allow big plays will possibly slow the positive momentum. This is going to be another challenging year for Coach Mac and the Gators, but they finally have the talent and depth to make it a fair fight. This could be an exciting, memorable season……for the right reasons.
It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!