Florida comes off of the momentum of a strong finish to 2018 with wins over Florida $t. and Michigan, and will now be more the hunted than the hunter. Dan Mullen and his staff have the opportunity to build on the positive changes they established last season and continue to rebuild a solid foundation for the program. Every season is important, but some in retrospect are seen as more important than others – was 2018 a mirage, or do the Gators prove they are truly headed in the right direction?
There are some significant holes to fill with the losses of OT Jawaan Taylor, DE Jachai Polite, and slot defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the NFL. There are some very good players ready to step in, but quality depth can only be found within certain position groups and not across the board. Another solid season would go a long ways toward closing the talent (and depth) gap that widened during the Won’t Misschump and Swamp Donkey eras by continuing the recent recruiting momentum.
Florida finally will roll out a group of skill position players that approaches what is expected by Gator Nation. However……unless Coach Hevesy can develop an O-Line that is at least serviceable, then there could be some problems against a challenging schedule.
Any success from the offense will depend almost solely on the offensive line. Nick Buchanan is the only returning starter, at center. There is no real experience behind him, so Brett Heggie will likely be the backup. Heggie is the best returning lineman and will start at left guard, but has battled injuries for 2 seasons and must stay healthy. Redshirt freshman Chris Bleich gets first crack at right guard – he has looked good in spring and fall camp, but (in a recurring theme) has little experience. The biggest concern is at the tackle positions, trying to replace LT Martez Ivey and RT Taylor. Stone Forsythe earned the start at LT in fall camp, while Texas transfer Jean Delance was slated to be the RT until incurring a leg injury in fall camp. Forsythe may have to move to RT or a backup gets forced into a starting role. There is so little experience and so much youth that usually this is exposed and magnified in the SEC. Mullen will have to call plays that help hide some deficiencies and try and allow a solid group of skill position players to shine. Richard Gouraige and TJ Moore are the only backups with any meaningful experience, with Noah Banks having to quit football for medical reasons. This is a scary depth chart, and injuries to any starters could derail any chance for a big season.
The running back corps is solid. Lamical Perine returns for his senior season as the leader. He has always been a tough runner, but has improved his speed during his career and is also a reliable receiver and pass-blocker. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis will provide quality depth and have shown big-play potential. Freshman Nay’Quan Wright has promise, but will get only limited carries with so much quality ahead of him.
The strongest unit by far is at wide receiver. Talent, speed, depth, and size abound. Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, and Tyrie Cleveland are all reliable targets with big-play potential. What would really help the offense is the development and some actual production out of the slot receivers – Josh Hammond, Rick Wells, and Freddie Swain need to put pressure on the middle of the field to help Franks keep the chains moving and the improve the overall efficiency of the offense. Finally, will this be the season that Kadarious Toney is utilized as he should be? He needs 8-10 touches a game to stress the defense on the perimeter and to showcase his ability in the open field.
I’m more bullish on the TE group than most. Despite the lack of experience, this unit has guys with SEC size and talent that can actually help in both the run and pass game. Kyle Pitts, Lucas Krull, and Kemore Gamble all have the potential to contribute – the question is which one or two takes over?
At quarterback, it’s Felipe Franks’ offense now. He finished 2018 strong and has distanced himself from Emory Jones and Kyle Trask. If he simply focuses on continued improvement in the film room and runs with conviction when the opportunities are there, he will be fine. As long as the O-Line doesn’t have him running for his life, there are plenty of playmakers surrounding him in order to have success on offense.
The Gator defense should be very good this season, with razor-thin depth in the secondary the only major concern. As long as the offense isn’t forcing these guys to play too many snaps, there are real playmakers in the group to assist in perhaps a run at the SEC East title.
The D-line actually could be as good or better than in 2018 – especially the edge guys. The loss of Jachai Polite might be felt initially, but the overall depth at DE, led by returning starter Jabari Zuniga, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard, and Jeremiah Moon are as good as anyone in the SEC. Young guys like Zach Carter, Andrew Chatfield, and Mohamoud Diabate will get their chance in the rotation to make a splash. The most important group will be the interior DL. Adam Shuler is the leader at DT and should make some noise this year. It’s time for Kyree Campbell, Elijah Conliffe, and TJ Slaton to put up or shut up. The physical talent is there – but will they mentally push through fatigue and the occasional injury, unlike last season?
The linebacker corps should be the best group since 2016. Senior David Reese leads the way at ILB. James Houston and Ventrell Miller have shown flashes, but need to play well consistently. Amari Burney is the young gun that started to ball out the last 2 games and could be the breakout star this season. Ty’Ron Hopper is a true freshman that could get into the rotation if he practices well and contributes on special teams.
The secondary has perhaps the best pair of CBs in the SEC in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, who returns from an ACL injury last September. These guys can shut down anyone, and should allow the front seven to make plays. Trey Dean was forced into Wilson’s spot last year and did well as a true freshman – he will step into the Star role in the place of NFL-bound Gardner-Johnson. Kaiir Elam is the one true freshman that could see significant snaps this year in a backup role. The safety position is the one that worries most observers. Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart are SEC-level players, but Davis has to improve in coverage, while Stewart’s biggest enemy is himself being a knucklehead off the field. Jaewon Taylor and Donovan Stiner are solid backups, but both have to improve in coverage and with the angles they take for open-field tackling.
I am really excited to see how this unit will contribute this fall, as the kicking specialists might be the best pair in college football. In addition, Dan Mullen has the roster depth now to place some real dangerous guys in the return game.
PK Evan McPherson could have been the most important recruit of 2018. He never looked like a true freshmen, making 90% of his FGs including clutch kicks to help win the road game at Mississippi St., while regularly placing his kickoffs into the end zone. Tommy Townsend succeeded his brother Johnny at punter and didn’t miss a beat, with great hang time for the coverage units and even sticking his nose in to make some tackles.
It’s finally time to put some real playmakers in for returns. There obviously is risk in using any starter, but guys like Toney and Davis could steal a close game if given the opportunity. Swain and Cleveland got the majority of touches on punts and kickoffs respectively in 2018, so it will be interesting to see if Mullen sticks with the the familiar or shakes things up.
Schedule and Outlook
Florida’s schedule begins with a showcase on August 24th against Miami in a neutral site game in Orlando. It will be the only game of the day, kicking off the 150th season of college football. This is a huge opportunity to get off to a good start both on the field and in recruiting – but comes with a lot of added pressure. The 4-game SEC stretch from Auburn through Georgia will ultimately determine how big of a season this will be for the Gators.
vs. scUM (Orlando) – Win
Huge game for the Gator program and Mullen. No need to take a step back after a strong finish to 2018. Beat down an in-state rival for recruiting momentum. Could be close into the 3rd quarter, but Florida should have too much for the ‘Canes.
Bye Week 1
UT Martin – Win
A glorified scrimmage to start the home schedule. Offers the chance to knock some rust off before starting the SEC slate. As always – no injures, please.
@Kentucky – Win
The Mildcats are talking proud after a 10-win 2018, but are gonna take a step back after taking advantage of some weaker-than-usual teams. They will learn quickly that having a target on your back is a lot different. Very important game to get off to a good start in conference – Mullen will have the Gators ready even though this one is on the road.
Tennessee – Win
Always an important SEC East game for the Gators. The Vols still have a major rebuild in progress. Florida simply has too many talent advantages across the board to lose this one at the Swamp.
Towson – Win
Another glorified scrimmage. Offers the chance to play some young guys and rest/heal the starters before a brutal SEC stretch. As always – no injures, please.
Auburn (Homecoming) – Loss
Toughest game to predict before the season starts. The Gators historically have struggled with Auburn. The Tigers have the best D-Line in the SEC, and will rely on a strong running game. The Gators can’t afford to play from behind. Auburn’s inexperience at QB could allow Florida to win a very close game, but right now this looks like a bad matchup at the line of scrimmage.
@LSU – Loss
LSU returns most of a very strong defense, and likely will have an improved offense. This series has turned ugly recently, and this will be another typically tough matchup. I’m going with the Tigers to prevail based on the Gators coming off of a difficult game the previous week.
@S. Carolina – Win
After 2 tough games, this one could be a lot closer than it should be. The Lamecocks have a lot of holes to fill and have a very tough schedule. But any road game in the SEC can prove difficult, and I could see this one coming down to the last possession.
Bye Week 2
vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
The Puppies have taken advantage of very shady recruiting practices and a weak SEC East to prop themselves up nationally the past 2 seasons. Sadly, Georgia has a distinct talent advantage right now, and enough experience returning to win a close game. The Gators need to reverse the trend in this series soon.
Vanderbilt – Win
The Gators will be coming off a very tough 4-game conference stretch, and likely will have one of their historic letdowns against the Commodores. Florida wins by double-digits, but it may not be pretty.
@Missouri – Win
Florida has been embarrassed by this mediocre program mostly due to it’s own struggles since the Tigers joined the league in 2012. Missouri lost a lot of talent on offense and will be rebuilding. If this game were anywhere but on the road in what could be bad weather conditions, I would pick the Gators to win comfortably. This one could be close into the 4th quarter.
Bye Week 3
Florida $t. – Win
The Gators ended a miserable 5 game losing streak to the Criminoles last year, and the pendulum is swinging Florida’s way. It’s a rivalry game, so (almost) anything is possible, but F$U has major issues within it’s program and it’s talent level is way down. Mullen will put a stamp on a state championship with a solid win.
Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 5-3
2019 arrives with a much different feeling surrounding the Florida program than the uncertainty of Dan Mullen’s first season. There is confidence that comes from the strong finish to 2018, but there are also the expectations that come with that. Predicting even 9 wins with an inexperienced O-Line against a tough SEC slate could be wildly optimistic. New players need to step into leadership roles – Franks, Perine, and Jefferson on offense and Henderson, Reese, and Zuniga on defense. The starting 22 are among the best in the SEC, but quality depth is sorely lacking at OL, LB, and in the secondary in case of injuries. The Gators will need some luck on the health front to maximize it’s win potential. Another good season will keep the recruiting momentum going and allow Florida to further distance itself from F$U and scUM. With so little room for error, it will be another interesting season in Gainesville.
It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!