The 2021 season comes with a strange mix of “what could have been in 2020”, “I really hate how 2020 ended”, and “Oh crap, now what in 2021?”. After wasting a generational pass offense with the worst defense in over 100 years and some terrible coaching, the new season is filled with more questions and anxiety than with excitement.
For now, this year will be close to ‘normal’, with an 8-game SEC schedule and, as of now, no attendance restrictions. The entire coaching staff has to attempt to wash out the bad taste of 3 straight losses – 2 of which were colossal embarrassments against LSU and Oklahoma. This is to be accomplished with almost an entirely new skill position roster on offense and the same tired defensive philosophy. In some ways, the feel of the upcoming season is almost worse than before Dan Mullen’s first back in 2018.
Florida is coming off of 3 straight New Years 6 bowl games, but now has to go in with the roster almost entirely composed of Mullen’s players. He inherited a lot of talent when he arrived and did well with it (for the most part), but it’s a different animal with no more scapegoats from the previous staff – time to show what you have on your own. He did himself no favors with his flippant attitude, arrogant (and shortsighted) press conferences, and actions on the field last year. This is who he is it seems, and he’s going to have to win a lot more in order for Gator Nation to endure it for an extended period of time.
Get ready for what Dan Mullen is really known for – a spread offense led by a QB who can run and one that is more run-heavy. Gone are Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, Kedarius Toney, and a passing offense that was basically unstoppable paired with a poor running game that could not be counted upon to get any tough yards that were necessary. Emory Jones finally gets his chance to be the man at QB – he is a terrific athlete who can make a lot happen with his legs, but also has been effective passing the ball when needed. He has plenty of game experience from his first 3 years, including snaps in big SEC games, but it’s vastly different when the team is looking to you to lead from the start. Jones has very good instincts and vision when running the ball, and we’ll now see if his throwing accuracy is enough to put together scoring drives. He has proved to be calm when thrown into some tough situations, and seems mentally ready to lead. It will most likely be something resembling Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, circa 2014 – I think if Jones plays that well then the offense will be fine. Anthony Richardson is the backup to start the season – he physically resembles Cam Newton in size and power, with a very strong arm. He saw limited duty in 2020 as a true freshman, but will see action in most games, as Mullen likes his backup to get experience early in case of injuries. Freshmen Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna come in with solid credentials, but hopefully won’t be pressed into duty in any meaningful situations this season.
The RB room is the best it’s been in many years. Dameon Pierce and Mailk Davis provide senior leadership and have had sporadic success. Nay’Quan WRight stepped in as a freshman last season and wasn’t intimidated – he was effective both in the running and passing game. All three have played in big games and produced. There is real buzz about the two 5* guys that transferred in – Demarkus Bowman from Clemson and Lorenzo Lingard from Miami. Florida recruited both very hard out of high school – they both have special physical gifts, but now must show they can succeed at the collegiate level. The hardest thing for Mullen and RB coach Greg Knox may be how to distribute the carries to keep all of them happy. There is no better rotation in the SEC.
The WR corps lost a ton of talent and production – again – with Toney and Trevon Grimes making it to the NFL. It now falls upon Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, and Xzavier Handerson to step in and continue the recent run of excellent play. Copeland has been inconsistent, but is poised for a breakout season – he has excellent speed, is a great leaper, and a tough runner after the catch. Shorter and Henderson are big targets that are effective against smaller defenders and in the red zone as well. Trent Wittemore, Ja’Markis Weston, Daejon Reynolds, Ja’Quavion Fraziers, and Marcus Burke are all young guys with the talent to make plays – they lack experience, but some combination will need to step in and provide depth and make some plays as the season progresses. There is plenty of talent and athletic ability in this group – just a lack of experience. Let’s see if they can continue the recent run of great WR play at Florida.
The Gators lost a generational talent with Kyle Pitts leaving for the NFL as the highest-drafted TE ever. His loss will be felt in many ways – his size and speed demanded coverage from 2 defenders, opening up the field for the other receivers and also giving the QBs the best security blanket in the country. Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer will need to do what they do well, while Mullen will have to develop a much-different passing scheme around this group’s talents. They will be called upon to run block much more often, but both showed the ability to get open in the red zone. Freshman Nick Elksnis is a big target and will get some opportunities to show what he can do and hopefully provide quality depth.
Finally, we come to the much-maligned (and deservedly so – again) offensive line. This group was poor in run blocking last season, struggling mightily when called upon in short-yardage situations. The right side of the line wasn’t much better when protecting the passer – Stewart Reese and Jean Delance were frequently abused. Trask’s decision-making and the ability of PItts and Toney to quickly get open 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 could be SEC-caliber, despite the loss of Brett Heggie at center. Kingsley Eguakun and Ethan White will split time at center and guard, with Reese, White, and Josh Braun slated to rotate at the guard positions. All three have experience and good size. Once again, the tackle spots are a huge question. Richard Gouriage finally gets the chance to move to his natural position at LT, and needs to stay healthy and play well to protect the QB’s blind side. Delance once again gets first crack at RT, which is actually an indictment on John Hevesy’s lack of ability to develop tackles as well as recruit SEC talent at the position. Unless some combination of Braun, Michael Tarquin, or perhaps Gerald Mincey can hold up in the rotation, a lot of inexperienced and unknown players will have to step in – which is unacceptable in the SEC. Hevesy continues to recruit too many guard-types and tries to plug them in at tackle. With new QBs and their abilities comes a renewed need for a more effective running game – something I am not confident about until it’s proven against SEC opponents.
The 2020 Gator defense was the worst one seen in Gainesville in over 100 years. It was stunning to watch the same things week after week – players not lining up properly, late signals from the sideline, getting gashed in the running game, and continually lining up 7 yards or more off opposing WRs, allowing easy completions and long scoring drives. Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham somehow was retained instead of getting his ass fired, which baffled and angered the entirety of Gator Nation. Unless this unit does a complete turnaround and starts playing like a Florida defense is used to, it’s going to be a long season. There is no more powerful passing offense to bail these guys out and simply outscore opponents.
Florida’s key losses were DTs Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell, CB Marco Wilson, and safeties Brad Stewart and Shawn Davis. Based on the performance (or lack of) from the secondary, the hope is that fresh blood, a full spring practice session, and frankly, better coaching from Grantham, can alleviate a lot of the problems that plagued them all of 2020 – poor tackling, lack of ball awareness, and consistent busted coverage in the deep zones.
The defensive line should be bolstered with 2 arrivals from the transfer portal. Both Antonio Valentino (Penn St.) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) are redshirt senior DTs with plenty of big game experience who are slated to start immediately. The DT rotation will include Gervon Dexter, Jalen Lee, Lamar Goods, Jaelin Humphries,and massive freshman Desmond Watson. This unit should be improved overall from 2020 both in terms of depth and overall talent. These guys should help improve the run defense by occupying the OL better and keeping the LBs clean.
The DEs, including the Buck Position, are poised for a good year. Zachary Carter is the leader of the defense and plays both the run and pass well. Brenton Cox showed flashes last season rushing off the edge, but must improve in setting the edge against the run. Princely Umanmielen played well as a true freshman thrown to the wolves in the SEC. Jeremiah Moon returns after an injury-shortened 2020 for a 6th year, and provides another pass rushing threat. Finally, Kris Bogle emerged in the second half of last season, and is pushing for a starting role. There is plenty of experience and ability in this unit.
The Gator LB corps was poor in 2020, struggling with poor tackling, bad angles, and getting abused in coverage. Ventrell Miller was the only player who performed consistently, and he had his difficulties in coverage. Mohamoud Diabate moved from OLB to ILB midway through the season, and only in the last month started to show he was picking up his new assignments. Amari Burney was moved around way too much between LB and the Star position (where he simply was out of position), and looked lost way too often. All three return in 2021 with plenty to prove – they have the physical ability to play and succeed in the SEC, but Grantham’s chemes and LB coach Christian Robinson’s coaching must improve significantly to take advantage. There is a lot of young talent that will see a heavy role in the rotation. Ty’Ron Hopper, Derek Wingo, Chief Borders, and Andrew Chatfield will all get plenty of snaps, with Chatfiled showing some pass-rushing promise last season. This unit has to perform much better in 2021, or the defense will struggle again.
The secondary was a disaster last season – poor and soft coverage, even poorer schemes from Grantham, bad angles in tackling, and way too many deep completions allowed. Other than that, everything was fine. So, Grantham stays and Torrian Gray, an excellent DB coach, is fired as the scapegoat. Enter Wesley McGriff from Auburn and Jules Montinar from South Florida to try and pick up the pieces and start again. McGriff has developed a lot of good players at Auburn, but Montinar is a complete unknown thrown into the SEC fire. Both the cornerback and safety positions have a lot of work ahead, which is really a shame at what used to be DBU.
Kaiir Elam is the established leader at one CB spot, but the loss of Jaydon Hill to a knee injury in fall camp leaves the other spot a wide open competition between Avery Helm, true freshman Jason Marshall, and Missouri transfer Jadarrius Perkins. Marshall was one of the top recruits in the country and will get a lot of snaps to sink or swim. Any more injuries at CB could be disastrous with so little experience and depth behind Elam. The Star position has no established starter, either – right now it looks like a competition between Tre’Vez Johnson and transfer Elijah Blades. Johnson got some experience last year as a freshman at both CB and Star, and likely has the edge going into the season. Blades was a former commit to Florida 3 years ago before beginning an odyssey that took him to Nebraska and Texas A&M first. The safety position will be led by Trey Dean, who finally accepted that this was his best position the second half of 2020 and really came on as a playmaker the last half of the season. Who plays beside him will be a mix of Rashad Torrence, Mordecai McDaniel, Donovan McMillon, Kamar Wilcoxson, and even true freshman Corey Collier. There’s plenty of raw talent and athleticism, but very little experience. Some combination has to step up and play well, or the last line of defense won’t be a “safe” place.
The back seven will tell the tale of the 2021 defense. There are so many new faces and such little experience that the coaching staff has to do a much better job of getting these guys lined up correctly, in position to use their athletic ability, and keep things simple so they can think less and play faster. With so many questions heading into the season, this is perhaps even more worrisome than the O-line……not what a quality SEC team should be dealing with.
There are new faces across the board for the Gators, both kicking and for returns. The 2020 group was one of the best in the country – losing PK Evan McPherson will be difficult to replace, for both kickoffs and FGs. Kedarius Toney was always dangerous on returns. I expect a step back in production in 2021, and just hope the new guys don’t make it a large step back.
The new PK will be decided between Jace Christmann, a grad transfer from Mississippi St., and returning senior Chris Howard, who filled in well last season when McPherson was out with an injury. Jeremy Crawshaw gets his chance to be the punter this fall. He’s another in the long line of Australian footballers to come into the American college game in the past decade, and I can only hope he can produce similarly. Florida’s offense was so good in 2020 that punting really wasn’t a factor in any game – that likely won’t be the case this season.
The return game is a complete mystery right now. There are plenty of fast, athletic guys on the roster, but some are too valuable as starters, and others lack experience. Fenley Graham was in the mix before getting hurt in fall camp last year. Mailk Davis has some experience from 2019, and with the RB room so deep he may get a crack at either punt or kickoff returns. So far in fall camp, Demarkus Bowman is getting some reps on kickoff returns. Xavier Henderson and Kaiir Elam are getting some punt return reps, but with the depth chart so scary thin at CB there’s no way I want Elam returning kicks.
Too many questions to feel comfortable right now – we’ll see in the first few games who steps up and takes charge at all positions (hopefully).
Schedule and Outlook
It’s back to the familiar schedule in 2021 – an 8-game SEC schedule, what should be some warm-up games the first 2 weeks, and Florida $t. back in the Swamp after escaping an epic beatdown last year because of conference-only scheduling due to Covid restrictions. For now, there are full crowds expected, which should provide extra juice for the players to perform.
Florida Atlantic – Win
Slick Wille Taggart landed at FAU after getting run out on a rail from Taliban City. The Owls have had some success against bigger schools the past few seasons when Lane Kiffen was there trying to rehabilitate his career, but a lot of that talent is gone. They will be hyped to play a big in-state school like Florida, and I’m sure Willie T will want to make some noise, but I don’t expect much of a game after the first quarter or so.
@South Florida – Win
Gator Nation will show out in Tampa for this one. The Bulls are a mess right now and simply not a very good team. This will be another in-state opponent that will be fired up and maybe stick around for the first 20 minutes or so, but Florida should pull away for a comfortable win. The only way this stays remotely close is either turnovers or looking ahead to Alabama.
Alabama – Loss
Massive game for Dan Mullen. Bama will come in with a new QB and replacing a lot of starters, but their recruiting has been elite for a decade, and they are always strong at the line of scrimmage. The Gators can win, but it will take winning the turnover battle along with scoring at least 27 points. Nick Saban just keeps rolling along, however, and I have to see Mullen prove me wrong against an elite opponent.
Tennessee – Win
There will be some level of hangover after the previous week, but how much? Tennessee was gutted by graduation and transfers, and has a new coaching staff led by Josh Heupel coming from UCF. He has a lot of holes to fill, and will learn very quickly that the SEC ain’t like the AAC in level of competition each week. Heupel brings in a fast-paced offense that could prove effective. This one could be a sloppy affair and closer than some think into the second half.
@Kentucky – Win
The Wildcats have played Florida close for almost a decade now, taking advantage of coaching turnover in Gainesville and a falloff by the Gators in recruiting. Because Florida will be more of a running team, this likely plays into Mike Stoops’ hands as a defensive coach, and this could, unfortunately, be another game not decided until late. Kentucky is a run-first team, and getting an early lead on them would force them out of their comfort zone.
Vanderbilt – Win
Homecoming in the Swamp, and the Commodores are another SEC team with a new coaching staff. Vandy simply has too much talent deficiency to stay close after halftime, and the Gators should pull away for a comfortable win.
@LSU – Loss
At first, I was going with the angle that the Gators will have a ton of revenge on their minds after last year’s embarrassment in the Swamp, but Florida has struggled the past decade in Baton Rouge, and this one could be a clunker effort despite the motivation. The defense will have to rise up in this one, but Mullen has to show he’s up to the task as well. I suspect it will be the usual 4th-quarter tight game between these teams.
Vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
This game won’t be the scoring match that we saw in 2020, and that plays right into Kirby Smart’s hands. The Puppies will roll out one of the best defenses in the country, and will actually have a capable QB in JT Daniels that provides more balance to their offense. Another in the long line of elite opponents that Mullen has rarely defeated with any regularity in his coaching career. This will take a complete effort from the Gators, and the offense has to put up at least 24 points to make this game a possible win. As usual, Florida’s best chance will be to slow Georgia’s running game and force them to throw often.
@South Carolina – Win
Another SEC team with a new coaching staff. Carolina has some talent left behind by Won’t Misschump on defense, but it’s offense has a lot of problems, starting with talent. I could see Florida struggling on the road after the Georgia game and this one not being decided until the second half. I think the Gators win, but the score will be closer than it should be.
Samford – Win
A glorified scrimmage that will be a welcome respite from a rough stretch of SEC games. This game should give the staff a chance to play a lot of backups and rest the starters for the last 2 regular season games.
@Missouri – Win
A late November visit to Columbia could be quite a cold one, The Tigers showed some life on offense in 2020 and have played the Gators tough too often since they joined the SEC. Florida will need to run the ball well to control the clock and time of possession. By this time of year there are usually quite a few players dinged up, and with a rivalry game the next week, this might come down to a late score.
Florida $tate – Win
The Criminoles were horrid in 2020, and shamelessly abandoned playing their toughest opponents last year with last-second Covid excuses. Their offense has a lot of new players, including at QB, and the handful of talented players on defense have left. This being a rivalry game, it could be close into the 3rd quarter or so, but Florida has handled F$U with relative ease the last 2 games these teams have played, and I see the Gators winning this one again.
Overall Record 9-3
SEC Record 5-3
2021 is a critical year for Dan Mullen. The roster is essentially all of his players now. The season-ending 3 game losing streak reflected poorly on Mullen in preparing his team. The defense has to show significant improvement, as the offense simply won’t be able to match the explosiveness and scoring of last season’s group. It’s up to Emory Jones to show he’s ready to be the man at QB and lead his team into another tough SEC schedule. Both the O-line and D-line have to prove they are SEC-worthy units. Florida has to be able to run the ball when needed, and not just rely on Jones’ legs to make big plays. The defense needs to get off the field on 3rd down – something Grantham’s units historically have struggled to do well against good teams. Most of the coaching staff has something to prove.
The schedule is challenging, with 7 straight games until the off week before Georgia, in-state teams looking to wreck the season early, and of course the marquee game in the Swamp against Alabama. That game could set the tone for a really good season, or start up all the talk (again) from the doubters of Mullen’s ability to beat elite teams. It will be nice to have full attendance to get the feel of real college football and SEC intensity again, which will help the home team.
Lots of new faces in key roles, and a lot to prove to themselves and the country. The talent is there mostly, but it is unproven. You can’t hide in the SEC, and the good (or bad) will be exposed soon enough. The season could go a lot of ways, and we’re about to see where. Unfortunately, I see the ceiling for this year’s team at 10 wins, with the floor as low as 7 wins.
It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!