FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
The summer is flying by and the Florida Gators 2019 campaign is approaching quickly. As the players and coaches prepare for their August 24 kickoff against Miami, here at Inside the Gators we take stock of the roster to break down our list of “20/19” players for the 2019 season.
It will go like this: the 20 most valuable returning players with considerable game experience and then the 19 most valuable players who have yet to appear for the Gators and/or make a significant contribution in game play to this point. These are not necessarily the best players but the most valuable in relation to the team this season.
This is a 10 part series that will take a look at two returning players along with one to two upcoming players each time. Today we dive in with players 19-20 from our Top 20 list and players 18-19 from our Top 19 list.
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 20-DAMEON PIERCE
- Position: Running Back
- Class: Sophomore
- Size: 5-foot-10, 216 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Bainbridge High (Bainbridge, Ga.)
Why He’s Important: With Jordan Scarlett off to the Carolina Panthers as a fifth-round draft pick, the Gators are searching for a No. 2 running back to complement senior Lamical Perine. The other candidates besides Pierce are a player coming off two season-ending injuries in as many years (Malik Davis), a redshirt freshman that worked some at defensive back in 2018 (Iverson Clement) and a true freshman (Nay’Quan Wright). As the No. 3 back a season ago, Pierce rushed for 424 yards and two touchdowns on 69 carries. His 6.1-yard average per carry ranked second to Perine on the team. Perine’s tough-running style and Pierce’s combination of speed and power could leave opposing defenses gassed in the fourth quarter.
Questions to be Answered: A bulk of Pierce’s carries in 2018 came during garbage time, and his statistics were skewed a bit by a 68-yard score against Colorado State and a 48-yarder against Tennessee. Take out those two runs and his per-carry average goes down to 4.6, still solid but nothing remarkable. At times last season, he seemed overaggressive, trying to run everyone over rather than patiently waiting for holes to open up. Also, like many young running backs, questions remain about his pass blocking and receiving abilities. With Scarlett gone, is Pierce ready to assume a larger role in the offense and become a more complete running back?
Projection: If Davis is healthy, he’ll likely start the season as the No. 2 running back because of the contrast he provides to Perine. Perine is a physical downhill runner, while Davis is the lightning-quick jitterbug. Pierce’s style is similar to Perine’s, so the change-of-pace element wouldn’t really be there. But, given Davis’ injury history and Mullen’s preference to rotate multiple backs, Pierce is likely to have a much larger role than he did in 2018. Don’t be surprised if his yards-per-carry average decreases, but his number of impact plays increases.
No. 19-EVAN MCPHERSON
- Position: Kicker
- Class: Sophomore
- Size: 5-foot-11, 177 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Fort Payne High (Fort Payne, Ala.)
Why He’s Important: McPherson was almost automatic in his rookie campaign, making 17 of his 19 field goal attempts and all 50 of his extra points. One of his two misses was a controversial kick against Kentucky that appeared to sneak inside the right upright but was ruled no good by the officials. His 89.5 percent marksmanship on field goals tied for fifth nationally among kickers with at least 15 attempts. He provides a safety net for coach Dan Mullen and quarterback Feleipe Franks. They won’t feel the need to force something that’s not there once they cross the opponents’ 30-yard line. He’s also a weapon on kickoffs, with 55 percent of his kicks resulting in touchbacks last season.
Questions to be Answered: Mullen seemed hesitant to send McPherson out for long field goals, opting instead to punt from the opponents’ 35-yard line on several occasions. McPherson’s longest attempt was from 48 yards, which he made. He’s also never had to kick a field goal in the final minutes with the game on the line. Will Mullen send McPherson out to try 50+-yarders in 2019, and how will McPherson perform in a high-pressure situation?
Projection: His near-perfect freshman season seems unlikely to be duplicated, but he’ll still turn in an All-SEC caliber season. Expect him to miss about five field goals this season and perhaps have a PAT blocked. He’ll get a shot at a few 50+-yard kicks, and he’ll face at least one high-pressure situation this year against Auburn, LSU or Georgia.
19 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 19-MALIK DAVIS
- Position: Running Back
- Class: Redshirt Sophomore
- Size: 5-foot-11, 191 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Jesuit High (Tampa, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: Davis is the lightning to Perine’s thunder. When healthy, he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball from anywhere on the field. As a freshman on a bad offensive team in 2017, he rushed for 526 yards and two scores on 79 carries (6.7 ypc). In his four games as the Gators’ primary ballcarrier, he surpassed 90 yards each time, including a 124-yard, two touchdown effort against Vanderbilt. He would’ve threatened the 1,000-yard mark if he hadn’t gotten injured. He’s probably UF’s best pass-catcher out of the backfield as well. He would give Mullen a bunch of different options for his offense.
Questions to be Answered: The question is obvious: can Davis stay healthy for an entire season? He missed the final four games of the 2017 season with a knee injury that required surgery. He broke his right foot in the third game of 2018 and missed the remainder of the season. Will he still have the same speed and quickness following his injuries? Where he stands in the rotation is also uncertain. He and Pierce split time as the No. 2 running back in the spring. Does Mullen trust his health enough to give him a key role? If so, what will his role be?
Projection: Davis will likely open the year as the No. 2 tailback. He’ll come in as a change-of-pace when Perine needs a breather and could be the Gators’ best option on third downs. His pass-catching skills are best among the running backs, and his blocking was serviceable as a freshman. Nobody’s talking about him that much, but Davis could be the biggest surprise of the Gators’ offense in 2019.
No. 18-MOHAMOUD DIABATE
- Position: Linebacker
- Class: Freshman
- Size: 6-foot-3, 219 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Auburn High (Auburn, Ala.)
Why He’s Important: The Gators need to replace Jachai Polite’s 17.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks somehow. Enter Diabate, one of the gems of UF’s 2019 signing class. He was a four-star recruit and the No. 166 overall prospect in the country, according to the 247Sports composite. As a high school junior, he recorded 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He followed that up with a solid senior season, with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He played in the 2019 All-American Bowl. He seems to have the work ethic and maturity to find playing time right away. He won’t replace Polite’s production by himself, but he figures to help out.
Questions to be Answered: Diabate arrived on campus as an early enrollee, giving him the advantages that come with going though spring practices and the entire offseason strength and conditioning program. He’ll probably start buried on the depth chart, but will he be able to figure things out quickly enough to earn a spot in the rotation of what is a deep group of pass-rushers? At just 219 pounds, does he have the strength to make it through a full season in the SEC? Is he a redshirt candidate?
Projection: Diabate likely won’t play a leading role in the season opener against Miami as he tries to adjust to the college game. However, he should be able to get extensive playing time against UT Martin, Tennessee and Towson to build confidence and give him some game film to study. Expect his role to steadily increase as the season progresses. Three or four sacks seems like a reasonable expectation for him.