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 9-10 from our Top 20 list and players 8-9 from our Top 19 list.
- 20/19 for 2019 Part I
- 20/19 for 2019 Part II
- 20/19 for 2019 Part III
- 20/19 for 2019 Part IV
- 20/19 for 2019 Part V
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 10-MARCO WILSON
- Position: Cornerback
- Class: Redshirt Sophomore
- Size: 6-foot, 190 pounds
- High School/Hometown: American Heritage High (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: Wilson was a lock-down corner as a freshman in 2017, leading the Gators with 10 pass breakups, the most by a UF freshman since Vernon Hargreaves III had 11 in 2013. He was named to the coaches’ Freshman All-SEC team. He was named to the Preseason All-SEC Third Team entering the 2018 season, but he suffered a torn left ACL in the second game of the season against Kentucky and missed the rest of the season. He was held out of all contact work in spring practices, but he should be good to go by the time fall camp rolls around. The Gators need him to stay healthy this season and not show any signs of rust. The depth behind him and CJ Henderson isn’t ideal. A true freshman (Kaiir Elam), a junior whose status is uncertain following a May arrest (Brian Edwards) and a redshirt junior who’s struggled throughout his career (C.J. McWilliams) are the top options off of the bench. If Wilson returns to form, he and Henderson could form the SEC’s top corner tandem. Quarterbacks won’t be able to just avoid throwing at one specific corner; they’ll have to pick their poison.
Questions to be Answered: Wilson also tore his left ACL during his junior year of high school. Will his knee hold up this season? Is there any long-term concern over his knee, or were they just two fluke accidents? Opposing teams are certain to throw his way often as he tries to knock off any rust. Will he look like the dominant corner he was as a freshman, or will he look like a guy who’s been out of action for nearly a year? Despite his stellar freshman season, he has yet to intercept a pass in his career. How long will it take him to get that first one? He could have an interesting decision to make after the season. He’s a great corner, but will NFL teams take a risk on a guy that doesn’t have elite speed and that they might consider to be injury-prone?
Projection: Miami will take some deep shots on Wilson on Aug. 24, perhaps even on the first play. Don’t be surprised if they connect on one. He might look a little slow and tentative early in the season. Fortunately, the schedule is soft early, and he should be back to his old self by the time the midseason gauntlet arrives. He’ll stay healthy and intercept the first three passes of his career, including a touchdown. He’ll break up about 10 passes and be named All-SEC, but his draft stock won’t be high enough for him to declare early. He’ll be the Gators’ undisputed No. 1 corner in 2020.
No. 9-VAN JEFFERSON
- Position: Wide Receiver
- Class: Redshirt Senior
- Size: 6-foot-2, 197 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Ravenwood High (Brentwood, Tenn.)
Why He’s Important: Jefferson is Florida’s No. 1 receiver. He’s the guy quarterback Feleipe Franks goes to when he needs a big third down conversion or a score. In 2018, the Ole Miss transfer led UF with 35 receptions, 503 yards and six scores. He was the only Gator receiver to catch multiple touchdowns in a game (Charleston Southern) and record three games with 50+ receiving yards. He catches just about everything thrown at him and mixes in the occasional explosive play. Jefferson could’ve gone pro after last season and likely would’ve been a mid-round draft pick, but he chose to return to UF to improve his draft stock and help the Gators’ offense take the next step from good to great. He might not be the Gators’ biggest or fastest receiver, but he is the most trusted, and that will make him the go-to guy again in 2019.
Questions to be Answered: While Jefferson led UF in receptions, his 35 catches was the lowest total of his career. That can be attributed to uneven quarterback play early in the season, a deep receiving corps and coach Dan Mullen’s preference to rotate receivers. The Gators’ receiving corps is potentially deeper in 2019. Can Jefferson improve on his modest stats from 2018? How high will he go in the 2020 NFL Draft if he does?
Projection: Jefferson will lead the Gators in receptions and touchdowns this season and finish second to Trevon Grimes in yards. He’ll catch about 45-50 passes for 650 yards and 10+ touchdowns. He’ll continue to be Franks’ most trusted target, and he’ll help the Gators convert multiple huge third downs. He’ll be drafted in the third round.
19 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 9 -JAMES HOUSTON IV
- Position: Linebacker
- Class: Redshirt Sophomore
- Size: 6-foot-1, 233 pounds
- High School/Hometown: American Heritage High (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: The Gators have an All-SEC-caliber starting middle linebacker in senior David Reese but no proven depth behind him. When Reese was out for the first three games of 2018 with an ankle injury, UF’s defense looked lost and struggled mightily against the run. Kentucky ran for 303 yards on 7.4 yards per carry. Needless to say, that can’t happen again in 2019, and it starts with developing depth behind Reese. Houston played in all 13 games last season and recorded 28 tackles, including two for a loss. He was Reese’s top backup in the spring. His continued development will provide the Gators with a safety net in case Reese gets injured again and will give defensive coordinator Todd Grantham an intriguing option on third downs. Reese struggles in coverage, so the faster Houston could replace him in obvious passing situations.
Questions to be Answered: Houston hasn’t played significant snaps since his junior year of high school in 2015. He suffered a torn ACL that prevented him from playing his senior year. As a freshman at UF in 2017, Houston was suspended for his role in the credit-card fraud case. He played primarily on special teams in 2018. If the Gators have to count on him for an extended period of time, how will he perform? He wasn’t highly rated coming out of high school, as he was ranked as a three-star and the No. 648 overall prospect according to the 247 Sports Composite. Of course, part of his low ranking was due to his injury, but the question remains: is he good enough to be an SEC linebacker? He isn’t a middle linebacker by trade. He was an outside linebacker in high school, but he’s basically working at middle linebacker at Florida out of necessity. If Reese were to get injured, can Houston hold up against the SEC’s more physical rushing attacks?
Projection: Because of Reese’s leadership, experience and consistency, it’s going to be hard for Grantham to take him off the field. Houston will see the bulk of his playing time on special teams once again, but he will have a role as a third-down linebacker against teams with dangerous pass-catching tight ends or running backs. He’ll rack up 35-40 tackles and block a kick on special teams.
No. 8-CHRISTOPHER BLEICH
- Position: Offensive Line
- Class: Redshirt Freshman
- Size: 6-foot-6, 321 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Wyoming Valley West High (Hanover Township, Pa.)
Why He’s Important: The Gators’ rebuilt offensive line struggled in the spring, and Bleich is the youngest member of the projected starting unit. He played in the maximum four games allowed last season to preserve his redshirt, with Michigan being the only major opponent he faced. Now, he’s the probable starting right guard. As an interior lineman, Bleich’s play will show up mostly in the running game. The Gators seem to have all of the key ingredients for a strong running game: a deep and talented backfield, a decently mobile quarterback and a returning starter at center. Brett Heggie is back from injury to man the other guard spot. UF just needs Bleich to hold his own and solidify the interior of the line.
Questions to be Answered: There are way more questions than answers with Bleich at this point. Offensive linemen often aren’t ready to perform at a high level in the SEC until their third or fourth years on campus. With just one year to build his body with strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage and pick up offensive line coach John Hevesy’s techniques and fundamentals, is he ready to not only play but start against some of the best defensive fronts in the country? Hevesy is big on cross-training players at multiple spots on the line. Can Bleich play tackle and/or center if needed?
Projection: Because of his lack of experience, Bleich appears to be the weakest link on the offensive line entering the fall, but that’s to be expected when everyone else is a junior or senior. The Gators seem to be deeper at tackle than guard, so he might stick to just playing guard this season. He’ll have moments where he looks like a freshman still trying to figure things out, but, with his impressive size, he’ll also have some huge blocks in the running game.