20/19 for 2019: Could it be a double-digit sack season for Zuniga

Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments


FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
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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 5-6 from our Top 20 list and players 4-5 from our Top 19 list.

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20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS

No. 6-ADAM SHULER

  • Position: Defensive Tackle
  • Class: Redshirt Senior
  • Size: 6-foot-4, 275 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Lyman High (Longwood, Fla.)

Why He’s Important: Shuler was a pleasant surprise last season as a transfer from West Virginia. He entered the starting lineup in week three and helped shore up the Gators’ porous rush defense. UF gave up 144.4 rushing yards per game after inserting Shuler into the starting lineup, compared to 262.5 yards per game against Charleston Southern and Kentucky. He recorded 39 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. While fellow interior lineman Kyree Campbell is more of a block-eating nose tackle, Shuler plays the three-technique defensive tackle spot, which allows him to make impact plays that show up in the box score. His best game as a Gator came against Tennessee when he made nine tackles, including an assisted tackle that resulted in a safety. Despite already having his degree and a chance to go to the NFL as a possible late-round selection, he chose to come back to UF. He’ll be a big part of Florida’s defense as it tries to improve on 2018’s rush defense statistics. He needs to continue to play well because there’s no proven depth behind him.

Questions to be Answered: Shuler’s only solo sack of the season came against Michigan when quarterback Shea Patterson ran into the back of his offensive lineman and fell down. With leading sacker Jachai Polite gone, the Gators could use some pass rush from the interior. Can Shuler be more disruptive as a pass rusher this season? He had just one fumble recovery in 2018 and no fumbles forced. Can he cause more turnovers this season?

Projection: Shuler’s going to start every game unless Tedarrell Slaton makes a massive jump over the offseason. He’ll finish with about 40 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and two sacks. He’ll force a pair of fumbles and recover one. Losing Shuler after this season will be a bigger loss than a lot of people think realize.

No. 5-JABARI ZUNIGA

  • Position: Defensive End
  • Class: Redshirt Senior
  • Size: 6-foot-4, 257 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Sprayberry High (Marietta, Ga.)

Why He’s Important: Zuniga is UF’s most experienced and accomplished defensive end. He finished second on the team last season in sacks (6.5), tackles-for-loss (11) and quarterback hurries (4). He was second in sacks in 2017 and first in 2016. Zuniga might not be the most physically gifted defensive end on the team, but he’s the most balanced. Whereas the Gators’ other ends have struggled to set the edge in the running game, the physical Zuniga excels against the run. He easily could’ve gone pro after 2018 and left Florida with nothing but inexperience at the position. Instead, with Polite gone at the other end spot, Zuniga will be the star of the show in 2019. He’ll start at strong-side defensive end and have a chance to record 10+ sacks and 10+ tackles-for-loss. The Gators are counting on him to produce against both the pass and run as well as provide leadership to the young group of defensive ends behind him.

Questions to be Answered: Without a proven, dominating player at the other end spot, Zuniga is likely to receive a bunch of attention from opposing offensive coordinators. He’ll be the focal point of blocking schemes. Will Zuniga still be able to thrive despite the added attention? While Zuniga has been a consistent performer, he’s only made one All-SEC team (second team in 2016). Will he garner any postseason awards this season, or will he be overlooked in favor of some of the league’s flashier and more athletic ends? Will he get moved inside in passing situations so the Gators can get more pass rushers on the field?

Projection: Zuniga will start every game and produce slightly better statistics than he did last year. He’ll record 45 tackles, a team-leading eight sacks, 13 tackles-for-loss and force and recover a fumble. He’ll be named Second Team All-SEC and be drafted in the second round.

19 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY

 

No. 5-KAIIR ELAM

  • Position: Cornerback
  • Class: Freshman
  • Size: 6-foot-1, 182 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: The Benjamin School (North Palm Beach, Fla.)

Why He’s Important: It was always going to be important for Elam to arrive on campus this summer ready to contribute right away, but the urgency has been cranked up. Early enrollee Chris Steele transferred to USC after the spring, and junior Brian Edwards’ status is uncertain following his May arrest for misdemeanor battery, though the charges were later dropped. The only other experienced backup to CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson is redshirt junior C.J. McWilliams, and he, quite frankly, has proven to be a massive liability in coverage. Should Wilson or Henderson get injured, the Gators could always slide nickelback Trey Dean back outside, but then they’d just be creating depth issues at nickel. Ideally, Elam steps in and proves to be a capable No. 3 corner. He was ranked as the nation’s No. 48 overall recruit and the No. 6 cornerback, according to the 247Sports Composite. He’s a long and physical corner with 4.5-second speed. It’s important that he live up to the hype right away because a defensive backfield is only as strong as its weakest member. If there’s a mismatch on the field, good offensive coordinators and quarterbacks will find it and exploit it. Wilson has also torn his left ACL twice in the last four years, so there’s no guarantee that he’ll make it through a full season.

Questions to be Answered: Just about everything’s a question for a guy that hasn’t even participated in a college practice yet, let alone a game. With Steele gone, Elam is the highest-ranked member of Florida’s 2019 class. Is he as good as his ranking suggests? Without going through spring ball, will he have defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s various coverages and blitzes down by the time the season rolls around? Will he be strong enough to go against some of the SEC’s most physical receivers? Can he beat out Edwards and McWilliams for the No. 3 corner spot? If Wilson or Henderson were to get injured, will the coaches trust Elam enough to start him, or will they move Dean back outside?

Projection: Elam will win the top backup job in fall camp, and he’ll have the largest role of any of the incoming freshmen. He’ll spell Wilson and Henderson on a couple of drives here and there and play in the Gators’ dime package. He’ll play extensively against the two FCS opponents on the schedule. He’ll intercept two passes, including one against Georgia, who finished second in his recruitment. He’ll show everyone why he was a top-50 prospect, and, with Henderson likely going pro after this season, Elam should be the next star corner at UF starting in 2020.

No. 4-EMORY JONES

  • Position: Quarterback
  • Class: Redshirt Freshman
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 199 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Heard County High (LaGrange, Ga.)

Why He’s Important: Jones enters the fall as the favorite to be Feleipe Franks’ top backup. He played in the maximum four games allowed to maintain his redshirt in 2018, mostly in a small, zone-read package. His only extensive playing time came against Idaho, and he completed 12 of 16 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. He arrived at UF in the spring of 2018 as a great athlete with a strong arm, but he needed to improve his throwing mechanics and accuracy. This spring, his throwing motion looked tighter, but he still struggled with accuracy, completing less than 50 percent of his passes in both the spring game and a scrimmage open to the media. He also needs to be quicker and smarter with his decision-making. Right now, if Franks were to get injured, the season would essentially be over because the offense would likely have to be scaled back significantly for Jones. Nobody’s expecting him to be at Franks’ level yet, but he needs to progress to the point where the Gators can still put up some points and make a nice bowl game.

Questions to be Answered: Jones hasn’t secured the backup role yet. He and Kyle Trask split second-team snaps in the spring, and Trask looked more accurate and comfortable as a passer. Jones’ athleticism and upside give him the edge entering the fall, but the battle is certain to carry on throughout fall practices. Can Jones beat out the veteran Trask for the backup job? If Jones were to have to start for any extended amount of time, how much would coach Dan Mullen have to scale back the offense? With Franks being more assertive as a runner in the final four games of 2018 and Kadarius Toney an option as a wildcat quarterback, will Jones have a role other than mop-up duty in blowouts? If Franks decides to return for his senior season, will Jones transfer?

Projection: Jones will win the backup job, and he’ll get to play entire halves against UT Martin and Towson. He’ll also get a few snaps in the other 10 games as a change-of-pace from Franks. He’ll show steady progress in accuracy and decision-making throughout the season, and he’ll light up the scoreboard and entertain fans in the UT Martin and Towson games. Franks will declare for the NFL Draft after the season, leaving Jones as the presumptive starter heading into 2020.

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