INDEPENDENCE WEEK PROMOTION
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 1-2 from our Top 20 list and player 1 from our Top 19 list.
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 2-CJ HENDERSON
- Position: Cornerback
- Class: Junior
- Size: 6-foot-1, 191 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Columbus High (Miami, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: Henderson is a lock-down corner and the Gators’ best NFL Draft prospect. He started all 13 games in 2018 and led the team with seven pass breakups. He also intercepted two passes, made five-tackles-for-loss, recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles. As a freshman in 2017, he broke up four passes and picked off four passes, including two touchdowns. Henderson’s elite speed and great instincts for the position allow him to take the opposition’s best receiver out of the game and force offenses to dink and dunk their way down the field. He frees up defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to unleash his plethora of blitzes without much fear of getting burned deep. His speed also makes him effective as a blitzer, though Grantham will likely blitz him sparingly because of his coverage skills. He and Marco Wilson could be one of the nation’s top cornerback duos this season. Get to the fourth quarter with a lead, and you’ve got to like UF’s chances against anybody.
Questions to be Answered: With Wilson out for most of the season with a knee injury last year, opponents stopped throwing Henderson’s way as often and instead opted to pick on Trey Dean and C.J. McWilliams. With Wilson back and ready to go, will Henderson receive more opportunities to intercept passes and make other huge impact plays this season? Henderson was named Second Team All-SEC by the coaches after each of his first two seasons. Will he get the first-team nod in 2019? Could he contend for All-American honors and national awards?
Projection: Henderson will intercept four passes, score a touchdown and break up seven passes. He’ll seal a huge win over Georgia with an interception in overtime and leave with a bevy of postseason honors, including First Team All-SEC and being a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. He’ll be drafted in the top-20.
No. 1-FELEIPE FRANKS
- Position: Quarterback
- Class: Redshirt Junior
- Size: 6-foot-6, 240 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Wakulla High (Crawfordville, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: The starting quarterback is almost always the most important player on a team, but Franks’ reasons for topping this list go deeper than that. After his putrid performance (9-for-22, 84 yards) and subsequent benching against Missouri, who would’ve thought we’d enter the 2019 season talking about quarterback being one of Florida’s strengths? But that’s exactly where we are after Franks finished the 2018 season with arguably the best four-game stretch by a UF quarterback since Tim Tebow. Against South Carolina, Idaho, Florida State and Michigan, he completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 862 yards with 12 combined rushing and passing touchdowns and no interceptions. He was named Offensive MVP of the Peach Bowl. The turning point of the season, and possibly Franks’ career, was when he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns against South Carolina and held his finger to his lips as if to shush the crowd that booed him earlier in the game. From that point on, he played noticeably angry and became a willing and fearless runner, something Dan Mullen’s offense needs to operate at its highest level. Overall, Franks put together a more complete season than a lot of people want to give him credit for. He completed 188 of 322 passes (58.4 percent) for 2,457 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. He added seven scores on the ground. Franks’ momentum carried over into the spring, as he looked more comfortable, commanding and accurate than at any other point in his career. He seems poised to become one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks this season. The Gators need him to play with the same intensity and emotion that he finished last season with yet also be careful because the depth behind him is unproven.
Questions to be Answered: Of the Gators’ last four opponents of 2018, only Michigan finished higher than 79th nationally in total defense. Was Franks’ hot streak a byproduct of mostly weak competition, or did he really turn a corner? Can Franks maintain the same level of fire and anger now that fans are optimistic about him rather than calling for his benching? Even if Mullen won’t publicly admit it, Franks will face virtually no competition this season. He’s going to start every game no matter how poorly he plays so long as he stays healthy. Can he keep his competitive edge without a realistic threat of losing his job? Can he avoid having disastrous performances like the ones he had against Kentucky and Missouri last year and put together a more consistent season? With his elite size and arm strength, will he declare for the draft after this season, and how high could he go?
Projection: Franks will pick up where he left off last season. He’ll look like a veteran who knows where to go with the ball, makes the right reads in the running game and delivers accurate balls more often than not. He’ll complete about 62 percent of his passes for 2,700 yards and 35 combined passing and rushing scores. LSU and Georgia should be the only games on UF’s schedule where Franks has to play at an elite level for the Gators to win. Behind Franks’ steady play, they’ll win one of those two games and become playoff contenders. Franks will declare for the NFL Draft following the season and be drafted in the second round.
19 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 1-BRETT HEGGIE
- Position: Offensive Line
- Class: Redshirt Junior
- Size: 6-foot-4, 314 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Mount Dora High (Mount Dora, Fla.)
Why He’s Important: Unlike every other player on this countdown, Heggie was a significant contributor in the past but not last season, so he’s still eligible for this list. Heggie played in eight games and started seven in 2017 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He entered last fall hoping to win his starting job back, but a turf toe injury caused him to miss some time in practice and limited his role in the first few games. Just when it looked like Heggie was starting to regain his pre-injury form, he injured his left hand and had to play the next few games with a giant cast on it. He later injured an ankle. If he stays healthy and plays like he did in 2017, he’ll completely change the dynamic of UF’s rebuilt offensive line. It would essentially be like gaining a second returning starter. Heggie has what coaches and scouts often refer to as a “mean streak.” He doesn’t just try to move defenders out of the way; he tries to put them on their backs. He does most of his damage in the running game. He’s somebody the Gators can run behind when they need to convert a fourth-and-1 or run out the clock. He’s also extremely tough – a little more than a week after his hand injury, he played a season-high 53 snaps in Florida’s win over LSU. Heggie will start the season at left guard, but he has the flexibility to play right guard or center if needed. He’s the most important player at UF’s most important position. He’ll help solidify the interior of the line and establish a physical and tough tone.
Questions to be Answered: Can Heggie finally stay healthy for an entire season? His physical tools and aggressive mindset are obvious, but they don’t do much good sitting on the bench. Florida can’t afford to ease him back into things either, as it opens up with Miami, who could have one of the nation’s best front-sevens. Will he look like the fearless and imposing blocker he was as a redshirt freshman, or will it take him some time to knock the rust off? He’s played a very limited number of snaps under Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy. How up to speed is he on what they’re looking for at the position? Will he still cross-train at center? How is his conditioning after a long layoff?
Projection: Heggie will play more than he ever has, but his history suggests he’ll roll an ankle at some point and have to miss a couple of games. He’ll start 10 games and help keep the Gators’ offensive line from falling apart with his toughness and physicality. He’ll be UF’s best offensive lineman, and he’ll win an SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week award. Heggie will enter the 2020 season as the starter at center.