FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
With just a few days remaining until fall practice begins, Inside the Gators gives you a look at what to watch for over the next month.
In this Take Five, we’ll break down five key position battles and five storylines to follow.
1. Key Players Returning from Injury
Cornerback Marco Wilson was held out of contact drills in the spring as he recovers from a torn ACL. Running back Malik Davis is still working his way back from a broken foot. Left guard Brett Heggie has been plagued by injuries the past two seasons. Grad-transfer defensive end Jonathan Greenard suffered a season-ending wrist injury while he played for Louisville last season. All of them are being counted on to play large roles this season. Will they return to their pre-injury forms right away, or will they look like guys who have been out of commission for nearly a year? Now that they’ve been through a full offseason program, how will their bodies hold up?
2. Development of the Offensive Line
This storyline is twofold. First, the projected starting unit of Stone Forsythe, Heggie, Nick Buchanan, Chris Bleich and Jean Delance needs to be more consistent than what they showed in the spring. They weren’t terrible, but it seemed like too many plays got blown up before they ever had a chance. And, they need to develop a collective mean streak in the running game; only Heggie plays with a consistent level of aggression on every play. Second, the backups need to show major improvement. Nobody’s expecting a bunch of freshmen to look like All-SEC players, but at least two or three of them need to provide quality depth. You would’ve been better off with a revolving door playing backup offensive line at times in the spring than the unit they trotted out there. Coming off an always intense summer strength and conditioning program, will the unit collectively look noticeably stronger and more aggressive than they were in the spring? Will some of the freshmen start to impress? With all of the restrictions that are in place today on contact in practice, the physical aspect of the position is pretty much established over the summer. Will they look sharper mentally in fall practices?
3. Feleipe Franks’ Continued Progress
Feleipe Franks turned in arguably the best four-game stretch by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow. He followed it up with a strong spring in which he looked more comfortable, confident, accurate and decisive than at any other point in his career. You can tell his teammates like him and want to rally behind him, and that’s not something to overlook. Now, the challenge is consistency. Can he build on that spring and turn in a solid fall camp, or will some of his past struggles show up again?
4. Orlando Opener
Last year’s season-opening opponent, Charleston Southern, didn’t get brought up in media availabilities until the week of the game. That will most certainly not be the case this year, with the Gators opening with Miami in Orlando on Aug. 24. Coaches often talk about how big-time openers help their teams stay focused during the dog days of summer and fall camp. It provides a light at the end of the tunnel and motivation to give maximum effort in the 90+ degree Florida heat. Will UF look sharper than usual, or will the hype surrounding the Miami game cause them to look distracted and sloppy?
5. Depth Up the Middle of the Defense
The Gators’ one weakness defensively in 2018 was stopping the run, as they allowed 162.5 yards per game, just 10th in the SEC. To improve that statistic in 2019, they need to develop quality depth at defensive tackle and linebacker. Tedarrell Slaton and Elijah Conliffe started the first two games last season. In those games, the Gators gave up 262.5 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards-per-carry. They need to do a much better job of keeping the linebackers clean when they’re on the field this season. At linebacker, there’s zero proven depth behind David Reese and Amari Burney. Can James Houston, Ventrell Miller and Ty’Ron Hopper step up?
Five Position Battles
1. Wide Receiver
This is arguably the deepest position on the team, so the competition isn’t as much about who will play as it is how much. Van Jefferson led the Gators in catches (35), yards (503) and touchdowns (six) in 2018. He’s as dependable as they come, and he should be locked in to one of the starting spots on the outside. That leaves Tyrie Cleveland and Trevon Grimes to battle it out for the other starting outside spot. Cleveland started 12 games last season, but he caught just 18 passes for 212 yards and three scores. He suffered a broken collarbone against Florida State. Grimes took advantage of Cleveland’s absence and caught five passes for 118 yards and a score against the Seminoles. Grimes continued to emerge in the spring, and his combination of height, physicality and speed makes him perhaps UF’s most dangerous receiver. Josh Hammond started all 13 games in the slot, but he’ll be pushed by Freddie Swain and Kadarius Toney, who many are expecting to have a breakout year now that he looks more polished as a receiver. Then there’s Jacob Copeland and Kyle Pitts, who will enter fall camp low on the depth chart but are probably too athletic to keep on the bench for long.
2. Third Corner
CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson are firmly entrenched as the starting corners, but the depth behind them all but disintegrated over the summer. Freshman early-enrollee Chris Steele transferred to USC shortly after the spring game, and after being arrested earlier in the summer, Brian Edwards announced his intent to transfer in early July. That leaves C.J. McWilliams as the de facto third corner entering fall camp given that he’s the only other outside corner on the roster with game experience. McWilliams, a redshirt junior, has struggled in coverage throughout his career and isn’t exactly a fan favorite. For the Gators’ secondary to live up to its stingy reputation this season, they probably need at least one freshman to step up right away. The competition between Kaiir Elam, Chester Kimbrough, Jaydon Hill and McWilliams could be very important. If the coaches don’t feel great about any of their options, don’t be surprised if nickelback Trey Dean gets moved back outside at some point, which would create depth issues at nickel. The Gators need somebody to take the third corner spot and run with it.
3. Backup Quarterback
For the first time since 2014, the only competition the Gators will have at quarterback in the preseason is for the backup job. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones were locked in a tight battle at the end of the spring, and each brings vastly different things to the table. Trask, a redshirt junior, is a veteran who knows what he’s doing, delivers an accurate ball and avoids costly mistakes. But, he isn’t a great athlete, and he’s attempted only 22 passes in his career. He’s the low risk, low reward option. Jones, a redshirt freshman, is a great athlete with a strong arm, but he’s still working on his accuracy and throwing mechanics. He’s the future at the position, potentially as soon as next season. He’s a higher risk, higher reward option than Trask, and his skillset fits Dan Mullen’s offense better. Does Mullen go with the safer player or the one he most needs to develop for the future?
4. Backup Running Back
Mullen likes to rotate multiple running backs, but, last year, the second-leading rusher, Jordan Scarlett, carried the ball 131 times. The No. 3 back, Dameon Pierce, received just 69 carries. So, if that proportion holds true again this season, the battle for the No. 2 role will be very important. Pierce gained 424 yards and two touchdowns on those 69 carries. He’s a physical, downhill runner, but he seemed to lack vision and patience at times. Rather than waiting for the hole to open up, he tried to just run everybody over. Although that worked at times, you’d like to see him become more than a one-trick pony. His top competitor, Malik Davis, is coming off his second season-ending injury in as many years. When healthy, he’s an explosive runner who’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball from anywhere on the field. Davis led the Gators with 79 carries for 526 yards in 2017 until his injury. He should also be a weapon in the passing game. Davis’ elusive, sideline-to-sideline running complements Lamical Perine’s physical, between-the-tackles style. This battle should come down to how fast Davis shakes off the rust from his injury and how much Pierce has improved as a receiver and pass-blocker.
These are the only starting positions on UF’s defense that remain unsettled entering the fall. All four contenders – Brad Stewart, Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis and Jeawon Taylor – saw time with the first-string defense in the spring. Stewart was the Gators’ most consistent safety last season, recording 41 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. While not a lock, he should be one of the starters. Stiner started 12 games in 2018, made two interceptions and clinched a huge win at Mississippi State with a bone-jarring sack on fourth down. While he made some big plays, he struggled some in the running game, as he took some poor angles and missed some tackles. He needs to be more consistent because Davis and Taylor will be nipping at his heels. Davis missed the first month of the season with an injury but started to come on strong down the stretch. He’s the exact opposite of Stiner; he excels against the run but gets lost in coverage at times. Taylor is probably the most talented of the three, but he’s been injury-plagued throughout his career. He started five games in 2018 and finished fourth on the team with 64 tackles. He made eight tackles against Michigan in the Peach Bowl.