FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
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Florida football players have returned to campus for voluntary workouts, and optimism abounds that the 2020 Gators football season will begin as scheduled on Sept. 5 against Eastern Washington. So, with the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel in sight, it’s time to look ahead at who the key performers will be for the Gators this season.
Here’s how it goes: the 20 most valuable returning players with considerable game experience and the 20 most valuable players who have either never played for the Gators or haven’t contributed significantly. Keep in mind that this is a list of the most important players, not necessarily the best players. Florida’s depth and skill-level at certain positions makes some players more valuable than others.
This is a 10-part series that will take a look at two returning players and two unproven players each time. We continue today with players 15-16 on each of our two lists.
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 16-ZACHARY CARTER
- Position: Defensive end
- Class: Redshirt junior
- Size: 6-foot-4, 263 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Hillsborough (Tampa, Florida)
Why He’s Important: Carter is the heir apparent at strongside defensive end. He’s an athletic freak who’s increased his strength immensely under Director of Strength and Conditioning Nick Savage. He tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks last season. The biggest thing that’s held him back so far in his career is experienced depth ahead of him. That will not be the case this season. The only other true strongside end on the roster is freshman Princely Umanmielen. So, the Gators need the predictions of a monster breakout year for Carter to come true and for him to stay healthy.
Questions to be Answered: It’s one thing to be physically gifted, but it’s another thing to be a good defensive end. So far, Carter has done little that would suggest he belongs in the latter category. The hype surrounding him this offseason is mostly founded on speculation and opportunity. Can Carter put his enormous skillset together and become a star player on the Gators’ defense? Though this is his fourth year in the program, he only has one season of significant experience under his belt. Is he ready to take on the physical grind of playing in the SEC for an entire season? While the Gators are thin at strongside defensive end, they are loaded at BUCK. Can Carter slide inside on passing downs to allow them to play two BUCKs at the same time?
Projection: A good adage to follow is that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. That will be the case with Carter this season. He’ll improve on last season’s statistics but will fall a bit short of the lofty expectations bestowed upon him by fans. Expect him to record six sacks and 11 or 12 tackles-for-loss. He’ll have a huge decision to make with regards to the NFL Draft after this season.
No. 15-BRAD STEWART
- Position: Safety
- Class: Senior
- Size: 6-foot, 200 pounds
- High School/Hometown: McDonogh (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Why He’s Important: The Gators’ safety play regressed majorly last season, and Stewart’s struggles were a large part of that. He sealed the Gators’ defeat of LSU in 2018 with an iconic pick-six of Joe Burrow, and he was as dependable as they come against the run. He entered 2019 as a potential All-SEC candidate. That never came close to becoming a reality. He started just four games and made only 28 tackles. He had poor games in coverage against Kentucky and Georgia, and, like the rest of the safeties, he seemed lost at times. He is by far the Gators’ most well-rounded safety, and they need him to play like it this season. He needs to be the leader of the secondary.
Questions to be Answered: Stewart’s biggest problems have always come from between his ears. He was suspended for the first two games of 2019 and the Georgia game in 2018. He never seemed to find a rhythm or regain the coaches’ trust after his latest indiscretion. Can he stay out of his own way and play up to his potential this season? If he does, how will that impact Florida’s defense?
Projection: This will be a rebound season for Stewart. He’s too talented to be non-factor like he was in 2019. He’ll start every game at strong safety as long as he’s healthy and stays out of trouble. He’ll make 50 tackles and three interceptions. Most significantly, he’ll be an upgrade in run-support and will help the safeties cut down on the number of frustrating and sloppy mistakes that they made last season.
20 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 16-GERVON DEXTER
- Position: Defensive tackle
- Class: Freshman
- Size: 6-foot-6, 294 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Lake Wales (Lake Wales, Florida)
Why He’s Important: Anytime you can add a freakishly large 300-pounder who can move to your interior defensive line, it’s a good thing. Dexter recorded an astounding 125 tackles, 35 tackles-for-loss and 18 sacks as a senior at the 5A level. Despite his massive size, he moves well and has a quick burst off of the ball. His length helps him shed blockers quickly. He’ll start off his college career playing tackle, but his future is probably as a strongside defensive end on early downs and tackle on passing downs. There’s almost zero proven depth at tackle for the Gators this season, so the five-star prospect will have a chance to contribute immediately.
Questions to be Answered: While Dexter is an enormously gifted athlete, he’s still a bit raw when it comes to playing defensive tackle. He was primarily a basketball player until he started focusing heavily on football as a sophomore. As a result, during the recruiting cycle, some scouts thought he could’ve played with better technique and a more consistent motor. How much progress will he make this season on playing with better form and technique instead of trying to overpower everyone? Tedarrell Slaton will start the season as the starter at the three-technique tackle position, but he’s been very uneven throughout his career. If Slaton falters, could Dexter be a starter by the end of the season?
Projection: Dexter will play exactly like you would expect a talented but raw defensive lineman to play. He’ll wreak havoc and make overmatched offensive linemen look silly by launching them into the backfield, but he’ll also have some moments where the better offensive lines on the schedule take advantage of his inexperience and push him around. He’ll show that the five-star ranking was no mistake and start to play at a more consistent level toward the end of the season. He’ll enter 2021 as a breakout candidate.
No. 15-JAYDON HILL
- Position: Cornerback
- Class: Sophomore
- Size: 6-foot, 175 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Bob Jones (Huntsville, Alabama)
Why He’s Important: With the Gators a bit thin in the secondary, Hill could factor in at either corner or nickel this season. As a high school junior in Alabama’s highest classification, he was named first-team All-State after notching 26 pass breakups and five interceptions. As a freshman at Florida last season, he played in 10 games, mostly on special teams. When given the opportunity to play on defense during garbage time, he fared well, breaking up a pair of passes against Towson. With CJ Henderson off to the NFL and Trey Dean possibly moving to safety, Hill might have a chance to earn more substantial snaps this season.
Questions to be Answered: There are usually two ways to be successful as a cornerback: be faster than everybody you’re covering or be more physical than them. Unfortunately for Hill, he’s somewhere in between. He only has good speed, and he’s undersized. Does he have the skillset to succeed at the SEC level, or will his physical limitations prove to be his downfall? His weight is a bit concerning. Ideally, they’d probably like to put 20-25 pounds on him, especially if he’s going to play at nickel some. How much strength has he put on this offseason, and will it be sufficient? The depth chart also could work against him. Marco Wilson, Kaiir Elam and Dean (if he stays at corner) will begin the season ahead of him. Highly regarded 2020 signees Jahari Rogers and Ethan Pouncey will be nipping at his heels. Can Hill defeat the competition and earn a major role on defense this season?
Projection: As he did in 2019, Hill will play a role on special teams. He’ll begin the season as the third outside corner but will lose the spot to Rogers by midseason. However, he’ll play well enough in the opportunities he receives to set himself up for a larger role in 2021.