20/20 for 2020: Copeland to the forefront

Jun 25, 2020 | 0 comments


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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 13-14 on each of our two lists.

20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS

No. 14-JACOB COPELAND

  • Position: Wide Receiver
  • Class: Redshirt sophomore
  • Size: 6-foot, 192 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Escambia (Pensacola, Florida)

Why He’s Important: With little production returning at receiver, the Gators need Copeland to tap into his enormous potential and break out this season. His career statistics show just 22 receptions for 289 yards and two scores. He’ll probably need to at least double those numbers for the Gators’ offense to be successful this season. The former top-70 recruit drew comparisons to Gator Great Percy Harvin when he arrived at Florida for his rare combination of elite speed, strength and versatility. Instead, he played a minor supporting role behind a group of veteran receivers the past two seasons. He can play both outside and in the slot, which will allow Dan Mullen to move him around and create favorable matchups against linebackers and safeties like he did with Freddie Swain in 2019. He’s also a candidate to return kickoffs.

Questions to be Answered: After Copeland’s big game against South Carolina (three catches for 89 yards and a touchdown), Mullen said that the reason he hadn’t been playing as much was because he didn’t always know what to do on the plays where he didn’t get the ball. That’s concerning for a receiver in his second year in a system; he should’ve known the playbook by then. Will Copeland have a better mastery of the playbook this season? This season should also tell us what kind of player he’s going to be. Will he be a game-breaking receiver who can also take handoffs and direct snaps like Harvin, or will he a gadget player trying to play receiver like Kadarius Toney?

Projection: Mullen’s offense isn’t conducive to anyone receiver putting up gigantic numbers, but Copeland should still enjoy a nice year statistically. He’ll haul in about 40 passes for 600 yards and five touchdowns and add about 100 more yards on the ground. He’ll also serve as the primary kickoff returner and will perform well in that role. He’ll enter 2021 as the Gators’ No. 1 receiver.

No. 13-KYREE CAMPBELL

  • Position: Defensive tackle
  • Class: Senior
  • Size: 6-foot-3, 304 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Woodbridge (Woodbridge, Virginia)

Why He’s Important: Campbell will be the veteran anchor of a mostly inexperienced defensive line. He’s started the Gators’ last 24 games, the longest streak on the team. While not the biggest or strongest nose tackle in the SEC, he played a huge role in UF ranking eighth in the country in rushing defense in 2019 at 102.8 yards-per-game. He selfishly eats up double teams and frees up the linebackers to make the flashy plays. With three new starting linemen and at least one new starting linebacker around him, he’ll have even more on his plate this season from both a physical standpoint and a leadership standpoint.

Questions to be Answered: Campbell is as consistent as they come, so it’s hard to find much fault in him. If there’s one weakness to his game, it’s that he hasn’t made a lot of impact plays. He’s tallied just nine tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. With all of the newness around him, will the Gators need him to make more impact plays this season, and, if so, is he capable of doing so? Also, with the plethora of pass-rushing options UF has this season, might Campbell see his playing time cut on passing downs?

Projection: Campbell will be one of Florida’s unsung heroes again this season. He’ll start every game, barring injury, and quietly help the Gators rank among the nation’s top rushing defenses again. He’ll record a sack and six tackles-for-loss to wrap up his college career.

20 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY

No. 14-KEON ZIPPERER

  • Position: Tight end
  • Class: Sophomore
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 232 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Lakeland (Lakeland, Florida)

Why He’s Important: Mullen likes to use multiple tight end sets to make the defense defend the whole field and create mismatches. The Gators have a bona fide star in Kyle Pitts, but they need a second tight end to emerge to keep defenses from double-teaming him. Zipperer figures to be the leading candidate for that role. As the No. 2 ranked tight end in the 2019 class, he has the speed and strength to be a weapon in the passing game. He might even have a higher ceiling as a blocker than Pitts. Plus, this will almost certainly be Pitts’ final year in college, so UF needs to find out whether they can build around Zipperer going forward.

Questions to be Answered: The biggest concern with Zipperer is his lack of length, as he’s about the same height as the average wide receiver. As a result, he won’t have a huge size advantage against defensive backs like a lot of other tight ends do, and blocking defensive ends with four or more inches on him could be challenging. Can Zipperer overcome his lack of height to be an effective tight end in the SEC? Where he stands on the depth chart is also uncertain. A lot of people assumed he would enter the spring as the No. 2 tight end, but an anonymous former player told ITG that redshirt junior Kemore Gamble has gotten along well with new position coach Tim Brewster and could receive more snaps this season. Can Zipperer beat him out for the backup job?

Projection: Zipperer will rotate with Gamble as the second tight end to start the season before claiming the job midway through the campaign. Whereas Pitts is used as a “move” tight end who lines up wide more than he lines up on the line, Zipperer will play closer to the line as an in-line tight end and H-back. He’ll catch around 20 passes for 250 yards and a couple of scores and be the Gators’ best blocking tight end.

No. 13-MOHAMOUD DIABATE

  • Position: BUCK
  • Class: Sophomore
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 213 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Auburn (Auburn, Alabama)

Why He’s Important: While Diabate recorded 4.5 sacks in 2019, three of them came against Vanderbilt in a game that got out of hand early in the third quarter, so he’s still eligible for this list. Diabate is an excellent speed-rusher who’s still working on his pass-rush moves and adding bulk to become a more complete player. If he does so successfully, he has a chance to earn the starting job at BUCK. If not, he’ll still be a valuable part of the defense as a situational pass-rusher. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham should have a lot of fun moving him around to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks. He could probably even play a more traditional outside linebacker spot if needed as well.

Questions to be Answered: His smaller stature is the biggest thing holding him back; he’d be on the lighter side for a linebacker let alone a defensive end. He’s a bit of a one-trick pony. When he’s in the game, he’s going to rush around the edge. Can he become a more well-rounded player this season so Grantham doesn’t have to tip his hand when he’s in there? Diabate received playing time by default last season when Jonathan Greenard, Jeremiah Moon and David Reese got injured. Assuming there’s not a similar string of injuries this season, playing time might be harder to come by. Can Diabate find the field enough this season to make a major impact?

Projection: He’ll be third on the depth chart behind Brenton Cox and Moon, but he’ll carve out a consistent role for himself on passing downs. He’ll finish the season with six sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss. He and Cox individually probably won’t put up the statistics that Greenard did last season, but, as a tandem, they could be one of the best pass-rushing duos in the SEC.

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