20/20 for 2020: Pierce to be a workhorse?

Jul 9, 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 5-6 on each of our two lists.

20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS

No. 6-MARCO WILSON

  • Position: Cornerback
  • Class: Redshirt junior
  • Size: 6-foot, 190 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: American Heritage (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

Why He’s Important: With Kaiir Elam regarded as one of the nation’s top cornerbacks entering this season, opposing quarterbacks will likely be a bit hesitant to throw his way. That should create plenty of opportunities for Wilson to make plays on the other side of the field. Wilson has started all 26 games that he’s been healthy for in his career, and that streak should continue this season. He led the Gators with 10 pass breakups in 2017. In 2019, he recorded the first three interceptions of his career and broke up two other passes. While not the fastest cornerback on the team, he’s physical and plays with great technique. He moved to STAR for the final four games of 2019 and could see snaps there again this season, but he’ll begin the year as an outside corner.

Questions to be Answered: While Wilson made his first career interceptions, 2019 was a bit of a down year for him. He had some rough games against Kentucky and LSU, and he only broke up two passes throughout the season. Can Wilson bounce back and be the dominant player he was in 2017? He had some major troubles with tackling early in the season, particularly against Miami. He seemed unwilling to put his body on the line following his torn ACL in 2018. Will he be a more willing tackler this year? While he figures to start the season at corner, the Gators still don’t have any proven options at STAR. If things go south at that position again this season, will they move Wilson back to STAR?

Projection: Wilson will start every game at corner and have a big season. He’ll intercept three or four passes and brake up another five or six. He’ll be more consistent as a tackler and avoid the bad games that plagued him in 2019. He’ll have a huge decision to make after the season with regards to the NFL Draft.

No. 5-DAMEON PIERCE

  • Position: Running back
  • Class: Junior
  • Size: 5-foot-10, 207 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Bainbridge (Bainbridge, Georgia)

Why He’s Important: Lamical Perine is now on the New York Jets. After a promising start, Malik Davis has become an injury-prone fumble machine throughout his career. Because of injuries Lorenzo Lingard contributed very little on a pair of bad Miami teams. Nay’Quan Wright redshirted in 2019. Iverson Clement has been used sparingly and was moved to defensive back for a while last year. Dan Mullen likes to use a by-committee approach to the running back position, but he might need Pierce to become the workhorse this season. He finished second on the team with 305 yards and four touchdowns on 54 carries in 2019. He’s a short, stocky back who runs like a bowling bowl. He’s explosive and powerful with enough speed to break off big runs, such as his 75-yard score that turned the tide against South Carolina last season. If the offensive line improves, Pierce will have a chance for a big season.

Questions to be Answered: Pierce should be an upgrade over Perine from a power and speed perspective. However, Perine was much more to the Gators than just a runner, as he finished third on the team with 40 receptions for 262 yards and five touchdowns and did well in pass-protection. So far, Pierce hasn’t been asked do much other than run the ball. Will Pierce help fill Perine’s void as a receiver and blocker? Pierce also doesn’t seem to have the best patience or instincts for the position. He runs into the teeth of the defense and tries to run everybody over too often. Will Pierce get better at reading his blocks and knowing where the cutback lanes are?

Projection: Pierce will be the No. 1 running back, although they’ll continue to rotate two or three backs regularly. He’ll carry the ball around 135 times for 750 yards and seven touchdowns. He’ll add 15-20 catches for 200 yards as a receiver. With Pierce leading the way, UF will finish the season ranked near the middle of the SEC in rushing, which will represent huge progress from 2019.

20 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY

No. 6-TY’RON HOPPER

  • Position: Linebacker
  • Class: Redshirt freshman
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 215 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Roswell (Alpharetta, Georgia)

Why He’s Important: Florida is facing a total rebuild at linebacker, so Hopper will have a chance to get on the field this season. A former high school cornerback, he’s supremely athletic and has excellent coverage skills for a linebacker, which cannot be said for some of the other contenders for playing time at the two linebacker spots. He’s undersized, but that’s not as big of a concern as it used to be given the sideline-to-sideline, finesse league that the SEC has become. He should help the Gators do a better job of containing passes over the middle of the field on third downs, which gave them fits against Georgia and several other teams a year ago.

Questions to be Answered: While Hopper is athletic enough to have a role on the defense this season, his lack of size might keep him from breaking into the starting lineup. How much weight has Hopper put on this offseason, and will it be enough to allow him to be a three-down linebacker? Where he fits into UF’s plans is also in question. He seems to be a better fit at outside linebacker, but his high school coach told ITG in January that the Gators want him to bulk up and eventually play middle linebacker. Which position will Hopper play the most this season?

Projection: Hopper will be the first linebacker off of the bench and will see significant action against the more athletic spread offenses on the schedule, such as LSU and Georgia. He’ll finish the year with around 35 tackles, a sack and an interception. He’ll enter 2021 with an opportunity to win a starting job.

No. 5-DIONTE MARKS

  • Position: Wide receiver
  • Class: Redshirt freshman
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 178 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Deland (Deland, Florida)

Why He’s Important: UF needs some new targets to emerge for Kyle Trask, and Marks could be one of those targets. He’s not tall, but he is a bigger-bodied receiver who also has the quickness to play in the slot. He should open fall camp ahead of fellow redshirt freshmen Ja’Markis Weston and Trent Whittemore on the depth chart. While there are arguably some more talented newcomers such as Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson, the lack of spring practices might benefit Marks in his quest for playing time.

Questions to be Answered: In the brief portions of practice open to the media last fall, Marks was behind the walk-ons in the pecking order. He struggled with drops perhaps more than the other receivers on the JUGS machine. How much progress has Marks made since then? He was only a three-star recruit and was viewed as a long-term project type of player, but the Gators might need to accelerate his development given their lack of proven receiving depth. Is Marks ready to play significant snaps this season?

Projection: Marks will be in the rotation both outside and in the slot. He’ll catch around 10 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown. He’ll progress enough throughout the season that he’ll set himself up for a larger role in 2021.

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