FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
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 3-4 on each of our two lists.
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 4-KYLE PITTS
- Position: Tight end
- Class: Junior
- Size: 6-foot-6, 239 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Archbishop Wood (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Why He’s Important: Widely regarded as one of the nation’s premier tight ends, Pitts led the Gators with 54 receptions for 649 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. He was named First Team All-SEC by both the coaches and the media and should contend for a brick outside the stadium as a First Team All-American this season. He has a freakish combination of size, strength, speed, route-running skills and catching ability. He’ll line up on the end of the line, in the slot and out wide. Few opposing defenses, if any, will have somebody who’s capable of matching Pitts’ physicality and speed. With the rest of the receiving corps having to be rebuilt, Pitts should be targeted early and often by Kyle Trask.
Questions to be Answered: The biggest chink in Pitts’ armor is that he doesn’t always do a great job of securing the ball. He had a possible touchdown jarred from his arms by a big hit at LSU and nearly had the ball ripped out of his grasp for an interception at Missouri. Can Pitts do a better job of pulling the ball into his body strongly this season? His blocking is also very average. He wasn’t asked to do it a ton, but his poor blocking at times contributed to UF’s struggles in the run game. Will Pitts improve his blocking under new position coach Tim Brewster this season? Despite leading SEC tight ends and ranking near the top nationally in receptions, yards and scores, he was not even named a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award last season. Will he get the national recognition that he deserves this time around?
Projection: It will be another terrific season for Pitts. He’ll lead the team with 50 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns. He’ll show considerable improvement as a blocker, but he won’t produce as many highlight plays as the offense becomes more balanced and defenses put extra defenders on him. He’ll be named an All-American but will fall just short of winning the Mackey Award. He’ll be selected late in the first round in the 2021 NFL Draft.
No. 3-VENTRELL MILLER
- Position: Linebacker
- Class: Redshirt junior
- Size: 6-foot, 222 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Kathleen (Lakeland, Florida)
Why He’s Important: By far the most experienced linebacker, Miller will be asked to step up and be one of the defense’s leaders. He started 11 games in 2019 and is the leading returning tackler with 55 stops. He’ll start at outside linebacker, where he provides good speed and playmaking ability, as evidenced by his two-sack performance against Miami and two tackles-for-loss against Florida State. He was also one of the more sure-tacklers on the team last season. With the linebacker position hitting the reset button without David Reese this season, the Gators need Miller to provide stability.
Questions to be Answered: Miller’s shorter stature plays against him in both coverage and pass-rushing, as he often gives up four or five inches to the person he’s lined up against. Can Miller overcome his lack of ideal size to become an effective outside linebacker? While he has good speed and quickness, the Gators have brought in a pair of supremely athletic linebackers in the past two classes in Ty’Ron Hopper and Derek Wingo. Can Miller hold them off and keep his starting job?
Projection: Miller will start every game at outside linebacker and put up similar statistics as he did a year ago. He’ll finish with around 50 tackles and a couple of sacks. With the young linebackers not being able to go through offseason workouts due to the pandemic, he’ll provide consistency and allow the coaches to focus on how to replace Reese in the middle.
20 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 4-JOSHUA BRAUN
- Position: Offensive lineman
- Class: Freshman
- Size: 6-foot-6, 356 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Suwannee (Suwannee, Florida)
Why He’s Important: It’s not often that a true freshman lineman has a chance to start from day one, but that’s exactly the situation Braun finds himself in. He’s extremely well-developed physically for his age and should be a bruising run-blocker. He also played tennis in high school, which suggests that he has the footwork and agility to become a top-notch pass-protector in time as well. The four-star prospect has the added advantage of having gone through a few bowl practices with the team in December. Jobs are up for grabs on UF’s maligned offensive line, and don’t be surprised if Braun claims one of them sooner rather than later.
Questions to be Answered: He played in a run-heavy offense in high school, and the Gators figure to rely heavily on the passing game again this season. Can Braun’s pass-protection catch up to his run-blocking quickly enough to allow him to be a factor this season? Where he fits in on the line is also in question. He played tackle in high school, and his length and athleticism suggest that he could end up there eventually at Florida. However, he’s better at run-blocking right now and UF has a more pressing need at guard. Which position will Braun play this season and on which side of the line?
Projection: The addition of Stewart Reese via the transfer portal and the elimination of spring practices will keep Braun from breaking into the starting lineup right away, but he’ll still play a crucial role as one of the first linemen off of the bench. He’ll start a game or two at guard when starters get injured, and he’ll play well. He’ll enter 2021 as a starter and breakout candidate.
No. 3-LORENZO LINGARD
- Position: Running back
- Class: Redshirt sophomore
- Size: 6-foot, 200 pounds
- High School/Hometown: University (Orange City, Florida)
Why He’s Important: The Gators need another back to emerge to complement Dameon Pierce, and Lingard has the skills to become that guy. The former five-star recruit is an explosive runner who is more powerful than his stature might suggest. He could be the lightning to Pierce’s thunder. As a freshman at Miami in 2018, he rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries (8 yards-per-carry). He could also be a receiving threat out of the backfield, something UF needs following the departure of Lamical Perine. He’s been granted a waiver to play this season by the NCAA, and he should factor heavily into the Gators’ offensive plans.
Questions to be Answered: Health is a concern with Lingard. He injured his knee in practice and missed the final six games of the 2018 season. He only played in two games in 2019 and didn’t receive a carry despite the Hurricanes struggling mightily on offense. His high school offensive coordinator told ITG in April that he is 100 percent healthy now, but it’ll certainly be different once he’s being hit in games. Will Lingard look like his old, explosive self, or will he look a bit rusty without seeing significant game action in nearly two years? While most expect Lingard to battle for carries as a top reserve, is dethroning Pierce within reach for him? Pierce has never been the go-to running back before, and the jury is still out on how good he is.
Projection: Like last season, the Gators’ backfield will become a two-man show early in the season. This time, it’ll be Pierce and Lingard. As the top backup, Lingard will carry the ball around 80 times for 450 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll also add another score or two as a receiver. He’ll play more like the five-star prospect he was in high school than the enigma he was at Miami.