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 finish today with the top two players on each of our lists.
20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS
No. 2-RICHARD GOURAIGE
- Position: Offensive lineman
- Class: Redshirt sophomore
- Size: 6-foot-4, 298 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Cambridge Christian (Tampa, Florida)
Why He’s Important: After starting five games at left guard last season, Gouraige might be tasked with protecting Kyle Trask’s blindside this season at left tackle. A former top-100 recruit, he is highly athletic and played both ways in high school. He arrived at UF undersized but should be physically ready to handle the demands of playing an entire SEC season now. He should be an upgrade in pass-protection at left tackle, and his ascension would allow Stone Forsythe to move to right tackle, a spot that fits him better and was arguably the weakest spot on a weak line in 2019. Or, if the interior of the line falters, he could move back inside. He’s the most important piece on the most critical position for the Gators. His progress will go a long way toward determining how much the offensive line improves.
Questions to be Answered: While Gouraige is young and promising, relying on a guy with five career starts to protect your All-SEC quarterback is a risky proposition. Will he play like a solid SEC tackle or an inexperienced player still trying to get his feet wet? Also, without spring practices, is there a chance that the coaches stick with what’s familiar to them and keep Forsythe at left tackle? Like just about every other lineman on the team, he experienced his fair share of struggles with run-blocking last season. Can he improve in that area this season?
Projection: Gouraige will be the starting left tackle, and Forsythe will flip to the right side to provide upgrades at both positions. Gouraige will fare well in his first year as a full-time starter and help UF finish near the middle of the SEC in rushing and reduce the number of hard hits that the quarterbacks take.
No. 1-KAIIR ELAM
- Position: Cornerback
- Class: Sophomore
- Size: 6-foot-2, 187 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Benjamin (Riviera Beach, Florida)
Why He’s Important: Every elite defense needs a cornerback that can take the other team’s best receiver out of the game. Elam should be that guy for Florida. He’s a long and physical player with decent speed who excels at press coverage and has good ball skills, as evidenced by his game-sealing interception in the Orange Bowl. He started five games in 2019, tied for second on the team with four passes defended and intercepted three passes. Various preseason magazines have named him preseason All-SEC and as one of the top corners in the country. If those predictions come true, he’ll take away one part of the field and allow defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to call his full arsenal of creative blitzes.
Questions to be Answered: As a freshman last year, Elam was able to fly under the radar a bit, which contributed at least a little to his success. This year, he’ll be the guy that offensive coordinators study extensively and scheme up ways to beat. Will Elam continue to perform at an elite level now that there’s a target on his back? How Grantham uses him will be interesting to watch. It doesn’t appear that he likes to move his best corner around the field to match up with the opposition’s best receiver, instead they line up at the field or boundary positions. However, will he change his approach this season and allow Elam to shadow players like Ja’Marr Chase from LSU and George Pickens from Georgia? If so, how will Elam hold up against the nation’s elite receivers?
Projection: Elam will live up to the preseason hype and become a star this season. He’ll lock down most of the receivers he faces and do a better job against Chase than anybody else LSU will face. He’ll intercept three passes and brake up another eight. He’ll enter the 2021 season as a preseason All-American and sure-fire first-round draft pick.
20 MOST VALUABLE WHO HAVE YET TO CONTRIBUTE SIGNIFICANTLY
No. 2-BRENTON COX
- Position: BUCK
- Class: Redshirt sophomore
- Size: 6-foot-4, 247 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Stockbridge (Stockbridge, Georgia)
Why He’s Important: Despite losing Jonathan Greenard’s 9.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles-for-loss, Florida should be in good hands at BUCK with Cox, a transfer from Georgia. The former five-star prospect has everything you want in a pass-rusher: size, speed, strength, physicality and explosiveness. He played in 13 games for the Bulldogs as a more traditional outside linebacker in 2018, making 20 tackles and breaking up three passes. He’ll primarily play BUCK at UF. Grantham turned Greenard and Jachai Polite into stars in his first two years at Florida, and Cox is more talented than both of them. Cox should continue the trend this season.
Questions to be Answered: While Cox has the measurables to star with the Gators, SEC programs like Georgia don’t just let a five-star recruit walk out of the door unless there’s an issue. Depending on who you ask, his arrest for marijuana possession might’ve played a role in his departure. On the field, he was reportedly passed on the Bulldogs’ depth chart by several players last spring. Can Cox turn his career around at Florida? For as special as Greenard’s pass-rushing skills were, what made him valuable to the defense was his ability to set the edge and be a key cog in the run defense. Can Cox pick up where Greenard left off in that regard? Because of his size, Cox could also move to strongside defensive end on passing downs to allow the Gators to get more pass-rushers on the field. Will Grantham use him in this way, or is he strictly a BUCK?
Projection: Cox will come out on top of Mohamoud Diabate and Jeremiah Moon for the starting job in preseason camp, and he’ll turn in another quality season for UF at the position. The Gators will take advantage of their pass-rushing depth more this season, so Cox won’t quite put up the statistics that Greenard and Polite did the last two years. He’ll record seven or eight sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss and be named to an All-SEC team following the season.
No. 1-STEWART REESE
- Position: Offensive lineman
- Class: Redshirt senior
- Size: 6-foot-5, 345 pounds
- High School/Hometown: Fort Pierce Central (Fort Pierce, Florida)
Why He’s Important: A Mississippi State transfer, Reese should immediately be the Gators’ best offensive lineman. He started 34 games for the Bulldogs and helped pave the way for rushing attacks that ranked second, second and third in the SEC in yards-per-game. He’s a physically impressive and aggressive player who has the flexibility to play right tackle or either guard spot. He played under Dan Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy for two years at Mississippi State and played in a similar system the past two years, so his late arrival to the Gators and the lack of offseason workouts shouldn’t hurt him that much. He gives Florida a legitimate All-SEC-caliber lineman, something they desperately needed.
Questions to be Answered: The biggest question with Reese is where he’s going to play. He started the first 26 games of his career at right tackle but moved to right guard for eight starts last season. UF has a glaring need at both spots. Will Reese play right tackle or one of the guard spots at Florida? While he’s known as an elite run-blocker, his pass-protection skills are still a bit of an unknown, as the Bulldogs’ offense featured a lot of running plays and short passes that didn’t require linemen to block for long the past two seasons. How will he hold up in pass-protection in a more pass-happy offense at UF?
Projection: The Gators have a bit more depth at tackle than guard, so Reese will start the year at right guard. He’ll also play some snaps at right tackle and maybe even start a game there if injuries occur. He’ll play well and become the first Gator interior lineman to be named All-SEC since Martez Ivey in 2016.