After back-to-back 10-win seasons and New Year’s Six bowl wins, the No. 5 Gators look to take the next step into national championship contention in 2020. That journey begins Saturday with a noon date at Ole Miss.
For this return to football to be a joyous occasion, Florida will have to contend with the uncertainties caused by a new coaching staff at Ole Miss and slow down the Rebels’ explosive offensive playmakers.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness and three players to watch for from the Rebels.
Three Positions of Strength
Sophomore Jerrion Ealy rushed for 722 yards and six touchdowns on 104 carries (6.9 yards per carry) last year. He’s undersized at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds but is an explosive runner who can make defenders miss in space. True freshman Henry Parrish, a former four-star recruit who’s more of a physical downhill runner, is listed as a co-starter with Ealy on the depth chart. Sophomore Snoop Conner (81 carries, 512 yards in 2019) and junior Tylan Knight (7 carries, 38 yards) will provide depth. The Rebels figure to lean heavily on the running game once again on Saturday as they try to sort out their quarterback situation.
This was one of the SEC’s best offensive lines last season. They paved the way for 251.3 rushing yards per game, second in the conference, and surrendered just 21 sacks, sixth-fewest in the league. They return two starters in center Ben Brown and right tackle Royce Newman. They’re a physically imposing unit, as all five projected starters are at least 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds. Experience is a bit of a concern, as they’re scheduled to start two redshirt freshmen, and there are five more freshmen listed on the three-deep. Still, running the ball is the strength of Ole Miss’ offense, and the offensive line figures to put up some impressive rushing statistics again this season.
UF offensive coordinator Brian Johnson referred to their linebackers as the heart and soul of their defense. They return their top-2 tacklers from 2019 in juniors Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones. Henry led the way with 87 stops, while Jones contributed 71 with two sacks and two forced fumbles. Junior MoMo Sanogo is the top backup. He started every game in 2018 and finished fifth in the league with 112 tackles. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the second game of 2019 and is trying to work his way back into the mix. Ole Miss’ defense wasn’t very impressive statistically last season, but their linebacking corps in one of the most accomplished and experienced units on the team.
Three Positions of Weakness
Junior slot receiver Elijah Moore led them with 67 receptions for 850 yards and six scores. The next closest wide receiver, senior Dontario Drummond, caught 13 passes for 188 yards. By comparison, those 13 receptions would’ve ranked seventh among wide receivers at Florida last season. They’ll be relying on the same group of players that underperformed last year. Combine this position’s lack of production with the uncertainty at quarterback, and the passing game could have a hard time getting anything going against one of the best secondaries in the SEC.
The Rebels finished last in the league in passing defense in 2019 at 278.3 yards per game. They also contributed toward the Rebels ranking next-to-last in red zone defense. They will be young and undersized this season. Starting cornerback Jakorey Hawkins is 5-foot-11, as are strong safety Jaylon Jones and STAR Daylen Gill. True freshman three-star prospect A.J. Finley is listed as a co-starter at free safety. The Gators were the third-ranked passing offense in the conference last season, and they should get off to a quick start this season against the Rebels’ secondary.
Ole Miss was abysmal on special teams last season, ranking last in field goal percentage, next-to-last in net punting average and 12th in punt return average. Senior Luke Logan returns after making just 11 of 19 field goals and missing three extra points a year ago, including the infamous one that cost them a chance at overtime against Mississippi State. They’ve had less time than usual to work on special teams this offseason, so this remains a giant weakness for them.
Three Players to Watch
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee
The sophomore started the final eight games last season and set a new school record for a freshman with 1,023 rushing yards. He’s perhaps the best running quarterback in the country, and mobile quarterbacks have given UF some trouble under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. UF coach Dan Mullen said Plumlee is faster than everyone on his team, so finding a way to contain him is priority No. 1 when he’s in the game. Ole Miss has yet to name a starter between Plumlee and Matt Corral, but coach Lane Kiffin said he expects both guys to play,
Wide Receiver Elijah Moore
He’s best known for his dog urination celebration against Mississippi State last year, but he’s also the only Rebels receiver with any kind of track record of success. He’s a small, shifty playmaker that the Gators will need to keep track of at all times. UF listed the embattled C.J. McWilliams as the starter at STAR on its depth chart, so covering Moore could be a challenge.
BUCK Sam Williams
The senior was the Rebels’ top defensive playmaker last season, leading the way with six sacks and finishing second with 9.5 tackles-for-loss. He also intercepted a pass and forced a fumble. Ole Miss will move him around to create mismatches similar to the way the Gators use their BUCKs. Florida’s offensive line woes last season have been well-documented, so tackles Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance will have to step up their games against him.