20/10 for 2021: Defensive players lead the way

Aug 20, 2021 | 0 comments


The summer is flying by and the Florida Gators 2021 campaign is approaching quickly. As the players and coaches prepare for their September 4 kickoff against Florida Atlantic, here at Inside the Gators we take stock of the roster to break down our list of “20/10” players for the 2021 season.

It will go like this: the 20 most valuable returning players with considerable game experience and then the 10 most valuable players who have yet to appear for the Gators and/or make a significant contribution in gameplay to this point. These are not necessarily the best players but the most valuable in relation to the team this season.

This is a 10 part series that will take a look at two returning players along with one new player each time. 

20/10 for 2021 Series

20 MOST VALUABLE RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS

No. 2 – VENTRELL MILLER

  • Position: Linebacker
  • Class: Redshirt senior
  • Size: 6-foot-1, 226 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Kathleen (Lakeland, Florida)

Why He’s Important: We went from the actual quarterback at No. 3 to the quarterback of the defense at No. 2. As the starting middle linebacker, he’s one of the biggest proponents in ensuring the Gators are in the right defense. This is Miller’s second year as the Mike linebacker and he’ll be leaned on to fly around and make plays from the position. And he can do that. NFL scouts noted his great ability to operate sideline to sideline. He also does well as a straight or delayed blitzer. He led the Gators in tackles in 2020 with 88 and is a threat to lay the wood when he gets going. This linebacking corps, including both inside and outside, is one of the most experienced position groups on this Gator team. But he, especially, sets the tone for the entire defense.


Questions to be Answered: Can he make a difference in pass coverage? The Gators need the inside linebackers to have more of a presence when it comes to the passing game whether it’s sitting back in zone or taking on pass catchers in man. Miller isn’t a complete liability here but there is some room for improvement. Closing off the middle of the field as a linebacker limits where the ball can go and buys more time for the pass rush. Miller doesn’t have to make these crazy athletic plays. He just needs to be in the right position or have some more fluidity of movement to where teams can’t key on him. Guys in the NFL made their money, both figuratively and literally, by having some kind of presence in the passing game. Secondly, can he in his second year as the middle linebacker prevent or mitigate any of the alignment problems Florida suffered from last year? Miller has the ability to do things Todd Grantham can’t because he’s actually out on the field. Making sure everyone’s in the right alignment and in the right play comes with being a leader on defense. It’s his second year as the mike backer so that trait can only improve.

Projection: Someone must think Ventrell Miller brings immense value to this Gator defense due to the preseason Second Team All-SEC and his second straight Butkus Award watchlist nods he received. He’s one of several Florida defenders who stands to make some money with a good 2021 showcasing potential as a pro. Miller showed how well he can do as the mike last year in his first year in the role. With a season of experience and an offseason at the position, he can only go up from here. Look for him to live up to that preseason designation and make plays for Florida on a weekly basis.

No. 1 – KAIIR ELAM

  • Position: Cornerback
  • Class: Junior
  • Size: 6-foot-2, 196 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Benjamin (Riviera Beach, Florida)

Why He’s Important:  He is not just Florida’s best corner but, in my mind, its best player. The third-year corner was a bright spot on a defense that saw dark times in 2020. Now, that defense is seeking redemption with Elam still on the outside. Without Elam, the Gator secondary likely would be in store for a trying year against opponents. He’s the undisputed CB1 on this roster and if the Gators lose him then it’ll be all hands on deck considering he’s the most experienced corner. Kaiir Elam essentially wipes one side of the field off the board for opposing teams because they know what they will get from Elam with each matchup. Additionally, he’ll be needed to lead a particularly young secondary alongside Trey Dean especially with Jaydon Hill out for the year with an ACL injury.

Questions to be Answered: How many opportunities will he have to make plays? A guy like Elam will definitely make plays when given the chance but it’s a matter of how many. It depends on how often teams decide to test him and what kind of positioning he has. Elam said before he does well or prefers press coverage. But the Gators didn’t run press all of the time last season. Another question is how can his play or leadership help affect good play in a young secondary? It starts with him and Trey Dean. I’m not saying Elam isn’t a leader but more how can his leadership make the other guys better. Because they’ll be targeted more than he will. Additionally, like most defenders last season, Elam was susceptible to some missed tackles in space or getting beat deep but sometimes that’ll happen in football. And just like the others, he’ll look to clean that up as the team vies for another appearance in Atlanta and he vies for that along with some big bucks this year.

Projection: Elam is Florida’s biggest bet to be a first-round selection in the NFL Draft come April 2022. Despite the defense’s struggles, he still earned First Team All-SEC from the coaches and Second Team by the AP along with being a Thorpe Semifinalist in 2020. There’s no reason to believe he can’t recreate those same accomplishments or better this season. He’s already on the Jim Thorpe watchlist and already made preseason First Team All-SEC plus some preseason All-America lists. Pro Football Focus has him among the Top 10 of the SEC’s 2022 draft prospects and stated the only thing left to see out of him is more high-level play. Expect to see that from Kaiir Elam.

10 MOST VALUABLE NEWCOMERS/NON-CONTRIBUTORS

No. 1 – DIWUN BLACK

  • Position: Athlete
  • Class: Junior
  • Size: 6-foot-3, 228 pounds
  • High School/Hometown: Forest/Osceola/Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (Forest, Mississippi)

Why He’s Important: Gator fans waited for this guy to get on campus since he signed with Florida out of high school. Now, after two years, he’s finally here. His versatility is what makes him important. Like most people say, he has the build and athleticism to play both as a linebacker and in the secondary as a safety. This can make him a Swiss Army Knife of sorts much like how fans wanted Amari Burney to be. It definitely makes Black a contender to be a rotational piece in the STAR role, a position Florida’s looked for players to fill exceptionally since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson left after the 2018 season.

Questions to be Answered: Is he ready to play and how quickly can he make the adjustment when the bullets start flying? Those questions probably would’ve been asked if he came to Florida straight out of high school too. Not only is Black playing football for the first time since the 2019 season, but this is also only his second year playing it beyond the high school level. There’s great competition in the Mississippi junior college system and plenty of guys moved on to SEC or Division I/Power Five programs out of it. But there will be the question of whether a guy’s ready until he shows it.

Projection: The fact that Black has some versatility brings into question where a majority of his snaps will be. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him rotate at linebacker when needed then maybe move out to STAR at times if the Gators want to go big in nickel or dime packages in order to match personnel. He’s stayed committed to the Gators since he went to junior college out of high school and will be happy to contribute for them in any possible role. Either way, Florida is going to get Black on the field.

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