Before beginning the second half of the 2021 football season, we take a closer look at the state of the unranked Florida Gators by assigning these mid-season superlatives.
MVP offense: This is a difficult award to hand out because the production of every unit, even quarterback, has been split amongst multiple players. Most fittingly would be to could give this award to the entire offensive line to share, but instead, I’ll highlight Dameon Pierce. The senior running back has been the best skill position player for Florida this season with a team-high 10 touchdowns. He only has 426 yards from scrimmage, but he’s averaging over seven yards a play. If Pierce had more than just 60 touches, he would be garnering All-SEC buzz.
MVP defense: Ideally, both Kaiir Elam and Ventrell Miller would’ve been the top candidates for this spot, but they’ve both dealt with injuries, leaving Zach Carter as the best option. Carter’s taken the next step since coming back for another season, leading the SEC in sacks. He’s also far and away Florida’s leader in tackles for loss with 8.5. His impact wasn’t really felt against LSU, but that feels more like an outlier in what was a disaster for the entire defense.
Most likely to turn it around down the stretch: If Dan Mullen pulls the trigger and starts Anthony Richardson at quarterback, Jacob Copeland could really take off during these last six games. The senior wideout has been somewhat disappointing this year, but his best performances (USF, LSU) both came courtesy of Richardson’s quarterback play. Copeland’s deep threat ability has been better utilized when Richardson is in the game and I expect his numbers to have a noticeable uptick the rest of the way, hopefully enough to get his name on draft boards come spring.
Underrated offense: Offensive linemen in general rarely get the credit they deserve, largely due to the collective nature of the position, so while Ethan White and Kingsley Eguakan among others should perhaps get the nod here, instead I’ll go with tight end Kemore Gamble. He isn’t Kyle Pitts as a receiving threat, but that was never the expectation for him. Gamble has 14 catches for 138 yards and has been a reliable target this season. More than that, he’s been a great run blocker on the edge, an under-appreciated aspect of Florida’s rushing success this season.
Underrated defense: Despite issues with the unit as a whole, Trey Dean has had a strong season to date. He’s an unquestioned leader for a young secondary and has been strong in coverage. His instincts are great and he has a career-high six pass breakups and an interception. Dean also has a career-high in total tackles with 46.
Emerging: The obvious answer is Richardson, especially as he (hopefully) gets more playing time, but instead, I’ll go defense and pick linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper. There have been issues defensively recently and the redshirt sophomore Hopper is becoming more integral to the defensive plan in favor of guys like Amari Burney. Hopper is already fifth on the team in total tackles with 32 and that number should continue to rise down this final stretch.
Declining: For all the hoopla surrounding his transfer to Florida, Stewart Reese might be the weakest link along the offensive line. He’s split playing time with redshirt freshman Josh Bruan at right guard and the super-senior is probably lesser of the two. With this season turning into a developmental one, dropping veterans for key players moving forward would be the smart move, especially when Braun is arguably better than Reese right now (though that might be moot if White’s injury is significant).
Most Surprising: There have been plenty of good surprises for the Gators this year, including the improvement of Jean DeLance and the strength of the run game in general, but instead let’s look at one of the most senior players on the roster, Jeremiah Moon. The Alabama native has been in Gainesville since 2016. After coming back from last year’s season-ending injury, Moon has been better than ever, now starting as an inside linebacker. It might’ve been easy to expect a player of his quality and experience to make an impact this season, but to see him thrive in a new position so late in his college career has been a pleasant surprise.
Most Disappointing: This is an obvious one and maybe a harsh one, but I can’t help but be disappointed by Emory Jones. Let’s give him his due, he leads the team in rushing, is completing over 67% of his passes, and has improved from week one. But for all of those strengths, the turnovers and general lack of dynamism have been incredibly disappointing. Jones was a top recruit and waited for three years. This was supposed to be his shining moment. Instead, he’s on the cusp of losing his starting job halfway through the season and is among the nation’s leaders in interceptions. Though to be fair, the most disappointing overall is probably Elijah Blades. He barely made an impact and was dismissed before the bye week.
MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER BY CLASS
Senior: Plenty of players worthy of this spot, with Jeremiah Moon and Dameon Pierce in particular garnering consideration for this spot, but it’s Zach Carter. The super senior defensive lineman has been a force most of this year with an SEC-high 5.5 sacks this season. He’s been a strong leader and consistent force defensively for the Gators and has made himself some money by coming back to school.
Junior: He might’ve missed a few games, but Kaiir Elam has been the best cornerback in the country when he’s played. His performance against Alabama was one of the strongest individual efforts by anyone on the team this season, with three pass breakups. Unfortunately, his injury in that game has hampered him the rest of the way, but he’s a special player.
Sophomore: It’s back to the defensive line for this spot where Gervon Dexter is leveling up to a top defensive tackle in the conference. Dexter is a disruptive presence and starting to add tangible results to his immense recruiting promise. He’s second on the team with two sacks and sixth in tackles with 27 despite being an interior lineman. LSU wasn’t a shining day for the defensive line, but this season as a whole has been a strong one for Dexter.
Freshman: If we count all players with freshman eligibility, it’s Anthony Richardson by a country mile. He’s been electric and shown a crazy amount of promise this season. Hopefully he’s the starter the rest of this season and we can get an even better picture of what Richardson can be as the starting quarterback at the University of Florida.
For true freshmen, few have seen real action, but Jason Marshall has gotten better with each game and looks the part of the next great Florida cornerback.
Best Unit: Even with some less-than-dominant performances in losses to Kentucky and LSU, the offensive line has been a massive strength. The line was recently named to the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s best offensive line, midseason honor roll, and the hype is deserved. Against Alabama, Florida was physically dominant and ran for over 240 yards. The run game has been generally strong, propelled by the physical offensive line play. The pass protection has been equally strong, with only five, sixth-fewest in the country.
Worst Unit: Maybe this is harsh considering how highly I rate Trey Dean, but the safeties — and really defensive backs in general — haven’t been good enough, especially with tackling. In every single game, tackling has been an issue in the second level of the defense. Kentucky’s one big offensive play came from missed tackles in the secondary. A lot of the tackling issues also apply to the linebackers, another finalist for this spot, but the secondary is where these issues are most pronounced.
Best performance: A strong argument game could be made for the Alabama game, but I’ll go with the win over Tennessee. It was a little nervy at halftime with a pair of busted plays leading to long Volunteer touchdowns, but to win and win comfortably against a decent Tennessee team was a great performance. Jones had his best college game with over 200 passing yards and 140 rushing yards while the team as a whole was consistently good offensively. The defense was also stingy, limiting the Vols to those two touchdowns and nothing else despite conceding over 400 yards.
Worst performance: The fact that this team was able to come out with a performance worse than it did against Kentucky is baffling, but alas. Last week’s horror fest in Baton Rouge against LSU was one of the worst performances from a Florida team in recent memory. The Tigers nearly doubled their season rushing total in a single game by running a simple counterplay and scored their most points in a game this season (they also scored 49 points against Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan). The offense did move the ball well with Anthony Richardson, but to be that bad defensively AND turn the ball over four times against this LSU team was inexcusable.
Most exciting: The Alabama game was one of the better experiences within the Swamp this decade. Hosting the number one team in the country, fifth-biggest crowd in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium history and a dramatic, fourth-quarter finish. The game was seen as a given for Alabama, a notion only bolstered by an early 21-3 Bama lead, but Florida looked great from that point on, asserting itself physically against Alabama. If Florida converts on a game-tying two-point conversion, who knows what could’ve happened, both in that game or the rest of the season.
Best opponent: With all due respect to Kentucky, Alabama is still Alabama and is the best team Florida has played so far and still a good shot to make the college football playoff. The Tide have a future Heisman finalist quarterback, a plethora of future NFLers, and the best coach in history. Georgia will probably end up being the best team Florida plays all year, but for the first seven weeks, it’s the Crimson Tide by some distance.
Worst opponent: This is a close one because both South Florida and Vanderbilt are really, really bad football teams. South Florida are 1-5 with no wins against FBS opponents while Vandy are 2-5 and worse than that. Because the Commodores nearly beat South Carolina last week, I’ll give this dubious honor to the Bulls of USF.