Previews 2015: Florida Gators
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, WR, C, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, LDE, MLB, RCB, FS, SS, ROV)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (UT, OM, UM, LSU, UGA, USC, FSU)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (UT, OM, UM, LSU, UGA, USC)
Projected SEC East Record: 2-4 (UT, UM, UGA, USC)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Pr Special Teams: Av
While most people believe it’s just a matter of time before Florida reascends to the top of the SEC East – with a recruiting advantage like the one UF possesses, it’s not an unreasonable expectation – the Gators are currently in a big hole of their own making. The Will Muschamp hire turned out to be a grave mistake for Jeremy Foley, and now he has turned from one former Nick Saban assistant to another: former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who arrives from Colorado State with the reputation of an offensive whiz and motivational mastermind. But he isn’t a top-flight recruiter, and the lack of player development under Muschamp will cause Florida some headaches in 2015.
McElwain will have to modify his preferred offense – a multiple pro-style attack built around the Ace package – given the talent on hand. Florida will probably go with a three-wide base set more often than not to take advantage of a receiver corps that could be better than expected. But the Gators have issues at quarterback, and the running back corps has failed to produce as expected. The biggest challenge is fielding an offensive line that is competent, as the current Gator roster leaves much to be desired.
Right out of the gate, McElwain has a problem. The most experienced quarterback on his roster, returning starter Treon Harris, doesn’t fit his system. The quarterback who is the best fit, Will Grier, is a freshman with no experience. This is essentially a two-man race, although junior Jacob Guy could wiggle his way into the discussion if both Grier and Harris struggle. Harris’ value is almost exclusively based on his ability to run and move in the pocket. He’s not a great thrower and he lacked field vision in 2014, although he’ll get better QB coaching under McElwain. Grier was a high school phenom two years ago, but freshmen in the SEC are prone to getting eaten alive – particularly ones that must play behind an offensive line as poor as the ones the Gators are expected to field this year. For that reason, Guy may end up being a legitimate contender; he’s the size of a tight end and can take some hits. But more likely, McElwain will use both Grier and Harris until one of them separates from the other. Florida did not recruit a quarterback this year.
Matt Jones ended up saving Florida’s bacon last year at tailback, but he’s gone. This will either be the year Kelvin Taylor claims the job, as he’s been expected to do twice already, or fades to the back. Florida had only four RBs on the roster in the spring, although they added two big recruits in Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett to the fall roster. Both have a chance to push for the starting job. Unfortunately, the Gators also lost two players, as Adam Lane and Darius Masline didn’t return to the program. That leaves smallish Mark Herndon as the only backup on the roster with any experience, and he’s coming off injury. Herndon has been mostly used on special teams up to this point. If injuries hit hard, a couple of walk-ons are all Florida has behind this group. If Taylor steps up and Scarlett stays healthy, it might be enough anyway. The Gators will not use a fullback and, for that matter, don’t even list a part-timer on the roster.
Florida has the nucleus of a good unit; the production just hasn’t been there. The exception in 2014 was Demarcus Robinson, who caught 810 yards in passes and scored 7 times. But he needs help. Latroy Pittman lost his hold on the starting slot receiver job in the spring, but the coaches need him to step back up. Ahmad Fulwood has never lived up to expectations, but he nailed down a starting slot in the spring. He may be the key to the whole thing. Brandon Powell, C.J. Worton and Chris Thompson will battle Pittman for the slot job. There’s a general lack of size here, but what was most lacking under Muschamp was confidence. Experienced senior Valdez Showers adds depth, along with Alvin Bailey, who has not broken through yet as a contributor. As for tight ends, if Virginia transfer Jake McGee can’t grab the job and hold it, Florida might be in trouble. DeAndre Goolsby, Moral Stephens and C’yontai Lewis failed to make much of a step forward in the spring.
In the spring, Florida was forced to use walk-ons in key roles just to have a depth chart. One starter returns, center Trip Thurman, and he missed the spring with injuries. The best player might end up being true freshman Martez Ivey, who was penciled in as the starting right tackle as spring camp started. David Sharpe, who would be fairly down the depth chart on most contenders, is being tasked with the starting left tackle duties. At guard, Antonio Riles and Travaris Dorsey appeared to hold the jobs coming out of spring, but Riles – who moved over from defense to battle for the job – needed surgery, and Dorsey is a freshman. Kevaris Harkless appears to be in line to be the third tackle, and could battle with Ivey or Sharpe for a starting job. Again, he’s a freshman. Cameron Dillard will back up Thurman at center, while the reserve guard positions are basically anyone’s guess. Andrew Mike will likely handle backup duties at both sides until true freshman Tyler Jordan gets acclimated to SEC game speed. Walk-on Matthew Bowden could be an option at guard or center, as could another walk-on, Zach Shinn. Florida could have a real dilemma on its hands if the tackle positions blow up, because neither Richerd Desir-Jones nor Brandon Sandifer, both true freshmen, appear either ready for the position or good enough to play it as true freshmen. Another true freshman, Fredrick Johnson, could land a role there. It’s a mess, to be kind.
Geoff Collins was brought in from Mississippi State, where his 2013 and 2014 defenses had trouble defending the pass. He’ll run a modified 4-2-5 at Florida to take advantage of the secondary, which is the Gators’ best unit. Florida might be a touch soft up front, a bad combination for a team that lacks explosiveness on offense. Collins will be under pressure to either keep points surrendered to a minimum, or to create enough turnovers to even things out. Expectations, though, should be pretty low.
It’s not as much of a disaster as the offensive line, but it’s close. The presence of Jon Bullard at strongside end keeps this from being a complete washout. Bryan Cox Jr. is technically a returning starter on the weakside, but he was beaten out in the spring by Alex McCalister after Cox was sidelined with injury. McCalister is a boom-bust pass rusher that might not be the best option against the run. Bullard will also work inside, where Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie emerged from spring as the starters. Ivie is a true freshman. Backing them up are two other freshmen, Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan. Brantley, freshman Thomas Holley and Clark are the only real gap-fillers on the team, though, especially after Jay-nard Bostwick was dismissed from the team over the summer. This leaves Florida in trouble if injuries pop up inside. The only other players capable of playing tackle are true freshman Jabari Zuniga and a walk-on senior, Dakota Wilson. All-everything signee CeCe Jefferson will be the fourth end and could push Cox and McCalister for a starting job. Justus Reed will provide depth.
Florida will use only two in its base set. Antonio Morrison returns to start at middle linebacker, while Jarrad Davis, Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone are competing for the weakside spot. All are upperclassmen, a rarity for a Florida unit this season. The biggest question is one of size, as neither Davis nor McMillian are particularly big players. In addition, both presumptive starters are coming off significant injuries. Aside from sophomore Matt Rolin, though, depth is basically nonexistent. Florida compounded the problem by signing just one true linebacker, Rayshad Jackson. If anyone besides these six are on the field in the fall, it will either be because of a very pleasant surprise in fall camp, or devastating injury luck.
Provided Collins’ last two years at Mississippi State were just a fluke, the Gators will be tough for any opposing offense to damage through the air. Four starters return and the fifth position will be filled by a top reserve in 2014 and a highly-decorated recruit. Vernon Hargreaves III had a solid season in 2014 against everyone not named Amari Cooper, which is forgivable. Jalen Tabor is the new starter at the cornerback position across from him. At safety, Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole are all respected players able to both force turnovers and deliver powerful hits. Again, depth is really the only question. Quincy Wilson could find himself backing up any one of the five starters, but he figures to stick at cornerback because there basically is no one else there. Marcell Harris and Duke Dawson should see most of the time off the bench at safety. The depth issue at cornerback was exacerbated when D’Anfernee McGriff failed to qualify and top backup J.C. Jackson left the program after an arrest. That leaves such names as Kerollin Francois, Deiondre Porter and Nick Washington as emergency options at cornerback.
Johnny Townsend has experienced a rather circuitous route back to a starting job; he was the starter at punter in 2013 and impressed, but was redshirted last year in favor of Kyle Christy. With Christy graduating, Townsend is back as the starter. The situation at placekicker is the stuff of ulcers. Austin Hardin would seem to be the guy, but he has been erratic at best the last two years. He has all the leg strength a kicker could want, but his accuracy leaves much to be desired. Jorge Powell is competing. Florida will need a new primary kick returner in 2015; Vernon Hargreaves III is one option, followed by any one of several wide receivers. An overall lack of difference-makers on the roster could show its head here and complicate matters on coverage units.