Overview: Florida’s repeat visit to Atlanta last December was the big shocker in the conference in 2016. Jim McElwain’s staff proved its mettle by getting an under-talented, somewhat borderline outfit to believe it could do great things. That’s the mark of a good coach, but recruiting continues to muddle along and make the future a bit cloudy. Massive losses on defense following the 2016 season are going to be tough to overcome.
Projected record: 7-5 (Mich, UK, TAM, UGA, FSU); 5-3 and 2nd SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 9 (SE, WR, LT, LG, RG, RT, TE, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 3 (LDE, RCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Av DL: Av
RB: Av LB: Fr
WR: Vg DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Ex
Offensive breakdown: Florida has to open the offense up this year, because time’s a-wastin’ with the talent held over from Will Muschamp’s final two recruiting classes. This will all come down to the quarterback position, specifically who wins the job and whether they can do more than just manage the offense. Incumbent starter Luke Del Rio is back and is healthy, but he may be the least likely of the candidates to win the job. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and the ultra-raw, but highly skilled Kyle Trask – another freshman – all have greater buzz. Zaire is expected to be named the starter eventually, but he really hasn’t done anything yet at the college level other than attempt to carry massive hype. McElwain is a quarterback whisperer, so he’ll probably get maximum results from this position, but it will surprise no one if Florida’s QB battle extends well into the year.
Both the running back and receiver units should be OK so long as injuries don’t hit. The RB corps is thin, with Jordan Scarlett, Mark Thompson and Lamical Perine returning, but there’s a dropoff after that group that can be measured in parsecs. If Antonio Callaway can stay healthy and get past an off-field issue that triggered a suspension for the Michigan game, he has the chance to help lead a fairly deep receiver group that has good role variety. Florida is flush with talent at tight end as well, so the issue of opening up the offense might not be as far-fetched as some think.
Florida has to replace just one offensive line starter, but Martez Ivey is probably playing out of position at left tackle because the Gators have no other good options. There are depth issues to get past and the presumptive new center, T.J. McCoy, is an overachiever still growing into the role. Still, Florida’s best hope to get back to Atlanta is to outscore people rather than stop them, and this offense – if everything goes right – is capable of doing just that.
Defensive/ST breakdown: Between graduation, the NFL Draft and some bad injury luck already creeping into the picture, this could get ugly unless some of McElwain’s less vaunted recruits turn out to be steals rather than leftovers. Other than the defensive end combo of Cece Jefferson and Jordan Sherit, Florida has no returning full-time starters in the front seven. There is some experience in the linebacker corps thanks to the injuries last year that put Vosean Joseph and David Reese into games onto the field before they were ready. Now those players, both sophomores, will feature an all-underclassman starting group in Florida’s 4-3 scheme, which is now under the tutelage of former Miami head coach Randy Shannon. Depth is a concern everywhere, especially at tackle, where an injury to either Khairi Clark or Taven Bryan could prove catastrophic. Florida is even having to consider using Tedarrell Slaton, who most analysts think is a better fit at offensive guard, as a reserve tackle for now.
The strength of this unit was going to be the back end, even though there was plenty of shuffling going on in the spring. Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner both moved into starting cornerback positions from elsewhere in the secondary, but Florida felt it was fine with Nick Washington and Marcell Harris returning at safety – until Harris was lost for the year in late July with a torn Achilles tendon. Now it’s time to panic. Gardner may get another look at safety, or Jeawon Taylor will have to take over. Depth at corner is already borderline, with true freshman C.J. Henderson expected to provide most of it by himself. Harris’ injury could bring borderline talents like Joseph Putu into the discussion. If Henderson and younger players like Quincy Lenton can come through, Florida may yet survive.
At least the kicking game is in good hands; placekicker Eddy Piniero was a revelation in his first year, and punter Johnny Townsend is the best punter in the SEC not named J.K. Scott. We’re going to assume Florida somehow fixes its kick return issues from last year, and that names like Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell can bounce back from horrendous showings. This unit will need to turn some games over by itself and can’t abide breakdowns
Overall Trend: Down. Now is the time we all find out whether recruiting is overrated. McElwain’s staff hasn’t signed bad classes, but they haven’t been the star-packed ooh/aah affairs of former coaches like Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier. If there was a way to let Will Muschamp recruit and Jim McElwain coach, Florida would be on to something. But McElwain has to own every part of this team, and making do with less-than-ideal talent and depth situations mostly on the defensive side of the ball will define whether he’s truly the SEC’s second-best head coach.
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