Previews 2018: Florida, Georgia and Kentucky

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen addresses the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; head coach addresses the media during football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators

Projected record: 7-5 (UT, MSU, UGA, USC, FSU); 4-4 and 3rd SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 10 (SE, FL, TE, LT, LG, C, RG, RT, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (NT, WDE, RLB, LLB, RCB, NB)
Returning specialists: 0

Unit ratings
QB: Fr DL: Fr
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Pr

Overview: Jim McElwain just couldn’t hang on, and the Gators finally moved on from him to Dan Mullen, an Urban Meyer disciple who is probably the best head coach in Mississippi State history. Mullen will need to reprogram the Gator offense, throwing out the pro set and reinstalling Meyer’s spread-option attack he helped build. The biggest challenge for Mullen going forward will be to develop into a top-flight recruiter, something he’s never been.

Offensive breakdown: This is Mullen’s specialty but Jim McElwain didn’t exactly leave the Gators loaded. The strength of the offense is the receiver corps, thanks mostly to Van Jefferson transferring in from Ole Miss. Coupled with Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond and Kadarius Toney, the Gators aren’t at Meyer/Spurrier levels just yet, but they’re not far off. The real question is whether Cleveland can stay out of off-field trouble, as he’s a repeat customer in that regard and is currently awaiting a suspension decision stemming from a bizarre air rifle incident that followed an argument at an apartment building. Mullen likes a strong tight end, and he has one, potentially, in C’yontai Lewis, who was underutilized by the McElwain regime.

There are a lot of competitors for the lone running back position, but few breakout stars. Jordan Scarlett returns after a suspension claimed his 2017 season, and there’s little in the way of him reclaiming the job given the other names at the position include Lamical Perine and Malik Davis. Scarlett and Adarius Lemons are the only two backs with any kind of size.

Attrition shouldn’t be a problem if the offensive line plays up to spec and keeps the backs relatively clean. All five starters return from a year ago, but aside from left tackle Martez Ivey, that’s not really a plus. Another year makes a big difference in the college game, though, especially given everyone’s familiarity with another, but the fact remains the Gators need a talent upgrade in upcoming recruiting classes. Ivey would probably be a guard or at most a right tackle on an SEC contender. Center/guard Brett Heggie will begin the season nursing a foot injury, so look for a reshuffling of roles at least early on. Where Florida must get better is up the middle, and returning center T.J. McCoy’s job is in danger.

Triggering everything will likely be Feleipe Franks, a built-like-a-tight-end quarterback who had a decent freshman campaign. Athletically, he’s fine; the mental aspect of his game was lacking in 2017 and he wasn’t particularly instinctive. The other main competitors include Kyle Trask, who is more of a pocket QB, and true freshman Emory Jones, who was at one time the most coveted recruit in the nation in the 2017-2018 cycle before teams and scouts got a better look at his tendency to scatter the ball. Complicating the matter is Jones got caught up in the same air-rifle incident that threatens Tyrie Cleveland’s eligibility, although Jones’ role would seem to be less critical. Jones is the QB Mullen wants, but Franks is probably the one he’ll get, at least for now.

Defensive/ST breakdown: Florida, like many other schools, appears to be moving away from traditional 3-4 or 4-3 base defenses and more toward a full-time nickel alignment. It’s a version of the same 3-4 over/under Alabama runs, but the Gators spend more time with four down linemen, which is a function of personnel at the moment. Up front, Florida likes what it has in Khairi Clark and Elijah Conliffe, and tackle Tedarrell Slaton has potential. What Florida doesn’t have is a proven big man who can play the nose, with most of the candidates being guys playing slightly out of position. The best player on the field for Florida, rush end/Jack linebacker Cece Jefferson, is nursing a shoulder injury. That could give Jachai Polite a shot at more playing time, and Florida likes him a lot. Jabari Zuniga is not a well-known name, but the new staff thinks he’ll be a stalwart at end.

Going back to just two full-time linebackers allows Florida to cover its biggest weakness there, which was raw numbers. Jefferson counts somewhat as an outside linebacker, but the biggest winner here might end up being Vosean Joseph, who was flat-out bad in 2017. His athleticism makes him a player to watch, and he badly needed a fresh start. Ahead of him, though, is Rayshad Jackson, who had a nice spring. David Reese isn’t flashy but he is consistent, and that’s the most important thing right now for Florida at linebacker. Ventrell Miller and Kylan Johnson are the other two candidates.

The secondary had a solid 2017 season despite being fairly green, and the extra experience on the outsides and at the nickel position ought to make up for the uncertainty inherent in a new safety tandem. The cornerback duo of C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson could wind up being one of the best in the league, but there’s a dearth of depth behind them and at safety. The situation there got worse when Quincy Lenton tore an Achilles tendon and was likely lost for the year.

As for special teams, Florida replaces one Townsend (Johnny) with another (Tommy), and expectations are high. If true freshman Evan McPherson isn’t the answer at kicker, though, Florida could be in trouble. The real sticking point is the return and coverage units, which were never consistent under McElwain. With the uncertainty at the kicking spots, it’s hard to imagine special teams not being a liability, especially early on.

Overall Trend: Neutral. This team probably should have won six or seven games in 2017, but once the momentum of losing got started, it was hard to stop. Florida eases into this season gently by comparison, with Charleston Southern replacing Michigan in the opening week. There’s little question Dan Mullen has been one of the best SEC coaches of late, but the SEC hasn’t exactly had the strongest coaching lineup for a few years. Provided Mullen can recruit – and getting Jimbo Fisher out of Tallahassee ought to help that as much as anything else – Florida can rebuild. They just won’t do it in one year.

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