Projected record: 8-4 (AU, LSU, UGA, UM); 4-4 and 3rd SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 5 (QB, SE, FL, WR, C)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDE, NT, DT, MLB, LCB, FS, S)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Vg
OL: Pr ST: Vg
Offense – what’s to like: To the surprise of no one, Dan Mullen fixed Florida’s ground game in short order, along the way making a competent SEC running back out of red-chip talent Lamical Perine. He also helped QB Feleipe Franks put up solid numbers (four times the number of TDs as INTs), doing it all behind an offensive line that didn’t exactly have anyone doing cartwheels in the preseason.
This year, it’s much the same, at least at the skill positions: Franks will be the man at quarterback, if he can stay healthy. There’s some depth behind him in the form of Kyle Trask and Emory Jones, both of whom got game experience last year. The wide receiver corps is full of veterans; three seniors are set to start, led by Van Jefferson and Josh Hammond. Perine returns at running back. Dameon Pierce averaged more than 6 yards per carry as a backup to Perine and Jordan Scarlett last year. Mullen will have his weapons – and most importantly, he knows how to use them.
Offense – potential pitfalls: Right from the start, there’s trouble up front. Nick Buchanan returns at center, but the other four positions will be filled by new starters. Aside from guard Brett Heggie, no one else excites, and Heggie has to stay healthy in order to pull that off. The other issue is a lack of depth. T.J. Moore and Noah Banks have experience, but Banks was outside the two-deep coming out of spring and will have to work his way back in. Moore appears to have lost ground to multiple freshmen. Either Florida’s recent recruiting is better than people think or there’s a problem.
The tight end position is completely up for grabs, and it’s not clear whether there’s anyone who can really fill the role of receiving H-back that made those old Meyer-Mullen Florida offenses go so many years ago. Kemore Gamble, Kyle Pitts and Lucas Krull are fairly inseparable on the depth chart, and one of them needs to step forward. The biggest single depth concern, though, is at running back. Perine figures to get all the carries that matter, with Pierce filling in when possible. Outside of those two, there’s no one really challenging for playing time at the moment.
Defense/special teams – what’s to like: Florida finished in the top 20 in both scoring and pass defense last year, and the guys that made it possible in the secondary are back for another round. C.J. Henderson, Donovan Stiner and Trey Dean III all return to their starting spots at corner, free safety and nickel safety, respectively. Florida is excited about its flexibility up front, and is especially looking for a breakout from strongside end Jabari Zuniga. There is depth at the tackle position, especially at nose, and also at rush end.
Florida went into 2018 not knowing what to expect in the kicking game, and couldn’t have come out any happier. Kicker Evan McPherson and punter Tommy Townsend were among the league and NCAA leaders in kicking statistics. Freddie Swain put up promising numbers in the punt-return game.
Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: Despite a veteran roster, Florida was a mediocre 65th in rush defense last year. That needs to change. Most of the issue seemed to be a linebacker corps that didn’t quite live up to expectations. Vosean Joseph must be replaced, and David Reese, while having plenty of experience in the middle, needs to be more active behind the line of scrimmage. There is also plenty of talent at the rush end spot, but no one has stepped up to grab it yet.
The secondary’s biggest issues of late have been related to injury, not talent or performance. Florida needs another cornerback to step up off the bench. As for special teams, kickoff returns were putrid in 2018 and the Gators need to improve their kickoff coverage.
Final analysis: With question marks in the trenches, it may be time to tap the brakes on Florida a bit. The Gators are still learning how to be Gators again after several years of wandering in the wilderness. Florida needs Franks to take the next step at quarterback, or get out of Emory Jones’ way. Defensively, if anything was missing last year, it’s typical Florida aggressiveness. The Gators weren’t often outgunned, but they were outflanked and out-figured, and appeared to play with the speed turned down at times. Mullen should fix that problem fairly quickly, but not fast enough to challenge Georgia this year.
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