Opponent Preview – Florida Gators

Jim McElwain needs his offense to improve to bring the Gators back to where they want to be nationally.

Jim McElwain needs his offense to improve to bring the Gators back to where they want to be nationally.

Florida Gators
2016 Record: 9-4 (6-2, SEC East Champs)


2016 Review/Scheme: The knock on the Gators under both Will Muschamp and now Jim McElwain has been inconsistency and, at times, ineptness on offense. McElwain was hired, I would argue, largely because he was an offensive guy and Florida fans, boosters, and administration were tired of poor offensive showings under Muschamp. However, McElwain has not brought the high-flying or high-scoring offenses seen under Spurrier and Meyer. Due in no small part to transfers, injuries, suspensions, and just plain misses at QB, the Gators have sputtered on offense. Last year was no different, with Florida scoring just 23.9 points per game and averaging just 344 yards per game. The Gators were held to 24 points or less on 8 occasions and only broke 40 points on Kentucky and Missouri. 

McElwain is 19-8 in his first two years and has won the SEC East in both seasons, but the optics of his teams have been poor due to this side of the ball. It is imperative that McElwain and OC Doug Nussmeier ramp up this side of the ball. McElwain is known as a pro-style coach after his days at Alabama and his head man stint at Colorado State. Nussmeier also ran pro-style units at Washington, Alabama, and Michigan before arriving in Gainesville. For the most part, the Gators will line up in “11” personnel (1 RB, 1 TE), they are going to give the QB some easy throws on running downs in order to avoid third and long, and they want to achieve balance between running and passing. I’ve heard they are tinkering with some QB run concepts, which Nussmeier did use at Michigan, but we’ll have to see on that. 

Quarterbacks: Speaking of those QBs, after a long, protracted battle, McElwain came out yesterday and named redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks as the starter. Franks battled with junior Luke Del Rio and grad transfer Malik Zaire for the starting job throughout summer camp, but has finally emerged as the starter. That being said, don’t be shocked to see two QBs play in the opener and potentially all three throughout the year. Franks, a high 4* recruit who was Keith Gavin’s teammate in Wakulla, is all about upside. He has the size (6-6, 220), a cannon arm, and good enough athleticism, but he was also very raw coming out of high school and is still far from a finished product. 

Del Rio and Zaire come with their own limitations, though. Del Rio (1358 yds, 57%, 8 TDs, 8 INTs) can be steady and poised and has a high football IQ, but he is simply athletically limited, doesn’t have a big arm, and threw too many interceptions last year. Zaire is a grad transfer from Notre Dame who showed flashes, mainly in a start against Texas in the 2015 season opener, and was a highly regarded recruit, but he’s battled injuries and inconsistency and just got to campus this summer. He could be a change of pace guy and could get in the mix as he gets more comfortable in the offense, but I seem him as an above average option at best. No one wants my opinion, but it seems to me the best bet is to let Franks take his lumps and build for the future because neither Del Rio nor Zaire are long-term solutions. 

Running Backs: Be it Franks or someone else, the QB should have a very solid corps of runners to hand off to. It starts with junior Jordan Scarlett, a guy FSU heavily recruited. At 213 pounds and with good enough speed, Scarlett (889 yds, 5 avg, 6 TDs) is a steady back who can be a workhorse. He doesn’t offer much as a receiver, but he could be an all-conference back by the time he graduates. Sophomore Lamical Perine (421 yds, 4.6 avg, TD, 9 receptions, TD) was an afterthought recruit who did nothing but impress the coaches last year. He proved to be productive off the bench and while he lacks home run ability, he’ll grind out tough yards. Ditto for senior Mark Thompson (299 yds, 4.4 avg, 2 TDs), a much-hyped JC transfer who took a while to get acclimated last year. He is massive (6-2, 240) and will move the pile if nothing else. 

Scarlett has some home run ability, but ultimately the guys with the most upside as runners who can take it to the house at any time are true freshmen Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis. The latter has received a lot of praise and McElwain recently said he would play a ton. 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: It has been almost criminal how poor the Gators have been at wide receiver in recent years. In a state as talent rich as Florida, it is crazy UF has not been able to field a better group here. Florida’s receiving corps is still largely young and unproven, but they’ve finally got a handful of guys who look like they could be playmakers and productive wideouts. 

The sure-fire number one is oft-troubled junior Antonio Callaway, who has been Florida’s main offensive threat the past two years. Callaway (54 recs, 721 yds, 3 TDs) is a big play threat with good hands who just needs to stay out of trouble, something he has largely been unable to do. In terms of seniority, the next guy up is senior Brandon Powell, who has shown flashes but lacks consistency and has dealt with a myriad of injuries. Powell (45 recs, 387 yds, 2 TDs) has serious potential and needs to build off a decent year last season. He is facing a fight from junior Dre Massey for the starting job in the slot. 

From there, UF has three promising sophomores, but all of them need to take a big step forward in production for this offense to succeed. Josh Hammond (14 recs, 177 yds) and Tyrie Cleveland (14 recs, 298 yds, 2 TDs) both got some run last year and flashed serious upside. Both are expected to start in the season opener with Callaway suspended. Classmate Freddie Swain (8 recs, 118 yds, 2 TDs) did not make as much of an impact last year but is also poised to take a big step forward. Other potential youngsters who might see time this year include redshirt freshman Rick Wells and blue chip true freshmen James Robinson and Daquon Green. 

At tight end, Florida has two good, nearly interchangeable options in senior DeAndre Goolsby and junior Cyontai Lewis. Goolsby (38 recs, 342 yds, 3 TDs) is the reliable receiver while Lewis (18 recs, 184 yds, 2 TDs) is the significantly better blocker. Don’t be surprised to see both on the field at the same time often, with one in-line and one as an H-back. True freshman Kemore Gamble has jumped up the depth chart and is the top backup to that duo. 

Offensive Line: Beyond the QB issues, the offensive line has caused problems for Florida as well. Also due to injuries, transfers, and guys just not working out, the Gators have seen a lot of different starting combos here and have often not gotten the job done against better defensive lines. Last year, the Gators averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and allowed 28 sacks, neither of which are totally on the line, but give you an idea of how average this unit was at times. 

This unit is not dealing with the suspensions to potential starters in the opener as some other position segments so the starting five for the Michigan game should be the best five Florida can field. According to the first depth chart, the starters will be: junior LT Martez Ivey, redshirt freshman LG Brett Heggie, sophomore C T.J. McCoy, junior RG Fred Johnson, and sophomore RT Jawaan Taylor. Ivey was a top rated recruit who has 20 career starts and could make the jump to the NFL with a solid year. Taylor and Johnson both started at least 10 games last year and that year of experience should hopefully help them moving forward. Heggie beat out junior Tyler Jordan, who has 11 career starts, for that starting guard spot so that shows the coaches either really like the youngster or Jordan wasn’t up to snuff. McCoy transferred to Florida from NC State to be near his sick father Tony McCoy, who was a star DT at Florida and later played in the NFL. He made 4 starts last year and although he is short and squatty, he is powerful and has the bloodlines to be solid. 

Speaking of Jordan, as a backup he provides versatility and is designated as the backup at LT, LG, and C. Senior Antonio Riles has 6 career starts and provides more experience off the bench. Redshirt freshman Stone Forsythe and true freshman Kadeem Telfort are two tackles the coaches are very high on. 


2016 Review/Scheme: Combine Will Muschamp’s recruits with a very good defensive coordinator in Geoff Collins and Florida’s defenses kept rolling along, even with injuries. There were a few games where Florida’s defense faltered, but for the most part, they were elite, giving up just 16.8 points per game, 293 yards per game, and 4.7 yards per play. 

With Collins’ departure to become the head coach at Temple and many of Muschamp’s recruits now having graduated, the question is if Florida can remain one of the elite defensive units in college football. New coordinator Randy Shannon made his name as a DC at Miami and certainly has the pedigree to succeed, even if he did fail as a head coach at his alma mater. Schematically, I’m not exactly sure what to expect from Shannon. At UM, he ran a 4-3 that utilized “Tampa 2” coverage to great effect. However, I have read reports from Gator insiders that say Shannon has been tinkering with using 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks in practices. My gut tells me Shannon would revert to what got him here, but perhaps it is safer to assume he is going to mix things up between 4 man and 3 man fronts. 

Defensive Line: At UM, Shannon was not big on blitzing and given the talent UF returns here, I would expect that to remain the same no matter what formation he chooses to go with. The Gators are deep and have talent at end and I think Shannon will rely on those guys to generate a pass rush. The situation at tackle is not quite as positive. 

Despite losing Bryan Cox, Jr., I think you could make an argument that Florida returns five defensive ends who can give you quality snaps. The starters are going to be sophomore Jabari Zuniga and junior CeCe Jefferson. Zuniga (25 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 5 sacks) only got better as the year wore on, starting 3 games and flashing immense potential as a pass rusher and general disruptive force. Jefferson (30 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks) is a former 5* recruit who arguably has not lived up to his billing, but he has raw talent, experience, and is a good edge setter. Depth here is tremendous with senior Jordan Sherit, junior Keivonnis Davis, and sophomore Antonneous Clayton in the mix. Sherit (38 tackles, 5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) has lots of experience but is still recovering from an injury. When fully healthy, he can give you starters reps. Davis (27 tackles, 3 for loss, 1.5 sacks) started 5 games last year and provides experience off the bench. Clayton was a 5* recruit who struggled to acclimate to the college game. He is expected to take a big leap forward in his second year, mainly as a pass rusher. Sophomore Jachai Polite (11 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 2 sacks) is sometimes listed as a DT but he emerged as Jefferson’s backup on the initial depth chart. 

The Gators have much less proven depth at defensive tackle and this is one of the true worry spots on the team. Junior Taven Bryan (17 tackles, 3 for loss) seems like a pretty safe bet after flashing as a backup last year. Classmate Khairi Clark (16 tackles) is slated to start at nose tackle. He started 3 games last year and is a space eater. The current backups are undersized sophomore Luke Ancrum and true freshmen Tedarell Slaton, Elijah Conliffe, and Kyree Campbell. The true freshmen all go 300+ pounds and Slaton was a very highly regarded recruit, but relying on such youth as depth could be problematic. 

Linebackers: UF suffered some injuries here last year, but that should pay off this year as several young players who were thrust into action enter this season seasoned and ready to go. 

The initial starting trio will be sophomore David Reese at MLB, sophomore Vosean Joseph at WLB, and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon at SLB. Reese (49 tackles, 2 for loss) started 4 games when Jarrad Davis was injured last year and acquitted himself well. A big, traditional MLB at 6-0, 244, Reese is a thumper who excels at run defense. Joseph (13 tackles) got one start himself last year and is much more of a speedy, rangy guy, albeit with good enough size at 6-1, 230. Moon surprised some people when he beat out sophomore Kylan Johnson for the strongside job. Moon is athletic and has shown decent coverage skills. Johnson (39 tackles, 5 for loss) provides competition and a safety net considering he started 6 games last year. 

Depth here is mostly young, with the lone exception being senior WLB Cristian Garcia. As of now, the other top backup is sophomore Rayshad Jackson at MLB. Freshmen James Houston and Ventrell Miller are suspended for the opener, but will surely be relied upon for depth after that. 

Secondary: This unit was downright scary good last year. Florida gave up a ridiculous 149 passing yards per game and allowed just 8 touchdown passes to 16 interceptions. There are serious questions, though, about this unit after Marcus Maye, Teez Tabor, and Quincy Wilson, who were all second-round NFL draft picks, departed. To make matters worse, Marcell Harris, expected to start at safety, was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. That leaves three players in the entire secondary who have seen extensive playing time. There are guys with recruiting accolades so this unit is long on potential and short on experience. 

The Gators appear most settled at safety where senior Nick Washington and sophomore Chauncey Gardner return and will start. Washington (45 tackles, INT) started 6 games last year and has loads of experience. He is recovering from an injury, but if healthy he provides leadership and should be steady. Gardner (32 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 pass breakups) was a high-level recruit who earned 3 starts last season. He has tremendous upside and can lay the wood or cover. Depth here is fairly young with sophomore Jeawon Taylor and freshman Shawn Davis listed as the current backups. 

Along with defensive tackle, cornerback looks like a potential problem spot. Entering week one, true freshman Marco Wilson and senior Duke Dawson will be your starters. The coaches love Wilson’s coverage ability and he is both a starting CB and listed as the top nickel guy too. Dawson (24 tackles, 3.5 for loss, INT, 7 PBU) started 7 games last year and is a physical presence. Depth here is mostly young too, with senior Joseph Putu, who transferred in from the JC ranks last year but barely played, and true freshmen Brian Edwards and C.J. Henderson listed as the top backups on the initial depth chart. 

Special Teams: Kicker Eddy Pineiro is infinitely annoying, what with his jumping around as if he is a Grammatica brother. That being said, the irritating, and therefore perfect Gator, Pineiro is one of the nation’s best kickers after hitting on 21 of 25 field goals with a long of 54. Punter Johnny Townsend is also one of the best in the business, averaging an absurd 47.9 yards per punt. Callaway is a dangerous punt returner, but the Gators could stand to get more production out of their kick returners. 

Schedule: The opener against Michigan was always going to be difficult, but the level of difficulty has been increased with 11 Gators, including Scarlett and Callaway, out due to suspension. Hosting FSU helps, but, as we all know, McElwain is yet to beat Jimbo and Florida hasn’t beaten FSU in Gainesville since 2009. Despite playing in the mighty SEC, the conference slate is pretty manageable. There are no real scary road contests (at Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina) so the annual game in Jacksonville against Georgia could be for the SEC East crown. Playing SEC West foes Texas A&M and LSU could be tough, but both come to Gainesville. 

Overall: I’m not exactly sure what to think of this Florida team. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system tabs UF as the 15th best team in the country, but also predicts their record at just 8-4. I think the offense could be improved with Franks or even Zaire at QB, but I don’t know that until I see it. However, Florida appears to have more talent at the skill positions than in past years and should have a good enough offensive line. But, I also think the defense probably takes a step back. The starting 11 could be good, but the depth is thin at several positions, at least on paper, and as more of Muschamp’s recruits cycle out of the program, I wonder if this defense will remain elite. Losing Collins could be a big deal too, as he proved to be a solid coordinator at both Mississippi State and UF. Shannon has a solid reputation, but he hasn’t been a coordinator in a while and his last few UM teams weren’t exactly stellar on defense. Ultimately, though, this schedule is just crazy easy. Every tough game is either at home or at a neutral site and I really think Florida will probably only be underdogs in three games (Michigan, LSU, FSU). To me, this looks like McElwain 3.0 in that I don’t think UF beats anyone of consequence, but they also probably win 9 games and might make another SEC Championship Game appearance without any signature wins.

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