2017 Record: 4-7 (3-5, SEC East)
2017 Review: Much like Will Muschamp before him, this side of the ball got Jim McElwain fired, lying to the media or shark humping be damned. After showing brief signs of life back when Will Grier was QB, the offense under McElwain was uninspiring and often not very talented. Last season might have been rock bottom, with UF finishing 102nd in passing offense, 108th in scoring, and 110th in total offense.
Scheme: In steps Dan Mullen, former OC at Florida under Urban Meyer and the head coach at Mississippi State for 9 years, to try to resurrect the Florida offense. Mullen runs a power spread that emphasizes being physical and running the ball. He’ll line up in three and four-wide sets, but his offenses have tended to rely much more on the run than pass. Last year, for example, Mississippi State ranked 2nd in the SEC in rushing, but dead last in passing.
Quarterbacks: Given the returning talent here, I would expect Mullen to continue to skew more toward the ground game. Ever since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009, Florida has been searching for a QB. Jeff Driskel was efficient in 2012, but never panned out in the long run. Grier flashed potential in 2015 before being suspended for PEDs and ultimately transferring. Last year, many Florida fans pinned their hopes on then-redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, a big, strong former 4* recruit. Franks (1438 yards, 55%, 9 TDs, 8 INTs) had moments here and there, like his Hail Mary touchdown to beat Tennessee, but he mostly looked overwhelmed and confused, holding the ball too long and forcing too many passes. Franks has size and a big arm, but he was raw coming out of high school and still needs to work on little things like footwork and throwing with anticipation.
Franks is facing a challenge from sophomore Kyle Trask, a nothing recruit who is athletically limited but seems to have a high football IQ, and true freshman Emory Jones. Jones is likely the future of the program and might have some plays designed specifically for him, but it appears Franks is going to be the guy this year.
Running Backs: McElwain did not always do a good job stockpiling talent, but he left the cupboard stocked here and that is another reason Mullen will surely run early and often.
Junior Lamical Perine (562 yds, 4.1 avg, 8 TDs, 10 receptions, TD) led the team in rushing last year and provides a big, brushing back. Sophomore Malik Davis (526 yds, 6.7 avg, 2 TDs) showed tremendous potential as a freshman before being lost to a knee injury after seven games. He has home run ability. Junior Jordan Scarlett is back after being suspended all of last year. Scarlett rushed for nearly 900 yards in 2016 despite playing for an offense that had no passing threat. He’s no superstar, but he can be a solid, five yard per carry back. Sophomore Adarius Lemons (136 yds, 7.2 avg) racked up 110 yards in the last two games of the year and flashed intriguing potential given his size. Then you add a 4* freshman like Dameon Pierce and you’ve got a solid, multi-faceted group.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: I have written some variation of this for several years now but it bears repeating again—how has Florida, in a state this talent-rich, been so poor at WR for this long? This might, just might, be the year that UF has a decent receiving corps, thanks largely to the addition of two transfers and some returning, talented youngsters.
A lot of the promise for this group rests on the shoulders of junior Van Jefferson, a transfer from Ole Miss, and sophomore Trevon Grimes, a transfer from Ohio State. Both were recently deemed eligible to play and both are instantly among the best players of the segment. Jefferson caught 91 passes over two years in Oxford and is the most proven receiver on the roster. Grimes did not register any stats in Columbus, but he is a former blue chip recruit who goes 6-5, 214 and has oodles of potential.
The “proven” commodities, at least in a Florida uniform, are juniors Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, and Freddie Swain and sophomore Kadarius Toney. Cleveland (22 recs, 410 yds, 2 TDs) is a big play threat with size to boot, but he’s been injury prone and has been inconsistent with his production. Hammond (18 recs, 246 yds) is a decent possession option who has never flashed much big play potential. Swain (8 recs, 96 yds, TD) was a blue chip recruit who looks great coming off the bus but hasn’t consistently produced. Toney (15 recs, 152 yds, 120 yds rushing, TD) flashed at times as a freshman, but also disappeared at times. Still, he seems to have significant upside.
The Gators have more bodies from there, but no one who necessarily stands out. Senior Dre Massey has some experience, but has never produced much. Sophomores Daquon Green and Rick Wells have received praise in practice, but have not done anything on the field yet. True freshman Jacob Copeland was a big time recruit who could excel in the slot, although he’s apparently been slowed by an injury so far in summer camp.
DeAndre Goolsby finally moved on, but Florida has some potential at tight end, a position that Mullen’s offense asks a lot of in terms of receiving, blocking, blitz pick-ups, and even helping make calls for the offensive line. Seniors C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens are competing for the right to start, although both will surely play. Lewis (7 recs, TD) is a decent receiver who is built like an H-back. Stephens (6 recs, 141 yds) is the bigger option, but was nearly as productive as Lewis, who got more playing time. Sophomore Lucas Krull and redshirt freshman Kemore Gamble offer more depth while true freshman Kyle Pitts has received praise from the coaching staff.
One thing to keep an eye on here is what happens regarding the offseason incident with the Gainesville “gambler” Tay Bang. Cleveland, Toney, Lewis, Wells, and Gamble were all reported as being involved in the fight between UF football players and Tay’s crew and there is no word if there will be suspensions, legal action, etc.
Offensive Line: Advanced stats say Florida’s offensive line was above average last year in run blocking, although the pass blocking numbers were terrible, with UF allowing 37 sacks. Florida QBs were sacked on 11% of passing attempts, a ridiculously high rate. Still, there is a chance this unit is pretty good overall, with every guy who logged a start last year back.
The bell cow of the group is senior LT Martez Ivey, a former 5* recruit who has mostly lived up to the hype. Ivey has not been a superstar, but he has been solid and has started 31 games thus far in his career. When summer practice began, joining him on the left side of the line was senior Tyler Jordan, a guy with 15 career starts to his name. Junior TJ McCoy is back for another year in the pivot and senior Fred Johnson and junior Jawaan Taylor are leading the way on the right side after starting most of last year. Outside of Ivey, no one is a superstar, but they have the potential to be a solid starting five.
Mullen and OL coach John Hevesy have some functional depth to work with too, what with sophomore guard Brett Heggie, sophomore tackle Stone Forsythe, and senior guard Kavaris Harkless all having made spot starts last year. Sophomore tackle Jean Delance and redshirt freshman guard TJ Moore were both highly regarded recruits who will provide depth.
2017 Review: Will Muschamp may have left the cupboard bare on offense, but he left McElwain with some elite players on defense. However, McElwain did not keep up the same standards when it came to defensive recruiting and the defense started to show it last year, ranking middle of the pack both nationally and in the SEC in defense after being among the nation’s best for the most of the 2010s.
Scheme: Coming over from Mississippi State with Mullen, DC Todd Grantham is no stranger to the SEC East, having served as defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2010 to 2013. Grantham is known as an adherent of the 3-4 defense, but initial reports seem to indicate that he is going to use a system that will morph into a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 depending on whether one player is lined up as an OLB or DE. Grantham is aggressive and has a lot of zone blitzes, which he learned in his time as an NFL assistant under Dom Capers and Wade Phillips. One knock on Grantham, though, is that he tends to improve the defense in his first year or two, but then there is a steady slide down.
Defensive Line: There is potential for Florida to have a very good set of pass rushers, but there are questions about the depth and talent at defensive tackle.
At defensive end, the Gators have a potentially devastating trio in senior Cece Jefferson, junior Jabari Zuniga, and junior Jachai Polite. Jefferson (47 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks) started to live up to his 5* billing last year and might have a breakout year serving in Grantham’s hybrid OLB/DE position. Zuniga (34 tackles, 8 for loss, 4 sacks) is another guy that could excel as a pass rusher under Grantham. Polite (22 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 2 sacks) was limited to 7 games last year, but flashed potential and offers a bit more bulk than the other two. Depth here is pretty good, too, with sophomore Jeremiah Moon (23 tackles), junior Antonneous Clayton, and redshirt freshman Zachary Carter, all of whom were blue chip recruits.
The depth is not as great at tackle, but there are a few decent pieces here. Senior Khairi Clark (13 tackles, 1.5 for loss) has played a lot and is good at eating up blockers. Junior Luke Ancrum entered summer atop the depth chart and is a try-hard type, although he lacks ideal size (listed at 6-5, 263). Sophomore TJ Slaton (11 tackles, 1.5 for loss) has the beef and talent to be the NG in Grantham’s system. Sophomores Kyree Campbell and Elijah Conliffe might get a look there too. The x-factor could be junior Adam Shuler, a transfer from West Virginia. Shuler had 8 tackles for loss and 3 sacks as a defensive end for the Mountaineers, but he’s been working a lot as a defensive tackle with the Gators. No matter where he lines up, he provides nice depth and experience.
Linebackers: Depth here appears to be tenuous, but the Gators should be able to field a solid starting duo or trio, depending on the look.
The star of the group is junior David Reese, who led the team in tackles and finished second in tackles for loss last year. Reese (102 tackles, 10 for loss, 1.5 sacks, INT) is a big, strong, physical presence in the middle. The battle to start next to him is between juniors Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson. Joseph (55 tackles, 4 for loss, INT) started 10 games last year, but you get the sense he has only scratched the surface of his potential. Johnson (17 tackles) was limited to 7 games last year and is not the most talented of the group, but offers great size and toughness. Junior Rayshad Jackson (14 tackles) is another body to add depth. Redshirt freshmen Ventrell Miller and James Houston IV were 3* recruits who might need to be ready to contribute. True freshman David Reese, not to be confused with the junior, was a high school safety who has beefed up to 220 pounds and looks ready to play, at minimum on special teams.
Secondary: Seven of last year’s top nine defensive backs were underclassmen and they tended to be feast or famine. With another year of experience, there is hope that this unit continues to improve and they’ll need to because Grantham’s system will certainly place them under some stress and leave them on an island at times.
The Gators seem set at corner, at least in terms of starters. Sophomores Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson were burned at times, but they go theirs too. Wilson (34 tackles, 10 PBUs) was a bit steadier and started 11 times. Henderson (22 tackles, 4 INTs, 4 pass breakups) got beat a bit more, but also created some plays himself. Depth is a question as sophomore Brian Edwards, who did not log any stats last year, and true freshman Trey Dean are currently the backups and there aren’t many options behind them.
At safety, technically no starters return, but junior Jeawon Taylor and sophomore Brad Stewart played a lot. Taylor (34 tackles, 1.5 for loss, INT) is a rangy player who started five times last year. He has dealt with injuries during his career, but if he can stay on the field, he has promise. Stewart (13 tackles, INT) flashed a lot of promise and versatility as a freshman and could be in line for a breakout year. Again, depth is largely unproven. Sophomores Shawn Davis (11 tackles) and Donovan Stiner got their feet wet last year and are currently listed as the top backups.
As many flashy plays as Wilson and Henderson made, the leader and rock of the group is likely junior nickel back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. A highly regarded recruit, Gardner-Johnson (58 tackles, 6 for loss, 2 INTs, 7 PBUs) has been a contributor since he stepped foot on campus and will be a jack of all trades in Grantham’s system. There is a decent chance this is his last year on campus. Sophomore CJ McWilliams has the early lead to be the backup, but don’t be surprised if Amari Burney, a 4* true freshman who enrolled early and has college-ready size, doesn’t move up the depth chart.
Special Teams: The Gators are starting over here after kicker Eddy Pineiro, who made 17 of 18 field goals, and punter Johnny Townsend, who led the nation in punting each of the past two seasons, graduated. True freshman Evan McPherson, rated the #1 kicker in the country, is penciled in as the kicker while junior Tommy Townsend, Johnny’s brother, is leading to punt. McPherson has proven to be accurate in practices, but appears to lack the range Pineiro had. The return units were mediocre and there are open auditions to improve that.
Schedule: For the most part, the schedule works out about as well as could be hoped for the new coaching staff. The Gators open the year with three home games (Charleston Southern, Kentucky, Colorado State) before a tough stretch (at Tennessee, at Mississippi State, LSU). The back half of the schedule features the neutral site showdown with Georgia and a road trip to FSU while Missouri and South Carolina come to Gainesville. It isn’t a cakewalk, but it isn’t daunting either.
Overall: Mullen proved to not only be able to win unlike any coach before him at Mississippi State, but he also was able to field very good offenses, something UF fans are surely hoping he brings to Gainesville. While the QB is still very much a question, it appears Mullen has the RBs and OL to run the ball with success and Jefferson gives UF a bonafide #1 wideout. The defense appears to lack proven depth across the board, except at maybe DE, but you have to think Grantham will field a good starting 11. As long as injuries don’t mount, I think the defense has a chance to be top 30 good. And that should be good enough against this schedule. Georgia looks like a for-sure loss and I would not expect Florida to win at MSU or FSU, but every other game is infinitely winnable. Seven or eight wins seems like a reasonable expectation, given the talent UF has and the schedule. That would be a step forward. To make the next step, Mullen needs to succeed more on the recruiting trail than he currently is, but that’s another story for another day.