10 biggest questions I have as Florida enters fall camp
It’s August, which means fall camp and finally, college football. Sure, the SEC doesn’t get going until Sept. 2, but after the longest offseason of any sport, can we really complain about football come Aug. 28? Nope.
Fall camp means we get a peek into some of the questions that have lingered throughout “talking season.” In Gainesville, that means, among other things, a closer look at Emory Jones, who takes over at quarterback for Heisman finalist Kyle Trask. It also means the first extended glimpse at Florida’s rebuilt defense, bolstered by multiple transfer portal additions and 5-star corner Jason Marshall Jr. Will the Gators have enough to repeat as winners in the SEC East? That question won’t be decided until late October at the earliest, but once the pads come on, we begin to get some answers.
Here are the 10 biggest questions SDS has about Florida as the Gators enter fall camp on Aug. 6.
1. How accurate does Emory Jones need to be?
Look, Emory Jones was recruited by every major program in America. He has a rocket arm and throws a terrific deep ball. The questions come with the intermediate and short throws that Kyle Trask made look so simple for Dan Mullen the past 2 seasons.
Jones doesn’t have to be as accurate as Trask. Mullen is a master at tailoring his offense to his personnel and if he can make a pocket passer like Trask a Heisman finalist, he can certainly make it work with Jones, who is an elite runner and more of a prototype for what Mullen traditionally prefers to do with his spread offense.
In 2018, Mullen used a run-first spread with Feleipe Franks and managed 10 wins despite Franks’s rather pedestrian 58.4% completion percentage. Franks, to his credit, took terrific care of the football, throwing 24 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. A willing runner, Franks added 350 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground.
The safe bet is if Jones can get to 58.4% from a completion standpoint, the Gators will be in very good shape offensively. Jones figures to enter the Dak Prescott/Tebow 200 carries territory in 2021. For perspective, Franks carried 110 times in 2018; Trask carried 127 times total in just under 2 seasons as the starter. For those guys, accuracy was a bit more vital. Jones’ ability to keep Florida multiple in the run game likely offers more flexibility. But it’s an interesting thing to monitor as the Gators enter fall camp.
2. Is there a Kadarius Toney type of weapon on the roster?
On paper, replicating Toney’s 2020 production (1,145 total yards, 11 touchdowns, 11.8 yards per touch) seems like an outrageous ask. It’s important to remember, however, that for all Toney’s electrifying talent, he had yet to put it all together until 2020, when he nearly doubled his career production despite a shortened season.
There are candidates on the Florida roster who fit the profile of breakout playmaker. I shudder every time I hear folks say Malik Davis, who was an All-SEC Freshman team member, doesn’t have playmaking talent. He isn’t Toney, but Davis is a terrific pass catcher and a solid runner, a guy you find ways to get the ball to.
Jacob Copleand is a player we’ve picked to break out, though he’s more of a traditional receiver than Toney. The staff recruited Ja’Markis Weston, a 6-3, 215-pound matchup problem, to be a jack of all trades playmaker. He’s mostly played (well!) on special teams and now enters Year 3 in the program with 1 reception. Other guys, like 5-star transfers Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman, have game-changing talent.
It’s probably a situation of “replace by committee,” but it’s an interesting story entering fall camp.
3. Is there concern at kicker?
Evan McPherson left early for the NFL and was drafted, a testament to his game-changing leg and the fact he was the SEC’s most accurate kicker over the past 3 seasons. Florida may miss him more than fans realize.
The top candidate to replace him is Jace Christmann, a grad transfer from Mississippi State. Mullen actually recruited Christmann to Starkville, where he was a relatively solid kicker until losing his starting job a season ago. Will a change of scenery restore his confidence? With new faces across the offense, the Gators can’t afford to drop off on special teams in 2021.
4. Who wins the job at center?
The Gators need to replace program mainstay Brett Heggie in this spot and fall camp will determine who does that.
Senior Stewart Reese, who opted to return for another year after transferring from Mississippi State before the 2020 season, was the starter exiting the spring. He’s a splendid run blocker but was limited late in 2020 after suffering an injury early in the Georgia game. Can he return to form in 2021? That would be immense given the new quarterback and the importance of the zone power concepts which require a solid run-blocking center.
Ethan White will push Reese — he’s down to 320 pounds (from 400 as a recruit) and offers versatility as a guard or center.
5. What does the offense look like in Year One, AKP (After Kyle Pitts)?
It’s difficult to replace one of the greatest tight ends in college football history, but at least the Gators have recruited exceptionally well at the position and have an abundance of options. Like Kadarius Toney, we expect the Gators to attempt to “replace” Pitts by committee, and a trio of highly coveted recruits (Kemore Gamble, Keon Zipperer and Nick Elksnis) are all on campus and should play. Of the trio, Gamble, a 5th-year senior, is the most consistent as a receiver and blocker. It’s the latter skill — his ability to get out and block in the power run game, that should make him the starter.
probably the best play that illustrates Florida's better blocking execution in run game (granted, Colorado State is bad vs. run). Fred Johnson with a nice pull to the left to help create room. TE Kemore Gamble with basically two blocks. Van Jefferson does what he usually does. pic.twitter.com/o8zDlL1Bes
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) September 16, 2018
Zipperer is the best pure receiver, though he needs to overcome a case of the drops that hit late in 2020.
The cupboard isn’t bare — but the tight end room looks different without Pitts.
6. How does the DT rotation sort out?
Florida hit the portal hard at defensive tackle, bringing in 3 new faces, including Antonio Valentino, who played productively in over 40 games at Penn State, and Auburn run-stuffer Daquan Newkirk. Florida has also upgraded from a talent standpoint at the position thanks to defensive line coach David Turner, a strong recruiter. Gervon Dexter, a 5-star who showed his immense talent in flashes in 2020, should take a nice leap. A host of other blue-chip talents, including Lamar Goods and Jaelin Humphries, could also make their presence felt.
This position should be vastly improved for Florida in 2021.
7. Who is the “other” starting corner?
Kaiir Elam, a bona fide Thorpe Award candidate, mans one of Florida’s corner spots. Offenses will likely aviod Elam, a first-team All-SEC selection rated among the top 5 corners in college football by Pro Football Focus.
The other spot is intriguing. Five-star Jason Marshall Jr. is as advertised when you see him on tape, and his NFL-ready frame makes him ideal for Florida’s bump coverage schemes (when Grantham uses them, yes hit the comments section on that one). Ranked the No. 2 corner out of high school last season, he’ll play no matter what — the only question is if he can beat out another blue-chip, Jaydon Hill, who was one of a handful of Gators other than Elam who had a quality 2020 season.
Expect Hill, who is reliable but not a star, to start early, but Jason Marshall Jr.’s talent is too immense to hold off for long. Can he earn the coach’s trust and a starting job in fall camp?
8. How improved is Florida at linebacker?
Much of this question, as I’ve written on this site, comes down to how much Florida improves at defensive tackle. Florida’s linebackers took unfair heat at times last year when the interior of their line was eaten alive, leaving the linebackers sitting ducks to blocks on the second level. The failures were less about Christian Robinson’s position group and more about being unable to get leverage up front.
The Gators should improve drastically up front in 2021, which will leave room for the linebacking corps to showcase themselves. Ventrell Miller is the unquestioned starter and leader of the defense in the middle. But there’s plenty to be excited about around him, from playmaker Mohamoud Diabate to physical specimen Ty’Ron Hopper to speedy Diwun Black to elite athlete Amari Burney, who played a bit elsewhere last season, including some snaps at strong safety, but should fully transition to linebacker in 2021.
The Gators have multiple all-conference talents at the linebacker spot. This should be an exciting group to monitor in fall camp.
9. What can we expect from the 5-star RB transfers?
Demarkcus Bowman is consistently selected as the “breakout player” for the Gators in preseason magazines. That’s reasonable, given the Clemson transfer’s immense talent. But Florida has a deep running back room, including established pieces like Dameon Pierce, who doesn’t figure to just hand over the running back duties to Bowman. Lorenzo Lingard, finally healthy from injuries that limited his career at Miami and his first season in Gainesville, is another 5-star transfer that figures to make an impact. How Mullen intends to share carries, and who the leader of that room is, will be an intriguing battle in fall camp.
10. Is there a “chip on the shoulder” vibe?
Dan Mullen’s repeated comments at SEC Media Days that he likes the “attitude” of his football team and the “mindset and the leadership within our program” were interesting. Mullen specifically praised the “culture and accountability” of his defensive players, perhaps hinting that the Gators are focused on atoning for their 2020 woes.
Florida is a very talented team — just not quite as talented as perennial Playoff contenders Alabama, Georgia and LSU. But the Gators trust their coaches, and they enter fall camp the defending champions in the SEC East, a point Mullen made at SEC Media Days without even mentioning rival Georgia.
If that attitude and chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is something Florida brings to fall camp, maybe this isn’t the transitional season in Gainesville so many insiders expect.