The 10 most pressing concerns for Florida in 2017
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators are coming off back-to-back trips to the SEC Championship Game, but this squad will have a different look from the ones that captured the SEC East title the past two seasons. Entering his third year, Jim McElwain has plenty of spots to fill and, once again, a starting quarterback to name.
Here are Florida’s 10 most pressing concerns:
1. When will Malik Zaire learn the playbook?
ESPN’s Tom Luginbill caught the attention of Gator Nation when he emphatically rejected the idea that the Notre Dame transfer is a legitimate contender for the starting quarterback job in Week 1.
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“I don’t think Zaire has any chance of being the quarterback there,” Luginbill said. “I am shocked by that move. I don’t understand it. It’s not an easy offense to learn in three weeks.”
With this year’s Week 1 opponent being Michigan instead of a cupcake, there’s an even bigger interest in whether Zaire or redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks wins the quarterback job. If Luginbill is right about the time it will take Zaire to learn the offense, then Franks has the job virtually locked up.
2. How will Franks handle a defense with a real pass rush?
In spring practice, the sessions against the first-team defense were pretty evenly matched. The offense did not always move with ease against the defense, but when Antonio Callaway or Tyrie Cleveland got free, Franks showed he could hit an open receiver.
To some disappointment, Franks led the first-team offense against the second-team defense in the spring game. He had a few impressive passes, but the 8-of-14 performance doesn’t say much about how he’ll handle a real pass rush from Michigan.
3. Will the defense find its pass rusher?
When defensive line coach Chris Rumph spoke with the media this spring, he got straight to the point – a pass rusher needs to emerge on the line.
This could have been a motivational tactic, as the Gators have two defensive ends – Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson – who have shown they know how to bring down the quarterback. Zuniga, in fact, led the team last season with five sacks. There’s also former 5-star recruit Antonneous Clayton who has showed signs of turning the corner in his sophomore season.
With pass coverage expected to be less of a strength this season, the Gators are certainly counting on the defensive line to create more sacks, throwaways and poor decisions. With all the talent on the line, someone should step up.
4. Will Antonio Callaway miss time?
Ever since Callaway was cited for marijuana possession this offseason, the question has been what kind of punishment will be handed out from Jim McElwain. Officially, it’s Callaway’s first legal strike. It’s not, however, the first time Callaway has been in trouble at UF.
In a student conduct hearing for a sexual assault allegation, Callaway said he was too high to have sex on the night in question. Since that wasn’t an arrest or failed drug test, nothing came of the admission to using marijuana. Potentially factoring into Callaway’s punishment is that he was hanging out with a 40-year-old man with a lengthy record at the time of the citation.
McElwain hasn’t indicated how many games, if any, Callaway will miss, but any time with the receiver on the sideline will be tough on the Florida offense.
5. Will the other receivers step up?
On paper, Florida has a great receiving corps. There’s plenty of speed, size and versatility. When it comes to production, however, Callaway often does the heavy lifting.
With seven of the Gators’ top eight pass-catchers returning, this should be a season we see another Gators wideout, perhaps Cleveland, emerge as someone who can move the sticks and catch the ball in the end zone.
If secondaries have to respect targets not named Callaway, it should open up the passing attack. The Gators haven’t had two receivers over the 600-yard mark since 2009 (Riley Cooper 961, Aaron Hernandez 850). This should be the year that changes.
6. Who starts in the secondary?
This spring, it looked like Florida had figured out its starting four defensive backs in Marcell Harris, Nick Washington, Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner Jr. That changed when Harris went down for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.
If the Gators want to keep Gardner at cornerback, they could turn to S Jeawon Taylor to step into Harris’ spot. A more likely scenario, however, is that Gardner slides over to safety, where he excelled as a freshman, and someone else takes over opposite Dawson at cornerback.
Gardner at safety likely means a freshman plays cornerback, but Florida signed a trio of blue-chippers at the position.
7. Which defensive tackles will step up?
With Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie gone, the Gators have two big spots to fill in the middle of the defensive line. Coming out of spring, it looks like a pair of experienced redshirt juniors will step into starting roles. Khairi Clark appeared to be the leader at the nose tackle position. He played in all 27 games of the past two seasons but only started three. At defensive tackle, Taven Bryan, nicknamed the “Wyoming Wild Man,” is most likely to take Brantley’s spot. Bryan also appeared in all 13 games last season (and 12 the year before) and actually led the team with two forced fumbles.
Similar to the secondary, the interior defensive line is an area where the Gators are in good shape with their starters, but depth will be a problem if anyone gets injured.
8. Will the running game get better?
Florida’s top three ball-carriers – Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson – are back. That might or might not be a good thing.
The Gators were last in the SEC in rushing yards per game (128.23) and last in runs of 10 yards or more (45). This offseason, McElwain hired a new running backs coach, JaJuan Seider, and a new offensive line coach, Brad Davis. Perhaps Florida’s blockers and ball-carriers will benefit from some new ideas.
And this season, Zaire and fellow QB Kadarius Toney might be asked to boost the Gators’ ground game.
9. Will they be able to beat LSU and avoid embarrassment?
Ever since beating LSU 16-10 last season in Baton Rouge, the Gators have taken advantage of seemingly every opportunity to rub it in, at least on social media. Florida ensured it will have a target on its back when it named LSU its homecoming opponent.
After all the trash talk, taunting and trolling, the Gators better come away with a win on Oct. 7. If they lose, they won’t hear the end of it, much like with Tennessee last season.
10. Can the Gators retake the Sunshine State?
The season hasn’t even started, so Week 13 feels like a long way away. If you want to address concerns this season, the FSU game presents plenty. If the preseason polls turn out similar to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Florida will begin the season in the top 15, FSU in the top five. If ESPN’s projected win totals play out, the Seminoles will go to a New Year’s Six bowl while the Gators settle for a lower bowl.
If that happens, one would expect FSU to sign a higher-ranked recruiting class than Florida, again.
Two SEC East titles are great, but McElwain might slowly lose Gator Nation if he falls to 0-3 against FSU.
Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp all managed to win at least one of their first three games against the Seminoles. Spurrier always preached that winning the SEC mattered most, but for McElwain, the Nov. 25 contest in The Swamp is arguably more important for the state of the program.