5 biggest concerns I have about Florida in 2019
Florida started fall camp brimming with confidence after winning 10 games and a New Year’s 6 Bowl in Year 1 under Dan Mullen. The 6-win improvement in one season didn’t just make the Gators one of college football’s pleasant surprises in 2018; it raised expectations in Gainesville, where, despite the occasional trip to Atlanta, the program has not won an SEC Championship since 2008.
The Gators have some tremendous pieces: an elite wide receiver unit, a brilliant senior running back, loads of talent all over the defense.
But there are questions.
Here are the 5 biggest concerns we have about Florida in 2019:
1. The offensive line
If you are a Gators fan, you are probably tired of reading about how Florida’s season will rest on the improvement of the hog mollies up front.
Imagine how tired Florida’s scholarship linemen must be.
Nevertheless, the Gators return only 24 starts on the line, a figure that ranks 126th nationally, according to Phil Steele. That’s a heady challenge, even for a unit coached by John Hevesy, “one of the nation’s best position coaches,” according to Urban Meyer.
Last year, Mullen’s scheme and rhythm play-calling saw the offense average more than 30 points a game for the first time in a decade. Much of that had to do with the line, which returned a wealth of experience (112 starts) and 2 NFL caliber talents at tackle.
This year, the talent is actually upgraded, from a blue-chip ratio standpoint. But the experience and known commodities are largely absent, save steady center Nick Buchanan.
Florida’s wide receiver unit has — rightly — received a great deal of acclaim this offseason. But Mullen’s spread offense relies on the power running game to command respect, opening space and mismatches in the passing game. If Florida is to maximize its weapons on the perimeter, they’ll need an inexperienced (though with 4 upperclassmen projected to start, not necessarily young) unit to grow up quickly.
The SEC is a line of scrimmage league, and Florida’s growth on its offensive front is the biggest question mark and concern heading into the season.
Miami, which in case you have been living under a rock, awaits the Gators on Aug. 24. The Canes have a talented front 7, even with the departure of All-American Gerald Willis — so we’ll get a few early answers soon enough.
2. Brad Stewart’s consistency and who else emerges at safety
According to Pro Football Focus, Florida free safety Brad Stewart was a midseason All-American, one of the 2 best safeties in America last year through mid-October. He’s fast, a steady tackler and, as LSU fans know, a ball hawk.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 6, 2018
In other words, he’s what you want in an SEC free safety.
The problem was he didn’t play a down against Georgia, missed another game down the stretch and struggled with consistency when he was on the field. Whether he had off-field issues or simply read his press clippings, the Gators need a consistent, healthy Stewart all season in 2019.
Behind him, there’s a free-for-all for playing time but not much proven talent beyond Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner, 2 smart football players who are excellent in run support but lack upper echelon athleticism.
Kaiir Elam, a coveted recruit who has the speed to play corner but possesses good size and muscle, could play the nickel or strong spots as well.
Florida is set at corner. The question marks are on the back end, and Todd Grantham will need stable production back there if this defense is to go from very good to great in 2019.
3. Linebacker production outside of David Reese
Reese is an All-SEC caliber player at middle linebacker, a senior who has been through the SEC grind and been a productive player throughout. Tremendous in the run game, he was sorely missed early last season when an injury forced him out of Florida’s loss to Kentucky. After he returned, the Gators stiffened against the run, despite the lack of much interior push at the tackle spots.
Beyond Reese, there is talent but not a great deal of returning production.
Vosean Joseph departed early for the NFL, and his speed and nose for the football were an integral part of Todd Grantham’s blitz packages last season.
LB Vosean Joseph looked great yesterday. Electric as a blitzer. pic.twitter.com/4QVzTTeiKB
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) October 8, 2018
That type of versatility and ability to generate pressure will be missed, and there’s no proven production behind it.
Amari Burney, a blue-chip recruit moving to linebacker from the secondary, is the most likely replacement, and if all goes well, he could be an upgrade over Joseph in pass coverage, as he is more fluid in the hips and more natural against the pass. But it has to go well first.
As for the other linebacker spots, the Gators have recruited very well and a host of former blue chips will have their chance, but someone — whether it is James Houston, Ventrell Miller, Mohamoud Diabate, Ty’Ron Hopper, Khris Bogle, Jeremiah Moon or someone else — needs to seize the moment.
4. The schedule
Put plainly, it’s tougher than it was last season.
Last year, the Gators had a tough, emotionally charged game at Mississippi State, which historically hasn’t been a kind venue to the Gators. Florida found a way to win, and the victory was a turning point for the program under Mullen culturally.
Outside of that trip, however, the Gators’ road games were: at Vanderbilt, at Tennessee, at Florida State — 1 bowl team (Vandy) and 2 rebuilding programs that spent most the season losing. The Gators trailed by 18 at Vandy before rallying late.
This season, the road games are much more difficult: at Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Mizzou. Florida was 2-2 against those teams a year ago in The Swamp, and very easily could have lost all 4. The Gators haven’t even been competitive against Missouri the past 2 seasons, and you have to think LSU will be chomping at the bit to exact some revenge as they host the Gators for the first time in 3 seasons. The South Carolina trip, moved from its usual November location to the week after the LSU game, feels like a trap.
All told, that’s a brutal road slate and that’s before you factor in a tough opener against rival Miami, a rare visit to Gainesville from Auburn and the always fiercely contested Cocktail Party.
This is one of the toughest schedules in America, even with the 3 bye weeks.
5. Leadership void?
Last season, the Gators had a tremendous group of leaders featuring senior tackle Martez Ivey, senior defensive end Cece Jefferson, junior running back Jordan Scarlett, senior tight end Cyontai Lewis and junior safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
That group had seen the program at high ebbs (division title, SEC Championship game) and the lowest of lows (41-7 loss to Georgia, 4-win season, coach resigned).
Culture changes are never easy, but Mullen talked repeatedly last year about how impressed he was the leadership group and how their respective “buy-in” trickled to the rest of the team.
The locker room isn’t short on leadership candidates: Senior LB David Reese, junior CB CJ Henderson, junior CB Marco Wilson, junior QB Feleipe Franks, senior RB Lamical Perine and senior WR Van Jefferson all stand out as options, among others.
But establishing that leadership piece in fall camp and early in the season is immense for a team with championship aspirations.