Better or worse? Previewing Florida's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series previewing every SEC team’s offense, starting with the East Division. Coming Tuesday: Georgia.
When Florida football revolutionized the 3 yards and a cloud of dust SEC in the 1990s, it did so on the backs of Steve Spurrier’s innovative, high-flying offenses. The Gators kept up the offensive mojo well into the Tim Tebow era, but after Tebow’s departure, Florida was stuck in the swamp offensively, and as a result, so was the program.
Offensive woes were a primary reason Jim McElwain and Florida parted ways in 2017. Hired to fix the moribund offenses that derailed the Will Muschamp era, McElwain’s final Florida offense finished 104th in yards per play and 51st in S&P+ offense.
Dan Mullen arrived last fall, however, and quickly made improvements. Long regarded as one of college football’s best offensive minds and quarterback whisperers, Mullen’s first offense in Gainesville finished 22nd in total offense, a decade-best 32nd in yards per play and 15th in S&P+ offense.
Most impressive, Mullen completely flipped the script for starting quarterback Feleipe Franks. In 2017, under McElwain and interim head coach Randy Shannon, Franks slotted in as the second-least efficient QB in the Power 5, ahead of only Kellen Mond, who, as fate would have it, defeated Franks and the Gators on the field in 2017, anyway.
Last year, Mullen helped Franks make the largest-efficiency leap in the Power 5 of any starter (nearly 30 points in QBR!) and by season’s end, Franks was winning MVP honors at a New Year’s 6 Bowl game. Given the historical progression of second-year starting QBs under Dan Mullen, a Peach Bowl MVP could be just the beginning for Franks and the Florida offense.
What should we expect in year two of the Mullen era from the UF offense? Let’s play better or worse …
Key losses: Jordan Scarlett, RB; Martez Ivey, OT; Jawaan Taylor, OT
Key returnees: Lamical Perine, RB; Feleipe Franks, QB; Van Jefferson, WR; Kadarius Toney, WR; Trevon Grimes, WR; Freddie Swain, WR; Joshua Hammond, WR; Tyrie Cleveland, WR
Potential breakout players: Kyle Pitts, TE; Kemore Gamble, TE.
It’s no secret everything starts with the line of scrimmage in the SEC and this year, the Gators will be no different. The playmakers are almost all back, save Jordan Scarlett, and Florida adds blue-chip pieces at tight end and running back. If the Gators can find the right combination on the offensive line, where they must replace two tackles headed to the NFL, the personnel will be a definitive better. But that is “to be determined.”
Passing offense: Better
Florida returns a stable of wide receivers that is as good as any unit in the conference, both from a blue-chip perspective (the entire two deep is blue-chip WRs) and returning production perspective.
Van Jefferson remains the best route-runner and is an expert at creating separation at the line of scrimmage. Kadarius Toney became the first UF player since Percy Harvin to average a first-down a touch on 40 or more touches last season; Toney showed an improved understanding of the playbook this spring and should see the ball even more in 2019. Freddie Swain is one of the most underrated players in the SEC. It’s astonishing how often he’s open, and he should easily better his numbers from 2018, as defenses key on stopping the run and containing Jefferson, Toney and vertical threat Tyrie Cleveland.
Those players are all mentioned before we get to Trevon Grimes, who, put plainly, is a problem.
Virtually uncoverable in the spring, Jefferson and Swain give Mullen the chance to pick matchups for Grimes, who has NFL size and speed.
In other words, the Gators are loaded on the perimeter.
They also expect the tight end position to be better. Kyle Pitts is a walking matchup problem and Kemore Gamble, another blue-chip recruit, has great hands. Lucas Krull adds depth.
Of course, the onus will be on a very young offensive line to protect Franks, and the junior QB will need to be more accurate down the field (12th in SEC in 20+ yards or more completion percentage in 2018.) But if Franks has time, he will have options, and after an offseason working on downfield accuracy, it’s safe to project Florida’s passing offense will be “better” in 2019.
Rushing offense: Worse
Florida finished 27th nationally in rushing offense in 2018, averaging 5.3 yards a carry.
With Lamical Perine back, the Gators have a tremendous running back who should carry the load and become the first Gator to run for 1,000 yards since Mike Gillislee accomplished the feat in 2012.
The Gators also have good depth, with Malik Davis looking healthy in the spring despite returning from a second-season ending injury in as many years and sophomore Dameon Pierce a powerful runner who is a load to bring down in the second level.
Still, Florida made a living running at behemoth tackles last season, and until the Gators have certain solutions at those spots this autumn, a dip in production seems inevitable.
Perine has been top 5 in the SEC in yards after contact twice in his career, so he’s capable of grinding out tough yards. But Florida has to replace four starters on the offensive line — never easy in any conference — and especially tough given the Gators’ brutal schedule, which not only includes a West Division draw of Auburn and LSU but includes Miami and FSU, which, while rebuilding, still boast physical, talent-laden defensive fronts.
Special teams: Better
Florida returns two of the SEC’s best specialists in punter Tommy Townsend (45.4 per punt, 42.3 net) and Evan McPherson (50-for-50 XP, 17-for-19 FG).
It’s hard to beat McPherson’s numbers, but he’s added leg strength and should be good from 50+ when called upon as a sophomore.
As for Townsend, he’s a capable athlete who gives Florida a tackler and coverage piece as well as the booming leg we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Townsend family. Give me the Gators’ specialists against most anyone in the SEC.
With an improved Franks and the deepest playmaker pool Florida’s had since 2009, it’s easy to see why people are excited about the offense in Gainesville.
The offensive line has questions, and the progress Florida makes up front will dictate what the program’s ceiling is in 2019, but Florida will rack up points and yards against opponents with less talent — which is most everyone on the schedule next season save LSU, Auburn and Georgia.