Better or worse? Transfers bring options, explosiveness to Florida's offense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 1st in a series previewing every SEC East team’s offense. Next: Georgia.
July. It’s hot. Summer just officially started and yet summer seems endless, especially in 2020, the year of the ‘rona. But that feeling you go when the calendar flipped from June? That’s called hope. College football is just around the corner and it’s talking season — the time of year when every football program thinks big things are on the August and September horizon.
Down in Gainesville, the chatter is about whether Year 3 of the Dan Mullen era is when the Gators make the Atlanta breakthrough. Yes, in his 2 years on campus, Mullen did a remarkable job flipping a toxic culture and 4-win team into a program with back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl wins. That’s not insignificant. Orange Bowl wins are a big deal, even at storied programs like Florida. But Florida fans want more. They want SEC championships and College Football Playoff appearances. They want to stop losing the Cocktail Party. Is this the year it happens?
As is often the case at Florida, the home of Tim Tebow, Urban Meyer’s spread and Steve Spurrier’s high-flying offenses that changed life in the SEC forever, the story begins on offense.
After a decade of offensive misery under the likes of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, Mullen’s offenses have started to, ever so slowly, come alive in The Swamp. Mullen’s first team finished a decade-high 22nd in total offense and 15th in S&P, and last season’s unit finished a decade-best 22nd in yards per play (6.2) and 11th in S&P+ offense.
They averaged 33.2 points per game. That was a slight dip from the 2018 production, but the Gators still were tied for 3rd in the SEC and ahead of every other SEC East team.
No one is mistaking those numbers for the Spurrier era or the zenith of Meyer and Mullen, but the Gators are getting closer.
Is Year 3 under Mullen the year where Florida’s offense finally wakes up the echoes? Will this group be even better than last year’s group? There’s reason to believe …
Key losses: Lamical Perine (RB), Van Jefferson (WR), Freddie Swain (WR), Joshua Hammond (WR), Tyrie Cleveland (WR)
Key returnees: Kyle Trask (QB), Kyle Pitts (TE), Trevon Grimes (WR), Brett Heggie (OL), Kadarius Toney (WR)
Potential breakout players: Jacob Copeland (WR), Lorenzo Lingard (RB)
Given Mullen’s outstanding track record with development, it’s tempting to suggest Florida will field better personnel on offense in 2020 than they did a season ago.
The Gators return the most successful quarterback the program has had in a decade in Kyle Trask, who threw for nearly 3,000 yards despite starting only 10 games. They also return the SEC’s biggest matchup nightmare in tight end Kyle Pitts, who rightly finds himself on many preseason All-American lists.
Couple that with the fact the offensive line, much-maligned a season ago for its inability to get much leverage in the run game, returns in mass (pun intended) and started to improve late in the season with the development of Ethan White and former blue-chip recruit Richard Gouriage — and there is optimism that the Gators will have more balance in 2020.
That hope must be tempered with the reality that Florida must replace 4 program stalwarts at wide receiver. The Gators return only 2 of their top 7 pass-catchers from a season ago (Pitts, Grimes), which means other players need to step up. Playmaker Kadarius Toney, for example, must find ways to run routes consistently and be more involved in the passing game. Jacob Copeland, the highly-coveted receiver who chose Florida over Alabama, needs to break through. And Florida will look to replace program heartbeat Lamical Perine, a back who could run, block and catch, by committee.
Those lingering challenges, which couldn’t be solved in spring ball due to COVID-19, make this all a push.
Passing Offense: Even
As noted above, the Gators lost 5 of their top 7 pass-catchers from a season ago. That’s nearly 150 receptions, 2,000 yards of offense and 16 touchdowns gone, for those scoring at home.
The decision by Grimes, an NFL prototype with a Julio Jones build, to return was immense and gives the Gators a reliable target outside of Pitts, whom defenses will key on in the absence of Van Jefferson and the forever open Freddie Swain.
But who emerges beyond Grimes?
Is it Toney, the first player at UF since Percy Harvin to average better than a first down per touch in consecutive seasons? He needs to be more consistent or his senior season will be like the 3 before it: full of flashes without any staying power.
Is it Jacob Copeland? He closed the season strong and no one questions his speed, work ethic or physicality. He just has to expand his grasp of the offense.
Is it freshman Xzavier Henderson, another coveted recruiting prize? Or Justin Shorter, the 5-star transfer from Penn State, who program insiders expect to receive a waiver?
These are options — and good ones. But the loss of spring ball means there’s no evidence they are truly answers.
Rushing Offense: Better
Last season, in this space, we correctly predicted the Florida run game would go backward thanks to an inexperienced offensive-line and Mullen going a bit more to the pass with all the weapons on the perimeter.
We just didn’t realize how far the drop would be. Florida finished in the 100s in rushing offense, despite the presence of the outstanding Perine, who, despite little blocking, managed to turn in arguably the biggest play of Florida’s season when he went 88 yards around right tackle to seal the Gators win over a top-10 Auburn team.
This season, the offensive line should be better and that should translate into improved production in the run game.
Florida hasn’t recruited much at the running back position under Mullen, but for now, the running back room is solid, with high-end talents in Dameon Pierce and 5-star transfer Lorenzo Lingard, who received a waiver, joining the likes of Malik Davis, a former All-SEC freshmen team selection, and 4-star talent Nay’quan Wright, a burner from Carol City who redshirted a season ago.
Those options are plenty good enough, especially if Davis is finally healthy after the injuries that slowed his past 2 campaigns. An expanded package for backup quarterback Emory Jones should also keep the Gators diverse and help the team become more explosive in the run game in 2020.
Kicking Game: Better
Junior Evan McPherson is, statistically at least, the best returning kicker in the SEC. He’s 34-for-38 in his career (best returning percentage in the SEC), including 7-for-8 from 40 yards or longer (best returning percentage in the SEC). He has worked hard to expand his range this offseason and it will be interesting if Mullen, who would frequently go for it on 4th down from the mid-30s area, will let his kicker work instead.
Kyle Trask won’t make a “Joe Burrow” type leap in 2020 (who does and who again will?).
But he’s plenty good enough to make a jump, and with improved balance in the run game, he’ll benefit from the return of a staple Mullen schemes better than anyone in the business: read option and play-action.
As is always the case in the SEC, the key is the offensive line — but the Gators won 11 games and piled up points with last season’s patchwork unit. If the line continues to build on what was an excellent November, this could be Florida’s most explosive offense since the 2008 national championship team.