Florida football: 10 biggest questions (and answers) heading into fall camp
Florida and Miami will kick off the 2019 College Football season when they meet in Orlando on Aug. 24. Because the Gators play a game in Week 0, they will begin fall camp Friday, a July start to what has to be one of the most anticipated Florida football seasons in the past 10 years.
Can Florida build on the promise of Dan Mullen’s 10-win opening season in Gainesville? How much distance remains between the Gators and Georgia in the SEC East? Or between Florida and the upper echelon of college football — the 3 programs to win the College Football Playoff: Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama?
What happens in Gainesville during fall camp will matter a great deal, not just in terms of how Florida plays against the rival Canes next month, but how the Gators come together as a team in 2019.
Here are 10 of the biggest questions (and answers) entering fall camp.
1. Can the Gators count on the offensive line?
The Gators brought back all five starters a year ago and although starting center T.J. McCoy eventually lost his job, Florida was deep and had two monstrous, All-SEC caliber players at the tackle positions in Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor. Ivey graduated; Taylor, a first-round talent, went early in the second round of the NFL Draft. The Gators now return only 2 starters (Nick Buchanan and Brett Heggie, who spent most of last season battling injuries). Everyone else is largely unproven, and this was clear in the spring, when the offensive line struggled, especially against Florida’s electric edge rushers.
The good news? Florida projects to start 4 upperclassmen up front, all who have been in the program and waited their turn. That helps when you are breaking in new starters. Plus, Florida has upgraded the talent massively up front. Even with departures, the line rotation will feature more blue-chip recruits now than it has had since 2012, and that includes multiple big-time recruits at tackle, like Texas transfer Jean Delance and redshirt freshman Richard Gouriage. Finally, the Gators have OL coach John Hevesy, one of the nation’s most well-respected cultivators of offensive line talent.
The bad news?
Florida needs to figure out answers beyond the first 6 of Buchanan, Heggie, Delance, redshirt freshmen Chris Bleich, Forsythe and TJ Moore. Miami is a tough defensive front to have your first game against when you are breaking in a new offensive line, especially when you have to hope you survive camp healthy with your preferred first 6. Further, while guys like Forsythe and Heggie are big players who can move the pile in the run game, pass blocking in the SEC is a different sort of ask. Can the starters do that well? Can Florida build depth?
That’s an awful lot of questions for a team that wants to win the SEC.
2. Will Feleipe Franks make “the jump” in Year 2 under Mullen?
Most starting quarterbacks under Dan Mullen — Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak (Florida), Tim Tebow (Florida), Dak Prescott (Miss State), Nick Fitzgerald (Miss State) — made significant progress in their second season under his expert quarterback tutelage. The jump tends to be even more pronounced for second-year starters like Prescott, Fitzgerald and Smith.
In the Power 5, only Kellen Mond made a larger jump from an efficiency standpoint than Feleipe Franks did last year in his first season under Mullen. With a rocket arm, strong leadership intangibles and a plethora of playmakers around him (more on that below), Franks should continue to improve in his second season under Mullen.
How much? A big area of emphasis to watch in fall camp? How about downfield throws (20 yards or more), where per PFF Franks ranked third-to-last in accuracy in the Power 5 last season. Franks mentioned this area specifically at SEC Media Days, a refreshing admission from a player who early in his career struggled with the maturity required to admit shortcomings. Will it be markedly better in 2019? We’ll know soon.
3. Is it DBU or Cornerback U?
The Gators have a bonafide All-American in CJ Henderson at one corner spot and two All-SEC candidates in Marco Wilson and Trey Dean also ready to play at corner and nickel, respectively. The departure of Chris Steele, the No. 1-ranked recruit in their 2019 recruiting class, hurts from a depth standpoint, but the Gators are still plenty good at the corner position for 2019.
The questions are at safety.
Brad Stewart was a midseason All-American per Pro Football Focus last year, famously sealing Florida’s win over LSU with a pick-6 of Joe Burrow. But his absence was felt in the Georgia game, and he continued to play either sparingly or inconsistently down the stretch, a major cause for concern given his ability. Stewart has to develop the maturity to stay on the field as a junior.
If Stewart can be reliable, the Gators are in good shape at free safety, with Shawn Davis a terrific run-stopper behind Stewart and Quincy Lenton a reliable deputy behind them.
The strong position is a work in progress. Donovan Stiner is a terrific run-stopper near the line of scrimmage and a smart player, but lacks high-end speed and athleticism. John Huggins would prefer to play nickel or Star in Todd Grantham’s defense, but has better range than Stiner and may be needed at strong safety. One guy to watch is highly-coveted freshman Kaiir Elam, who has the speed and athleticism to play corner but the size and physicality to play strong safety. Coaches expect he’ll play immediately, and given Florida’s questions on the back end, he’ll need to do just that.
4. Who emerges at defensive tackle?
Florida’s run defense struggled at times in 2018, largely a result of the unit lacking the type of interior push they had the prior season from Taven Bryan, who left early for the NFL.
All too often, Florida’s line played hard at the nose and 3-technique, but struggled to get much of a push.
Adam Shuler was marvelous down the stretch and a huge reason the Gators stuffed a powerful Michigan run game in the Peach Bowl. But there is not a ton in reserve behind him.
Tedarrell Slaton is the most talented nose tackle on the roster, but seems well behind Kyree Campbell and Elijah Conliffe entering camp. Will that change? Will Conliffe, a former blue-chip recruit the Gators staff moved inside, breakout? Florida can be pretty good defensively without another star emerging. They need more than Shuler to be great.
5. Leadership wise, who replaces Chauncey Gardner-Johnson as the defense’s emotional leader?
CJ Henderson is a candidate here, but he’s a quieter kid who prefers to talk with his play. Marco Wilson, coming off an ACL injury, is immensely respected, but does he want that role or does he want to focus on himself?
The obvious candidate is David Reese, the senior middle linebacker who is accountable and has seen the program at highs and lows. But Reese isn’t the most vocal guy either — though, as his display of emotion after both of Florida’s losses to Missouri the past two seasons demonstrate — he can get loud when he needs to.
The guess is this is a “leadership by committee” type situation, with the above-mentioned players, as well as senior linemen Jabari Zuniga and Adam Shuler, all playing a role.
6. Best group of Gator receivers since the Tebow era?
There really shouldn’t be a debate.
Florida’s wide receiver core features 2 sure-fire NFL players in Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes, who, if healthy, will be one of the breakout stars in the SEC in 2019. Florida has an embarrassment of riches behind them as well, including: senior Freddie Swain, who stands out on film because he’s constantly open; vertical threat Tyrie Cleveland; senior Joshua Hammond, who has great hands; and first down machine Kadarius Toney.
Gators fans also love Jacob Copeland, a former blue-chip who picked the Gators over Alabama, but Copeland has struggled with injuries since arriving on campus. If healthy, he could live up to the hype, though snaps will be tough to come by given the depth chart.
7. What role for Kadarius Toney?
Toney was the first Florida player since Percy Harvin to average a first down a touch with more than 40 touches a year ago, and he spent the spring and summer invested in learning more of the playbook, trying to prove to the coaching staff that he had enough grasp of the offense to be used more frequently in 2019.
Toney was a late bloomer as a recruit due to questions about his size and frame. Florida took a chance on him and his electric ability as a playmaker has been a known commodity since he arrived in Gainesville.
Last year, many doubted whether he had the size and strength to last a season in the SEC. He answered those questions by adding strength and muscle under Nick Savage.
Now, the questions are about his understanding of the offense. The truth is every time someone has doubted Toney, he has answered the bell. If he does that again this year, Florida’s offense might be even more lethal.
8. What freshman makes the biggest impact in camp?
We mentioned Kaiir Elam, who should play immediately in the secondary for the Gators.
Other key freshmen to watch are tackle Michael Tarquin, a four-star from Ocala that was in for the spring; four-star tight end Keon Zipperer, whose size and speed should put him right in the mix among a host of talented but unproven players at tight end for Florida; linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who enrolled in the spring, and while probably still too undersized to play every down, will have an impact in pass coverage and on special teams; and finally, Buck/DE/LB Khris Bogle, the 4-star recruit who chose Florida over Alabama and Miami.
Grantham has made a living developing talent at the Buck position, from Georgia All-American Jarvis Jones to Miss. State’s Montez Sweat to Florida’s Jachai Polite a season ago. This year, Grantham gets All-ACC graduate transfer Jonathan Greenard, who had 7 sacks at Louisville in 2017 but missed last season with a wrist injury, and behind them, a host of contenders, including, in all likelihood, Bogle. Is Bogle big enough to consistently make an impact? Maybe not. But Grantham is an expert at moving the Buck around and finding positive mismatches — and Bogle’s elite blend of length and speed might make it tough to keep him off the field.
9. The battle at backup running back will be fun
Lamical Perine is wildly underrated, one of the top 10 running backs in America last season in average yards after contact (2.98) who graded out as one of Florida’s 3 best football players on last year’s NY6 bowl-winning team, per Pro Football Focus. Perine will start and in all likelihood, have a chance to carry the load for the Gators in 2019. He’s just too complete a back not to demand to be on the field 3 downs at a time.
But Florida is loaded behind him. Malik Davis, a former All-SEC Freshman team selection, is back from an injury and offers explosiveness and a change of pace. Dameon Pierce is a power back who smashed Herschel Walker’s — yes that Herschel — Georgia state high school rushing records. Pierce loves contact, but as he showed last season, can outrun you if he gets to the second level as well. Iverson Clement figures to be in the mix, especially on special teams.
How Florida manages that talent — and what rotation develops — will be fun to watch.
10. What’s the camp vibe?
The Gators know who they are chasing. They know about the fourth quarter collapse against Georgia and they know all too well about the two blowout losses to Missouri that have been the low points of 2 consecutive seasons. They know that while last season was special, they can’t just be content with 10 wins and a Peach Bowl trip. They are eyeing a different trip to Atlanta.
They’ve also heard their rival Miami run its mouth all summer, talking about the history of the storied programs and the fact that outside of Urban Meyer, no Florida coach has defeated the Hurricanes since the Galen Hall era. Dating back to 1985, Miami has won 8 of the past 10 against Florida, with the Gators lone win this century coming under Meyer.
With FSU reeling and UCF vanquished by LSU’s backups, can the Gators handle their business against the Canes and continue to establish their in-state supremacy under Dan Mullen? With the national spotlight the Week 0 timing provides, can Florida seize the opportunity to showcase their brand?
It’s a massive game. The camp should have that feel.