Florida football: 5 biggest holes to fill in the 2021 starting lineup
Florida fans have a right to leave the 2020 football season behind with a bittersweet taste in their mouth.
The Gators certainly accomplished a great deal in 2020. They wrestled the SEC East back from archrival Georgia and at full strength, were the lone team to push eventual national champion Alabama for 60 minutes, falling just short in the SEC Championship Game. Florida’s Kyle Trask also fell “just short” of the Heisman Trophy, becoming the 6th Gators quarterback to be named a finalist but likely losing it when he struggled on senior night in a disappointing loss to a middling LSU.
Florida failed to close the season strong, bookending a terrific but not quite enough performance in the SEC Championship with 2 ghastly losses, the aforementioned home stunner against LSU and a dismal Cotton Bowl defeat to Oklahoma.
Entering the offseason having lost 3 straight games for the first time in the Mullen era, the Gators face a tall task of trying to repeat as SEC East champions while overhauling, from both a personnel and schematic standpoint, an offense that was one of the most lethal in school history.
Here are the 5 biggest holes the Gators have to fill in their starting lineup in 2021. Given that Florida almost certainly wins at least 10 games with even a competent defense, it’s no real surprise the following list is offense-heavy. But we start on defense …
5. DT: Antonio Shelton/Gervon Dexter replacing Kyree Campbell
Florida’s best efforts defensively came when Campbell returned to the fold after missing the season’s first month with an undisclosed injury. The Gators were much better against the run after Campbell’s return, and when the gap-stuffing tackle opted out of the Cotton Bowl, it was a colossal loss that helped the Sooners chalk up 400 yards rushing in their rout of a short-handed Gators squad.
Campbell wasn’t the most highly coveted recruit, but he worked hard, developed and became a leader under Todd Grantham and especially under the tutelage of defensive line coach David Turner.
The Gators didn’t recruit well enough in the Jim McElwain era or early in the Mullen era to have much behind Campbell, and the more highly regarded recruit, Tedarrell Slaton, is a better NFL prospect but was never close to as consistent or productive a collegiate player. Slaton also bolted for the draft, leaving an even more significant gap for Florida to fill at tackle.
Into the void come a number of well-regarded, productive transfers, the most notable of which is classic three-technique tackle Antonio Shelton, who started 34 games at Penn State. That type of experience is tough to replicate, and Shelton should push former 5-star recruit Gervon Dexter who, like most freshmen, battled inconsistency issues. Dexter has the chance to be Florida’s most explosive tackle since Taven Bryan — but having him and Shelton, along with Auburn transfer Daquan Newkirk (more a nose tackle than a three-technique), gives Florida depth. Will that depth translate into consistent Campbell-like production? Time will tell.
4. OT: Richard Gouraige replacing Stone Forsythe
In a pass-first scheme adjusted to the talents of Kyle Trask and a stable of electric pass catchers, Florida finished 18th nationally in sack percentage (4.06%), a number close to 2019’s productivity — allowing only 20 sacks despite passing on .6% more plays than in 2019.
The biggest reason — literally and figuratively — was Forsythe, a 3-star recruit who blossomed under John Hevesy’s watchful eye the past 3 seasons. Forsythe graded out in the top 25 among pass blocking tackles, per PFF, and while his heavy-feet and monstrous size made gettting to the second level difficult in the run game, his length and strength made it very difficult for pass rushers to get quality angles against him. That helped him swallow up the likes of Azeez Ojulari in Florida’s rout of Georgia and hold Alabama rushers to 1 pressure against him in the SEC Championship.
Florida doesn’t have many options to replace Forsythe. Richard Gouraige, recruited as a left tackle, has largely played guard in his time at Florida. He does lead the roster, however, with 229 career snaps at the position, 52 of which came in the Cotton Bowl. The other candidate is Michael Tarquin, who struggled to pass block in practice last autumn but would be an upgrade in the run scheme.
This position is one of critical concern in 2021, as it will be charged with protecting a new quarterback’s blind side– and Florida hasn’t recruited well enough to have a high number of quality options.
3. WR/Playmaker: Xzavier Henderson/Malik Davis replacing Kadarius Toney
A finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which honors the nation’s most versatile player (DeVonta Smith won, because, well, DeVonta Smith), Toney, always a threat with the ball in his hands during his first 3 seasons, finally found consistency and exploded as a senior in 2020.
His 70 receptions usurped the total he had in 3 prior seasons combined, and he gained over 1,000 total yards and tallied 12 touchdowns in the pass game, run game and return game to tie for the team lead in touchdowns.
More than the numbers, Toney always seemed to rise to the occasion when the Gators needed a big play. Toney didn’t drop a single pass thrown more than 10 yards downfield in 2020 on a high volume 31 such targets. He was devastating in 1-on-1 coverage, as Alabama learned last December:
— OnlyGators.com 🐊 Florida Gators news (@onlygators) December 20, 2020
When the ball wasn’t thrown more than 10 yards downfield, well — Toney could just run through dudes.
Kadarius Toney is one of my draft crushes 💕pic.twitter.com/QA33WlzWTf
— Boston Cream 🍩 (@itsbostoncream) February 9, 2021
I’m not sure there’s a player on Florida’s roster that can replicate the danger Toney created every time he touched the football — meaning the Gators, who have recruited well at the receiver position — may need to attempt to recreate the magic by committee.
Easier said than done.
2. QB: Emory Jones replacing Kyle Trask
Trask didn’t win the Heisman, but after a decade of mediocre to outright poor quarterback play in the post-Tebow era, Trask breathed life into the Florida football building and helped make the home of the Fun ‘N’ Gun exciting again. His legacy as a Gators great is secure, and there are plenty of scouts increasingly bullish on his NFL prospects.
Replacing a program great like Trask is usually difficult. For every Mac Jones for Tua story, there are 5 LSU situations, where a player most deem irreplaceable like Joe Burrow turns out to be just that.
Emory Jones, the most highly-rated quarterback recruit to sign for noted quarterback whisperer Mullen, has spent 3 seasons waiting his turn. Mullen has kept Jones involved, designing packages for him to help ease him into the offense and scheme. But the reality is that Florida altered its scheme to suit Trask’s strengths and is almost certain to alter the system to suit the dual-threat strengths of Jones as well.
Jones has looked comfortable passing the ball at times in his Florida career, but in his first healthy run of play against a big-time opponent since the Auburn game in 2019, Jones looked uncomfortable in the short passing game against Oklahoma, often aiming the ball and appearing inaccurate.
Can he improve his accuracy in that respect enough to keep defenses honest against the run? Jones ranked 1st in college football– ahead of noted dual-threats like Justin Fields and Malik Willis — in success rate on run plays from the quarterback position in 2020. Until Trask, Mullen’s best offenses had been run-dominant spreads predicated on the threat of the quarterback run game. Schematically, that’s what Jones offers. Can he deliver on a Dak Prescott-like level as a passser? That’s the question. If it is more of a Nick Fitzgerald situation, it could be a rough season for the Gators.
1. TE: Arik Gilbert, Keon Zipperer and Kemore Gamble replacing Kyle Pitts
An optimistic Florida fan will point out that Florida has a stable of talent at the tight end position, and possessed that even before Arik Gilbert, the No. 1 tight end in the country out of high school, elected to transfer to Florida after spending 1 season at LSU. That’s true. Kemore Gamble is a terrific blocker who runs nice routes — though he’s struggled with drops — and Keon Zipperer, a high-end 4-star tight end recruited by basically every program in America, showed flashes in 2020 when Pitts missed time due to various injuries.
The options are good.
The challenge is heady.
Pitts is quite possibly the best tight end in the history of college football. An NFL tight end in a college uniform, Pitts averaged more air yards per target (12.1) than any tight end in the last 2 decades with a minimum of 3 receptions per game. In an era where tight ends are targeted on 14.1% of pass plays — the highest mark since 2004 — Pitts wasn’t just a problem — he was a unicorn — a tight end you could trust to block but also one that could take on and beat your best cover guy, whether it was a safety 1-on-1 or a corner with safety help. Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, the best corner in college football per PFF, had help here and still learned this lesson rather rudely in the SEC Championship Game.
Florida TE Kyle Pitts routinely makes contested catches look easy. He's got wiggle at the top of his routes and is so smooth after the catch. A small sample below of plays that demonstrate some of his special receiving ability ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/7gdPN3GsSd
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 11, 2021
SDS asked an NFL scouting director whose 2020 playoff team “likely won’t be high enough” to draft Pitts if he had seen a tight end as dominant in the college game and received a very brief response: “Other than Jeremy Shockey, no and it’s not close.”
In other words, Gilbert, Zipperer and Gamble could prove to be a monstrous group — by committee — and still not dominate a football game the way Pitts could. That’s a reality — but Florida will hope a productive 3-headed position group is at least capable of easing the blow.