Florida football: 5 Gators poised to break through after a strong fall camp
If spring camps are about setting the table for offseason development and playbook repetition, fall camps are always about competition.
Fall camps are where coaching staffs across America unshuffle the decks of their rosters and determine which players can immediately help the program win and which players need more seasoning.
Every fall camp practice matters and under a new coaching staff, there’s usually an even greater sense of urgency. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and fall camp is about showing the new staff you can help them win now.
The hard part is fall camps are also about coach-speak.
Most coaches are naturally guarded around the media to begin with, and come competition season, whether it is about focus, keeping kids motivated, retaining an element of surprise for an opponent or some combination of all the above, coaches aren’t typically willing to dive into details about individual players or position battles.
It’s often difficult to know for sure who made a big move in fall camp until the season kicks off.
That’s not really the case in Gainesville as the Gators have moved into game week.
For whatever reason, the usually guarded Dan Mullen has been unusually transparent during his first August camp as Florida’s HBC.
Mullen has talked openly about some fierce fall camp position battles — notably on the offensive line and in the secondary — and he’s praised individual performances throughout camp — whether it’s been a wide receiver like Van Jefferson or the quarterback unit grading out as champions recently or Jordan Scarlett basically all the time. He’s also identified areas of concern, whether it’s consistency at quarterback and on the offensive line or depth in the secondary and at linebacker.
Coupled with Mullen’s candor, the chatter of former players and some conversations with Florida football staff, including assistant coaches, SDS was able to gain insight into 5 players who we think made the most noise this August in Gainesville, and who should be well-poised to help Dan Mullen’s first Florida team succeed this autumn.
Obvious names — like Scarlett, Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson, Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes or linebacker Cece Jefferson — have been omitted purposefully, as their importance is either well-established or expected. We’ve written plenty about starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, too.
Instead, we offer five names who came on strong this August and are ready to break through in 2018.
5. Stone Forsythe, offensive tackle
Florida returns a veteran offensive line with a ton of starts and positional flexibility, but Mullen emphasized the need to cultivate depth in the fall.
Mullen wanted more than bodies on a roster — he wanted players who could handle his mix of power and zone-blocking run schemes and help his football team protect the quarterback better than they did a year ago, when they surrendered a SEC worst 37 sacks.
Forsythe is the guy who made the most strides. Mostly repping with the 2s behind Martez Ivey, Forsythe impressed the coaching staff, especially in the run game, where he the 6-7, 325-pound redshirt sophomore showed surprisingly good quickness and athleticism. Forsythe’s emergence gives Florida flexibility to move the versatile Ivey around if injuries or effectiveness demand it, and should help the Gators line play more consistent football in 2018.
4. Trey Dean, cornerback
Much has been made about the strength of Florida’s starting corners, sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson, each of whom were tapped as preseason All-SEC Coaches’ Team selections last week. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who will replace the NFL bound Duke Dawson at nickel, was the third member of DBU tapped to the preseason All-SEC Coaches’ team and can play nickel in a pinch.
It’s the depth behind that trio that probably caused Todd Grantham some sleepless nights this summer.
Enter freshman Trey Dean.
The prep All-American was expected to compete for early playing time after a big spring, and he delivered this fall.
Listed as the primary backup corner on Florida’s game week depth chart ahead of Saturday’s tilt vs. Charleston Southern, Dean has turned heads with his SEC-ready physicality and his ability to win one on one coverage battles against the seasoned SEC WR likes of Cleveland and Jefferson.
Grantham has raved about the young corner’s fire and football smarts, and it appears he’s poised to be the latest Gator freshman to make his mark in the secondary.
3. Jachai Polite, Buck LB
I wrote this offseason that I thought more than any player on Florida’s defense, Jachai Polite was the guy who could explode in 2018.
Even I get one right every now and then.
Polite has always impressed fans and scouts with his closing speed and relentless effort- case in point:
— bleechr (@bleechr) September 18, 2017
But he’s won over Mullen as a tenacious pass rusher, one who opens the season listed ahead of senior Jefferson at BUCK on the depth chart.
An assistant told me: “When we talk about the mantra of relentless effort and energy, he’s one of the standard bearers on this football team.”
Grantham certainly has options—and I’d expect Polite to outpace his 2-sack total from his injury-riddled 2017 campaign by the end of September alone.
2.Vosean Joseph, Linebacker
Fair or not, Vosean Joseph is defined by one huge hit and play he made as a freshman on Danny Etling at the goal-line at LSU.
Google search “Vosean Joseph.” The first thing that comes up automatically is “Vosean Joseph Hit.”
It’s understandable, after all, well, look at the hit:
But it’s just one play. Joseph doesn’t want that to define him.
He also entered fall camp not wanting a disappointing sophomore season (and an up and down spring) where he lacked consistency and was too often exposed in pass coverage to define him either.
To bounce back from his sophomore slump, Joseph went to work this summer, adding muscle and working hard on quickness. It appears to have paid major dividends.
“From film to football, our most improved linebacker,” a Florida assistant told me. “Explosive, disruptive, plays fast.”
That’s high praise, and when the depth chart for Charleston Southern came out with Miller the starter next to All-SEC linebacker David Reese, the praise came with the reward of an opening day start, and maybe, finally, the chance for a career to be about more than just one big play at LSU.
1. Tedarrell “TJ” Slaton, defensive tackle
The critical spot in Grantham’s Steelers 3-4 is the three-technique tackle, and Florida went into fall camp needing to figure out who would play the role Jeffery Simmons did so capably for Grantham last year at Mississippi State.
The Gators have options inside with Khairi Clark, Luke Ancrum and Elijah Conliffe all capable inside, but the guy who insiders feel has the chance to be dominant is Slaton.
With Jefferson, Polite, Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton and Zachary Carter all pushing to give Florida a host of talented options on the edge, Slaton’s ability to push the pocket and occupy defenders will prove vital in determining just how effective Florida’s defensive line can be.
Slaton has impressed with his work ethic and motor in camp and has set the lofty goal of breaking Florida’s single-season sack record set by All-American Alex Brown in 1999. Heady stuff, but the Gators will settle for a consistently productive tackle.