As Florida looks to build on an 11-win 2019 season that saw the program win a New Year’s Six bowl game for the second consecutive season, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in Gainesville.

Yes, Florida must replace a senior class that helped steer the program successfully through the Mullen transition and laid the foundation for what appears to be a bright future. It won’t be easy to replace the leadership or production of the likes of Lamical Perine, Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, David Reese II and others. But there is good news. Florida’s recruiting has seen an uptick, giving UF its most blue-chip laden roster in nearly a decade in 2020, which should help ease the production burden. Plus, Florida saw the bulk of its NFL draft eligible players return, with only surefire first round corner CJ Henderson off to the NFL. That gives the Gators a nice blend of upperclassmen and talented youngsters in 2020.

With that balance- and back to back double digit win seasons- comes expectations. Florida knows that Georgia’s losses on offense and the departure of program legend Jake Fromm to the NFL a season early has opened, ever so slightly, a window in the SEC East. Can Florida take advantage? Here are five critical players whose performances in 2020 will go a long way in writing the answer to that question.

5. DB Marco Wilson

The Gators got a big break when one part of their sterling cornerback duo from 2019 decided to stay in school for their senior season. Given his history of injuries, it would have been an easy decision for Wilson to go and cash in now. By staying, he takes the calculated gamble that with one more healthy season, his stock will rise to where it was following his freshman season, when he garnered freshman All-American honors.

Wilson cited ambitious team oriented goals as his reason for coming back: he’d like to play in the SEC Championship game, compete for a trip to the College Football Playoff, help Florida win its first football championship (conference or national) in over a decade. His leadership will be a big boost. Even more useful? His flexibility. Wilson can still cover on an island but he featured more at the Star/Nickel position late in the season and thanks to the emergence of freshman corner Kaiir Elam, he may get to stay inside for the bulk of his senior campaign. An outstanding tackler and a player who has always had a nose for the ball– he has plus speed for a corner playing inside and he could serve his draft prospects well by shining in the Star spot as a senior, leading the Gators secondary in the process.

4. LB/Safety Amari Burney

Technically, Burney is a linebacker. He’s just so fast he can still play at the strong spot if needed. And in truth, there will be downs and distances where it’s needed for the Gators in 2020.

Burney was a breakout candidate for the Gators in 2019 and while he had a decent campaign (37 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception), it wasn’t the explosion into household name that people expected. Some of that was injury-related. Some of it was scheme. But when put in good spots– rushing downhill from the safety position or put in coverage on tight ends– Burney played good football. His size, wingspan and speed mean you can deploy him in a bunch of different ways and you can bet Todd Grantham will in 2020, especially as he tries to replicate some of the havoc created by the departed Jon Greenard.

When departing senior Freddie Swain was asked to pick one player who would shine in 2020, he offered up “Amari Burney” without hesitation, adding: “when he’s healthy the guy is unblockable.” Heady praise from a consummate leader like Swain. Florida hopes he’s right.

3. DE Zachary Carter

I know, I know. Three defensive players in a row. Booorring.

But here’s the deal. The key to Todd Grantham’s whole scheme is what happens on the edge. Can you contain the edge in the run game? Can you exploit the edge in your pass rush?

Carter won’t be the BUCK, which is where Grantham generates so much edge pressure, but he may end up being one of Florida’s most vital “contain” guys in 2020– think the role Cece Jefferson played so well for the Gators as a senior in 2018. Carter added weight and muscle last summer as well, which means he can play inside at the three-technique or as the strong side end, depending on down and situation.

Carter’s versatility is good– but his production in 2019 was even better. There’s a compelling argument to be made he was Florida’s most underrated defender in 2019, especially given the added role he had to shoulder with the on again, off again injuries to Jabari Zuniga and Greenard. Carter finished the season with 3o.5 tackles and 4.5 sacks and according to Stats Solutions, he was one of two Florida defenders who created “havoc” (a play that leads to failure for the offense in some way) in every game he played (Greenard). Carter was also outstanding down the stretch, playing his best football in November– usually a sign of an underclassmen figuring it out becoming an upperclassmen coming into his own.

2. WR Trevon Grimes

Trevon Grimes has prototypical NFL size (6’5, 215) and speed (4.5), so it wouldn’t have stunned anyone if the Fort Lauderdale product and Ohio State transfer opted to declare for the NFL Draft after a reasonably successful junior season. Instead, Grimes returned to prove he can be the “man” in a Florida passing offense that loses four of its top six targets.

It can’t be emphasized enough that one of Florida’s largest challenges in 2020 will be replacing the leadership and production of their sterling quartet of senior receivers. It wasn’t just the way Swain, Van Jefferson, Tyrie Cleveland and Joshua Hammond impacted the passing game, either. Those four guys blocked downfield and put in shifts on special teams, consummate team guys who were always about impacting winning first.

To a man, they each say Grimes is the same way. Now it’s his turn to lead from a production standpoint too. The skill is there, even as he works hard to polish and improve his abilities as an intermediate route runner. His 15 yards per catch last season is a testament to his explosiveness: only Kadarius Toney (19.4) averaged more yards per reception and Toney did that on 23 less touches. Now Florida will need to know if he can do it at a high volume, especially early in the season as Florida’s young but immensely talented wide receiver corps figures it out behind him.

1. Kyle Pitts, TE

What? No Kyle Trask? He must think Emory Jones is going to start.

Actually, I don’t– but I think Dan Mullen and Florida will be fine at quarterback no matter what happens.

Well…they’ll be fine as long as Kyle Pitts is on the football field.

Certain to be a preseason All-American selection, Pitts is Florida’s best football player, a mismatch nightmare that is one of a handful of players in the SEC you just can’t really cover.

Don’t believe me? Ask Grant Delpit, who had this to say after going to war with Pitts last October in Tiger Stadium.

“81- their tight end. That dude is a player, man,” Delpit told the media.

He sure is. Pitts’s 54 receptions were tops on the football team in 2019 and he ranked second in yards, adding 5 touchdowns. Even playing in one of America’s deepest wide receiver and tight end rooms, Pitts caught 4 passes or more in 9 football games, and played some of his best football in the biggest games, whether his 8 reception afternoon in Florida’s win over Auburn or a sensational night in a losing effort at LSU.

He’ll tell you he can get better: as a run blocker, as a route runner, avoiding drops. He probably can. But what he is already is Florida’s most important football player in 2020.