Florida football: 5 things that will define the Gators offensively in 2021
Florida wrapped its spring practice before the calendar turned to April, the earliest finish to Gators’ spring ball in recent memory. Florida is also just one of two SEC programs that elected not hold a spring game. The Gators did hold closed door scrimmages, including one to finish spring practice in late March, but the lack of the traditional spring game pomp and circumstance certainly has softened the usual post-spring buzz that swirls around SEC programs this time of year.
Florida, of course, is coming off the first division title in the Dan Mullen era, having wrested the East away from Kirby Smart and Georgia in 2020. Florida fell short in the SEC Championship Game but pushed Alabama for 60 minutes in defeat, leaving plenty of room for optimism in the Florida football building despite closing the season with 3 consecutive defeats.
Staying atop the East in 2021 will be difficult. The Gators lost a generational talent in tight end Kyle Pitts, a Heisman finalist in quarterback Kyle Trask and a do-it-all electric playmaker in Kadarius Toney. Mullen will need to rebuild one of the best Florida offenses in program history without that star power while also hoping a defense that ranked among the worst in the SEC in several statistical categories improves dramatically.
Mullen, as ever, projected confidence in an end-of-spring call with media. “We’re going to be a great team because, more than ever, we have a lot of depth.”
Florida is deeper at many key positions. They are also unproven. Over the next week, we will look at Florida’s offense and defense as they aim to maintain SEC East supremacy.
Coming out of the spring, here are five questions- and potential answers- that could define Florida offensively in 2021.
Emory Jones is ready to be the starting QB, but will Florida be versatile on offense?
Mullen, who so often keeps his quarterback decision open as long as possible, was candid about Emory Jones being his starter at the end of spring. That’s a good sign for Gators wondering if the highly touted Jones, in his fourth year on campus, was ready for the gig he patiently waited his turn to have.
Mullen is a master at modifying his offense to suit his personnel, as anyone who has watched him coach quarterbacks as different as Chris Leak and Kyle Trask to Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott knows. At bottom, however, Mullen’s preferred offensive scheme is a run-first spread that has the capacity to be multiple in the way it attacks opposing defenses.
Jones can definitely execute the run-first spread pieces of that scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, no college quarterback who played 50 snaps or more had a higher success rate in the run game last year. Jones is explosive as a runner, has great vision, runs with power that is elite for his size and doesn’t shy away from contact.
Florida is aiming to evolve from being a spread passing squad in 2020 to a power-option, defensive team in 2021. Behold! The transformative power available to flexible coaches in the era of the transfer portal. https://t.co/7rvb1T1vUv pic.twitter.com/WsfSEVz2o5
— Asst to the Minister of Culture (@Ian_A_Boyd) April 5, 2021
The question, of course, is whether Jones can execute even a watered-down passing game. Playing without Florida’s elite pass-catching talent in the Cotton Bowl, it did not look like it. Jones missed short to intermediate passes too frequently and looked uncomfortable sitting in the pocket.
But that one game sample may be unfair.
After all, everyone that recruited Jones knew he had a big arm- and he’s shown he can throw a lovely deep ball (maybe only Matt Corral in the SEC throws a better one). But can he be consistently accurate enough- especially in the tighter windows required in big games? He was against a great Auburn defense in 2019, spelling an injured Kyle Trask to help Florida win 24-13 — but will he be able to do it consistently against defenses that spend all week preparing to exploit his limitations?
That’s the biggest question of the Florida offseason—and will be the question at least early in the 2021 season.
Even if Jones is really, really good, will Florida’s offense be less prolific?
The answer is yes and again, that’s not an indictment of Jones.
Florida is losing generational talent at playmaker positions, and they are starting a new, “run-first” quarterback. Mullen will work and scheme his rear off to max out Florida from an efficiency standpoint in the passing game, but the Gators are going to naturally be less explosive in 2021 than 2020. Some of this is simply a product from shifting from a pass-first spread to a power-run spread. You can expect Florida’s quarterbacks (Jones and backup Anthony Richardson) to carry the ball anywhere from 160-213 times — the precise range of Dak Prescott and Tim Tebow as juniors and seniors at Miss State and Florida, respectively. That they will do so behind the biggest offensive line in Mullen’s tenure (the starters, leaving the spring, average 330) only heightens that expectation.
Couple that expectation with the fact 3 of the best playmakers on the roster — sophomore Nay‘Quan Wright, senior Malik Davis and transfer Demarkcus Bowman — all play running back and you get an offense that could still be explosive and not eat up yardage as quickly as the 2020 offense did.
The Gators could be plenty good on offense in 2021. It just won’t look the same. The key is whether Mullen gets enough in the pass game to be multiple in big contest. If he does — maybe there’s less of a drop off.
Speaking of Malik Davis: Will he be a receiver or a running back first?
Before the spring, a Florida staffer candidly told me that Davis is a guy “they intend to line up all over the place — he’s too good to not do that and is one of the guys where we have to get the football in his hands.”
Florida’s running back room is loaded — and it is versatile. Dameon Pierce is a power back with a bellcow mentality who was among the SEC’s best after contact in 2020. Bowman is the 5-star transfer come home to do big things — he has every tool necessary to be the next great Florida running back. Lorenzo Lingard, another 5-star transfer, offers speed and elusiveness. Nay’Quan Wright has elite vision and is a terrific pass catcher. Davis had 377 yards receiving in 2020 to only 310 rushing, and with Florida looking to maximize the talent in its running back room, Davis could be a slot guy or flex option and widen that disparity even more in 2021.
Tight end, Year 1 AKP (After Kyle Pitts)
It’s not just the SDS Florida J-School alumni who thinks Kyle Pitts was a generational talent. It is opposing coaches (who made him 1 of only 2 unanimous All-SEC first team selections (DeVonta Smith). It is also NFL scouts and front office executives, including an AFC playoff-team GM who told me “Pitts is the best college tight end I’ve seen since Jeremy Shockey.” Shockey, of course, played at the U a generation ago.
How will Florida replace him?
They won’t — so the idea will be to “Moneyball” his production.
To do that, they will look to a tight end room full of blue chips even without 5-star transfer Arik Gilbert, who committed to UF this winter but re-entered the transfer portal.
The talents are 4-star Keon Zipperer, who chose Florida over Alabama, 4-star Kemore Gamble, and a host of freshman led by Nick Elksnis, a 3-star out of Jacksonville who had a 5-star offer sheet (Ohio State, Michigan, Miami and FSU all aggressively pursued the young man). Elksnis is a classic Tim Brewster tight end — 6-6, 225 and growing, rangy, great hands, deceptively fast (or at least much faster in pads than he is in training camp). Ambitious Gators fans believe he’s the heir apparent to Pitts. He may be the next great Florida tight end — but to me he profiles a bit more like another Brewster guy — FSU All-American Nick O’Leary. That’s a nice upside, but like Pitts, who had only 3 catches as a freshman, Elksnis will need a year to learn and grow, especially from a strength standpoint.
The room is Zipperer and Gamble’s for now, and that’s a good room. It’s just not a Kyle Pitts room.
Breakout star? Give me Jacob Copeland
Call me a glutton for punishment, but there’s just too much physicality and speed and strength for this kid not to bust out eventually, right?
Copeland was better in 2020 than he was as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Sure, he only caught 2 more passes, but he averaged nearly 6 more yards per reception, caught 1 more touchdown and showed improvement as a route-runner.
Copeland still drops too many passes, and at 6-0, 205, he really should be more physical in tight coverage. But Copeland is the most seasoned pass-catcher not named Malik Davis back on this roster, and the former high 4-star talent will put it all together with the NFL watching in 2021.