Florida football: Analyzing the Gators' projected starting lineup
Florida’s fall camp is well underway and with the Gators facing rival Miami in Orlando on Aug. 24 to kick off the 2019 season, Florida has a real sense of urgency to find answers on the 2-deep roster in camp.
The Gators return 14 starters (6 offense, 8 defense) plus their top 2 specialists in 2019. The major strengths are the skill positions on offense and defensive end and cornerback on defense. The primary concern with the whole football team is rebuilding the offensive line, which returns only 23 total starts from a group that was among the best in the country a season ago.
Certainly, there are some positions (offensive line, outside linebacker, strong safety) where the lack of established starters will draw the fight for starting positions deep into fall camp.
At other positions (wide receiver, defensive end), the Gators are so deep there’s healthy competition to even contribute. That’s where a program wants to be — fierce competition just to see the field, not to start — and that’s what Dan Mullen and his staff are building, even if they aren’t quite where they’d want to be from a depth standpoint at every spot.
With fewer than 2 weeks before toe meets leather in Orlando, here’s a projection of the Gators’ starting lineup, with a brief analysis of each spot.
QB: Feleipe Franks (Jr.)
Skinny: Among Power 5 quarterbacks, only Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond made a larger jump from an efficiency standpoint last season. Franks is a NFL prototype: a good athlete, rocket arm, elite size. The question is whether he can build on a terrific close to the 2018 season, which saw him throw for 862 yards, 8 TD and 0 INT and add 177 yards and 4 TD rushing in wins over South Carolina, Idaho, FSU and Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Franks began to do the things elite QBs do late in 2018: make better decisions, read progressions, pick his spots in the run game and take care of the football. Can he continue to improve — especially on downfield throws, where he ranked 3rd-worst in the Power 5 — in 2019? Historically, Mullen quarterbacks make a substantive leap in their second season under Mullen’s tutelage. If Franks does, his upside is immense.
RB: Lamical Perine,(Sr.)
Skinny: One of the nation’s more underrated running backs, Perine can do it all. He’s a plus-blocker, good pass catcher, team leader and runs with elite leg turnover and drive that helps him power through contact consistently — just ask former LSU star Jamal Adams:
Perine should give Florida it’s first 1,000-yard season from a RB since Kelvin Taylor in 2015.
LT: Stone Forsythe, (Jr.)
LG: Brett Heggie (Jr.)
C: Nick Buchanan (Sr.)
RG: Chris Bleich (RFr.)
RT: Jean Delance (Jr.)
Skinny: The biggest question mark on the football team. At least it is 5 upperclassmen who have waited their turn?
Buchanan is a proven guy with a good chance to play on Sundays. That should encourage Florida fans losing sleep over this unit. Heggie was a big-time player as a freshman before injuries derailed his sophomore season. After them, however, it is a host of question marks. Delance, a Texas transfer, was a 4-star recruit who seemed comfortable in the run block game all spring but played catch-up in pass block. Forsythe is a space eater, but there are questions as to whether he’s quick enough to hold the edge against the elite pass rushers in the SEC. Depth also is a concern, especially after projected starter Noah Banks retired. The roster has plenty of blue-chip talent (more than in any season since 2012), but some of those players have to emerge for Florida to weather inevitable attrition and play with the 8-man rotation Mullen and offensive line coach John Hevesy prefer.
Wide receivers/tight end
WR: Van Jefferson (Sr.)
WR: Joshua Hammond (Sr.)
WR: Trevon Grimes (Jr.)
TE: Kyle Pitts (So.)
Skinny: The best group of wide receivers Florida has had since the Tebow era and one of the best units in the country, behind only Alabama. Jefferson and Grimes are locks to play on Sunday; Hammond has terrific hands and is outstanding in the downfield blocking game, a must for receivers who play in Mullen’s run-heavy spread. Beyond the starters, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Kadarius Toney was the first Florida player since Percy Harvin to average a first down per touch (minimum 40 touches) last season, and he’s worked all spring and summer to improve his knowledge of the playbook, to the delight of Mullen.
Freddie “7-11” Swain is always open, and has a knack for the big moment, as evidenced by his game-winning TD catch against Kentucky in 2017 and his TD to give Florida a second-half lead, albeit briefly, against Georgia in 2018. Tyrie Cleveland, another high 4-star, gives Florida an electric vertical threat, and coaches believe he’s just scratched the surface of what he’s capable of long-term. Jacob Copeland, another blue-chipper who chose Florida over Alabama, is fighting for playing time too. Put plainly, this is a dynamic group, with depth that is the envy of most everyone in the country.
At tight end, the Gators think they have a future mismatch nightmare in Kyle Pitts, who is too fast for linebackers to deal with but at 6-6, 245, is simply too big for a safety to cover. He should start, with two other blue-chippers, Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer, in the mix.
DE: Jabari Zuniga (Sr.)
DT: Adam Shuler (Sr.)
DT: Kyree Campbell (Jr.)
The Skinny: Zuniga (pictured above), a preseason 1st-team All-SEC selection, had more work to do in run support last year with Jachai Polite on board and he’s likely to be a part of blitz packages more. He should build on a 5-sack campaign last season. Shuler is the best of the tackles, a force against the run. Whether the Gators develop a legitimate bull-rush threat inside, however, is a question mark.
Buck: Jonathan Greenard (Jr.)
MLB: David Reese (Sr.)
OLB: Amari Burney (So.)
Skinny: Expect this unit to be vastly improved around the rock steady Reese. Burney is a physical freak, with terrific speed and strength who will immediately be an upgrade in coverage while not surrendering the flexibility of the NFL-bound Vosean Joseph in blitz packages. Greenard was a problem while at Louisville, collecting All-ACC honors in 2017 before missing last season with a hand injury. Along with highly touted freshman Khris Bogle, they should be able to come close to the production of Polite on the edge. Coaches are also high on the breakout chances for Jeremiah Moon, a junior from Hoover, Ala., who was a big recruiting win but has yet to put it all together in Gainesville. James Houston, Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate willl add solid depth.
CB: CJ Henderson (Jr.)
CB: Marco Wilson (Jr.)
Nickel (Star): Trey Dean (So.)
Free: Brad Stewart (Jr.)
Strong: Jeawon Taylor (Sr.)
Skinny: In Henderson and Wilson, Florida has the best 1-2 cover corner punch in America. Henderson is Florida’s best football player, a guy who plays with relentless effort and is an exceptional athlete. What people forget is Wilson was probably better than Henderson as a freshman, and a trendy All-SEC pick last preseason before injuring his knee and being lost for the season on the first drive against Kentucky. His return stabilizes a position where the Gators lacked depth last season. Trey Dean is the next great Florida DB, too; he’s a tremendous athlete with a penchant for the big hit. Kaiir Elam is among a group of freshmen who add depth at corner.
The Gators have questions at safety. Brad Stewart is an All-SEC caliber talent but struggled with consistency last season. Taylor and Donovan Stiner will rotate at strong; neither is an elite athlete although both are cerebral players who are good in run support. Taylor is a steady tackler who also ranked 1st among SEC strong safeties in snaps per reception (30.1), which suggests the Gators are better at that spot than some think. The Gators would like a young face to emerge on the back end of the secondary.
K: Evan McPherson (So.)
P: Tommy Townsend (Sr.)
Punt returns: Freddie Swain (Sr.)
KO returns: Kadarius Toney (Jr.)
Skinny: This unit is solid, and Toney gives it a chance to be spectacular. The staff wants the ball in Toney’s hands as often as possible. When better to make a play in the open field than on a return? Townsend, a Tennessee transfer, hasn’t quite been as good as his brother Johnny, now with the Raiders, but that’s not really an insult, considering Johnny is Florida’s all-time leader in punting average. Johnny averaged 46 yards a boom last season, though he has room to improve hang time and his average net (39.8 career). McPherson was marvelous as a freshman, connecting on 17-of-19 kicks. Really, he was better than that, as one of his misses (vs. Kentucky) was called no-good despite clearly being good. Mullen said at the Peach Bowl he trusted McPherson from 50 in “without hesitation.” Swain gives Florida a spark in the return game, having taken one to the house last season on his way to averaging 10.2 per punt return, which was second in the SEC.
Final thoughts …
Strongest position group: Wide receiver. Phil Steele says this is one of the best 3 WR groups in America. He’s right — and this group will give opposing coordinators headaches all season.
Weakest position group: Offensive line. As noted above, the talent is actually upgraded, with more blue-chips on this roster than any Gators OL since 2012. It’s all about experience, as this unit is one of the Power 5’s least proven in terms of returning starts. We’ll find out how much that matters quickly, as the Gators face a formidable Miami Hurricanes front seven in the season opener.
Overall: The Gators’ starting lineup on each side of the ball is as good as nearly any group in America and the team has multiple All-American candidates on the boundaries. That’s a start.
However, championships are often won at spots 23-44, and that’s where the Gators have questions.
Will the offensive line develop so that Mullen can play his preferred 8-man rotation up front? Who emerges to give the Gators depth at the 3-technique up front? Who spells Trey Dean at nickel? Who emerges at free safety behind Brad Stewart?
These are all important questions the Gators need to find answers to as the season progresses.