Florida football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 regular season
Florida’s 6-6 regular season ended Saturday with a 24-21 victory over rival Florida State. The win made Florida bowl eligible and the Gators will find out their bowl destination (likely the Gasparilla Bowl or the Duke’s Mayo Bowl) during Sunday’s selection show. Attaining bowl eligibility isn’t usually a highlight, but this Gators team saw its defensive coordinator and head coach fired in a 3-week span in November and lost 4 games by 1 possession or less en route to a .500 season.
Every season has things to celebrate, however, from individual performances to high water moments.
Here are Florida’s 2021 season superlatives.
Team MVP: Dameon Pierce, RB
Pierce, a senior running back, led the Gators in touchdowns with 15 (12 rushing, 3 receiving). He also finished the year ranked 2nd on the team in rushing (more on that below) with 517 yards. Pierce averaged 6 yards a carry on the season and led the SEC in average yards after contact, per Stats Solutions. Pierce also played splendid football in Florida’s biggest games, leading the Gators in touchdowns and yards per attempt against Alabama, Georgia and FSU.
Dameon Pierce gallops to a 17 yard TD to put the Gators within two of Alabama with 3:08 remaining to play pic.twitter.com/tLWKORPNw5
— libgator (@lib_gator) September 18, 2021
Pierce’s leadership was also invaluable. On a team that could have quit after Todd Grantham was dismissed or after Dan Mullen was fired, Pierce, along with Florida’s defensive MVP, who is discussed below, held the locker room together to help the Gators reach a bowl game. Pierce kept fighting even when it would have been easy to complain about his lack of usage. Despite his productivity, Pierce didn’t carry the football more than 10 times in a game until the Florida State game. That is on Florida’s coaches, and it’s fair to wonder what might have been had the staff utilized their MVP more in the 2021 regular season.
Offensive MVP: Kemore Gamble, TE
To be fair, I could go Pierce here but wanted to use the space to honor Gamble, who shouldered the next to impossible task of replacing Florida All-American Kyle Pitts and did it well. Gamble finished his senior season with 30 receptions (3rd on the team) for 399 yards (also 3rd). He also graded out as Florida’s best blocking tight end, adding value in the run game.
Like Pierce, Gamble was underutilized. He wasn’t even targeted until the Alabama game and had 5 games where he had 2 or fewer targets. But in Florida’s biggest games, he was outstanding. He collected 16 combined receptions against Alabama, Georgia, FSU and LSU, helping Florida gain 9 first downs on those catches and scoring a touchdown. He also proved to be quite a weapon in the open field.
Kemore Gamble just broke Jarvis Brownlee's ankles. pic.twitter.com/qOPMt0297V
— Zak (@CaramelPhd) November 27, 2021
Gamble is “MVP” worthy because he’s another example of how for all the issues Florida had in 2021, they had some terrific players. They just didn’t get some of them the football often enough.
Gamble did all this work, it should be noted, while his mother fought for her life against COVID, spending most the season in the hospital. She healed, and was in the stands Saturday to see her son play on Senior Day.
Defensive MVP: Zachary Carter, DE
Carter had the productive, consistent season he needed to boost his NFL Draft stock from late-round prospect to a guy who is in the 2nd or 3rd round in almost all NFL Mock Drafts. Carter finished the regular season with 31 tackles, 8 sacks (2nd on the team), 12 tackles for loss (2nd on team), 2 passes defended, and was the team leader in quarterback pressures. Carter was also easily Florida’s best end at holding the edge in run defense, a problem for this defensive line with him but a nightmare without him.
Carter’s leadership was also vital to keeping Florida’s locker room together. When the defense struggled mightily in the middle of the season, Carter urged his teammates to play hard for pride down the stretch. After Grantham was fired, Carter helped the Gators defense deliver 2 of its best performances in 2 years, limiting Missouri and FSU each to under 4.5 yards per play and keeping the Gators in both games.
True Freshman of the Year: Jason Marshall Jr., CB
Rushed into action after Kaiir Elam was injured and missed time after the Alabama game, the 5-star corner’s play improved throughout the season. Marshall Jr. was especially good spelling Elam in the Tennessee game, where he finished with 3 tackles and allowed only 3 catches on 8 targets. Marshall Jr. capped his freshman season with a tremendous game against Florida State, where he collected his first career interception with perfect technique on a 50/50 deep ball down the sideline. With Elam likely off to the NFL, Marshall Jr. should be the next “CB 1” at Florida.
Transfer of the Year: Brenton Cox Jr., Buck
Cox led the team with 12 sacks, good for 3rd in the SEC. Cox, a junior transfer from Georgia, also forced a fumble, deflected 4 passes and added 36 tackles. Cox is still a bit of an enigma at times. He makes mental mistakes (like a silly personal foul that helped extend a FSU drive last weekend). And while he has improved as an edge defender against the run, he’s still average. Despite those flaws, Cox is one of the nation’s most explosive pass rushers, and he helped Florida rank in the top 25 nationally in quarterback sacks and defensive havoc in 2021. He should return for his senior season, though his ability to rush the passer may make him a late round project NFL type pick already if he opts to go pro.
Most Improved: Rashad Torrence II, Safety
Torrence, a sophomore from the Atlanta area, became one of the better safeties in the SEC in 2021. A strong tackler, he finished 2nd on the Gators with 81 tackles on the season, and when he missed time against LSU, the Gators run defense crumbled, a testament to his value in run support. He also made dramatic improvements in technique and anticipation in coverage, which helped him collect 3 interceptions in 2021. An All-SEC breakout season is possible next season for the former blue-chip recruit.
Biggest Surprise: The vastly improved run game
For 2 seasons, the Gators struggled mightily to run the football, ranking in the bottom third in the country in yards per attempt and rushing offense. That all changed in 2021. Florida finished 4th in the SEC in rushing offense and 10th nationally in yards per rush attempt (5.3). The Gators had 4 players eclipse 400 yards rushing (Emory Jones, Pierce, Anthony Richardson and Malik Davis) and were the only team to run for over 150 yards against Georgia and 1 of 2 to top 200 against Alabama. The run offense faded down the stretch, especially with left tackle Richard Gouraige hobbled and bothered by a leg injury. But Florida was a terrific rushing offense, in the main, and even with Pierce and Davis lost to graduation, new coach Billy Napier will have a lot to work with in the ground game in 2022.
Play of the Year: Dameon Pierce vs. FSU
Florida’s play of the year was a touchdown that didn’t actually count. In fact, Florida’s senior running back was called for a personal foul on the play after continuing the run despite losing his helmet. But this play defined the lack of quit among the players in a season that saw their head coach dismissed and their dreams of returning to Atlanta gone one weekend into October.
SENIOR DAY. HOF PLAY. FOOTBALL GUY DAMEON PIERCE pic.twitter.com/2gQYyMWKUn
— Barstool Florida (@UFBarstool) November 27, 2021
Pierce, underutilized his whole career, is going to make a NFL GM very happy this spring.
Win of the Year: 24-21 over FSU
Florida showed an immense amount of character in beating rival FSU for the 3rd consecutive time to close the regular season.
Playing under an interim head coach, with a skeleton coaching staff down a head coach and 2 assistants, the Gators secured bowl eligibility by being more physical than the rival Noles, who arrived in The Swamp a confident bunch, having won 5 of their previous 7 games.
It was a win that showed glimpses of Florida’s past and future. The Gators were outstanding on defense, harassing FSU’s quarterbacks and playing lockdown defense in the secondary. Meanwhile, the talents of Anthony Richardson were showcased offensively. Richardson, a redshirt freshman, entered the game for Emory Jones in the second half and led Florida to 17 points on his first 4 possessions. He finished the game with 55 yards passing and 27 yards rushing, and one massive, perfectly placed touchdown pass to Justin Shorter.
Anthony Richardson -> Justin Shorter for a five-yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/xcaLGXF6cA
— ??????? (@KeiserDonavon) November 27, 2021
Richardson’s future is bright — and as he goes, so will go Billy Napier’s early tenure at Florida.