Florida football: Projecting the Gators' 2021 starting lineup
Florida will field a very different football team in 2020 from the one that fell a touchdown short of an SEC championship in 2021.
While the special eligibility rules applicable to teams during the COVID-19 crisis have left a few Florida personnel decisions up in the air, the Gators could lose as many as 15 starters from last season’s SEC East champion. That’s a massive turnover and a number that includes a Heisman finalist at quarterback (Kyle Trask), a Mackey Award winner at tight end (Kyle Pitts), a Rimington Award semifinalist at center (Brett Heggie) and a Paul Hornung Award finalist in all-purpose weapon Kadarius Toney.
The Gators have recruited better under Dan Mullen than they did under Jim McElwain, but Florida isn’t yet in “automatic reload” mode like SEC contemporaries Alabama and Georgia. Florida fans need only look as far as their annual cross-divisional opponent LSU to see just how difficult it is to replace double-digit starters from a championship team.
The biggest challenge?
Replacing so much firepower from an offense that finished in the top 5 nationally in S&P+ offense, 1st nationally in passing offense, 3rd in passing offense success rate, 7th nationally in yards per play and 13th nationally in scoring offense.
The Gators also need to improve on defense, of course. Florida might have won the SEC with even a competent defense, but the 2020 unit finished 83rd in total defense and 85th in yards allowed per play, by far the worst marks for a Florida defense this century.
The good news?
Florida ranks in the top 10 nationally and 4th in the SEC in the 247 talent composite. The Gators have a blue-chip laden roster and the future appears to be bright.
The bad news?
There’s often an adjustment for players moving from supporting to starting roles, and a brutal schedule means the Gators may be headed towards a transitional campaign in 2021.
Here’s a way-too-early look at Florida’s projected starting lineup in 2021.
- QB: Emory Jones
- RB: Nay’Quan Wright OR Demarkcus Bowman
- WR: Malik Davis
- WR: Jacob Copeland
- WR: Justin Shorter
- TE: Kemore Gamble
- T: Richard Gouraige
- T: Michael Tarquin
- C: Ethan White
- G: Stewart Reese
- G: Josh Braun
A very different group, indeed, and the offense will be catered to Jones’ strengths, which are his mobility and ability to throw accurate vertically. Florida should return to a heavy dose of zone-read running plays, a longtime staple of Mullen’s offense that he also runs with power personnel.
From a “first 11” standpoint, the biggest questions are whether Florida will look to the portal to add help at tackle or simply take their chances by slotting starting guard Richard Gouraige (recruited as a tackle) over to tackle and see what freshman Michael Tarquin, who had issues pass blocking in practice, offers on the right side of the line. Florida has built talented depth up front and should be closer to playing the 8-man rotation offensive line coach John Hevesy has long preferred.
At running back, Nay’Quan Wright (pictured, above) is explosive and a legitimate playmaker in the run and pass game. He should edge out Dameon Pierce and Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman, as the starter — but Bowman didn’t transfer to Florida to sit on the bench. He’ll be in the rotation early in the season. That could leave Pierce as the odd man out, though the bruising junior is a very good goal-line runner and rarely goes down at initial contact. A UF assistant told me this week that Florida is excited about the depth it has in the backfield and that should allow them to use the shifty Malik Davis creatively, including in the slot as a receiver. Davis has terrific hands and is an excellent route runner — Florida will look to find ways to get him the ball.
Florida will miss Kyle Pitts terribly at tight end, of course, but the Gators may not be done at this position from a transfer standpoint either. Even if Florida misses on potential LSU transfer Arik Gilbert, Pitts’ deputies, Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer, were highly-coveted recruits and had nice moments in 2020. You can’t replace Pitts, but Florida could have a nice committee to generate quality production.
- DE: Zachary Carter
- DT: Gervon Dexter
- NT: Antonio Shelton
- Buck: Brenton Cox
- LB: Ventrell Miller
- LB: Mohamoud Diabate
- Star: Tre’Vez Johnson
- CB: Kaiir Elam
- CB: Jaydon Hill
- SS: Trey Dean III
- FS: Rashad Torrence II
There’s nowhere to go but up.
One thing that stands out is the talent: If this is Florida’s starting group, it would feature 8 blue-chip starters and 2 5-stars, a considerably more talented “first group” than the one that struggled so much in 2020.
It is possible, of course, that free safety Brad Stewart, an immensely talented but inconsistent player, could return. If he does, he should edge Torrence for a starting job, but both will play.
The Gators have hit the portal hard up front, adding 3 defensive tackles, including Shelton, who was productive at Penn State for 3 seasons and should start immediately at nose tackle. The Gators have excellent depth on the edge, with the staff particularly excited about sophomore Khris Bogle, who played terrific football down the stretch, and the return of senior Jeremiah Moon, who battled injuries all of 2020, to give the team a host of options.
For this group, a spring practice where they can get back to fundamentals — learning the scheme, lining up properly, dealing with tempo — will be immense. They’ll also need to figure out who is the alpha at linebacker. Florida missed veteran starter David Reese far more than anyone anticipated in 2020, and there’s not really a natural middle linebacker on the roster.
Mo Diabate has the makeup of a future All-SEC outside linebacker, but can the staff get more consistency from Ventrell Miller, and will one of the highly touted Tyron Hopper or Derek Wingo be able to play some in the middle? The outlook is less certain there, and that could be problematic.