5 best returning players: Florida
When coach Jim McElwain came to Florida, he inherited a talent-rich defense and a struggling offense. Though the Gators overall record improved from 7-5 to 10-4 in McElwain’s first season, most signs of progress on offense faded after the suspension of QB Will Grier.
Because of questions at quarterback and departures on defense, the Gators are unlikely to be picked by many to repeat as SEC East champions. There are, however, key contributors, including three from McElwain’s first class, on both sides of the ball returning for 2016 who ensure Florida will be competitive within its division. Safety Marcus Maye, a current junior, is mulling whether he’ll enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season.
Here are Florida’s five best returning players:
5. TE DeAndre Goolsby – In the first season of the McElwain era at Florida, tight ends played an important role in the Gators offense as pass-catchers. Sixth-year senior Jake McGee (41 catches, 381 yards, 4 TD) was the top tight end for Florida this past season, and it’s a role Goolsby (17 catches, 277 yards, TD) will be expected to take over in 2016.
4. OL Martez Ivey – As a recruit, Ivey was a five-star offensive tackle across the board. Though he saw a lot of time at guard in his freshman season, the Gators are going to need Ivey to take on the role of left tackle next season. Florida coaches gushed this season about Ivey being ahead of the freshman learning curve. With one year of experience in the trenches under his belt, the talented Ivey should be ready to become the primary pass protector.
3. DE CeCe Jefferson – In the absence of DL Jonathan Bullard (66.5 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and DE Alex McCalister (26.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks), all eyes will be on Jefferson to lead the Gators pass rush. The former five-star recruit had a solid freshman season (29 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks), displaying an impressive combination of speed and strength. As offenses start to focus their game plans on Jefferson, he’ll need to take his game to the next level in 2016.
2. CB Jalen Tabor – The most talked-about Florida defensive back this season was CB Vernon Hargreaves III, a projected early first-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft. While playing in Hargreaves’ shadow, Tabor tied Hargreaves for a team-leading four interceptions. Tabor, a sophomore, recorded more pass breakups (14) than the heralded junior Hargreaves (4). It will be interesting to watch if opposing offenses avoid Tabor next season like they did Hargreaves in 2015.
1. WR Antonio Callaway – In his debut season, Callaway established himself as Florida’s go-to receiver, leading the team in receiving yards (678) and touchdowns (4, tied with McGee). The speedster also provided a home-run threat in the return game, returning three punts for more than 50 yards, including touchdowns against LSU (72 yards) and Alabama (85 yards).