Ranking Florida’s 10 most important players for the 2017 season

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — First, a preface. Nobody knows how this football season is going to turn out for Florida, what the pivotal moments will be and who will shine brightest in those moments.

That’s the fun of it all.

At this time a year ago, nobody would have guessed Marcell Harris would lead the Gators in tackles in 2016, that David Reese would take over as a key to the defense down the stretch as a freshman or that Jawaan Taylor would become an instant standout at right tackle in his debut season.

The plans will change, players will outperform their expectations (or the opposite) and the narrative of the 2017 Florida football season will unfold one week at a time.

That said, here are the players Florida beat writers Ryan Young and Jordan McPherson expect to have the most impact/importance for the Gators this fall.

Ryan says …

10. Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland: The prize of Florida’s 2016 recruiting class, Cleveland was held back as a rookie by an early hamstring injury and inconsistent quarterback play/play calling. A true breakout season from the sophomore would take defensive pressure off star wideout Antonio Callaway and really make the Gators offense dynamic with two potential game-changers on the outside.

9. Left tackle Martez Ivey: Everybody has heard coach Jim McElwain’s praise for the offensive line and its potential to be a strength. That doesn’t rest on any one guy, but Ivey is the face of the unit, the junior with the elite recruiting profile who has gotten better in each of his first two seasons at Florida and now moves from guard to his natural position on the outside.

8. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan: We’ve been hyping up the mammoth redshirt junior all preseason. Bryan still has to prove he can put it all together, that he can meet his seemingly limitless potential. But if he does he is plenty capable of filling the void left by Caleb Brantley as that disruptive force up front off which the rest of the defense feeds.

7. Defensive end CeCe Jefferson: Jefferson has the ability to be the next star along the defensive line for Florida. He and Jabari Zuniga form a formidable pair of ends, and beyond his talent Jefferson has considerable experience performing well in big games. He should anchor the Gators’ rebuilt defensive line.

6. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway: For all the off-field headaches Callaway continues to cause, he would do well to remind everybody of his worth on the field with a career-best season. Speaking before the bowl game last winter, he sounded convincingly determined to take his production to another level after leading the team with 54 catches for 721 yards and 3 touchdowns last year. And he has that ability. He remains Florida’s most explosive playmaker.

5. Corner/Safety Chauncey Gardner Jr.: We still don’t know where Gardner will end up, but at either spot he’s a potential star for the Gators. It may make the most sense to pair him with Duke Dawson at cornerback, but he closed last season at safety and showed what he could do there with three interceptions in the final three games — including two in the Outback Bowl to earn game MVP honors.

4. Linebacker David Reese: The Gators simply don’t have much depth at this spot, at least not the kind that looks ready to step in for long stretches like Reese had to do as a freshman last year. He’s being viewed as a leader in the middle of the defense, both as a communicator and a tone-setter, and anything short of a healthy and very productive season could spell trouble for the Gators.

3. Running back Jordan Scarlett: The junior deserves mention as one of the best rushers in the SEC, and he has the ability to take a lot of pressure off Florida’s quarterback. If he can turn in the 1,000-yard-plus rushing season many are projecting for him, the rest of the offense can play off his physical, tackle-busting, drive-extending plays.

2. Cornerback Duke Dawson: The senior has to be a stabilizing presence in the Gators’ retooled secondary for everything else to work. Whether Gardner ends up at safety or the other corner, the Gators have the pieces to be very effective in the back of the defense again. But if Dawson is sidelined for any long stretch of time, suddenly Florida is asking a lot more of its young DBs and little-used senior Joseph Putu as the losses of Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye and Harris become more glaring.

1. The QBs: We can’t get any more specific than that at this point, but the importance of this position remains the same regardless of who McElwain and staff decide to play. Florida has gone with shaky and stunting quarterback play for far too long. For the collective sanity of the fan base, that has to change this year. For the Gators to go from good to great in McElwain’s third season, Luke Del Rio, Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire (listed alphabetically here!) have to elevate the position. Whoever or whatever combination ends up on the field.

Jordan says …

10. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan: McElwain said Bryan needs to step up this year. Teammates have raved about his brute strength. Whether he becomes the breakout player he’s supposed to be is still to be determined.

9. Kicker Eddy Pineiro: At some point, Florida’s offense is going to stutter and the game is going to come down to making field goals. Pineiro, who made 84 percent of his field goals last year and is striving for perfection, can be relied on if that time comes.

8. Defensive end CeCe Jefferson: Jefferson is a force on the defensive line in both the pass rush and run defense. He can play anywhere on the line but looks ready for a breakout season on the edge.

7. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway: Florida is loaded at wide receiver, but Callaway is the only proven playmaker of the crop. How the team responds against Michigan without him could determine their offensive success this season.

6. Cornerback Duke Dawson: Dawson is a senior among a underclassmen-heavy secondary. His veteran presence will be relied on at cornerback.

5. Left tackle Martez Ivey: McElwain continually says the offensive line is the strength of the team this year. Ivey is the best player of the group and will need to succeed at left tackle to keep his quarterback upright.

4. Linebacker David Reese: Florida’s linebacker corps is already young and thin on experience. Reese, a sophomore who is Florida’s leading returning tackler from last year, will need to carry the brunt of the load.

3. Whoever starts at QB: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will take on the same task as the last nine starters before him: Somehow turn Florida’s offense around. Tall orders but a manageable task considering the weapons he has around him this season.

2. Defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr.: Gardner’s versatility in the secondary gives Florida the luxury to mix and match formations. He’s coming off a strong finish to the 2016 season (3 interceptions in the final three games) and should take his production to the next level as a sophomore.

1. Running back Jordan Scarlett: With the quarterback situation still up in the air, the Gators need a strong presence to steady the run game. Scarlett’s ability to wear down defenses and pick up yards after contact provides that.

The post Ranking Florida’s 10 most important players for the 2017 season appeared first on SEC Country.

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