GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After nearly a month of preseason practices, some of Florida’s paramount questions have been answered. Others haven’t.
Obviously, everyone is still waiting for coach Jim McElwain to name his starting quarterback or offer at least some clarity to his plan at the position for the season opener Saturday against Michigan.
The Gators are also expected to release a depth chart on Tuesday, which will provide a few more answers around the field.
In the meantime, it’s pretty clear at this point where Florida’s strengths are and where some concerns remain.
Here’s a ranking of the team’s position groups by strength.
1. Special teams
Kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend have a legitimate chance to be the best combo in the country at their respective positions.
Pineiro was 21-of-25 on field goals last season and has talked about wanting to be perfect in his second season with the Gators. Townsend, meanwhile, led all FBS punters with an average of 47.9 yards per attempt last fall.
The return game still needs to sort itself out, but Florida has some intriguing options on kickoff returns with Dre Massey and speedy freshman C.J. Henderson while Antonio Callaway is always a homerun threat on punt returns.
2. Running back
Jordan Scarlett should push for 1,000-plus rushing yards after totaling 889 on 5.0 per carry as a sophomore despite sharing touches for much of the season.
He deserves to be a true lead back, but the Gators also have a wealth of options here.
Sophomore Lamical Perine (421 yards on 4.6 per carry last season) should only be even better in his second year in the program, freshman Malik Davis has been impressive this preseason by all accounts, fellow freshman Adarius Lemons was an even more highly-touted recruit and senior Mark Thompson is yet another option if he can maintain the coaches’ confidence after a bumpy start to his Gators’ career.
3. Wide receiver
Callaway is suspended for the season opener, but he’ll be back and will be a focal point once again for this offense after hauling in 54 catches for 721 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. The potential for sophomore Tyrie Cleveland to have a breakout year and give the Gators’ two game-changing threats on the outside could free up Callaway for even more plays.
The depth is impressive here as well. That’s one reason why Callaway’s suspension hasn’t dramatically changed expectations for the opener against Michigan.
Sophomores Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain have nice upside with a year of experience under their belts now. Brandon Powell (45 catches for 387 yards and 2 TDs last season) is a steady senior who can operate in the slot or on the outside. The combo of junior Dre Massey, fully back from the torn ACL that wiped out his 2016 season, and freshman Kadarius Toney in the slot gives Florida a pair of truly versatile playmakers who should be used in a variety of ways.
And all the while, freshmen Daquon Green and James Robinson should push for playing time as the season progresses.
McElwain said last week he feels the Gators are 8-9 deep at receiver, and that doesn’t seem to be a stretch.
4. Tight end
Senior DeAndre Goolsby (38 catches for 342 yards and 3 TDs in 2016) and redshirt junior C’yontai Lewis (18-184-2) are established players who could stand to be further utilized within the offense.
Freshman Kemore Gamble’s status is in doubt for the start of the season as he spent the end of camp in a protective walking boot, but his upside is significant. It wouldn’t be a surprise for him to push for playing time this season or take on a larger role in the event of an injury to the veterans ahead of him.
5. Defensive line
Florida lost three defensive linemen to the NFL, but the depth chart looks promising nonetheless.
In junior CeCe Jefferson and redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga, the Gators have two high-upside defensive ends who could give the team even more production from that spot than was had a year ago. Behind them, redshirt senior Jordan Sherit has made some big plays in his career and will be a key piece here as well, while sophomore Jachai Polite, sophomore Antonneous Clayton and junior Keivonnis Davis provide plenty of depth on the edges.
Redshirt junior Taven Bryan has received plenty of buzz locally and was even compared to NFL star J.J. Watt in a Bleacher Report feature this week. He steps in at defensive tackle, and while he still has plenty to prove, there’s every reason to believe he can be a impactful contributor.
Redshirt junior Khairi Clark is a solid plug-in at the nose after playing significant snaps last fall, freshman early enrollee Kyree Campbell has earned praise all camp and fellow freshmen defensive tackles T.J. Slaton and Elijah Conliffe have earned the nickname “The Bam-Bam Boys” from McElwain for their imposing physical presence.
The present is solid here and the future looks pretty strong.
It would be easier to get excited about this position if the coaches had been impressed enough by one of their top three options to name a starter.
As is, the position remains a total question mark entering yet another season.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks possesses obvious potential with his prototypical 6-foot-5 frame and powerful right arm. By all accounts he had a very strong preseason, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be a factor this fall.
Graduate transfer newcomer Malik Zaire captured the fan base’s interest as the story of the Gators’ offseason, but while many expected him to walk in and win the starting job that hasn’t happened. At least, yet.
All the while veteran Luke Del Rio has worked his way from perceived underdog to very much in the mix to start the opener. Most fans viewed him as a placeholder as the starter last season, and that was before he endured a slew of injuries and struggled. He may well be the best choice to start against Michigan, but what does that say about where the position has come in a year?
Ultimately, it makes sense to trust that McElwain and his staff do have a plan — even if they may not fully reveal it — and there is no doubt upside here between Franks’ big arm and growing poise, Zaire’s dual-threat playmaking abilities and veteran savvy and Del Rio’s renewed health and command of the offense.
6. Offensive line
While McElwain has said this unit could be a true strength for the Gators, they still have to prove it.
After two lackluster seasons up front, there is a lot of pressure on the offensive line to make a jump this fall.
There are also a lot of reasons to see how it might happen.
Left tackle Martez Ivey and right tackle Jawaan Taylor are solid SEC-caliber bookends, center T.J. McCoy established himself as a glue-guy on the line late last season, redshirt freshman Brett Heggie looks physically ready to take over at left guard and juniors Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan are experienced and versatile enough to fill the other guard spot or move to other needs on the line.
That said, there are still questions about the Gators’ depth.
Redshirt juniors Antonio Riles and Kavaris Harkless and redshirt sophomore Nick Buchanan all have some experience to pull from, but it’s not clear how much drop-off there would be if a major injury strikes the line. Freshmen Kadeem Telfort and T.J. Moore are other options as they continue to develop. Telfort looked to be pushing for a second-team left tackle role before his suspension for the season opener.
Again, sure, there’s reason to see how this group could and very well may be better this fall. But it’s easier to believe after they show it on the field.
We’re lumping the cornerbacks and safeties together because defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and McElwain have both reiterated they’ll play whatever combination they need to get the best group of defensive backs on the field.
The ranking this low on the list is not even really a knock against the group. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s so much to prove that the DBs still have to earn their respect relative to some of the more established position groups.
Senior Duke Dawson should be just fine in his move to a full-time corner role. He’s looked good this preseason.
The wildcard remains where sophomore Chauncey Gardner Jr. ends up, be it at the other corner or as a starting safety. Either way, he’s going to be very good for the Gators. He teased his potential late last season with three interceptions in the final three games, including his Outback Bowl MVP performance.
Fifth-year senior Nick Washington is back at safety if his ailing shoulders hold up.
Freshman Shawn Davis has looked like a revelation at safety, which could free Gardner up to play corner if Washington is healthy.
If Gardner stays at safety, the Gators have to figure out what to do at the other corner. Senior Joseph Putu worked with the first-team during most periods open to the media this preseason, but he barely played on defense last year as a junior college newcomer and is totally unproven. Freshman Marco Wilson seems to have locked down the nickel role, but he could also get a chance to take over at corner if need be.
Fellow freshmen Henderson and Brian Edwards give the Gators further depth at corner while freshmen Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart can chip in at safety or nickel.
Those six freshmen are the future of Florida’s secondary, but they’re also going to be a key to the present.
So this group is not lacking for talent at all — just experience.
Again, this is mostly a concern of depth.
Sophomore David Reese looks poised for big things at middle linebacker. Sophomore Vosean Joseph only teased his potential last fall. He has to show he can do it full-time, but his hard-hitting tenacity should be fun to watch. And redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon will share the third-linebacker spot the Gators envision as a hybrid sort of role that could replace the need for a nickel defensive back with Johnson and Moon’s ability to drop into coverage.
The problem is the Gators can’t afford to lose their main linebackers for any length of time.
Former walk-on turned scholarship linebacker Cristian Garcia can hold his own for stretches, but there simply aren’t many options off the bench. Freshmen James Houston and Ventrell Miller (twice) have already gotten into trouble off the field and are suspended for the season opener. The loss of practice time has surely stunted their progression.
Injuries at linebacker would be the biggest setback for Florida defensively this fall.
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