On Thursday, it was quarterbacks. SEC Country’s Florida writers Zach Abovlerdi, Jordan McPherson and Ryan Young gave their predictions as to who they think will take the first snap against Michigan on Sept. 2.
Now it’s time to talk about the rest of the team. McPherson and Young tackle some of the top questions surrounding the Gators as they shift their attention to the Wolverines and the 2017 season.
1. What were your top three takeaways from fall camp?
RY: First, I’m impressed with how quickly the freshman defensive backs have come along. Gators coach Jim McElwain has had positive things to say about all six, and Marco Wilson and Shawn Davis look like immediate impact guys. Second, obviously I’m with most people who are surprised this is still a three-man QB race. I think Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio surprised the coaches this month. And third, I’d be really concerned about the linebacker depth. Kylan Johnson has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, freshmen Ventrell Miller and James Houston are suspended for the opener, and Miller managed to get himself into even more off-field trouble beyond that. I don’t know that the Gators can weather a major injury at linebacker like they had to do last season.
JM: My initial takeaway is how capable the first-team defense looks top to bottom. The Gators lost so many valuable pieces from last season — Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye, Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, Joey Ivie, Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox — but a lot of young players have stepped up. Like you, Ryan, I’m also surprised that the quarterback competition is still a three-person race. I thought (well, hoped) that a starter would have been named by now, but it looks like this could drag into the season. And third, I’ll go with the running backs. Jordan Scarlett looks primed for a breakout season, Lamical Perine is capable of an increased role as a sophomore if he makes the most of his carries, and freshman Malik Davis has been one of the surprising players on offense. If the three of them play to their potential, they will be able to take off a lot of pressure from the quarterback (whoever it may be).
2.) Which player from Florida’s packed wide receivers room has the best chance for a breakout season and why?
RY: It’s Tyrie Cleveland. The combination of his preseason hamstring injury, quarterback struggles, and the bland play-calling once Del Rio got hurt last season all conspired to hold back Florida’s top 2016 offensive recruit. I don’t see those being factors this fall. Cleveland should deliver on his potential. Beyond him, I remain bullish on Dre Massey to remind everybody why he carried so much hype into last season.
JM: It’s funny that you mention Massey, Ryan, because that’s who I’m going with. Massey flashed so much potential heading into last season before he tore an ACL on the opening kickoff of the 2016 season. He didn’t have the best fall camp, but McElwain said Massey finally started to break through during the team’s second scrimmage last week. Massey’s speed and versatility make him a multi-threat weapon that the Gators have been yearning to have for quite some time. I think he provides that spark.
3.) Who will be Florida’s starting cornerbacks?
RY: Even though Joseph Putu has lined up as a first-team cornerback at the start of most every practice open to the media, I’m not buying it. I still think Chauncey Gardner Jr. ends up sliding back to corner if Nick Washington is healthy enough to play safety. The coaches say they’re going to play the best four (or five) DBs. I think that means Duke Dawson and Gardner at corner, Washington and Shawn Davis at safety, and Marco Wilson at nickel. If Washington’s shoulder sidelines him and Gardner has to stay at safety, then I think Wilson becomes a primary corner.
JM: Duke Dawson has one outside spot locked down. That’s not up for debate. The second spot will come down to two questions: Is Nick Washington healthy enough to play, and where will Chauncey Gardner play if Washington is healthy? If Washington is healthy, I fully expect Gardner to move down and take the second outside cornerback spot and for freshman Shawn Davis to be the second safety. If Washington is out or limited, I see Gardner and Davis at safety with Dawson and true freshman C.J. Henderson at cornerback. Barring a massive change of heart, Marco Wilson will be the team’s starting nickel, and it looks like fellow true freshman Donovan Stiner would be the fourth corner if the Gators go with a dime package. To me, I think Joseph Putu will be a guy who only comes in for a breather despite the fact that he has lined up with the first team for the limited portion of camp the media get to watch.
4.) What is the biggest remaining question heading into game week?
RY: We’ll assume quarterback is not part of this, because that remains THE question, obviously. I go back to the linebacker depth. I truly don’t know what the Gators do if they lose a couple of their top four linebackers for any stretch of time. I think Cristian Garcia can fill in aptly, but beyond that …
JM: I have to agree with you on the linebacker depth. It’s scary to see just how thin Florida is at the position. And to add to your comment, one of those top four linebackers — Kylan Johnson — has been injured for almost all of fall camp. That leaves Vosean Joseph, David Reese, Jeremiah Moon and Garcia to handle the load, other than 2-star freshman Lacedrick Brunson and rarely used redshirt sophomore Rayshad Jackson. … That’s not a good look there.
5.) Most intriguing Jim McElwain comment from camp?
RY: “I think they’re all going to play.” How and why? I get that the QB competition has been closer than expected, but I don’t see how the right answer is to not choose one. Unless that was purely for the sake of Michigan (McElwain explicitly said it wasn’t) then I don’t get it. If all three QBs have been good this camp, as he said, why not pick one and let the team rally around him?
JM: At a student pep rally last weekend, McElwain told fans inside The Swamp, “We’re heading to Dallas … to go beat the heck out of Michigan.” It’s the type of comment we’ll never get in the normal press conference-type setting, but it’s one that points out the evolution of McElwian’s confidence and personality heading into his third year. It’s also the second time he’s made big promises when speaking to fans. In January, he told fans at a Florida men’s basketball game that the Gators were “going to kick the door down” when they get back to the SEC Championship Game this season.
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