The Florida Gators enter the 2021 season riding the high of beating Georgia, winning the SEC East, and giving Alabama a stiff fight in the SEC Championship Game. However, the Gators finished the year 8-4 including a disturbingly lopsided Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
For every high in 2020, the lows were even more excruciating (think shoe toss).
So what does the 2021 season have in store for Florida?
That may be the most difficult thing to estimate before the season begins because QB Emory Jones has such a limited sample size thus far. Furthermore, the Gators lost generational talent at the tight end and wide receiver positions.
This team is loaded with more questions than answers. Let’s take a look, position-by-position:
Emory Jones is ready to be QB1 for this offense. He has patiently waited his turn and is expected to make significant leaps in his first year as the primary signal caller for Dan Mullen’s offense.
Anthony Richardson has also received a lot of attention and is expected to see a good bit of playing time this season.
The Florida running back room is LOADED. Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are the experienced guys that will be relied on pretty heavily, but if they are unable to produce, Mullen and RB coach Greg Knox won’t hesitate to play Nay’Quan Wright, Lorenzo Lingard, or Demarkcus Bowman.
Wright showed flashes of brilliance last year while both Lingard and Bowman have home run potential from anywhere on the field.
While the running back room is packed, the wide receiver room is in a good place as well, assuming a few key players show off the development expected. The Gators lost Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, but will look to Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter to step up. Additionally, guys like Trent Whittemore, Rick Wells, Ja’Markis Weston, and Xzavier Henderson will need to make an impact and prove themselves able to help Jones out by consistently catching the football.
In my opinion, Copeland has to be the leader of this group. He was given the No. 1 jersey by Mullen and must prove that he is the alpha of the wide receiver room.
Kemore Gamble will have every opportunity to prove he is the best option for this team at the tight end position. In order to do so, he does not have to be Kyle Pitts 2.0, but has to be able to run and pass block and make catches when called upon. This will be a vastly different offense this season and blocking will be of much more importance at the edge of the offensive line.
Keon Zipperer and Nick Elksnis both had a very good fall camp, according to the staff and will be rotated in, but Gamble will have the chance to show off his talents first and foremost.
The Florida offensive line was much maligned a year ago. Whether it was pourous pass protection or the inability to move the defenders off the line of scrimmage in the run game, the unit struggled, at best. Take into account that the top two performers from the group (Forsythe and Heggie) have exhausted their eligibility, and it appears all hope is lost.
However, Florida is instituting an almost entirely different style of play and the offensive line just may be the biggest benefactor. A larger quantity of rushing opportunities paired with more frequent quick-hitting passes could allow this unit to gel in time for the conference schedule.
Starters LT-LG-C-RG-RT (per the team issued depth chart):
Gouraige – White – Eguakun – Reese – Delance
The defensive line is one of the most intriguing position groups on the field because of what Florida has accomplished in the transfer portal. The Gators added interior linemen Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Valentino (Shelton) before announcing earlier this week the addition of Tyrone Truesdell. Bringing in these players will allow veteran Zachary Carter to slide outside and become more of a pass rush specialist. Brenton Cox and Jeremiah Moon are also players with high motors who will operate from that buck position to disrupt the opposing offense.
Ventrell Miller is a star in the making. I trust my eyes and what I’ve seen to believe that he is as dominant a middle linebacker as we’ve seen in quite some time at Florida. His leadership will be important as it’ll be up to him to make sure the calls are in and his team is lined up correctly. Backing him up, Mohamoud Diabate might be the best athlete on the team.
Amari Burney and Ty’Ron Hopper will line up alongside Miller and both are athletic playmakers. Many like the upside of Hopper and it wouldn’t surprise me if he jumps Burney on the depth chart within a few weeks.
Ah, the defensive backfield. While the entire defense was among the worst in program history, the secondary was one of the worst in the nation. As a result, both the safeties and cornerbacks coaches were let go and replaced.
But, Florida actually has a ton of talent in the secondary. Kaiir Elam is a candidate to receive an All-American brick as one of the nation’s best corner’s. The season ending injury to Jaydon Hill was unfortunate, but gives opportunity to Avery Helm (who is surprisingly listed as CB2). Behind them on the depth chart you have a true freshman in Jason Marshall and transfer Elijah Blades.
Trey Dean and Rashad Torrence are expected to start at the safety positions and quite frankly, safety play can’t possibly be worst than a year ago. In Florida’s initial depth chart, Tre’vez Johnson is listed as the starter at the star (nickel) position and he shined at times in very limited action as a true freshman in 2020.
Dan Mullen was stunned by Evan McPherson’s announcement that he was heading to the NFL. It forced Mullen to hit the portal hard and, ultimately, he landed on a player he was familiar with in Jace Christmann. The former Mississippi State kicker made 32-40 field goals, including 11-17 from 40 yards +.
Freshman punter Jeremy Crawshaw attempted two kicks a year ago and averaged 49.0 yards (one was 50, one was 48).
Kaiir Elam was listed as the No. 1 guy in the punt return and I’m not sure if I like your top corner being that guy. But, that’s just my thoughts on it. Jacob Copeland and Ja’Markis Weston are listed as co-options on the kickoffs.
To be very clear, I really like the starters on both sides of the ball (except the offensive line), my biggest question mark about this team is the lack of experienced depth, particularly with the defensive front seven.
What is a realistic expectation for this team?
This is such a difficult question. If every single player mentioned above avoids injury and plays to their full potential, a CFP berth is within reach. Realistically, though, injuries happen and periods of poor play happen. Florida also happens to have a relatively difficult schedule as they face Alabama and LSU from the SEC West in addition to the annual game in Jacksonville against Georgia.
9-3 seems like a reasonable prediction for this team, but three conference losses doesn’t result in a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game. Three losses may not put you second in the East. If a third place finish in the East is in the cards, so might be an Outback Bowl berth.