By ending spring practice in mid-March, Dan Mullen probably avoided much of the transfer plague that makes headlines throughout the SEC and college football on a daily basis. Following spring practice, only a couple of players announced they are leaving so Mullen has a good idea what his roster will look like when the preseason camp opens in August. There is no shortage of talent although experience may be an issue at some critical positions. The Gators have 85 on scholarship already, but Mullen has the flexibility to add a couple of transfers due to NCAA rules regarding roster size for 2021.
Eight Gators were taken in the most recent NFL Draft so there are some rather large holes that have to be filled, particularly on the offensive side. Mullen lost a record-setting quarterback, a first round wide receiver, maybe the best tight end in collegiate history and a left tackle to the NFL. Depending on your perspective, it’s one of those good news/bad news scenarios over on the defensive side of the ball. The good news is the Gators return nearly everyone. That’s also the bad news when you consider the 2020 Florida defense was the worst in school history.
Because Mullen is one of the brighter offensive minds in the college game, expectations are that he will come up with a scheme that not only fits the personnel but is highly productive. With the transition to a quarterback who can make big plays with his feet, the Florida offense should be more run-oriented and that could end up helping the defense with longer time of possession. Defense. Things can’t be as bad as they were last year can they? Coordinator Todd Grantham has never had a year like 2020, but he has talent to work with and the addition of a pair of grad transfer tackles to shore up the middle of the line. Improvement will come down to a few tweaks of the scheme and finding the right personnel to get the Gators back on the defensive track.
Due to the players the Gators lost, overall expectations for the 2021 season will be lower but UF still makes the top 15-20 teams in every all-too-early poll. Mullen will do everything he can to turn the lowered expectations into a chip on the shoulder of this football team.
Here is a look at Florida’s scholarship football roster as of May 6, 2021. Expected starters in bold face.
QUARTERBACKS (4): Emory Jones (6-2, 210, RJR); Anthony Richardson (6-4, 232, RFR); Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (6-2, 238, FR); Jalen Kitna (6-5, 198, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: This is the moment that Emory Jones has been waiting for. He has waited patiently for three years and no one knows the offense better. We know what he can do as a runner and how he brings the run-pass option into play, but now we’ll see if he can make all the necessary throws to keep teams from loading up the box. Jones will be the starter when camp opens in August and it would be a shock if he isn’t the game one starter, but if he falters in any way, Richardson is ready to step in. He’s got prototypical size, a rocket launcher for an arm and while not as elusive as Jones, a very dangerous runner. Of the two freshmen, Kitna is the son of a former NFL QB who is poised, has a big time arm and grasps concepts quickly. Needs this year to redshirt and let his body fill out.
The expectation: Mullen isn’t oblivious to playing two quarterbacks so even if Jones is the starter, there will be at least a couple of packages for Richardson.
RUNNING BACKS (5): Malik Davis (5-10, 198, RSR); Dameon Pierce (5-10, 212, SR); Lorenzo Lingard (6-0, 206, RJR); Nay’Quan Wright (5-9, 197, RSO); Demarkcus Bowman (5-10, 187, RFR)
Looking ahead to the fall: Mullen has never had a running back room with more talent and versatility and it’s going to bring out the best in his creative offensive mind. We’re probably going to see a lot of creative two-back sets for a look that bears strong resemblance to how Mullen used Percy Harvin, which is a nightmare scenario for defensive coordinators. Pierce is the between the tackles hammer who should have an outstanding season. Wright and Davis are outstanding receivers out of the backfield so they probably will line up in the slot a lot where they can be either receivers or runners. Lingard and Bowman are both former 5-star running backs. If they’re healthy, they give the Gators the home run threat on every play that has been missing the past three years. Bowman nursed a bad ankle during the spring but Lingard broke off big runs nearly every practice.
The expectation: There isn’t much doubt what Pierce (1,232 career rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) is going to do, but the other four will line up all over the place. All five backs are going to see the football, but Davis, Wright, Lingard and Bowman will be used a good bit in the passing game.
WIDE RECEIVERS (10): Rick Wells (6-1, 204, RSR); Jordan Pouncey (6-1, 212, RSR); Justin Shorter (6-5, 227, RJR); Jacob Copeland (6-0, 204, RJR); Trent Whittemore (6-4, 213, RSO); Ja’Markis Weston (6-3, 212, RSO); Xzavier Henderson (6-3, 196, SO); Ja’Quavian Fraziars (6-3, 215, SO); Daejon Reynolds (6-2, 201, FR); Marcus Burke (6-3, 180, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: It’s next man up at wide receiver where there will be no dropoff in terms of productivity. Justin Shorter graduates from drag routes and bubble screens to a downfield receiver whose size and speed combo make him a matchup nightmare. Copeland seemed to put it all together in the spring. He has deep threat potential. Trent Whittemore probably has the best hands and he’s versatile enough to be effective either outside or in the slot. Henderson spent a year learning how to play the position. He should have a breakout season. Keep a close eye on Ja’Markis Weston and Ja’Quavian Fraziars. If their improvement carries over from the spring they will both see the field a lot. Everybody else is going to have to earn playing time by standing out on special teams.
The expectation: Because the Gators will have more flexibility in the running game, they should have more downfield opportunities in the passing game. UF won’t be throwing on every down like they did last year, but the wide receivers should make more big plays against single coverage.
TIGHT ENDS (5): Kemore Gamble (6-4, 252, RSR); Keon Zipperer (6-3, 240, JR); Jonathan Odom (6-6, 240, RFR); Nick Elksnis (6-6, 237, FR); Gage Wilcox (6-4, 228, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: Mullen isn’t going to be able to do the same things with this group that he did with Kyle Pitts, but the position is in very capable hands. Gamble is the best blocker among the group and the likely starter since UF figures to run the football more in the fall. Zipperer has great hands and is somewhat of a mismatch. Elksnis surprised everyone in the spring. He’s a long strider who is faster than he looks and is quite capable of making the tough catches. Odom and Wilcox have their work cut out for them but both of them have talent.
The expectation: When Pitts was injured, the tight ends still saw the football. Nothing is going to change in 2021 except there probably won’t be as many explosive plays. Elksnis has star potential even as a freshman.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (14): Stewart Reese (6-6, 354, GR); Jean Delance (6-5, 307, RSR); Richard Gouraige (6-5, 313, RJR); Griffin McDowell (6-4, 303, RJR); Ethan White (6-5, 346, JR); Riley Simonds (6-3, 305, RSO); Kingsley Eguakun (6-4, 315, RSO); Michael Tarquin (6-5, 306, RSO); Will Harrod (6-5, 333, RSO); Josh Braun (6-6, 352, SO); Richie Leonard (6-2, 335, RFR); Yousef Mugharbil (6-5, 330, FR); Austin Barber (6-7, 300, FR); Jake Slaughter (6-4, 300, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: The success of this team offensively will be determined by the improvement of the offensive line. If John Hevesy can find five guys he trusts who can get the job done both in pass protection and running the ball, the Gators should be one of the more explosive offenses in the SEC. The way things ended in the spring, Stewart Reese was at center with Ethan White and Josh Braun at the guards, Richard Gouraige and Jean Delance at the tackles. The real question mark is Delance, who has struggled in pass protection the last two years. If he can’t get the job done, Hevesy might feel the need to move Reese outside. Reese has started at both guards and right tackle in his college career. Another option might be Josh Braun, who got some starts at right guard last year. Things are far more settled on the left side where Richard Gouraige moves outside and Ethan White takes over at left guard. Hevesy likes his three inside guys to be maulers, so his ideal setup would have Reese at center with White and Braun at the guards. The Gators could still add a couple of transfers. If an experienced right tackle enters the transfer portal it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Gators make a big play for him.
The expectation: It’s all about what happens at right tackle. If Delance can finally put it together at right tackle, then UF can start five experienced players. Run blocking should be much improved. All the questions about this line revolve around pass protection, particularly on the right side.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (14): Daquan Newkirk (6-3, 318, GR); Antonio Shelton (6-3, 318, RSR); Zachary Carter (6-4, 277, RSR); Dante Lang (6-5, 291, RJR); Jaelin Humphries (6-3, 325, RSO); Gervon Dexter (6-6, 308, SO); Princely Umanmielen (6-4, 245, SO); Jalen Lee (6-2, 313, SO); Lamar Goods (6-2, 335, RFR); Desmond Watson (6-5, 432, FR); Chris Thomas Jr. (6-5, 314, FR); Justus Boone (6-4 ,265, FR); Jeremiah Williams 6-3, 224, FR); Tyreak Sapp (6-3, 255, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: The Gators gave up an unheard of 170.5 yards per game on the ground and 4.56 per carry last year, quite a contrast from 2019 when opponents managed 102.77 yards and 3.19 per carry. The 2020 Gators were so soft in the middle, something that is expected to change in the fall when grad transfer tackles Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton take over. Both are stout against the run and capable of collapsing a pocket straight up the gut. Zachary Carter, one of the few D-line bright spots in 2020 when he had five sacks and 12 quarterback hurries, elected to come back to boost his draft stock. Behind those three is the best depth defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has had since he arrived with Mullen in 2018. Gervon Dexter, a former 5-star recruit, needs to find consistency but the physical tools are there. A name to watch is Desmond Watson, who tipped the scales a biscuit less than 435 in the spring. Even at his size he has great mobility to go with incredible strength. A surprise could be Dante Lang, who spent his first two years at UF as a tight end but has grown to 291. He could be the heir apparent to Carter. This unit should be one of the more improved defensive lines in the entire country.
The expectation: If there is to be a defensive revival it will start with the play on the line. The value of the additions of Newkirk and Shelton cannot be understated. If they get the job done consistently, Carter could have an All-America season.
LINEBACKERS (15): Ventrell Miller (6-1, 225, RSR); Jeremiah Moon (6-5, 245, RSR); Lacedrick Brunson (6-2, 234, RSR); Amari Burney (6-2, 235, SR); David Reese (6-2, 234, RJR); Brenton Cox Jr. (6-4, 252, RJR); Andrew Chatfield Jr. (6-2, 251, RJR); Khris Bogle (6-4, 234, JR); Mohamoud Diabate (6-3, 221, JR);Diwun Black (6-4, 226, JR); Lloyd Sumerall III (6-5, 240, RSO); Ty’Ron Hopper (6-2, 221, RSO); Derek Wingo (6-1, 221, SO); Antwaun Powell (6-2, 245, RFR); Chief Borders (6-4, 240, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: There is a buzz about this unit and much of it centers around Diwun Black, the best juco linebacker in the country. He’s big, fast and arrives at the football in a very bad mood. Adding Black to a unit that returns Ventrell Miller, Jeremiah Moon, Brenton Cox Jr., Amari Burney, Mohamoud Diabate and Khris Bogle should equate to a group that can stop the run, get to the passer and play in space against the passing game. Miller had 86 tackles last year and that included 3.5 sacks. Cox scares the bejabbers out of offensive coordinators. Although doubled on every snap last year he still had four sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. Moon has to stay healthy. Diabate moved inside last year and got better as the season progressed, finishing with 68 tackles. Keep an eye on Bogle, who should played well in the last half of the season and should play somewhere around 240 in the fall. A freshman to keep an eye on is Chief Borders, who may shift to D-line if he keeps growing.
The expectation: A year older doesn’t necessarily make you a year better but add Black to the experienced returnees and this unit has a highly productive look. There is enough talent this year that opponents are going to have a difficult time doubling up on Cox. If he gets enough one-on-one attention, he could have a huge year.
SECONDARY (15): Trey Dean III (6-3, 205, SR); Kaiir Elam (6-2, 195, JR); Jaydon Hill (6-0, 190, JR); Tre’Vez Johnson (5-11, 188, SO); Mordecai McDaniel (6-1, 192, SO); Rashan Torrence II (6-0, 197, SO); Fenley Graham (5-9, 167, RFR); Kamar Wilcoxson (6-1, 186, RFR); Avery Helm (6-1, 174, RFR); Ethan Pouncey (6-1, 165, RFR); Corey Collier Jr. (6-1, 172, FR); Donovan McMillon (6-1, 197, FR); Jason Marshall Jr. (6-0, 191, FR); Jordan Young (6-0, 189, FR); Dakota Mitchell (6-0, 185, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: The Gators gave up 28 touchdown passes last year, double what they gave up in 2019. Some of that can be attributed to an inconsistent pass rush that left the secondary vulnerable but no matter how you analyze it, the Gators were really bad. That has to change this year. The Gators should be solid on the corners with potential first rounder Kaiir Elam teaming with Jaydon Hill. Five-freshman Jason Marshall Jr. did not come to Gainesville to sit. He will be on the field early and often. Ethan Pouncey was expected to play a lot as a true freshman but he tore up his knee last August. He’s healthy and should be a contributor. Most of the questions for the Florida secondary are at safety. Trey Dean III has been tried at nickel and corner but he’s best suited for safety. True freshman Donovan McMillon was the talk of spring practice. Four-star freshman Corey Collier Jr., a high school teammate of Marshall, is another one who didn’t come to Gainesville to sit.
The expectation: Can the Gators find answers at safety? If they can, they should be improved in the secondary. The corners could be as good as you will find in the SEC. Elam will probably show up on most preseason All-America lists and Hill is nearly as good. The secondary will get a real lift if the Gators are able to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Nothing makes a secondary look as good as a great pass rush.
SPECIAL TEAMS (3): Jace Christmann (6-0, 195, GR); Jeremy Crashaw (6-4, 196, RFR); Rocco Underwood (6-4, 220, FR)
Looking ahead to the fall: Fortunately when Evan McPherson left early for the NFL, Jace Christmann transferred in from Mississippi State, where he is the leading scorer in school history. He hit 12-14 field goals for Mullen back in 2017. Crashaw is a big-legged Australian who averaged 49 yards in his two punts last year. He’s good enough that Jacob Finn, who averaged 46 yards a punt, transferred. Mullen thought Rocco Underwood was the best long snapper in the country.
The expectation: Christmann doesn’t have the range McPherson did but he’s very accurate. Crashaw should average 45-48 yards per punt.