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College Football Preview 2019: 10. Florida Gators

10. Florida Gators

If the offense takes the next step, a SEC East Title is within reach for Year 2 of Dan Mullen

Feleipe Franks

Offense: After years of offensive struggles, Florida was wildly improved in 2018, averaging 33.3 points per game. Much of that can be accredited to the arrival of Dan Mullen as head coach, as well as the continued growth of quarterback Feleipe Franks.

Coming off an uneven 2017, Franks made real strides last fall, finishing the season with 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns. He showed a better command of the game and took care of the football, with just six interceptions on the year. Florida is hopeful he can get even better in 2019, with Mullen continuing to groom him. The Gators could also utilize redshirt freshman Emory Jones at quarterback in certain situations, as the youngster is a superb runner.

With Jordan Scarlett and his 776 yards graduating, the Gators will give Lamical Perine all the carries as the feature guy. Perine has proven he can operate between the tackles and also has a little bit of shiftiness to him. Sophomores Malik Davis & Dameon Pierce will also see action, with Pierce as the speed option in this backfield. Between the three of them, this running back situation could be even better, despite the loss of Scarlett.

Every receiver is returning to this Gator offense, including former transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes. Jefferson led the team with 503 yards and also managed six touchdowns, but he will hope to get more consistent in '19. Grimes began his career at Ohio State and showed serious flashes of stardom last season, finishing third on the team in yardage. Veterans Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain also provide some supporting help and both have reliable hands. Meanwhile, junior Kadarius Toney will play the Percy Harvin role in this offense as an explosive weapon on the perimeter. UF will be very creative in getting the ball in his hands and letting him do some serious damage.

Losing All-SEC tackle Jawaan Taylor and three other starters puts this offensive line in a tough spot entering the season. Senior center Nick Buchanan is the lone returnee to the group and will have to be the leader. Buchanan made 12 starts a season ago and has proven that he can excel as a run blocker. The big question has to be at left tackle where nobody has emerged to replace Martez Ivey, the long-term starting piece. There also significant questions at both guard spots that will have to be ironed out during fall camp and early on in the regular season.

With an improving quarterback in the fold, along with plenty of help at running back and receiver, the Gators offense looks like it could be the best it has been since Tim Tebow was playing in Gainesville. Certainly the O-Line will have to gel quickly, but Mullen has this unit getting better each and every day.

Defense: The Gators consistently have one of the top defenses in the country and the return of eight starters almost certainly ensures that will be the case once more in 2019. There is depth and talent everywhere, namely the D-Line and secondary.

Jabari Zuniga flirted with the idea of going pro, and probably would've been a high NFL Draft selection but instead decided to come back to Gainesville. He gives this Gators' unit a pass rushing demon who had 6.5 sacks last season and seems to be getting better. The other starters in this 3-4 defensive scheme should be junior Kyree Campbell and senior Adam Shuler. A former transfer, Shuler acclimated well to SEC football last fall and will play a more important role on this defense than most will give him credit for.

Even though it doesn't have any stars, the linebacker corps is rock-solid and pretty versatile. Senior David Reese II should be the leader of the group as a former All-SEC player in 2017. He was a little bit beaten up for much of '18 but now that he is fully healthy, he is ready for a huge season. He'll be aided by Trey Dean, who is making the move from cornerback to the "Star" hybrid spot. Dean looked like a seasoned pro as a freshman last year and has the potential to be All-Conference. He will be utilized as a coverage option that can move around, coming off a campaign where he had six pass deflections. While those two will be the leaders of the group, a pair of newcomers are also going to make quite the difference. Jonathan Greenard played for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham at Louisville and is now coming south to play for him at UF. He could start at the "Buck" position, where the Gators lose Jachai Polite, coming off an 11 sack season. Freshman Diwun Black will also arrive with some fanfare as one of the gems of this year's recruiting class. He could play right away, most likely on the outside.

Florida prides itself as "DBU" for the consistent talent they produce in the defensive backfield and this unit is stacked once again. Junior C.J. Henderson has a claim as one of the best corners in NCAA football and he should be shutdown this fall. He had 38 tackles in '18, but really showed his ability to do multiple things, with three sacks and seven passes defended. Quarterbacks won't be able to avoid Henderson very much either, as the Gators pose a stud at the other CB spot as well. Sophomore Marco Wilson is young, but already starting to make noise. He had ten pass deflections his freshman season in 2017 but took a redshirt last year due to injury. That cornerback combination may be the best in the entire country. Safety isn't quite as strong but it is definitely not a weakness either, as veterans Jeawon Taylor and Brad Stewart are both returning. Also returning to Gainesville is sophomore Donovan Stiner, coming off an impressive freshman season. He has the chance to see starting snaps at the free safety position.

Special Teams: Special teams is always important in the competitive SEC, which bodes well for Florida. Sophomore placekicker Evan McPherson showed real promise last fall, hitting 17 of 19 field goals with a long of 48. Punter Tommy Townsend is also back, as the former Tennessee transfer could be among the best in the conference. Kadarius Toney is a huge factor in the return game, as he had a long of 51 in kick returns.

Bottom Line: Dan Mullen's first year in his return to Florida was quite the success, as the Gators won ten games and blew out Michigan in the Peach Bowl. That has risen already high expectations around the program, but this team looks ready to live up to it. Franks seems to be getting better each day at the sport's most crucial position and he has a lot of help with him offensively. On the other side of the ball, Florida has a number of All-SEC talents, with loads of depth and experience. The schedule also isn't too difficult, even with non-conference meetings against rivals Miami and Florida State looming. That all sets up well for Mullen and this Gators team, who will likely return to a New Year's Six Bowl and certainly is in Playoff contention.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Offensive MVP: QB Feliepe Franks
Defensive MVP: CB C.J. Henderson
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Kadarius Toney
Impact Freshman: LB Diwun Black

Five-Year Trend
2014: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
2015: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)
2016: 9-4 (6-2 SEC)
2017: 4-7 (3-5 SEC)
2018: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

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