Since Tim Tebow left Gainesville about a decade ago, the Florida Gators have been somewhere from below average to absolutely terrible on offense – irrelevant to most college fantasy football leagues. Last season, the Gators ended 108th in scoring offense! While no one could foresee the injuries and 10 pre-season suspensions last year, a much improved offense is what most people anticipate to change under new Head Coach Dan Mullen.
With Dan Mullen taking over, what are your general expectations for the Gators offense in 2018?
Don’t get it twisted: the sentiment in Gainesville is absolutely one of optimism regarding Dan Mullen and his perceived coaching prowess, and for good reason, too. The Florida faithful don’t need any reminder of the two BCS National Championships Mullen helped bring to Gainesville as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, and they definitely don’t need to be reminded of the nearly decade-long stretch of offensive futility that has bridged the gap between Mullen’s stretches at Florida. And I believe the talent is there at wide receiver — even before including the potential contributions from heralded transfers Trevon Grimes and Van Jefferson — and running back for the Gators to have an offensive resurrection in Mullen’s first year at the helm.
But the big question is the obvious one, and that’s Florida’s continued search for a serviceable quarterback. Feleipe Franks’ 2017 campaign was wrought with mental mistakes and all around poor play, and the ensuing Spring camp did little to assuage any fears from the Gators fanbase, nor did it draw acclaim from the UF coaching staff. The fact of the matter is simply this: Franks is likely UF’s best bet at quarterback, meaning any improvements on offense for the Gators will be defined by the play of the team’s starting quarterback rather than Mullen’s install.
If Franks or Kyle Trask don’t run away with the job before UF opens the season against Charleston Southern, Mullen might be forced to do something he has yet to do in his head coaching career: start a freshman quarterback. Ironically enough it’s actually the decision a sizable portion of the UF fanbase has clamored for. In short, nobody knows how Florida’s offense will perform until the quarterback position comes into focus.
How do you predict the QB position playing out in 2018? What is the best case scenario for Emory Jones?
If the previous decade is any indication, UF’s offense lives and dies by the quarterback position. As it stands prior to the commencement of Fall camp, it appears to be redshirt sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks’ job to lose at this point — but it’s close.
With a fresh slate under Mullen, Kyle Trask impressed the coaching staff in Spring camp, showing no signs of the foot injury that plagued him throughout the 2017 season. Franks has the physical tools and is the only UF quarterback on the roster with collegiate experience, but Mullen and co. have been adamant they’re evaluating each quarterback fairly and evenly. If Franks limits the mental blunders and continues to develop a pocket presence, it seems like a no brainer that he starts the season for UF. But the battle is tenuous to the point where I believe Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson continue to evaluate the position on a per-game basis.
As for heralded true freshman signal caller Emory Jones, it appears he will go the path of all previous Mullen quarterbacks and redshirt the 2017 season — unless something goes drastically wrong. With just three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster — and considering Franks is the only QB who has seen the field since high school — an injury or a 2017-esque performance at the position could open up a door for Jones to see the field as a true freshman and possible start down the line. Starting at UF under Mullen as a true freshman is something even a former five-star dual-threat quarterback of the name Tim Tebow didn’t do, and his Florida career still turned out rather swell.
Will the Gators see improved play along the offensive line?
Of all positions aside from linebacker, the UF offensive line unit should be in for the most improvement in 2018 — seemingly impressive when you consider the unit returns all five starters from a season ago.
Yet it was anything but an impressive unit last season, giving up 37 sacks in just 11 games last season, good for 123 of 129 FBS teams. But that’s just how promising early returns on offensive line coach John Hevesy have been. With senior leader Martez Ivey likely to see more minutes at his natural left guard position, Brett Heggie seems poised to become the team’s starting center, which should be his role going forward. The real question is where Jawaan Taylor plays. Now a junior, Taylor saw time at left tackle last season due to injuries, and it’s possible he rotates along the line.
As it stands, UF has seven offensive linemen with considerable starting experience, meaning excuses are running out for the unit to produce.
How do you see the carries being dispersed amongst a deep, talented RB group? What is the status of Malik Davis?
I was under the impression Malik Davis would miss all of the 2018 season, but this is where I eat crow and say I can’t be more wrong. Mullen said the breakout back wouldn’t be evaluated until Fall camp, but Davis himself tweeted in June he was “100% cleared” to return to football activities. If Davis is anywhere back to the level he quickly reached less than a year ago, Florida could have one of the deepest backfields in the entire country let alone the conference. Back is Jordan Scarlett, who missed the 2017 season due to the credit card fraud scandal after emerging as the starter in 2016. The Gators also have a workhorse in Lamical Perine, a promising sophomore in Adarius Lemons and two true freshman running backs who were each ranked by 247Sports as top-10 at their position in Iverson Clement and Dameon Pierce.
The real challenge will be allocating the carries effectively to avoid a problem the Gators suffered in 2015, as Jim McElwain and the UF coaching staff had four running backs in contention for the starting job by the conclusion of Fall camp, resulting in a by-committee approach that seemed to stifle the production of all four. Scarlett should start, but how the pecking order shapes up remains to be seen, and will likely determine the success of UF’s ground game.
Tyrie Cleveland seems to have all of the talent for a breakout season if QB play supports it, but the Gators added Van Jefferson who looked great in the spring. Who do you see leading the way for Florida at WR/TE? Does the potential eligibility of Trevon Grimes impact that?
With the SEC removing the transfer rule that would have kept Jefferson off the field in 2018, the Gators remain in wait to hear from the NCAA regarding Jefferson’s immediate eligibility. It appears to be a foregone conclusion that the former Mississippi product would be eligible, but no decision has arrived with under three weeks until Fall camp. Those who saw Jefferson participate in UF’s Spring practice watched a potential star in the making — with the right quarterback that is. But don’t forget about Tyrie Cleveland, who has flown under the radar after missing all but a handful of Spring practices with a hamstring injury. Cleveland has shown dynamic ability in the open field and remains UF’s best eligible wide receiver at this time, and all accounts in Gainesville are that the Jacksonville native is poised for his best campaign yet if the talent is there at quarterback.
To top it all off, the Gators remain cautiously optimistic that Trevon Grimes, ranked by the 247Sports composite as the No. 6 overall wide receiver in the 2017 class, will be granted immediate eligibility for the 2018 season. If that happens, the Gators would have their deepest contingent of wide receivers since Mullen left Gainesville for Starkville.
Many young players are already playing at Florida, but do you have any offensive Freshman or Sophomore players that you project to be future stars in the next couple seasons?
From an offensive standpoint, tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Jacob Copeland appear the most talent-laden and poised to contribute early for the Gators, but both Copeland and Pitts arrived in July rather than enrolling early, leaving their status up in the air. Considering the improved emphasis on strength and conditioning at Florida, I could see both players needing time to develop, but their talent should lead them to the field sooner rather than later.
Defensively, I’m high on several freshmen, including Justin Watkins, Trey Dean and Malik Langham. A heralded two-way prospect, Watkins should work into Florida’s secondary rotation as a freshman, and Dean showed advanced ball and coverage skills in Spring camp, leading UF’s coaching staff and the media alike to peg him as a can’t-miss early contributor barring unforeseen circumstances. And Mullen stole Langham away from Alabama and Nick Saban in the 11th hour, which should tell you all you need to know about his potential.