Considering the Florida Gators won 10 games and the SEC East last season after many had low expectations for the team, they’re not receiving a lot of preseason love from the media.
It is probably because the Gators were non-competitive in their last three games against Florida State, Alabama and Michigan in which they were outscored 97-24. It also could be due to the fact that Florida lost three players (Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal and Jonathan Bullard) that ended up among the first 75 picks of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Whatever the reason for the lack of optimism, there are still playmakers on head coach Jim McElwain’s roster. Here are five players that could have a big impact this fall:
Jalen Tabor, CB
With Hargreaves gone, Tabor will be the Gators’ No.1 cornerback in 2016. In 13 games last season as a s sophomore, Tabor recorded 40 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. For his efforts, Tabor was first-team All-SEC by the coaches, AP and ESPN.com, among others.
Tabor isn’t as good as Hargreaves yet, but he has the potential to get and even surpass the former All-American who was the 11th pick overall in this year’s draft. Tabor is bigger (6-1, 199) than Hargreaves, who measured in at 5-foot-10 at the Scouting Combine. Tabor also possesses the necessary ball skills and instincts to be a shutdown corner.
During his first two seasons in Gainesville, Tabor has yielded just one touchdown pass thrown against him. That is impressive when you consider all of the NFL-caliber talent that plays in the SEC.
Jarrad Davis, LB
With Hargreaves, Neal and Bullard now playing in the NFL, Davis will be the focal point and senior leader of the Gators’ defense this season. Despite not receiving a lot of attention as a true freshman, Davis played in 12 games his first year in Gainesville. A torn meniscus then limited Davis to only 23 tackles in nine games in 2014.
As a junior, Davis took his game to the next level as he finished second on the team in tackles with 98, including 11 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks while starting 12 of Florida’s 14 games. Davis has the speed and athleticism to make any play on the football field. He also has the football IQ to recognize plays and understand what the offense is trying to do.
With another excellent season, Davis could be the next Gator to hear his name called in the first round of the draft.
Mark Thompson, RB
Kelvin Taylor, who led the team with 1,035 yards rushing last season, surprised some when he left early to enter the NFL Draft. Some may believe Taylor left a void in the Gators’ backfield, but that is certainly not the case.
Thompson is projected as the one to fill Taylor’s shoes and he certainly appears to have the size (6-2, 242) to handle the load. Thompson also has the distinction of being the nation’s No. 1 junior college running back last year, according to several media outlets.
Last season, Thompson rushed for 1,298 yards and 18 touchdowns for Dodge City (Kan.) Community College. Thompson has drawn some comparisons to former Alabama All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. If the Gators can get anywhere near the same level of production from Thompson that Henry gave Alabama than Florida’s running game should be just fine. This also will take pressure off of a passing attack that has a ton of question marks heading into the season.
DeAndre Goolsby, TE
Last month, Goolsby was named to the John Mackey Award watch list, which is given annually to the nation’s best tight end. The primary to backup to Jake McGee last season, Goolsby finished fifth on the team with 17 receptions, which went for 277 yards and a touchdown.
A junior, Goolsby has the size (6-4, 243) and speed that could create matchup problems for opposing defenses. Goolsby endured quite a bit of criticism at the end of last season, as he was singled out for several drops starting in place of McGee in Florida’s disappointing 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan. Despite the loss and negativity, the experience gained from that game should help Goolsby in the long run.
Caleb Brantley, DT
During SEC Media Days in July, the media didn’t name Brantley (above, right) to any of the three All-SEC teams. He didn’t take too kindly of the snub so motivation won’t be an issue this fall.
The junior is arguably Florida’s best defensive lineman following a 2015 campaign in which he recorded 29 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. ProFootballFocus certainly noticed, as the Web site named Brantley to its All-American team (second team).
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.