David Reese is back to anchor the Gators' defense
The Florida Gators head into the offseason with plenty of positive vibes. The change of tune compared to a year ago is because the Gators went from 4-7 in 2017 to 10-3, including wins over LSU and Michigan, in Dan Mullen's first season as head coach.
Florida's bounce-back campaign not only put the Gators back into the season-ending top 10 in the polls, it has given a boost to recruiting and as a result there's plenty of optimism coming out of Gainesville. Likewise, the preseason hype has already started as the focus starts to shift to the Aug. 31 opener in Orlando against the Miami Hurricanes.
Here's why Florida fans should be optimistic about the Gators in 2019:
1. Dan Mullen
In a short span, Mullen has not only turned things around in Gainesville, but he has the Gators believing they can contend for a national championship in 2019. In particular, Mullen's influence helped quarterback Feliepe Franks play the best football of his career last season.
In 13 games, Franks threw for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns against six interceptions. He also rushed for 350 and seven touchdowns. Last month before their Peach Bowl victory over Michigan, Franks said Mullen has absolute confidence in every player he has on his roster.
“Just the mentality that coach Mullen brings to our team, a lot of people don’t think that’s something that can change somebody' play, and I think that's totally a misconception is that mentality can change completely how you play," Franks said. "Like coach Mullen always says, it's one of my favorite quotes he always says, 'Being a champion is not a sometimes thing, it's a way of life,' and it's something he's very true about."
2. Defensive starters returning
Sure, the Gators will lose a few key defensive starters from their 2018 team, but they have a lot of talent returning. Jabari Zuniga, who decided to return for his senior season, will lead the Florida defensive line.
With sacks leader Jachai Polite and CeCe Jefferson both moving on, Zuniga is one of the most talented players returning up front. In 2018, Zuniga recorded 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Losing Vosean Joseph hurts the Gators at linebacker, but David Reese, Kylan Johnson, and James Houston IV will all be back. Reese is Florida's most experienced linebacker, the best run stopper and the quarterback of the defense.
And cornerback C.J. Henderson should be a candidate for the Thorpe Award, after an excellent 2018 season. Once again, the Gators' defense should be the strength of their team in 2019.
3. Quarterback position
While Franks was arguably the most improved player in college football last season, he will have some competition as he looks to hold on to his starting job under center.
Emory Jones, who played some behind Franks last season, will have an opportunity to unseat Franks during the spring. Jones was one of may players that took full advantage of the new rule allowing first-year players to appear in four games and remain eligible to redshirt. As a result, he still has four years of eligibility.
Jones did play in four games, including seeing some key snaps against Georgia. His most significant action came in mop-up duty against FCS opponent Idaho on Nov. 17. In that game, he completed 12 of 16 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns after replacing Franks late in the second quarter after the Gators were up 42-0 and eventually won 63-10.
No matter who wins the starting quarterback job, Gator fans should be encouraged as both Franks and Jones offer appealing options.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.