The preparation for college football's 2021 season is already underway, as Florida officially opens spring practice on Thursday, Feb. 18. The Gators won the SEC East for the first time under coach Dan Mullen in 2020. Since he took over the program in 2018, Florida is 29-9 overall and 19-7 in the SEC. Additionally, this program has also finished no lower than 13th in the final Associated Press poll in each of the last three seasons.
Even though Florida is coming off an SEC East title and a trip to a New Year's Six Bowl, Mullen and his staff have a busy spring ahead. The Gators return only nine starters from last season and enter spring practice with major question marks on both sides of the ball. The coaching staff features three new assistants, as Garrick McGee (QBs), Wesley McGriff (safeties) and Jules Montinar (cornerbacks) arrived in Gainesville this offseason. Elevating Florida into a consistent SEC title and CFB Playoff contender is the No. 1 goal for Mullen and his staff. This spring starts the work of reloading to make another run at both in 2021.
5 Storylines to Watch During Florida’s Spring Practices
1. Build the Offense Around Emory Jones
Mullen is one of the best quarterback gurus in college football and his next standout at the position is likely to be Jones. Kyle Trask passed for 4,283 yards and 43 touchdowns last season, with Florida throwing on 56.3 percent of their plays. That ratio is likely to change with Jones at the controls. The Georgia native is known as more of a dual-threat option and has played in 24 games over the last three years. During that span, he ran for 514 yards and six touchdowns (5.6 yards per carry) and completed 55 of 86 passes for 613 yards and seven touchdowns. Jones has averaged more than seven yards per pass attempt in his limited playing time and tossed just one pick over 86 attempts. This spring is all about getting Jones work with the No. 1 offense and acclimated to the new supporting cast. Mullen should get the most out of his talent and this set of practices will help configure the offense to the new quarterback's strengths in 2021.
2. New Receivers + Pecking Order at RB
Even though Mullen is likely to let the offense lean a little more on the run in 2021, a restock is needed of the receiving corps after losing wideouts Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes as well as tight end Kyle Pitts. Those three players combined for 151 receptions and 31 of Florida's 46 touchdown grabs in 2020. The good news for Mullen: The cupboard isn't bare. Jacob Copeland (23 grabs for 435 yards), Justin Shorter (25), Xzavier Henderson (nine) and Trent Whittemore (10) are a strong start to the retooling effort out wide. Kemore Gamble (10) and Keon Zipperer (11) are slated to take on a larger role at tight end, but LSU transfer Arik Gilbert will be a big-time weapon if the one-time transfer waiver is passed to allow immediate eligibility in 2021.
Florida may not have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2021, but that’s largely due to the depth at this position. Dameon Pierce (503 yards) tops the list of returners, with Malik Davis (310), Nay’Quan Wright (213), and Lorenzo Lingard (32) also in the mix. The ground game also is expected to feature Clemson transfer Demarkus Bowman – assuming the waiver for immediate eligibility is passed in time for 2021. The Gators have plenty of options here, but this spring is about establishing the pecking order and figuring out ways to keep as many backs involved as possible. This offense ranked 13th in the SEC with 30.6 rushing attempts a game last year. That number is likely to climb with Jones taking over, along with the depth at running back.
3. Retool the Offensive Line
This position might be the biggest concern on offense going into spring practice. Two key starters – left tackle Stone Forsythe and center Brett Heggie – departed after the 2020 season. Three starters are back – Richard Gouraige, Stewart Reese and Jean Delance – but there’s uncertainty on how the pieces up front are going to fit into place. T.J. Moore was listed as the backup to Forsythe at left tackle, while Ethan White is expected to slide into the starting job at center. Joshua Braun could fit into the mix at guard. However, this spring will be about experimenting to find the best five players and the spots they slot into going into the next set of workouts.
4. Find the Right Mix in the Defensive Front
The entire defensive unit is going to be under the microscope for Florida this offseason. The Gators didn’t play up to their usual standard on this side of the ball in 2020, surrendering 6.1 yards per play and 30.1 points a game. Both of those numbers are the highest marks for this program over the last 12 years. Coordinator Todd Grantham is feeling the heat after last season, so this spring represents the first step to addressing the issues that plagued this group in 2020. In addition to the overall sluggish performance, the defense gave up too many big plays and didn’t effectively get off the field on third downs or in the red zone.
The Gators allowed an uncharacteristic 170.5 rushing yards a game last season and new faces are needed on the interior after Kyree Campbell and Tedarrell Slaton departed to the next level. Help is on the way in the form of two transfers (Antonio Shelton from Penn State and Daquan Newkirk from Auburn), but sophomore Gervon Dexter is another name to watch. There’s plenty of depth off the edge with Brenton Cox, Zachary Carter, Jeremiah Moon, Khris Bogle and Andrew Chatfield in place. At linebacker, Ventrell Miller, Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate provide a decent foundation but more depth and overall production is needed here.
5. New Faces in the Secondary
Kaiir Elam is one of the SEC’s top returning cornerbacks, but the pieces around him are in transition. Safeties Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner and fellow cornerback Marco Wilson are gone. Additionally, this unit will have new position coaches with the arrival of McGriff and Montinar. Last season, Florida allowed the most touchdown passes of any SEC team (28) and ranked ninth in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Even though there are new faces here, last year’s production left a lot to be desired. Jaydon Hill could start opposite of Elam after making five starts at cornerback in 2020, but true freshman Jason Marshall is a name to watch this offseason. Tre’Vez Johnson (245 snaps in the slot last fall) is expected to factor into the mix for snaps somewhere in the secondary, while Rashad Torrence and Trey Dean are the front-runners at safety after serving as backups last season.
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