Florida quarterback Kyle Trask’s rise from obscurity to folk-hero status captured the unpredictability of college football. Trask calls last season “a pretty crazy ride for me.” It was for the Gators, too.
Now, Dan Mullen’s squad, his starting quarterback and Florida’s fan base hope the next stop is the four-team College Football Playoff.
“We definitely feel pretty strongly that we have a good shot at it this year,” Trask says.
The typically understated Texan is not getting out over his skis. In an increasingly quarterback-centric sport, the Gators are in their best shape at QB since Tim Tebow, while the top of the SEC is scrambling at the position.
Gone are LSU star and reigning Heisman Trophy champion Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. That leaves Trask as the league’s top returning passer. “It’s really his team and this is his last year,” All-SEC tight end Kyle Pitts says. “He’s going to make sure everybody is competing every day.”
Previewing Florida's Offense for 2020
Mullen loves to keep defenses guessing. But one of college football’s top play-callers is not going to push for a balanced attack at the expense of having an effective one.
Consider the 2019 Gators. A season after averaging 213.5 passing yards and 213.2 rushing yards, Florida averaged 300.8 passing yards and 129.8 rushing yards. Mullen and the Gators would like to get closer to 50-50 in 2020, but Trask, Pitts and big-play senior wideouts Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney form the attack’s foundation.
Evening things out will hinge on whether the offensive line can make major strides after being pushed around last season. Three starters return, led by redshirt senior Brett Heggie at center. This unit has additional help on the way with Mississippi State transfer Stewart Reese - a 34-game starter in Starkville - slated to join the team this fall. But the cancellation of spring practices cost veteran coach John Hevesy the opportunity to toy with combinations and bring along younger O-linemen.
Tailback Dameon Pierce waited two seasons behind Lamical Perine to shoulder the load. But he could be part of a rotation that includes Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard. A former five-star recruit, Lingard is immediately eligible after getting a waiver to play in 2020.
Previewing Florida's Defense for 2020
The defense must replace sack leader Jonathan Greenard, leading tackler David Reese II, and top cornerback CJ Henderson. The trio helped Florida allow fewer touchdowns than all but three teams in college football (San Diego State, Georgia, Iowa), while leading the SEC in sacks and red zone defense.
As the Gators define new roles and establish new stars, the key piece to its defensive success remains in place — coordinator Todd Grantham. The 53-year-old brings vast experience at the college and NFL levels, along with his ability to move pieces around in his 3-4 scheme to create mismatches and pressure.
Linebacker Brenton Cox Jr., a Georgia transfer, has the size (6'4", 247) and explosiveness to become the next in a long line of top pass rushers under Grantham. Two years removed from an ACL tear, redshirt junior Marco Wilson has All-SEC potential, while fellow cornerback Kaiir Elam is a rising star after a breakout freshman season.
Grantham can make a lot happen with a pass rush and a pair of lockdown corners. But he also will need senior tackle Tedarrell Slaton to finally become a force inside; athletic junior Amari Burney, a former safety and linebacker, to find a home at nickel back; and senior safeties Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart Jr. to play to their potential. The back end of the defense was the unit’s Achilles heel in 2019.
Sophomore linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, five-star freshman lineman Gervon Dexter and redshirt senior end Jeremiah Moon are among a host of havoc-causing Gators.
Previewing Florida's Specialists for 2020
Gators security blanket Evan McPherson is back after making 34-of-38 field goals the past two seasons. Florida, though, will lose another of its unsung heroes in punter Tommy Townsend. The Gators hope Australian freshman Jeremy Crawshaw can continue the tradition of top punters from Down Under after Townsend placed 44-of-93 punts inside the 20. The Gators will look to find a playmaker fielding punts after finishing 13th in the 14-team SEC in average return.
Mullen’s championship promises made to fans before he’d even coached a game raised eyebrows and created lofty expectations. Two years later, the 48-year-old has the Gators ahead of schedule and positioned to contend for Florida’s first SEC title since 2008.
Another playmaker or two must emerge on offense, and the line needs to vastly improve as Trask goes from being an unknown commodity to having a bull’s-eye on his back. Several players on defense look to grow into key roles, but having no truly elite quarterbacks on the schedule will help.
UF’s season could come down to two, maybe three games — an Oct. 10 visit from LSU, an Oct. 31 clash with Georgia in Jacksonville and, perhaps, a Sept. 26 trip to Tennessee.
Mullen is pleased with the program’s trajectory and expects trophies to follow. “We want to develop consistent winners,” he says. “If you do that, you have the opportunity to win championships. Whether this is the year or not, we’ll find out.”