The 2020 Florida Gators beat Georgia, won the SEC East and challenged Alabama for the conference title. By those standards, head coach Dan Mullen has made significant progress.
But his vision of a championship future appears increasingly distant entering Year Four in Gainesville. A season-ending three-game skid, the departure of several offensive stars and a 2021 recruiting class ranked outside the top 10 are cause for concern.
The 49-year-old himself flopped on the public relations front. Mullen called to pack the Swamp amid a pandemic, helped incite a halftime brawl against Missouri and criticized the NCAA for canceling practice so players could vote on Election Day. Recruiting violations followed, putting the program on probation for the first time in decades.
Florida will turn to a new quarterback, supporting cast and offensive philosophy. Following a historic collapse, the team's defense spent the spring searching for answers amid questions about the direction of Mullen's Gators.
Previewing Florida's Offense for 2021
Quarterback Emory Jones arrived on campus in January 2018, the centerpiece of Mullen's first Florida recruiting class. The 21-year-old finally gets his chance to shine while replacing record-setter Kyle Trask, a Heisman Trophy finalist. Jones won't match Trask's passing production. But his dual-threat abilities will bring a new element to a retooled attack featuring more RPOs and QB runs. The 6'2", 210-pound Jones has arm strength that prompted Mullen to make a strong statement: "There's a lot of throws that Emory can make that Kyle couldn't make."
Either way, Jones' mobility will be an asset. He will supplement a stable of tailbacks, led by Dameon Pierce, Nay'Quan Wright and Malik Davis — and, if eligible, Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman. Florida averaged a combined 130.5 yards per game rushing the past two seasons, a number Mullen aims to vastly increase.
UF will not improve on pass-catchers Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes — a trio with 31 TD grabs in 2020 — but the Gators will reload with an array of weapons. Jacob Copeland and Xzavier Henderson are explosive athletes, 6'5", 227-pound Justin Shorter is a matchup problem and sure-handed slot receiver Trent Whittemore could be a security blanket.
No group has more to prove than the offensive line. The Gators are set with center Stewart Reese, left guard Ethan White and left tackle Richard Gouraige. O-line contributions elsewhere are critical.
The 2020 Gators averaged 41.6 points during 11 SEC games and made 41 plays of 30 yards or longer, more than Alabama's national title-winning attack. Mullen is confident that more offensive fireworks are on the horizon.
Previewing Florida's Defense for 2021
Only five college football assistants in 2020 carried a higher price tag than defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's $1.8 million. Gator Nation was ready to cut its losses after his defense allowed 30.8 points per game, the most at Florida since World War II. But Mullen is banking on a bounce-back behind Grantham’s sophisticated scheme and vast experience.
Grantham has talent to work with, including perhaps his most physical front seven during his time in Gainesville. The headliner is D-lineman Zachary Carter. Pass rusher Brenton Cox Jr., linebacker Mohamoud Diabate and 6'6", 308-pound sophomore Gervon Dexter are potential stars.
Transfer tackles Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) provide reinforcements, if not upgrades, inside. Diabate and fellow inside linebacker Ventrell Miller combined for 157 tackles in 2020.
Florida's once-vaunted secondary was the team's Achilles heel. The 28 touchdown passes allowed were four more than any other SEC school. Mullen responded by firing two assistants and hiring Wesley McGriff to coach safeties and Jules Montinar to coach cornerbacks.
They can build around All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam. Meanwhile, five-star cornerback signee Jason Marshall Jr. made a strong first impression during spring ball, while junior Jaydon Hill turned heads. To reduce breakdowns on the back end, senior Trey Dean III must reach his potential while helping young Gators, led by sophomore Rashad Torrence II, get up to speed.
Previewing Florida's Specialists for 2021
Jace Christmann reunited with Mullen, his former coach at Mississippi State, to give the Gators a reliable placekicking option. Christmann converted 32-of-40 field goals in Starkville. Australian freshman Jeremy Crawshaw steps in for Jacob Finn and hopes to become the next top punter from Down Under.
Last December arrived with Florida in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation. But a stunning home loss to depleted LSU and narrow defeat to Alabama preceded a 55–20 beatdown by Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
With a revamped offense and embattled defense, the 2021 Gators will learn quickly where they stand. Florida opens SEC play Sept. 18 at home against Alabama. By then, a six-point loss (52–46) to the Tide during the conference title game will be a distant memory. And by season's end, Mullen hopes to remind the college football world that Florida's future is in good hands.
National Ranking: 11
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