Jim McElwain’s second season as Florida’s head coach was very similar to his first. The Gators won the SEC East with an 9-4 record, but they again lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. However, unlike like last season’s 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, Florida finished on a high note, blasting Iowa 30-3 in the Outback Bowl.
Now Gator fans not only want to win the SEC title for the first time since 2008 but also compete for a national championship. Florida opens spring practice on Feb. 28 and there are a few key areas the Gators will need to address if they want to overtake Alabama in the SEC.
5 Storylines to Watch in Florida’s Spring Practice
1. Who will step up at quarterback?
If anyone has watched the Gators for the last few years, it has been painfully obvious that the team hasn’t had a quality quarterback for some time. Florida hopes one of its young players will step up and become the quarterback the team has been seeking since Tim Tebow left Gainesville.
Luke Del Rio won the starting job, but he was injured most of the season and ineffective when he played, throwing for just 1,358 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in six games. Del Rio will miss the entire spring as he is recovering from shoulder surgery, so Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney will all have the opportunity to claim the top spot on the depth chart.
Franks, who was four-star recruit coming out of high school in 2016, redshirted during his first season on campus. Like Franks, Trask also is redshirt freshman while Toney is a true freshman who should see a lot of reps under center during the spring.
2. Can Florida get offensive line help?
No matter if it was Del Rio or backup quarterback Austin Appleby, the Gators’ offensive line didn’t give either much help regarding protection. Florida’s offensive line also didn’t perform well in the running game.
The Gators allowed 28 sacks in 2016, which was not good, to put it mildly. Their rushing attack also was among the FBS’ worst, finishing 113th in nation at 128.2 yards per game.
Four starters return up front, but left tackle David Sharpe passed on his senior year for the NFL Draft and will need to be replaced. Sophomore Martez Ivey, one of the top recruits from the 2016 class, is expected to take over at left tackle.
3. Receiver depth
Antonio Callaway was the Gators’ leading receiver last season with 54 receptions for 721 yards and three touchdowns. But Florida’s offense needs to find more playmakers.
Brandon Powell had 45 catches in 2016, but they went for just 387 yards. Tight end DeAndre Goolsby could play a bigger role after recording 38 receptions for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Both are rising seniors.
After these three, the production dropped off significantly. The hope is that younger players such as Tyrie Cleveland, C’yontai Lewis and Josh Hammond can emerge as reliable contributors this spring.
4. Can the Gators replace their defensive stars?
Florida has relied a lot on its defense the last few seasons because the offense has been dreadful at times. Now the Gators will have to replace some key stars on that side of the ball due to graduation and those who declared for the NFL Draft early.
Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Marcus Maye, Jarrad Davis, Caleb Brantley, Alex Anzalone and Joey Ivey are all gone. While there’s still a lot of talent on defense, a number of these players are unproven.
The secondary should remain a strength with the return of Nick Washington, Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner.
Jabari Zuniga, Cece Jefferson and Keivonnis Davis should be the leaders up front. David Reese and Kyla Johnson both got playing time last season at linebacker and will be first in line to fill the void left by Davis and Anzalone.
5. Could any of the early enrollees see a lot of snaps?
Five freshmen enrolled early in January. Toney, Kemore Gamble, Kadeem Telfort, Kyree Campbell and James Houston will have an early advantage to gain valuable snaps, but who could see the most playing time of the bunch?
Toney will get snaps at quarterback, but look for Franks and Trask to get most of the time under center. Florida is pretty set at tight end with Goolsby and Lewis, but Gamble was a four-star recruit from Miami Southridge High School.
With the Gators’ questionable offensive line, Telfort is probably the favorite to receive the most snaps out of the early enrollees. The 6-foot-7, 300-pound tackle from Miami prep powerhouse Booker T. Washington was considered one of the best linemen in the 2017 recruiting class and could help Florida right away.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Florida in the SEC
Florida has won two straight SEC East Division titles under Jim McElwain, but it could be tough to win a third. Georgia should be much improved in head coach Kirby Smart’s second season. South Carolina also appears pointed in the right direction now that head coach Will Muschamp has a quarterback in Jake Bentley.
Opening the season against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, won’t be an easy task the Gators. After their season opener, they will have five of their next six games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium before their bye week prior to the annual showdown with the Bulldogs.
Florida’s two toughest road games figure to be at Kentucky (Sept. 23) and at South Carolina (Nov.11). LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Florida State all come to the Swamp, so the schedule is manageable in that respect. Florida fans are expecting to see results and another blowout loss in the SEC Championship Game or a second-place finish in the East could begin some grumblings in Gainesville.
— 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.