As Bo Nix’s pass attempt on fourth and 2 to a wide open Harold Joiner in the flat fell pathetically to the ground and Auburn’s comeback attempt against Georgia died, so did any hopes of the Florida Gators reaching the SEC title game.
The same quarterback, whose dreadful performance against Florida sparked dreams of Atlanta for Gator fans, dashed those hopes with one last display of incompetence.
While the Gators chances of getting a rematch with LSU inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium were very unlikely, they at least would’ve had something to root during this pre-FSU bye week had Auburn pulled off the unthinkable.
However, they did not, and now the Gators move forward towards a primetime matchup with FSU in a couple of weeks, and attention starts to turn towards the future as the offseason lingers. The Early Signing Period begins just two and a half weeks after the FSU game (December 18) and as always National Signing Day (February 5) is just around the corner.
As always the case with college football, it doesn’t slow down very often, so there is no doubt the Gators will have an eye to the future in the coming weeks. That future will be on display as some freshmen are sure to get looks against FSU and in the bowl game, with their redshirts already locked up.
With that in mind, let's take a gander into the future that is already on campus, and look at who the most important underclassmen are on the team right now.
5. OL Richard Gouriage and Ethan White
It's no secret that the biggest improvement Florida needs next year is up front. The Gators' offensive line was the biggest issue coming into the season and it has remained it all year. The line has handicapped the Gators this year because it has turned what should be a run-based offense into an offense that only runs the ball to keep teams honest.
The Gators top two running backs, Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce, have combined for just 786 rushing yards this season and as a team the Gators only have 1,421. For reference, Georgia RB DeAndre Swift has 1,027 yards and has two games left.
Perine and Pierce’s yards per carry numbers look pretty good, but this is a result of long runs (both have touchdowns over 75 yards this season) and fewer carries. They also aren't as efficient as last year when Perine averaged 6.2 YPC (compared to 4.5 this year) and the two combined for 1,250 rushing yards.
The Gators need to get back to being a run-first team next season - it is the core of Dan Mullen’s offense and is what made them so successful last year. A huge part of this will be improvement along the line and it starts with Richard Gouriage and Ethan White. They are the only freshman to see time on the line this year and they have definitely impressed, Gouriage has been solid in the run game and White had a really nice first start against Vanderbilt two weeks back.
These two are a massive part of the future on the line and will be key factors in the biggest offseason storyline for the Gators besides the QB battle. They will need to be leaders on the line for the next wave of young guys that will start trickling in as the Gators put more of an emphasis on the offensive line on the trail.
Look for both Gouriage and White to get plenty of playing time in the last two games of the season for the experience, as they will almost surely secure starting jobs up front going into next season.
4. DE Khris Bogle
Khris Bogle was an absolutely massive signing day flip for the Gators and helped to round out a Top 10 class last year. Bogle is listed at 6-6, 218 lbs., and has yet to have a full offseason with strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage. What does that mean? He’s got a lot of room to fill out and a lot of time to do it. This guy is going to be an absolute beast by the time Savage gets ahold of him and that should really excite Gator fans.
Bogle has played in eight of the 11 games so far this season and has made a pretty solid first impression. He has 17 total tackles (two TFLs), 1.5 sacks and has even added a pass deflection. It seems like a few times every game, you see No. 97 making the QB uncomfortable or making a nice play in the run game. It’s been a really promising start for Bogle and with his redshirt already burned, there is no holding this guy back anymore. I imagine we’ll see a lot of him over the next couple games.
Coming into the season, a lot of the talk about what the Gators needed to do on the recruiting trail was about the front seven on defense. Bogle was an impact signing up front and there’s no doubt that he will be a huge piece on the defensive line going forward. The amount of Bogle’s playing time this year, even as an incomplete physical product, suggests that the Gators' defensive staff knows they have something cooking with him.
3. OLB Mohamoud Diabate
Like Bogle, Mohamoud Diabate was another one of those impact signings up front, and boy has he made a first impression this year. At 6-3, 213 lbs., Diabate is another guy that will no doubt benefit from next offseason with Coach Savage and he could also take a huge leap forward in Year 2.
Diabate came to UF as a linebacker but has rushed the passer a ton this year and to me I see him following in the footsteps of Jeremiah Moon. Moon has been lined up all over the field for the Gators and has also spent a lot of time rushing the passer, making a huge impact doing so. Diabate obviously has the skills to play linebacker but has been ferocious when he’s gotten opportunities to get after the QB. He is a chess piece.
We will have to see how well he can cover as the Gators use him more next year, but if it doesn't go well, at least Florida knows they have legitimate speed of the edge in Diabate.
The freshman has also played in eight games this year and has had a few bursts of greatness. He has 13 total tackles and 3.5 sacks, three coming against Vanderbilt in what I call "The Diabate Game". One of those sacks forced a fumble that Jonathan Greenard returned for a touchdown.
2. CB Kaiir Elam
Chris Steele who? Cornerback Kaiir Elam is probably the freshman we’ve seen the most often this year and is arguably the one we’ve seen the most from. Elam was a massive victory for the Gators on signing day over arch rival Georgia, who made a late play by hiring Charlton Warren away from the Gators to get Elam to sign. Elam is the nephew of Gator great Matt Elam, and many felt he was one of the most important pieces of last year’s Top 10 recruiting class.
Elam has absolutely backed that up on the field.
Elam was forced into action when C.J. Henderson went down against UT-Martin and took full advantage by picking off a pass in the end zone that kept a shutout alive. The next week against Kentucky, he intercepted two passes, including one on a heave as time expired, although he’s only been credited for two interceptions on the year. Elam has also added three pass deflections and seven total tackles this year.
According to Pro Football Focus, Elam has been nothing short of elite in coverage, allowing only six completions on 16 targets (37.5%), and a passer rating of 9.9 when targeted.
9.9. For comparison, a quarterback's passer rating would be 39.6 if he threw an incomplete pass on every attempt. That's incredible.
Even though it’s been in limited time, there is no denying that Kaiir Elam has been nothing short of elite when on the field this year. Elam projects as the next great shutdown corner at the University of Florida, strengthening its case in the DBU argument, and will almost certainly be lining up out wide on the first snap of next season as the Gators top corner Henderson heads to the league.
1. WR Jacob Copeland
Remember Percy Harvin?
It’s been an up and down ride for Jacob Copeland since he got to Gainesville, but he has finally shown signs that he will be the player we all expected when the Gators signed him. Copeland had a roller coaster of a recruitment that included a decommitment from Florida and plenty of flirting with Tennessee and Alabama, but he ended up in orange and blue in a dramatic signing day ceremony.
It seems like something good happens every time Copeland touches the ball. He is an absolute specimen with legit speed, strong hands, and definite game-breaking ability. So far this year, he has 21 touches for 275 scrimmage yards and two scores. It was the South Carolina game when Copeland showed his most encouraging signs, when he had three catches for 89 yards and a 37-yard touchdown catch.
That touchdown was very impressive as he ran a crisp route, high-pointed the ball in traffic, took a hit, bounced off a guy, and turned on the burners to leave the defense in the dust and go in to score. He showed everything that there is to like about himself on one play.
It’s been hard for Copeland to stay on the field early, but he’s been playing more consistently down the stretch and has made the most of it. He reminds me a lot of Kadarius Toney, but is a better route runner and bigger, making him more of a legit deep threat and less of a gadget type player.
When I asked if you remember Percy Harvin, it’s not because I think Copeland will be Mercy Percy, but it’s because he’s probably the closest thing the Gators have had to No. 1 since he left, in terms of talent. Copeland will be a redshirt sophomore next year, and in his third year in the offense with four senior receivers leaving, we should finally see him take the jump we’ve all been waiting for. It’s been a good second year for No. 15, but it will only get better.
Wearing No. 15 means a lot at the University of Florida, and wearing No. 1 might be the only number that means more. Copeland has a legitimate shot to wear two of the most important numbers in Florida history before he heads off to the league.
QB Emory Jones
There could, and has been, an entire article written about the importance of Emory Jones to the future of this team so I thought we would put our focus elsewhere.
There is no doubt that Jones will get a shot to be the starting QB job next year and I am personally of the belief that he should get the gig. Mullen said that Jones has really come along and he is happy with his progress. He also said it is only a matter of time before he really lets all parts of the offense that involve Jones go. As well as Kyle Trask has played, Mullen’s offense needs a running QB to be at its best and Jones is the most dynamic runner the Gators have had in years. I really believe that Jones needs to be the starting QB in the opening game of the season next year, giving the Gators their best shot of taking the next step as a program.
CBs Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough
Both guys have seen some time this year, and both have impressed. Jaydon Hill, Chester Kimbrough, and Elam came to UF together as part of an elite DB class that was supposed to include Steele, but we all know how that went.
Hill and Kimbrough have taken advantage of a lack of depth and flashed in limited playing time. Hill has already played in four games so one more appearance will burn his redshirt. It will be interesting to see whether the Gators opt to let him get some time in the next couple games or decide to preserve the redshirt. I personally would save the redshirt but a lot of things can happen so we’ll see how it plays out. Hill has 10 total tackles and two pass deflections in his time on the field this year.
Kimbrough has played in three games this year so I fully expect to see him in either the FSU or bowl game to end the year. Kimbrough has also flashed good cover skills and it’s been nice to see him play well for a young kid who most would consider the 3rd guy in that DB class. Kimbrough has six total tackles this year and two pass deflections as well.
Defensive back is always a huge position at the University of Florida and both seem like they can play multiple positions on the back end. It will be interesting to see where they are utilized over the next couple years but both have definitely earned themselves the chance to be in the Gators plans in the secondary in the future.