In the NFL, players on rookie deals often enter what is considered a "contract year," a season in which the player must prove themselves on the field to obtain a long-term extension and a greatly improved salary.
College football doesn't operate exactly the same way, obviously, but that doesn't mean prove-it years don't exist.
Veteran players are tasked with not only putting together the best season possible to help a team reach their goals, but to elevate their own stock in hopes and preparation for a pro football career.
Florida has a handful of such players littered across its 2021 roster, some being household names to the UF fanbase and have flashed potential in the past but have yet to put it all together consistently. Six of those players, listed below, are in a position to take the next step in their game and help lift Florida to an SEC Championship and beyond.
RB Malik Davis
The Gators running back room may be the most crowded unit on the entire roster, which is a great problem for UF to have after an unproductive 2020 season on the ground.
The question is: Who will earn the lion's share of touches out of the backfield? Florida is known to rotate players and spread the ball around, but that is a bit easier said than done at the running back position. Florida typically deploys one running back in a given formation, which obviously limits opportunities compared to the wide receiver position, which features two-to-five players on every play.
Davis' Florida career got off to an electric start in the running game, as he tallied 526 yards and two scores in seven games as a true freshman, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. He sustained back-to-back season-ending injuries that year and the next, though, and has since regressed as a rusher by posting 3.96 yards per carry on 100 attempts.
With Dameon Pierce and Nay'Quan Wright establishing themselves as more consistent rushers, along with the additions of Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman via the transfer portal, Davis is a bit of an odd man out for carries at this time based on performance and potential.
Where Davis has a leg up on his competition, however, is as a third-down back. Coming off of a 31 reception, 377-yard campaign through the air, Davis is the most proven member of Florida's backfield when it comes to the passing game. He's a smooth route-runner with fairly sure-hands and a knack for creating yards after the catch.
As Emory Jones takes the reigns at quarterback, he'll depend on safety valves while growing accustomed to the game as a full-time starter. That's where Davis comes in. Davis' prowess as a short-to-intermediate field receiver and ability to create can be beneficial for Jones and the Gators' offense as a whole on conversion downs.
Although it's tough to see Davis becoming a legitimate threat in the running game again, he could be one of the most important members of Florida's offense this year given what he has to offer Jones in his transition. If Davis finishes the season as Florida's go-to third-down back, then the year was a success for the fifth-year Gator.
OT Jean Delance
Florida's offensive line has been an inconsistent unit over the past two seasons, and a lot of blame lies at the feel of rising sixth-year offensive tackle Jean Delance. Delance has been a liability for Florida in pass protection which has led to his removal from the starting five more than once, allowing 10 sacks and 70 quarterback pressures in two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
However, Delance is also one of Florida's most experienced linemen and therefore is expected to start at right tackle once again in 2021.
It's not easy to project significant improvement from Delance as a pass blocker in 2021 as he allowed 11 more pressures last season than he had the year before, and the same number of sacks. Although, a transition to a more run-heavy offense should benefit Delance significantly if he is able to hold onto his role.
It hasn't been perfect, but the 6-foot-5, 307-pound tackle has at least graded out as an average run blocker over the past two years. He shows considerable power when taking on interior defenders or defensive ends aligned over his inside shoulder, bulldozing his way into the pile and creating cut-back lanes for his rushers on outside gaps.
With Jones behind center and five capable running backs in the fold, run blocking will be more important than ever for UF in 2021. Delance hasn't shown much promise to this point in his career, but he has a chance to change the narrative surrounding his career due to schematic changes in his redshirt senior season.
WR Rick Wells
Florida fans have looked forward to a breakout season from Jacksonville-based receiver Rick Wells for five years, it's just yet to happen.
Maybe it will finally come to fruition in 2021?
This has been said over the years, but Wells is a veteran in an otherwise fairly young wide receiver room. The oldest player of the group, Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, and Jordan Pouncey are the only other upperclassmen at the position.
Wells also put up his most productive season to date, by far, in 2020, even though the numbers still ring a bit pedestrian: 12 receptions for 120 yards. His first collegiate touchdown is still waiting to be scored.
There are intriguing underclassmen who could steal reps from Wells this year, namely Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore. We don't expect Wells to emerge as an all-star or turn into an NFL draft pick by the time the season is over, but ending his final season at UF with another personal-record year statistically and at least one trip to the endzone would certainly provide a feel-good story.
BUCK Brenton Cox Jr.
Brenton Cox Jr. has the tools to become a first-round pick as an edge rusher. Will they all come together in 2021?
In his first season with the Gators, Cox held down the starting role at BUCK rush end by producing 42 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 48 quarterback pressures and two batted passes. An explosive first-step and polished hand-swipe allowed Cox to breeze by offensive tackles to create disruption in the backfield often.
His biggest issue, however, is finishing plays. Only 3.5 sacks to show for despite such a high pressure count suggests that Cox could do a better job of containing the quarterback and putting him in the dirt. Cox could also do a better job in containing rushers by pushing them inside for help instead of aggressively trying to make a top on his own.
Cox is currently in rehab mode from an offseason surgery to mend a Jones' fracture in his left foot, but is expected to take the field at some point during Florida's fall training camp. He recently shared an update on his recovery via Twitter.
According to an AllGators source, Cox played through this injury unknowingly in 2020. Once he is fully healed, perhaps Cox will be able to take his game to a new level athletically that will help him finish more plays rather than just disrupting them. If that rings true, Cox has the potential to finish the season on the All-SEC team, and more.
CB Jaydon Hill
Entering the 2021 offseason, Jaydon Hill was viewed as the starter opposite of Kaiir Elam at outside cornerback. That projection is now a bit murky.
Florida added Missouri cornerback transfer Jadarrius Perkins in May and is seemingly closing in on a second SEC corner with Texas A&M's Elijah Blades routinely projected to transfer to UF before the season begins. On top of that, five-star 2021 cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. enrolled at UF in January and immediately made a strong impression in spring camp.
Hill has experience, particularly within the system, on his side, having appeared in 22 games and making five starts last year. Hill ranked second on the team with seven pass breakups, behind Elam's 11, and allowed a sub-60 completion percentage in coverage of 59.1%, which is starting-caliber.
Florida has plenty of reason to trust Hill entering the 2021 season, even as a starter on the outside. But there's simply too much talent in the room to hand anyone a starting role not named Kaiir Elam. Hill will have to earn snaps in camp and into the season with Perkins, Marshall, and potentially Blades gunning for his reps.
Of any player on this list, Hill may have the most to prove this year. He could either earn the starting job, or quickly fall behind in the cornerback room with the talent influx over the past eight months.
S Trey Dean III
Everything was looking up for Trey Dean in 2018 when he obtained a starting gig at cornerback due to injuries ahead of him. Dean would start nine games as a true freshman, accumulating an interception and five pass breakups in that stretch.
However, Dean would move inside to STAR nickel corner as a sophomore as C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson teamed up on the outside. Dean struggled quite a bit playing closer to the line of scrimmage, getting lost in more confined coverage relative to the middle of the field and having problems containing the edge against the run. He was eventually benched.
Dean would once again change positions in 2020, moving to the safety position in which he played in high school. Stuck within a rotation, Dean flashed his skill-set and a regained sense of confidence as a hard-hitter attacking downhill and finding comfort in deeper coverage. Dean finished the year with a career-high 34 tackles and an interception.
With three safeties departing from the program and to the NFL this offseason, Dean is once again in a position to start. The hope for Florida is that Dean will reemerge as the playmaker he was as in 2018, because the proven depth behind Dean at safety is extremely thin.
- QB Emory Jones: It feels weird to not include a projected first-time starter at quarterback on this list, but Jones has shown enough throughout his three years at Florida to earn some confidence entering the year. Learning behind Kyle Trask over the past two seasons, Jones has developed the mental side of the quarterback position year over year and has been impossible to stop as a rusher when he's been put on the field. He has a lot to prove, but can be trusted in the role he has earned as of this time.
- WR Jacob Copeland: Copeland is undeniably Florida's WR1 entering the season after posting 45 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns in three years, also leading the Gators in yards-per-catch with 18.9 in 2020 (among qualifying receivers). Copeland must cut down on drops entering 2021, but otherwise, he's ready to handle more targets as he's already proven himself to be a weapon.
- LB Mohamoud Diabate: One of Florida's top playmakers on defense, Diabate is ready to take over full-time starting duties at MONEY (weakside) linebacker following James Houston IV's transfer this offseason. Diabate has added the necessary weight to his frame to become a more consistent run defender, adding to his presence as a disruptor after compiling 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss, an interception and two forced fumbles over the past two seasons.
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