Photo credit: University of Florida athletic association
We are three days away from the Florida Gators kicking off their 2021 season, Dan Mullen's fourth campaign as UF's head coach.
As always, expectations are high for the Gators as the team following Mullen's first SEC Championship appearance as Florida's head man. However, following an offseason littered with departures of talent, the Gators have plenty of work ahead of them in order to return to Atlanta this December.
We've compiled five pressing questions about UF's upcoming season below, with the AllGators staff answering each question in a roundtable format. Former Gators starting long-snapper Brett Dioguardi shares his thoughts as well.
1. Which position or unit will be Florida's strongest in 2021?
Zach Goodall: I feel like this answer can go a couple of ways. No position on Florida's roster is deeper than its running back unit, consisting of three system veterans in Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, and Nay'Quan Wright as well as two super intriguing talents in 2020 Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard and 2021 Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman.
Florida's running game can only go so far without improved performances across the entire offensive line in that department, though, making it tough to confidently answer this question with the running back group. So instead, my answer would be UF's defensive line. The Gators added three transfers to the group this offseason, return meaningful contributors such as Zachary Carter, and possess several intriguing talents in Gervon Dexter and Princely Umanmielen, among others. It's a very balanced group with individuals who have produced at a high level in the past - now, it's time for the unit to come together as one.
Demetrius Harvey: The Gators will enter this season with plenty of questions, but the one clear strength of this team will be its pass rush, both on the edge and inside at defensive tackle. Florida returns a couple of experienced players in Zachary Carter, Jeremiah Moon and Brenton Cox, and will also see pass rush from linebackers such as Mohamoud Diabate among others.
The Gators upgraded the interior of its defensive line this year, bringing in three transfers in Antonio Valentino, Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell, while sophomore Gervon Dexter is slated to take a step forward this year, improved from his freshman season. Carter is set to play an every-down role at defensive end after playing both inside and out for the majority of last season. His pass-rushing skills came on as the season went forward, sacking the quarterback five times, while tallying nine tackles for loss.
The team entered the season with a clear goal of upgrading what was already a bit of a strength last season, but lost three key role players on its interior. Now, it will try to have a better performance this year, allowing for the coverage unit to become more relaxed.
Brandon Carroll: The defensive line is going to be the Gators' strongest unit in 2021. Adding veteran depth and talent in the form of Daquan Newkirk, Antonio Valentino and Tyrone Truesdell to the mix alongside the promising Gervon Dexter and Jalen Lee, Florida now has the ability to rotate the players upfront with consistency, a factor that was evidently missing last season.
Meanwhile, veteran defensive ends like Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox Jr. and Jeremiah Moon give the Gators a great foundation for creating pressure on the quarterback. Keeping the monsters in the middle fresh and pairing it with the explosiveness off the edge, Florida’s defensive line is set to be drastically improved and highlight the Gators squad.
Ethan Budowsky: Whenever Dan Mullen is the coach of your football team, it should always be expected that the offense will be the strength of the team. This year should be no different for the Gators, and with Emory Jones taking over at quarterback and the depth in the running back room, I think the run game should be what the Gators are built around this year. They will need help from the offensive line, but with Jones’s dynamism and the mix of skill sets between Malik Davis, Dameon Pierce and Nay’Quan Wright, this running attack has a chance to be special.
Brett Dioguardi: I believe the running back group will be the overall strength for this Florida team. If the offensive line can hold their own in the run blocking game, I expect a huge season rushing wise for the Gators. They have three talented backs in Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright. There is tons of versatility within this group as well. Pierce can be a ground and pound type back while Davis and Wright possess great catching ability in the passing game. I think this group will rotate well and allow the guys to have fresh legs all season.
2. Which group needs the most work entering the season?
ZG: Florida's offensive line, easily. The unit is expected to field two new starters in guard Ethan White, who has flashed in the past but also dealt with a derailing injury a year ago, and third-year center Kingsley Eguakun, who has less than 50 career offensive line snaps under his belt.
Pair that inexperience with underwhelming play off the right side from Stewart Reese and Jean Delance, who will return as starters this year, and there are reasons to be worried. As Florida has a new quarterback under center and the offensive philosophy is transitioning to balanced from pass-heavy, the offensive line is dealing with as much change as any unit on Florida's roster. How will the unit handle that pressure? That might be UF's biggest question entering the year.
DH: While many will likely point towards the team secondary, with good reason, as the unit that needs the most work entering the season, the Gators’ offensive line will be equally as important as the team transitions to a more run-heavy offense.
This year, Florida will be without two of its starters from a year ago on the offensive line in left tackle Stone Forsythe (now with the Seattle Seahawks) and center Brett Heggie. Both players played an important role in pass protection for Florida. Now, the team will move towards a re-shuffled offensive line with a few question marks.
The Gators were efficient last season at running the football if you ask head coach Dan Mullen, but their lack of explosive runs and inability to sustain drives on the ground was a clear weakness. With Emory Jones now the team’s leader on offense, it will more than likely point towards an emphasis on the ground, and the offensive line will be a major part of it.
BC: It’s the offensive line until it isn’t. Having question marks surrounding the right side of the offensive line with Jean Delance and Stewart Reese returning after a below-average year working as a tandem and a first-time starter at center in Kingsley Eguakun, the Gators will hope their line can mesh as the season goes on. If not, it could be a group that unfavorably decides the outcome of must-win games.
EB: I am worried about the Gators in the secondary, especially at the second cornerback spot. There is going to be a lot of inexperience rotating through and it is an area the Gators struggled in mightily last year. I just cannot see the Gators turning around their struggles in the passing game year-over-year after they were so poor in that area last year, and really that goes for the entire defense. Florida cannot get much worse than they were last year on defense, and just like last year, how far they go will depend entirely on the defense.
BD: I believe the defensive back room could be a weakness outside of Kaiir Elam. The group has a bunch of unknowns battling for reps at CB2 after Jaydon Hill went down with an unfortunate ACL tear in fall camp. I believe that this this group isn’t considered a huge weakness, however, I do feel it is a unit that needs to show improvements throughout the early part of the season. There are plenty of young, talented guys at the position, but none with experience to go alongside Elam as a lockdown cornerback.
3. Which Gators do you envision breaking out this year?
ZG: I'll go with one player on offense and another from the defense: Wide receiver Xzavier Henderson and defensive tackle Gervon Dexter. Henderson flashed as a deep threat throughout his true freshman season and possesses the most intriguing size-and-speed combination among Florida's current group of receivers. With plenty of reps to replace in the passing game this year, Henderson is in for a significantly increased role.
Dexter, meanwhile, might be ready to take the entire SEC by storm, even with veteran talent technically ahead of him on the depth chart. Despite the additions of experienced transfers in Valentino, Newkirk and Truesdell, the Gators can't afford to keep their former five-star and athletic, 6-foot-6 lineman sidelined, especially after he tallied 254 defensive snaps as a freshman. Look for Dexter to make a big impact within a rotation, particularly creating pressure from the nose tackle position on passing downs.
DH: There are a couple of players that will likely have a breakout season, including sophomore receiver Xzavier Henderson. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound pound deep threat is set to be one of the team’s most valuable players on the outside at receiver. While he is still young and will take a backseat to Justin Shorter and Jacob Copeland this year, his ability with speed on the outside will showcase his talents in a major way.
Speaking of Copeland, he is another player set to have a breakout year, though he has already shown plenty of ability in the past. Last year, Copeland hauled in 23 passes for 435 yards and three touchdowns. I would anticipate those numbers going much higher this year, particularly the receptions. While the Gators do not key in on one specific player, Copeland has the potential to be a star.
As mentioned above, Dexter will play an important role this year and will be depended on this season to bring pass rush from the interior. While he won’t start, he will play plenty in the rotation and don’t be surprised to see him become one of the best players on defense in due time.
BC: On the defensive side of the ball, no individual has a higher ceiling than Dexter. I expect Dexter to emerge as a dominant run stopper in the middle of Florida’s defense this season. Offensively, Emory Jones will look to get a plethora of new weapons involved early and often. Of those skill position players, slot wide receiver Trent Whittemore presents an opportunity to be a reliable possession receiver for Jones to utilize in dire circumstances.
EB: I’ll pick one on defense and one on offense for breakout players as well. On offense, I believe Nay’Quan Wright is going to have a huge year. He showed great flashes last year and he is extremely versatile in the passing game and a dynamic runner as well. I think by the end of the season he could be the feature back for the Gators, and even now I see him as the most talented back on their roster not named Demarkcus Bowman. On defense, I think Khris Bogle is due for a huge year. He is a guy I have been impressed with since I first saw him put on the orange and blue, and now as a junior, I believe he is ready to become a huge part of the defense.
BD: I believe Malik Davis will have a breakout season. I know Dameon Pierce is set to be the main workhorse back for this Gators offense, but I could see Davis getting a heavy workload this season in both the run and pass game. He is an elusive back that is talented in many facets of the game. He is fully healthy for the first time in a long time, and I expect a huge season from the redshirt senior running back.
On the defensive side, I believe linebacker Ventrell Miller is going to have his best season as a Florida Gator. The defense will be a much-improved unit this year and I expect Miller to exceed the 100-tackle threshold. He is explosive for his size and can move sideline-to-sideline very well. I believe the defensive line is going to be successful against opposing fronts and will allow Miller to pick and choose when to hurry the quarterback. Miller is the heart and soul of this defense and a vocal leader who will have a tremendous last season as a Gator.
4. What are the three most important games on Florida's schedule?
ZG: Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. I understand why most would choose the away game against LSU over Missouri, but given Florida has struggled in Columbus late in the season in the past and how young UF's roster is at key spots, I view the SEC East's Tigers contest as a potential trap game. Missouri exceeded expectations in head coach Eliah Drinkwitz's first season in charge, and returns ample talent to pose a threat against better teams in the conference in year two.
DH: The three most important games this season for Florida are Alabama, Georgia and LSU. The Gators will need to win at least two out of three of those games to earn rights to play in the College Football Playoff, and with an improved Georgia this year, the program will have a tough go if it drops more than one game, especially against the rival Bulldogs.
For Florida this year, earning their way back to Atlanta as the defending SEC East champions, they’ll need to get off to a hot start. While they are the underdogs, a victory over Alabama in Week 3 would be the most impressive victory of Mullen’s career. Defeating Georgia two years in a row would also be huge for Florida and Mullen.
Losing last season against LSU stung, and not just due to the way the game was lost, either. Florida lost all momentum heading into its game against the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game, and while it was still a close game at 52-46 as the final, the program can’t afford to lose games it ought to win this year.
BC: The Gators season ultimately comes down to three opponents: Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Alabama will be an early-season test to gauge exactly how good the squad can and will be in 2021. Per usual, the SEC East crown will likely run through Jacksonville, making it imperative that the Gators top the Bulldogs to pave their way to another SEC Championship appearance. Finally, LSU in Baton Rouge will be the biggest road test for UF on the year.
EB: The first one is obvious, right? Anytime the Alabama Crimson Tide are on the calendar, you go in and circle that one with a big red Sharpie right away. The Gators ran with the Tide and were a defensive stop or two in the first half away from taking them down in Atlanta last year. The Gators have been very good when they are out for revenge under Dan Mullen, and with Bama coming to the Swamp for the first time in almost a decade, I know they will be hungry for a win.
The next one is pretty obvious too in my mind, and it is what is traditionally the SEC East Championship Game in Jacksonville against Georgia. The Bulldogs are once again ranked in the AP Top 5 to start the season, though that is subject to change after they meet Clemson Week 1. The Gators will need to get past their arch-rivals to return to Atlanta, and Dan Mullen definitely does not want to take a step back in Year 4. I would say the final game I am looking out for is Florida State. The Noles should be somewhat improved from the last time the Gators saw them, and after a year off from the rivalry due to COVID-19, I want to see how motivated the Gators are to take it to their rivals from Tallahassee.
BD: This one is easy for me. I believe that the three most important games this year are Georgia, Alabama, and LSU. In order to make it back to Atlanta, the Gators must take care of business in Jacksonville for a second straight season against the Bulldogs. On top of Georgia, I believe a win against Alabama at home in week three would catapult the Gators into immediate playoff conversation. In a rematch of the SEC championship from a year ago, the Gators should come out swinging in hopes of getting revenge versus the Crimson Tide. Lastly, I view LSU as the third most important game. LSU ended the Gators chances of the playoffs last season and hold a current two-game winning streak versus Florida. I believe LSU will be a much better team this year and this game in Death Valley will be a huge test for this Gators team.
5. What is your record prediction for the Gators this season?
ZG: Give me 10-2 until further notice. Florida has a relatively easy schedule this season beyond hosting Alabama and facing Georgia in Jacksonville as it does on a yearly basis, but is also a very young team with key contributors who have yet to endure such meaningful games within meaningful roles. That fact lowers UF's floor in 2021, but as things stand, I see the Gators winning the games they are supposed to win (and that includes a road victory over a similarly rebuilding LSU team) until proven otherwise.
DH: This is tough due to the unknowns both offensively and defensively for Florida this season. The program has a lot of potential at key positions, but not much has been proven as of yet. I will ere on the side of caution here and predict the team goes 9-3, likely dropping games to Alabama, Georgia and a wild card of potentially Kentucky, LSU or Missouri.
BC: Given the questions still to be answered by Florida in numerous areas, I see the unit going 10-2 with a ceiling of 11-1 and a floor of 8-4. As a young team, the deciding factor will be how they gel as a unit in the first two weeks of the season.
EB: I will probably regret this but I think the Gators have a really good shot at going 11-1. I am never going to predict Bama to lose to any team, so I will mark that down as a loss for the Gators, though I think playing in The Swamp gives them a really great chance to take down the Tide.
The rest of the schedule sets up pretty favorably for Florida, and going to Death Valley should not scare Gator fans as much after their performance there in 2019 against one of the best teams in College Football history. Georgia is always a coin flip, but I think Florida got over a massive hill by taking apart their rivals last year, and they will be very determined to not take a step back this year. With Emory Jones at quarterback, the Gators will get back to a lot of what Mullen likes to do on offense, and if the defense improves (a big if), this could be their best shot yet of making the Playoff under Mullen.
BD: 8-4. I believe the Gators will struggle against Georgia and Alabama this season. I also feel that Death Valley will be an extremely tough environment to go and steal a win. I like the Gators to get the job done against the majority of their other opponents but could see a potential upset against a less talented SEC East opponent this year on the road. I hope the team proves me wrong and finds a way back to Atlanta. There are a lot of new faces in keys spots for the Gators so it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds.
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