Around The SEC

Grading the Florida Gators ahead of the 2019 college football season


Feleipe Franks took a big step in his first year with Dan Mullen, and big things are expected in 2019. Mullen has worked his magic with quarterbacks in the past. He was on Urban Meyer’s staff when Tim Tebow became a Gainesville and college football legend. And he was the head coach at Mississippi State when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was in Starkville. Mullen’s quarterbacks coach, Brian Johnson, tutored Prescott at Mississippi State and quickly got Franks to increase his passing numbers from the year before. Franks threw for 2,457 yards, while tossing 24 touchdowns against six interceptions. The mistakes were fewer, and the TDs were more.


Lamichal Perine established himself as Florida’s best running back last season and figures to get even more carries this season. The senior blocks, runs and catches well, and the second season with Mullen should only see his production increase, especially if the young offensive line gels. There are other backs to spell Perine, but he’s the go-to option this year. In 2018, he had 826 rushing yards and caught 13 passes, showcasing his reliability in the passing game.


The Gators return six players who combined for nearly 150 catches and 2,000 yards in 2018. That group, which has Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas alum Trevon Grimes, Hallandale’s Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, Kadarius Toney, Van Jefferson and Tyree Cleveland, has the potential to become the best receiving corps in the country. Jefferson led the way with 35 catches for 503 yards and six touchdowns last season.


Although the receivers are quite potent with experience, the tight ends don’t enter 2019 with a deep resume in terms of numbers. Three players combined to produce 16 catches for 206 yards and one touchdown in 2018. Kyle Pitts, Kemore Gamble and Lucas Krull figure to get the lion’s share of chances this season.


The offensive line poses the biggest question entering the season because of how inexperienced the group is. And no matter what level of football is played, the play in the trenches is integral to team success. Senior center Nick Buchanan and junior guard Brett Heggie are the players with the most experience and will be relied on to help the younger players transition to SEC football.


The unit lost Jachai Polite to the NFL, but return experience with senior Jabari Zuniga, who tallied 11 tackles for a loss and 6 1/2 sacks. Kyree Campbell and Adam Schuler also return, while Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard had 15.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in his last full season (2017). He broke his wrist in last year’s season opener, which ended his season.


It’s a young group with five true freshman among the 13 linebackers on scholarship. The Gators will likely use Jonathan Greenard in a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role to give the unit more experience as the younger players develop. They do possess a leader already in David Reese II, who has started since he was a freshman in 2016. Reese had 77 tackles in 10 games, missing the first three because of injury, last season.


There’s always bragging and trash-talking over which school is Defensive Back University. The Gators churn out their share of talented corners and safeties. This season is no different. CJ Henderson is a star, while Marco Wilson returns from a torn ACL to form one of the nation’s best cornerback combinations. Although depth is always a concern, this group has enough playmakers — which includes sophomore Trey Dean III getting moved into the STAR position — to create problems for opposing offenses.


The kicking game returns Evan McPherson, who tied for sixth nationally in field-goal percentage by making 17 of his 19 kicks for 89.5 percent. The sophomore was solid inside 30 yards and connected on 3 of 4 field goals from beyond 40 yards. The return game is strong, and redshirt senior punter Tommy Townsend averaged 45.4 yards and boomed 14 punts more than 50 yards. He also pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 24 punts.

Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.