The addition of Malik Zaire as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame boosts the rating at Florida’s most questionable position heading into 2017. At Notre Dame, Zaire completed 59.2 percent of his passes and notched a quarterback rating of 149 while playing in 15 games. Although his action there was limited, he brings the Gators increased mobility and veteran leadership. Vying for the starting job alongside him are redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who started the spring game, and redshirt junior Luke Del Rio, who started last season’s opener and is coming off a shoulder injury. Franks was a four-star prospect who coach Jim McElwain flipped from LSU but hasn’t attempted a pass in his young career. Del Rio is a journeyman who transferred to Florida from Oregon State, which he transferred to from Alabama. His career quarterback rating is 118. Rounding out the position are true freshmen Jake Allen and Kadarius Toney along with redshirt freshman Kyle Trask.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
Junior Jordan Scarlett is expected to carry the load in Florida’s backfield this season, but while he showed flashes of big-play ability a season ago with several tackle-breaking runs, his 889 rushing yards ranked him 91st in the country. He’s joined by sophomore Lamical Perine, who was a surprise standout for the Gators last season and secured the backup job as a true freshman. He ranked second on the team with 421 yards on the ground. Senior Mark Thompson sits third on the depth chart — for now. The 6-2 bruiser, who came to Florida billed as the best junior college running back in the nation, struggled with fumbles last season and that led to a reduction of his playing time. Freshmen Adarius Lemons and Malik Davis will look to overtake him for that third spot in what McElwain hopes will turn into a reliable three-man rotation. The Gators ranked last in the Southeastern Conference with 128 rushing yards per game last season, so while an improved offensive line should help, the group has something to prove.
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This ranking would be much higher if based solely on potential. Because for the first time in a long time, the Gators boast both considerable depth and talent at the wide receiver position, starting with junior Antonio Callaway. The Miami native and Booker T. Washington alum participated in full spring, summer and fall conditioning for the first time in his college career, and he’s hoping for a bump in production as a result. Callaway averaged 60 yards per game last season, ranking him 100th in the FBS, to go with three touchdowns. Opposite him should be sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, who averaged a team-best 21.29 yards per catch among receivers last season largely off the bench. Joining them in the slot will be either senior Brandon Powell or redshirt junior Dre Massey, who’s coming off a torn ACL sustained on the opening kickoff of the 2016 season. The Gators also boast promising sophomores Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond as well as heralded freshmen DaQuon Green and James Robinson, who was rated the 15th-best receiver in the nation by the 247Sports Composite rankings. That sounds like a recipe for a successful unit, but with Florida’s quarterback situation still in flux, the group’s production is uncertain.
TIGHT ENDS: B-
Florida returns its top tight ends from last season in DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis. Goolsby was the more productive receiver of the duo with 342 yards and three touchdowns. Lewis recorded 184 yards and two touchdowns but was the better blocker. Newcomer Kemore Gamble could see the field as well. The four-star freshman from Miami Southridge is already bigger weight-wise than Goolsby and Lewis and receivers coach Kerry Dixon called him a “special pass-catcher” in spring. Redshirt junior Moral Stephens could also contribute off the bench or on special teams, as he did the previous two seasons.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
McElwain started the fall by saying he expects major improvements up front thanks to two things: competition and communication. He’s hoping those factors lead to better run blocking to help a run game that was the worst in the SEC a season ago, as well as better pass blocking to help UF’s quarterbacks, who were sacked 28 times (71st in the country) last year. That starts at tackle, where junior Martez Ivey should start at left tackle and sophomore Jawaan Taylor should start at right tackle. Ivey was a five-star signee out of high school, and Taylor was and All-SEC freshman team honoree as well as a freshman All-American by ESPN.com in 2016. At guard, junior Fred Johnson and redshirt freshman Brett Heggie have started so far this spring with T.J. McCoy at center. Junior Tyler Jordan can play almost any position on the line and has been the group’s primary backup in fall camp. Antonio Riles, Kavaris Harkless and Nick Buchanan round out the depth inside while Stone Forsythe, Kadeem Telfort and Andrew Mike could contribute at tackle. Telfort has even worked with the first-team offense at times during camp.
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DEFENSIVE LINE: A
This unit, especially at defensive end, should be one of Florida’s strengths. Last season’s team sack leader Jabari Zuniga, redshirt senior Jordan Sherit and junior Cece Jefferson are among the favorites to start, but behind them, junior Keivonnis Davis and sophomores Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton all have game experience as well. There’s also redshirt freshman Jordan Smith and true freshman Zachary Carter. At defensive tackle there’s more uncertainty, but the starting spots are clear. Taven Bryan will start at tackle, and Khairi Clark will start at nose. Behind them, redshirt sophomores Luke Ancrum and Richerd Desir-Jones are the only non-freshman backups, but with depth thin, newcomers Elijah Conliffe, Tedarrell Slaton and Kyree Campbell could see the field.
Sophomores David Reese, Vosean Joseph and Kylan Johnson are locked in as starters, with Reese being the team’s leading returning tackler. Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon, who was held out last season with an injury, has drawn positive reviews from teammates in preseason camp for his versatility and speed. At 6-6 and 228 pounds, he brings size to the position off the bench. The only experienced backup is Belen Jesuit grad Cristian Garcia, who will backup Reese at middle linebacker. That leaves true freshmen Ventrell Miller, James Houston and Lacedrick Brunson along with redshirt sophomore Rayshad Jackson as the team’s other backup options.
The Gators lost major secondary pieces to the NFL in Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye. They also lost redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris to a torn ACL ahead of preseason camp. The starters are Nick Washington at safety, Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner at corner. All three have experience. Behind them, though, there is uncertainty. Sophomore Jeawon Taylor is expected to compete for the other safety spot, while nickel corner will likely go to one of Florida’s freshmen. Largely untested players like CJ McWilliams, McArthur Burnett, Quincy Lenton and Joseph Putu could challenge for spots as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
Punter Johnny Townsend led the nation last season by averaging 47.89 yards per punt. Kicker Eddy Pineiro has one of the strongest legs in the country and made 21-of-25 attempts last season. Long snapper Ryan Farr has been snapping since seventh grade and didn’t miss last season. Having Dre Massey back should help a lackluster kickoff return game, and if Callaway can hold onto punts, he can be electric.
McElwain lost some continuity on his staff with defensive coordinator Geoff Collins leaving to become coach at Temple, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray leaving for the Washington Redskins and offensive line coach Mike Summers leaving for Louisville. At defensive coordinator, McElwain responded by promoting linebackers coach and former Miami coach Randy Shannon, who players have raved about so far. They say he’s simplified the defense, which allows them to play faster.
He also hired JaJuan Seider to coach running backs, Brad Davis to coach the offensive line and Corey Bell to coach defensive backs. All have gotten good reviews, and with McElwain having led UF to two SEC East championships in a row and having built recruiting momentum, coaching shouldn’t be an area of concern.