University of Florida

Grading the Florida Gators entering 2016 season

Florida WR Antonio Callaway
Florida WR Antonio Callaway AP


For the eighth time since Tim Tebow left in 2009, the Gators will have a new starting signal-caller. This time, it’s redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio who will be under center when the season begins. The journeyman quarterback — who came to UF from Oregon State via Alabama — shined during Florida’s spring game and has been the most consistent of Florida’s four quarterback contenders. His main knock is his inexperience, with just 18 career pass attempts in college. Graduate transfer Austin Appleby (2,777 yards, 19 touchdowns, 19 interceptions in 17 games) provides experience as Del Rio’s backup and can be inserted into the starting job if disaster strikes. True freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are on the outside looking in to start the season.


This looks to be the team’s strength on offense. The four-headed monster of Jordan Scarlett (St. Thomas Aquinas), Jordan Cronkrite (Westminster Christian), Mark Thompson and Mark Herndon gives the Gators the combination of size, speed, pass-catching and experience coach Jim McElwain is looking for out of the backfield. The lone question surrounding this team is if any of the running backs has what it takes to become a featured back in the SEC. Scarlett and Cronkrite played supplemental roles to starter Kelvin Taylor a year ago, Thompson is a junior college transfer, and Herndon has played mostly special teams throughout his UF career.


Sophomore Antonio Callaway, cleared from a Title IX investigation from a reported sexual assault in December, is back. Headlining the rest of the group are juniors Brandon Powell (Deerfield Beach) and CJ Worton. Powell was the top option in the slot last year and had flashes of success when not hampered by a foot injury. Worton has struggled to make the field in his first two seasons but showed what he could do when he caught a 46-yard touchdown pass in the end zone between two Alabama defenders in the SEC Championship Game. Florida’s receiver group also contains junior college transfer Dre Massey and top freshmen Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland. All four are expected to vie for playing time. C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby will split time at tight end, looking to replace the production of sixth-year senior tight end Jake McGee.


The offensive line underwent trial by fire last year and finished the season with three freshmen as part of the starting group. The group showed success at times, but inexperience was evidenced by the Gators finishing last among 128 FBS schools with 46 sacks and tied for 119th in average yards per rush (3.48). Leading the group is left tackle David Sharpe, who has become a vocal leader with a full year under his belt. Senior Cam Dillard will be a mainstay at center, while sophomores Martez Ivey (left guard), Tyler Jordan (right guard) and Fred Johnson (right tackle) should hold down the other three spots. Ivey started the final eight games last season and showed promise at left guard. Jordan and Johnson began the year as backups but worked their way into the starting lineup for the final three games because of a combination of inconsistency and injuries from starters.


The defensive line took a hit with sack leaders Jon Bullard and Alex McCalister heading to the NFL, but the Gators still have a bevy of talent in the trenches. Ends Bryan Cox ( 10 1/2 tackles for loss,  3 1/2 sacks) and CeCe Jefferson ( 8 1/2 tackles for loss,  3 1/2 sacks) and defensive tackle Caleb Brantley ( 6 1/2 tackles for loss) highlight the group. A healthy Joey Ivie adds more run support on the interior of the line, and two young players in sophomore Keivonnis Davis and redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga turned heads during training camp. Florida also brings in four-star defensive end Antonneous Clayton, the No. 26-ranked player in the 2016 recruiting class, according to 247sports.


Two of Florida’s starters at linebacker are known. Jarrad Davis, who returned for his senior year with an SEC title on his mind, will be there. Alex Anzalone, a former five-star recruit whose career has been marred by injury, will be there. The rest is up in the air. Converted safety Kylan Johnson excelled in the spring game, and senior Daniel McMillian looks like he’s finally figuring things out, but neither has shown enough on a regular basis to lock up a starting spot. True freshman David Reese will get playing time at middle linebacker.


Once again, the secondary is loaded. Junior Jalen Tabor is primed to step into the No. 1 corner spot held by Vernon Hargreaves III for the past three years. Junior Quincy Wilson will man the other outside corner spot, with classmate Duke Dawson taking over for NFL-bound Brian Poole in the nickel. Fifth-year senior Marcus Maye opted to return to school and will once again start at free safety. The biggest question mark is the safety spot opposite Maye, a position held by first-round draft pick and hard-hitter Keanu Neal for the past two seasons. Redshirt junior Marcell Harris — a hard-hitting safety with a knack for stopping the run — and Nick Washington — the more technically sound safety in terms of pass coverage — are fighting for the starting spot. Behind those six are a pair of talented freshmen in Chauncey Gardner and McArthur Burnett.


The Gators hopes their kicking problems are behind them. Beleaguered kicker Austin Hardin (a career 16-for-36 kicker) is off the team. Replacing him is YouTube sensation and soccer player-turned football kicker Eddy Pineiro, a 20-year-old who has never kicked a field goal in a live game. The Miami native went 3 for 5 in UF’s spring game, with all of his attempts coming from at least 46 yards out. Johnny Townsend, who was one of Florida’s best-used weapons last year, will man punting duties. The redshirt junior ended last year ranked 10th in yards per punt (45.36), pinned opponents inside their 20-yard line on 30 of his 83 punts and had just five go into the end zone for touchbacks.


McElwain surprised many by guiding the Gators to a 10-win season and the SEC Championship Game in his first season as Florida’s coach. Now he’s tasked with following it up. From the coaching perspective, he has the tools. McElwain returns everyone from his coaching staff except for defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan, who was replaced by Torrian Gray. The continuity among the staff — a group that includes offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, linebackers coach Randy Shannon and veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers — will be critical for McElwain and UF as they head into Year 2.