By the time high school graduation rolls around in late May or early June, more than half of Florida’s early football signing class will have already been through a semester of college, participated in the offseason strength and conditioning program and played in a spring game in The Swamp.
So, yes, these eight early enrollees who are already part of the football program are going to have a considerable head start on the rest of the 2018 recruiting class.
An early start doesn’t always translate to early playing time. But it certainly enhances that opportunity.
“Just the general philosophy of enrolling early I think gives you a jump start in your college career,” new Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “They also get to go through an off-season conditioning program and get to go through spring ball. I do think it helps them with the foundation of building for their future, and certainly with the opportunity to get on the field early in their career.”
Of the eight early enrollees, the one everyone is eager to see is Emory Jones, a highly rated dual-threat quarterback who would seem an ideal fit in Mullen’s offense.
Inconsistent quarterback play has been a major issue since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season and has played heavily into the Gators’ ongoing offensive slump.
If nothing else, the early arrival of Jones has given Gator Nation some hope that UF’s offense is finally going to start heading into a positive direction.
Mullen has been quick to point out that Jones is going to face stiff competition from 2017 starter Feleipe Franks, redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask and redshirt freshman Jake Allen.
But, like the other three quarterbacks, Jones will be competing for the starting role in the spring.
“The opportunity for him graduating early and going through spring practice will give him a chance,” Mullen said.
The early start will give the other seven early enrollees a chance as well.
Here’s a look at the early enrollees and their chances of having an immediate impact:
Noah Banks, offensive line
Junior college resume: Played in all 10 games last season, helping Iowa Western College go 11-1 on the season and average 515.4 total offensive yards a game — 240.3 passing, 275.2 rushing.
Situation he’s stepping into: Martez Ivey’s decision to return for his senior season means the Gators’ top 10 offensive linemen from last season are back. Plus, Texas transfer Jean DeLance is eligible to play after sitting out last season. But overall depth, especially at tackle, is an ongoing concern on the offensive line. Behind Ivey and junior Jawaan Taylor, the Gators lack experienced depth at tackle.
Chances of playing early: Banks is a big (6-foot-7, 305 pounds), physical player who appears ready to compete at this level coming out of the junior college ranks. He’ll be competing in the spring for playing time at tackle in a backup role to Ivey or Taylor, or both.
Chris Bleich, offensive line
High school resume: A three-star prospect who anchored an offensive line that helped Wyoming Valley West in Hanover Township, Pa., rush for 260.1 yards a game last season. He was a 5A All-State selection in 2016. He attended IMG Academy in Bradenton for part of his junior season.
Situation he’s stepping into: The starters and backups return from last season, but the Gators are continuing to try and develop depth on the offensive line.
Chances of playing early: Bleich is a tough kid who appears versatile enough to play more than one position on the line. That versatility could enhance his chances of possibly seeing the field in some capacity in the fall.
Amari Burney, Athlete
High school resume: A four-star prospect who played both wide receiver and safety during his three seasons at Calvary Christian in Clearwater. In his senior season, he caught 33 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns, while recording 18 total tackles, one defensive touchdown, one interception and a tackle for loss on defense.
Situation he’s stepping into: Burney is a pretty dynamic offensive player, but he figures to start out on defense at safety, where the Gators must replace Nick Washington and possibly Marcell Harris, a junior who went through Senior Day ceremonies before the final game and continues to recover from a torn achilles tendon. Junior Chauncey Gardner is set as the starter at one safety spot, but the other is wide open, along with the nickel position.
Chances of playing early: Burney will be battling true sophomores Shawn Davis, Brad Stewart and Donovan Stiner for possible playing time behind two more experienced safeties — Quincy Lenton and Jeawon Taylor.
Iverson Clement, running back
High school resume: A four-star prospect and three-year starter for Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, N.J. For his career, he rushed for 3,404 yards and 46 touchdowns and also caught five touchdown passes. He rushed for 1,419 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Situation he’s stepping into: With Malik Davis still recovering from major knee surgery, the Gators will be down to just four scholarship running backs this spring, and two are true freshmen — Clement and fellow early enrollee Dameon Pierce. So, opportunity is there.
Chances of playing early: Clement is a good athlete who is capable of playing other positions, but given the lack of numbers at running back, he’s a running back for now who will get plenty of reps this spring — which could translate to playing time in the fall.
High school resume: In 19 games at Dutchtown High in Hampton Ga., Dean recorded 45 tackles, three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. He is a four-star prospect who played in last week’s Under Armour All-American Game.
Situation he’s stepping into: In what will be a very young secondary again, the Gators have little in the way of proven depth at cornerback and safety. The lack of numbers behind starting corners Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson is a major concern and might lead the coaches to look at Dean at cornerback first. The safety spot opposite Gardner eventually could be where Dean ends up.
Chances of playing early: Dean’s ability to play cornerback, safety and nickel could lead to early playing time somewhere in a secondary that is lacking proven depth across board.
Emory Jones, quarterback
High school resume: Rated the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by ESPN, this four-star prospect threw for 1,197 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 494 yards and six touchdowns in the first eight games of his senior season at Heard County High in LaGrange, Ga. He played in last week’s Under Armour All-American Game.
Situation he’s stepping into: There are only three other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster — Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and redshirt freshman Jake Allen — and the competition is wide open for the starting role in the spring. Franks would seem to have a huge edge in terms of experience, but he really doesn’t. All of the quarterbacks are starting from scratch in a new offense under a new coaching staff.
Chances of playing early: Of the four scholarship quarterbacks, Jones would appear to have the skill set best suited for Mullen’s offense. The question is how quickly he adapts to the offense and the level of competition. He’s expected to be in the thick of the battle for the starting role.
Dameon Pierce, running back
High school resume: A four-year starter at Bainbridge (Ga.) High School who rushed for 6,779 yards and 92 touchdowns during his high school career. A four-star prospect, Pierce rushed for 2,123 yards and 32 touchdowns his senior season, averaging 9.4 yards a carry.
Situation he’s stepping into: The Gators are so low in overall numbers at running back that Pierce is guaranteed getting tons of reps in the spring. The only other scholarship tailbacks are Lamical Perine, Adarius Lemons and Clement.
Chances of playing early: Pierce is a dynamic offensive player who will work his way into the playing rotation if he picks up the offense quickly and shows he can pass protect. The Gators have played true freshmen at running back the past two seasons (Perine, Davis and Lemons), and likely will be doing the same in 2018 with Pierce and Clement.
Randy Russell, cornerback
High school resume: A three-star prospect who helped lead Miami Carol City to a state championship in his junior season. A two-year starter who excelled in man-to-man coverage.
Situation he’s stepping into: The Gators are young at cornerback and lack proven depth at those vital positions, along with the nickel spot. The only other natural scholarship corners on the roster — C.J. McWilliams, McArthur Burnett and Brian Edwards — have seen very little playing time.
Chances of playing early: Russell may be listed as a three-star prospect, but the UF coaches think he has five-star potential as a college cornerback. If he picks up the defense quickly, he’ll have a chance to work his way into the playing rotation at cornerback and nickel, given the lack of depth at those spots.