The summer is already over for the Florida football team, which is actually viewed as a good thing by the players. It means the demanding offseason strength and conditioning program is behind them and it’s time to focus on what they work year-around for — football.
It starts Thursday, with the opening of preseason camp.
This promises to be a busy and eventful camp, where questions need to be answered and decisions need to be made at some critical positions in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 2 opener against Michigan.
Here are five key position battles heading into camp:
This position seemed close to being settled coming out of the spring. Feleipe Franks outperformed fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask throughout drills and again in the spring game and emerged as the clear leader on the depth chart heading into the summer. But the dynamic at the position has changed significantly since then with the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire and the return of injured former starter Luke Del Rio, who had surgery on both shoulders in the offseason. Zaire is a dual-threat quarterback who showed he can perform at a high level in big-time games in his brief stint as the Irish starter. He brings another dimension to the position. And don’t count out Del Rio. No one knows the offense better than he does, and the coaches love his leadership qualities. And don’t count out Trask, either. He has an impressive arm and made steady progress in the spring. It will be a wide-open competition throughout, and it seems unlikely a starter will be named before late in camp. But in this race, Franks is clearly starting in the pole position after his strong spring and summer. Whoever becomes the starter could lose some reps to either Dre Massey or Kadarius Toney (or both). They could get a regular package of plays as a Wildcat quarterback, something the coaches had planned for Massey a year ago before he injured his knee on the season’s opening kickoff.
No. 2 tailback
Junior Jordan Scarlett will have to continue competing at a high level, but it’s evident to everyone that he is the starter after the way he finished off last season as the go-to guy. The intrigue will be the competition going on behind him for the No. 2 spot between sophomore Lamical Perine and senior Mark Thompson. It should be intense, and a close battle. Perine and Thompson went in opposite directions over the course of last season. Perine gained more carries, while Thompson saw his role diminish due to his lack of ball security. But Thompson finished 2016 with that 85-yard catch-and-run for a TD in the Outback Bowl and appears ready to challenge all comers at the position. Perine showed impressive flashes last season and has matured physically. Two talented freshmen also will be competing for carries. Adarius Lemons has home-run hitting speed, while Malik Davis appears to be a natural runner in terms of vision and cutting ability.
The fact there is a lot of competition for these two starting spots is clearly a good thing. It’s an indication of just how much the depth has improved on the offensive line, where the Gators had barely enough players to get through Jim McElwain’s first spring in year one. In camp, there will be four players battling for the two starting guard spots in what should be a close competition. Brett Heggie ended the spring as the No. 1 left guard, but he’ll be challenged by former starter Antonio Riles (returning from a season-ending knee injury in 2016) and junior Tyler Jordan, who has started games at guard and center. Jordan also will be competing for the starting role at right guard with Fred Johnson, who also can step outside and play tackle if necessary. Regardless who the starters are, Heggie, Riles, Jordan and Johnson all figure to see significant playing time. It’s a luxury the Gators haven’t had on the offensive line for several years — depth.
With so little proven depth at defensive tackle, there’s a good chance potential star defensive end Cece Jefferson could see more playing time inside than out on the defensive line this season. The Gators are OK with that because they have great depth and potential at the two end spots. Sophomore Jabari Zuniga was dominant in the spring and is the projected starter at one end, but he’ll be pushed by junior Keivonnis Davis, former starter Jordan Sherit and Jachai Polite, who, like Jefferson, also can step inside to play tackle. If/when Jefferson isn’t starting at end, the competition for that spot will be between Antonneous Clayton, Jordan Smith and promising true freshman Zachary Carter, who appears physically ready to play in the SEC at 280-plus pounds. Clayton, the highest-rated prospect in UF’s 2016 recruiting class, came on at the end of last season and the spring and has flashed big-time potential. He appears ready to take over as a starter if needed.
Although already extremely thin in the secondary in terms of playing experience, the Gators at least felt really good about their starting four before senior safety Marcell Harris was lost for the season last week with a torn Achilles tendon. Now, UF is in somewhat of a scramble mode to fill out the lineup on the back end of the defense. With Harris out, Chauncey Gardner, a projected starter at cornerback, now likely will go back to his 2016 dual role as a safety/nickel. That leaves the one cornerback spot wide open, with the Gators trying to fill it with candidates who have little to no playing experience. The player with at least a little bit of experience is senior Joseph Putu, who made progress in the spring and has gained the confidence of the coaching staff. He’ll have a battle on his hands from C.J. McWilliams, who seems primed for a potential breakout season after the way he performed in a limited role in the spring. At the safety/nickel position(s), Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton are options and will compete for playing time. What should make the overall competition in the secondary intense and interesting is the addition of six true freshmen, several of whom could earn significant playing time, including Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.