College football programs traditionally show significant improvement from year one to year two under a new coaching staff.
If that happens at Florida under coach Dan Mullen, the Gators could be College Football Playoff contenders next season after going 10-3 and rising into the top 10 in the nation in 2018.
For it to happen, the Gators will have to improve in some areas and some new, inexperienced players are going to have to come through at certain positions.
The Sun is breaking down the team position-by-position, one position at a time:
Who’s gone: Star/safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is leaving early for the NFL draft, and former wide receiver Dre Massey, who was moved to the secondary early last season due to a lack of depth.
Although Gardner-Johnson made his decision to declare for the draft before getting substantial feedback from the NFL, he appears to have made the right choice. He’s coming off a breakout season — and a breakout performance in the Peach Bowl, where he had two interceptions, including a pick-six.
At the star position, Gardner-Johnson was moved closer to the line of scrimmage by new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and it turned out to be a boon for Gardner-Johnson, who became one of the Gators’ biggest playmakers on defense in 2018.
He had 71 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, three sacks and six interceptions.
Who’s back: Perhaps the most important player coming back is one who isn’t quite all the way back yet. That would be sophomore cornerback Marco Wilson, who injured his knee in the second game of the season and did not return.
Wilson was running during Peach Bowl practices in Atlanta and appears ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery. But how much he’ll be able to do in the spring is yet to be determined. It does appear he’ll be good to go for the start of preseason camp in August.
With Wilson set to return, the Gators could, arguably, have the best cornerback combination in the SEC with Wilson and junior CJ Henderson. Wilson and Henderson both started as freshmen in 2017.
Without Wilson for most of 2018, Henderson had a breakout season even though opposing quarterbacks had a tendency to avoid him. He led the Gators in pass breakups with nine. He also recorded five tackles for loss, three sacks and three interceptions.
Wilson’s injury, which came in the opening minutes of the loss to Kentucky, opened up an opportunity for true freshman Trey Dean, and he seemed to make the most of it. He started nine games and held his own. He grew more comfortable over the course of the season and had a big interception and return in the win over FSU.
Two other experienced players also return at cornerback: Brian Edwards and C.J. McWilliams.
All seven safeties return, led by starters Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart Jr., who really came into his own in his sophomore season, the highlight being his pick-six in the win over LSU.
The other safeties — Jeawon Taylor, Shawn Davis, Quincy Lenton, Amari Burney and John Huggins — all have playing experience. Taylor has started 10 games in his career and is one of the Gators’ top tacklers.
Who’s new: Two highly rated true freshman cornerbacks — Chris Steele and Jaydon Hill — are already on campus and will start competing for possible playing time in the spring. They bring depth at a position that still is relatively low in numbers. Their addition gives the Gators only seven scholarship players at cornerback.
What’s next: Priority one in the spring will be determining who will be taking over Gardner-Johnson’s old spot — and whether he (or they) will be able to match Gardner-Johnson’s production.
With Wilson set to return at some point, Trey Dean could make the move from cornerback to star. He seems to have the skill set that fits the position. True sophomore Amari Burney also is a strong candidate to fill the role. He made plays at that spot last season, including in the bowl game.
Priority two in the spring will be making sure Steele and Hill get a whole lot of meaningful reps, because there’s a chance both might have to contribute in the fall due to the lack of depth.
Possible scenario: Dean makes the move to the star position, and he and Burney combine to match Gardner-Johnson’s production from last season. A Dean shift would signal that Wilson is back (or going to be back) at cornerback.