Rising sophomore picked as UF’s best player

Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam (5). [Matt Pendleton/Correspondent]

 If you had to pick Florida’s top returning player for the 2020 football season, who would it be?

 Maybe quarterback Kyle Trask, who threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.

 Or tight end Kyle Pitts, UF’s second-leading receiver in 2019 with 54 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns.

 Or, perhaps, cornerback/nickel Marco Wilson, who had three interceptions last season and excelled at two positions in the secondary.

 All good choices.

 But Pro Football Focus says no to those three.

 PFF, which rates and grades players using analytics, has come up with a list of its top returning players in college football. The pick for the Gators may be a little bit of a surprise to some: sophomore cornerback Kaiir Elam, who started five games as a true freshman in 2019.

 Here’s PFF’s breakdown of Elam: “Kaiir Elam’s true freshman season was better than anyone could have imagined and has made Gator fans excited for their defense’s future with him on the outside. Elam was on the field for 310 snaps this year and had just a handful of starts. But he was consistent, keeping his missed tackle and touchdown counts to zero and allowing 10 catches on 23 targets while picking off three passes.”

 Elam also broke up four passes and ended the season as the starter at one of the corner spots. He and Wilson figure to be the starting corners in 2020.

 Here’s a look at PFF’s top returning players for 2020 at each SEC school:


 Wide receiver DeVonta Smith — He averaged 3.52 yards per route run last season and averaged 29.7 yards per reception against press coverage.


 Wide receiver Treyion Burks — He had a 70.5 reception grade last season, ninth among first-year receivers in the nation.


 Cornerback Roger McCreary — He had a 81.1 coverage grade, 33rd in the nation among 419 qualifying cornerbacks.


 Quarterback Jamie Newman — When throwing into a tight window last season at Wake Forest, he ranked behind only LSU’s Joe Burrow in PFF passing grade. He was also second only to Burrow in completions of 20 yards or longer.


 Cornerback Brandid Echols — In 2019, he was one of the 10 best press-man corners in the nation, allowing just eight receptions on his 23 targets for 99 yards.


 Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. — According to PFF, the true freshman produced the most valuable season ever in college football by a cornerback. He had a Wins Above Average of 1.08.

Ole Miss

 Wide receiver Elijah Moore — He’s posted a two-year slot receiving grade that is the 18th best in college football. He had the 10th-best grade on vertical routes in the slot last season.

Mississippi State

 Quarterback K.J. Costell — The Stanford transfer played in only five games last season, but had a big 2018 season for the Cardinal and was one of the top 20 most valuable quarterbacks in college football that season.


 Linebacker Nick Bolton — He was the highest-graded linebacker in coverage midway through last season before getting injured. He posted an elite 90.4 coverage grade and allowed just 180 yards on 352 coverage snaps with 10 combined pass breakups and interceptions on his 29 targets.

South Carolina

 Cornerback Israel Mukuamu — He has a 76.9 coverage grade when lined up on the outside. Against SEC foes on the outside, Mukuamu has allowed only 19 catches on 286 coverage snaps, with 13 of those catches allowed being only nine yards or less.


 Cornerback Shawn Shamburger — He allowed 45 yards or less in every game played last season, allowing only 0.67 yards per coverage snap played in the slot.

Texas A&M

 Quarterback Kellen Mond — Nearly one-fourth of his scrambles over the past two seasons have gone for 10 or more yards. Over that period, he ranks among the top 15 QBs in the nation in “positively graded throws.”


 Cornerback Jaylen Mahoney — As a true freshman last season, he recorded a 74.0 coverage grade and allowed just 107 yards on 201 coverage snaps.