Winning 11 games, including each of their last four, the 2019 Florida Gators ended the season ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press Poll.
Looking to build on this success and take the next step, reaching the College Football Playoff, the 2020 Gators will have to do so without the likes of wideouts Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, Van Jefferson, and Freddie Swain, outside linebacker Jon Greenard, cornerback C.J. Henderson, linebacker David Reese II, and defensive linemen Adam Shuler and Jabari Zuniga, all of whom are now pursuing careers in the National Football League.
Using the 247Sports Composite, Florida has accumulated top-15 recruiting classes in each of the last three cycles (2018-20), meaning there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings to fill these voids.
After previously breaking down impact freshmen and seniors for head coach Dan Mullen’s program entering this fall, the final two installments of our Gators Wire original series will examine sophomores and juniors to watch this season.
First off, here are the five sophomore Gators who figure to play large roles for the 2020 squad, listed alphabetically.
Wide receiver Jacob Copeland (Redshirt sophomore – Pensacola)
Four of Florida’s top-five wide receivers from 2019 have departed, with senior Trevon Grimes being the only returnee to register more than 300 receiving yards (491).
Copeland, who only caught one pass for 16 yards in three games as a freshman in 2018, experienced nice growth last season, hauling in 21 passes for 273 yards and two scores.
One of the most frequently discussed questions of the Gators’ offseason has been, who will step up alongside Grimes and emerge as a reliable option for redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask?
Exemplified by his three-reception, 89-yard and one-touchdown performance in the victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia last October, a showing that earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, the 6-foot, 192-pound Copeland has the hands, size and speed to fit the bill.
BUCK Brenton Cox Jr. (Redshirt sophomore – Stockbridge, Georgia)
One of the Peach State’s top-five prospects in the 2018 cycle, Cox initially stayed home and played for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs, recording 20 tackles (two TFL) and a sack as a freshman.
He was dismissed from the program last August, however, following an arrest for marijuana possession, among other disciplinary issues.
Announcing his enrollment at Florida midway through the 2019 season, Grantham will count on the athleticism that made Cox one of the top defensive recruits in the south to fill the “BUCK” role in his scheme, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker.
Cornerback Kaiir Elam (Sophomore – Riviera Beach)
Selected ninth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Henderson set a high bar for the young Florida defensive backs to live up to.
Immediately thrust into extended action as a freshman, Elam appears to be capable of continuing the Gators’ strong tradition of cornerback play.
Joining LSU’s Derek Stingley, Jr., who led the conference with six, Elam was one of just two SEC freshmen to tally at least three interceptions a season ago.
Guard/tackle Richard Gouraige (Redshirt sophomore – Tampa)
Gouraige played in 12 games last year, making five starts at left guard, but many around the program see him as the left tackle of the future.
Co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy, who doubles as Florida’s offensive line coach, returns every starter in his meeting room from a year ago, sans center Nick Buchanan. Continuity and experience are often the keys for success up front, and Hevesy added to his group further with the addition of Mississippi State Bulldogs graduate transfer Stewart Reese, the brother of redshirt sophomore linebacker David Reese, on May 16.
Starting games at both guard and tackle during his time in Starkville, Reese’s arrival will likely result in some shuffling on the Gators’ line in 2020. One heavily mentioned possibility has been shifting redshirt senior Stone Forsythe to right tackle, allowing Reese to play inside and Gouraige to occupy the left tackle spot, a role — if all goes well — he could play for the next three seasons.
Running back Lorenzo Lingard (Redshirt sophomore – Orange City)
A five-star and the No. 2 tailback in the 2018 class, Lingard rushed for 136 yards on 17 carries (eight avg) in six games for the Miami Hurricanes as a freshman before suffering a season-ending knee injury in an October practice.
He worked his way back to the field a year ago but played in just two games for first-year head coach Manny Diaz’ squad, appearing exclusively on special teams. Transferring to Florida in January, Lingard announced he received a waiver from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to compete immediately this season in May.
The timing of this ruling could not have been better for the Gators. With the graduation of four-year contributor Lamical Perine, some new faces must step up in Mullen and running backs coach Greg Knox’s backfield in 2020.
Juniors Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce will likely see carries, but Lingard seems to possess the highest ceiling of the bunch.
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