5 returning Florida Gators football players to watch this spring

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Much of the Florida football program, from players and coaches to the daily routine, has been overhauled under first-year UF head coach Billy Napier.

However, Napier is undoubtedly aware that success in 2022 won’t come without significant contributions from those who remained in Gainesville through the transition from Dan Mullen to his staff.

The Gators certainly have plenty of options to choose from, but here's a look at five returning players to watch when spring practice commences Tuesday, March 15. 

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Practice plan:Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier talks team preparations 

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Ventrell Miller

Ventrell Miller’s decision to return for his fifth season with the Gators should provide a significant boost to Florida’s defense in 2022. 

The Lakeland native led UF in tackles as a junior, and Miller was expected to further improve his rising NFL Draft stock in 2021, but a torn biceps tendon sidelined him for all but two games of his senior season. Rather than gamble on the Draft, Miller opted to come back to Gainesville to play for his third head coach.

The scheme and coaching staff may be different, but Miller — if he’s fully healthy, as expected — figures to be a consistent presence when the Gators open spring practice. 

Florida linebackers Ventrell Miller (51) and Brenton Cox Jr. make a tackle during the Gators' game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, December 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Gervon Dexter

Florida’s front seven schematically won’t look the same under new defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, but that shouldn’t be a problem for 6-foot-6 defensive lineman Gervon Dexter. The junior appeared in all 12 of UF’s games last season, including eight starts, and recorded 51 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries.

With the Gators losing defensive linemen Zachary Carter, Jeremiah Moon, Daquan Newkirk, Tyrone Truesdell and Antonio Valentino from last season, there’s considerable experience to replace, and Dexter — as well as Princely Umanmielen — are expected to leap into leadership roles in UF’s defense. 

Florida Gators defensive lineman Gervon Dexter (9) scoops up a fumble during a game against the Florida Atlantic Owls at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville Fla. Sept. 4, 2021.

Demarkcus Bowman

Montrell Johnson may have the most experience at the collegiate level when UF opens spring camp, but Demarkcus Bowman may have the most long-term promise on the roster. Bowman was rated a five-star prospect and the No. 20 overall player in the 2020 class when he signed with Clemson out of Lakeland High School.

After missing out on his signature the first time around, the Gators added Bowman as a transfer prior to the 2021 campaign, though he’d rush just 14 times for 81 yards while playing behind Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright in UF’s backfield.

With the trio of Davis, Pierce and Wright either headed to the NFL or sidelined for spring, Bowman should see substantial work in camp. 

Brenton Cox Jr. 

Much like Bowman, Brenton Cox Jr. is another former five-star prospect who should see an increased role in spring practice. Cox, now a redshirt senior, was limited for much of last season after a Jones Fracture in his foot required surgery, though he didn’t let his ailment keep him from competing at a high level.

Cox led the Gators in sacks and tackles for loss with 8.5 and 14.5, respectively, so it doesn’t seem off-base to assume he’s in line to lead the Gators once again in multiple statistical categories. 

Florida's Jason Marshall Jr. (3) tries to tackle South Florida Bulls wide receiver Latrell Williams (8) in the first half. The Florida Gators played the University of South Florida Bulls Saturday September 11, 2021 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Jason Marshall Jr.

What happened to “Defensive Back University”? Florida’s pass defense ranked 34th in team passing efficiency defense in 2021, down from 31st in 2020. Prior to the most two recent seasons, the Gators hadn’t finished a season outside the top-30 in the category since the 2007 campaign.

UF’s looking for a return to form in 2022, and many eyes will be on underclassmen cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. to lead the charge. Marshall appeared in all 12 games as a true freshmen, including five starts opposite Kaiir Elam. A former five-star prospect, Marshall recorded his first collegiate interception in the team’s final regular season game against FSU. UF will need him to maintain his current trajectory if the DBU moniker is to return to Gainesville in 2022.