Five key players for UF in 2021: Who needs to step up for the Gators this season?

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
Florida quarterback Emory Jones lets one fly during an earlier practice.

It doesn’t take a football genius to know everything begins with the snap. So the player who gets the snap is the de facto key that turns the football engine.

In other words, it’s a given that the quarterback is the key player on any team. We assume most Florida fans are at least borderline geniuses, so we won’t insult their gridiron intelligence by explaining how vital Emory Jones is in the Gators’ grand plans.

We might insult their football intelligence with our rundown of the five most key players besides the QB. Just remember, “key” is a flexible adjective. These five guys may not collectively be the best players, but the quality of UF’s season will depend heavily on the quality of their play.

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Mississippi State junior kicker Jace Christmann has made 99 of his 100 extra points and 28 of his 36 field goal attempts during his career in maroon and white.

5. Jace Christmann, kicker

Not to slight returning backup kicker Chris Howard, but the kicking job is Christmann’s to lose. And he’ll have some big kicking shoes to fill.

Evan McPherson made 51 of 60 field goals before deciding to take his talents to the NFL. Field goals should play a larger role this season because the offense isn’t expected to be the red-zone touchdown machine it was in 2020.

Does UF really want to give that job to an ex-backup from Mississippi State?

Christmann was no ordinary backup. He made 32 of 40 field goals in his first three seasons and was named Freshman All-SEC in Dan Mullen’s final season in Starkville.

Mike Leach came in last year and brought in ace transfer Brandon Ruiz from Arizona State. He was good enough to unseat the incumbent. The Domino Effect kicked in and Christmann tumbled into Florida’s arms in January.

He doesn’t have to be McPherson. He does need to come pretty close.

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Florida linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. attacks during the Gators' game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, December 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

4. Brenton Cox Jr., linebacker

Florida expected an instant impact when Cox took the field after transferring from Georgia. He delivered, with eight tackles, a sack and a pass breakup in last year’s opener against Ole Miss.

After that, meh.

The former five-star recruit had some spectacular moments, but he often faded into the defensive woodwork. That’s a problem in Todd Grantham’s high-pressure scheme, which needs the BUCK position outside linebacker to be a disruptive menace.

Consistent play is largely a focus issue, though that didn’t completely explain Cox’s problem. It turned out his chronically sore left foot had a crack in the fifth metatarsal.

Doctors put a screw in it after the season. Cox was spotted on campus in June in a walking boot and getting around with the aid of a scooter. That sparked reports Cox would miss much of the season due to a “scooter accident,” but Cox is expected to be ready by the opening game.

He flashed star potential on one good foot. It will be interesting to see what Cox can do on two of them.

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Florida wide receiver Jacob Copeland runs the ball against Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle (9) during the third quarter in the 2020 SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

3. Jacob Copeland, wide receiver

Florida has lost almost 60% of its offensive production from last year, much of it in the form of receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes and tight end Kyle Pitts.

The stage is now open for Copeland. Will he seize it?

He was a prized recruit in 2018, picking Florida over Alabama and Tennessee. You may recall his mother was so upset with Copeland’s choice, she walked out of his signing ceremony.

After redshirting his first year, Copeland has slowly integrated into the offense. He dropped nine passes and his route-running needed sharpening, but he’s caught 45 passes and averaged 18.9 yards a reception last year.

The offense needed him at times in 2020. But in the big picture, it could have gotten by without him thanks to all those other producers.

Not this year. Jones needs a dependable receiving target, and Copeland hopes to be that guy. He’s switched his number from 15 to 1, a digit previously worn by luminaries like Toney and Percy Harvin.

If Copeland can live up to that legacy, his mother will probably be thrilled he picked the Gators.

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Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) pulls in an interception over Vanderbilt wide receiver Chris Pierce Jr. (19) during the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

2. Kaiir Elam, cornerback

Being called the best player in Florida’s secondary last year was sort of like being called the world’s tallest jockey. It didn’t take much to stand out in that crowd last year.

Elam did more than stand out, however. He evolved into an All-America candidate. Expect the junior to turn pro and be a first-round draft pick.

Nobody worries about Elam’s play. What makes him so critical is his surrounding cast.

The secondary is by far Florida’s least experienced unit. There will be new starters at safety, and the other corner spot is up for grabs between Jaydon Hill, true freshman Jason Marshall and transfer Jadarrius Perkins.

There’s a lot of untapped talent and potential in the defensive backfield, but nobody knows when/if it will gel. There are two certainties, however.

Florida ranked No. 100 in pass defense last season, so it can’t get much worse. The secondary cannot afford to lose its most towering presence.

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Florida offensive lineman Richard Gouraige (76) blocks during a play against Missouri during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

1. Richard Gouraige, left tackle

If quarterback is truly the key position, the guy who protects his blind side is the key to the key.

That would be Gouraige. He’s inherited the left tackle spot from Stone Forsythe, who ably protected Kyle Trask from getting clobbered from behind.

Gouraige has served his apprenticeship, starting 17 games at guard the past two seasons. He’s been steady but not particularly dominant for a four-star recruit. He knows the responsibility that comes with his new position.

“Playing left tackle is what I came here for,” Gouraige said. “I like being on an island and going against the best edge rushers in the game.”

Jones is more capable of dodging those rushers than Kyle Trask was. But if the key to UF’s season is going to excel, his most important bodyguard needs to do what he came here to do.

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