It is finally time for college football again. Practice has begun and across the nation fans are feeling the adrenalin start pumping as the opening kickoff approaches. Those of you who know me from my time here at Gator Country know that I am not an insider with access to practices or inside lines to coaches. What I offer is insight into the team from a fan’s perspective. Nothing more and nothing less. Here is what I see as the season approaches.
As is always the case, especially for the Gators it seems, all eyes are on the quarterback position once again. The debate has raged all offseason as to what the staff should do at quarterback. There were many who did not even want Malik Zaire transferring to Florida because it upset an already delicate situation and would likely take practice reps from one or more of the young up and coming prospects on the team. I disagreed with that assessment then and I still do. At the VERY least, Zaire’s presence means Michigan must prepare for the read-option along with everything else they have seen on our film. Plus, his presence forces Felipe Franks to win that starting job every day in practice which can only be a positive thing. More importantly, I don’t know about you but I am sick of going into the stretch run in November without a healthy SEC caliber quarterback available and the Gators have done exactly that every year for six straight seasons. In my opinion, you cannot possibly have too many game capable quarterbacks on this roster.
As for who starts, starting Zaire would be utter foolishness unless the staff has installed a scheme that will take advantage of his running ability. Asking him to stand in the pocket and run a pro-style or west-coast offense would likely be a recipe for disaster. That is not his forte. If the plan is designed for a pocket passer it would probably be wiser to go with Felipe Franks. I know there is a lot of talk about Luke Del Rio still being an option and I believe he will get a fair chance to win the starting job. I am sure there is the temptation to throw the experienced Del Rio out there in game one and ask him to just not lose the game, but in the end, I think the staff will go with Franks as the starter with a package in place for Zaire. I expect whichever of Franks and Zaire who doesn’t start game one will play extensively in game two. I also believe there will be a wildcat type package in place to get Kadarius Toney the ball.
The loss of Antionio Callaway for the opener absolutely hurts the offense. He comes into the season as Florida’s best playmaker. Last season, this would have been a devastating loss against an opponent the caliber of Michigan. This is a different offensive roster. There are playmakers available to fill the void. Tyrie Cleveland was threatening to supplant Callaway as the team’s best receiver at the end of last season and probably will by the end of this season. The return of Dre Massey should provide a big threat option at the slot receiver position. It seems likely that Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond will take the next step with a season under their belt. Those four by themselves is a better group of receivers than Georgia has coming into 2017. But, it doesn’t end there. Toney will play slot as well. I predict that Toney will have multiple touchdowns in the opener against Michigan and will emerge as one of the most feared playmakers in the SEC by the end of this season.
With the depth of talented running backs and an offensive line that is finally experienced and deep, the offense should make that huge step up we have all been waiting to see for years now. I believe it will happen. I believe that Florida will challenge Georgia for the highest scoring offenses in the SEC East in 2017. With a legitimate threat in the vertical passing game opposing defenses will no longer be able to stack their safeties at the line to shut down the running game. Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine will benefit greatly from that softer defense. Look for the Gators running game to explode this season. I think the offense will average thirty points or more per game in 2017.
The defense will almost certainly take a step backward this year. Too much talent left for the NFL this offseason and the loss of Marcell Harris to injury compounded that issue. I believe the defensive line will be overpowering with CeCe Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga becoming All-SEC guys. I think the linebackers will be sufficient. The question, as we all know, is how can the secondary bounce back from attrition. The return of Harris was going to make this transition so much easier and would have freed Chauncy Gardner to focus entirely on playing cornerback. Now, one of the incoming freshmen is going to have to play substantial snaps at corner. This scenario seems much too close to the 2007 secondary issues that derailed that squad and many believe that this season will be very similar. I do not necessarily disagree with that but I also want to point out that key members of that 2007 secondary were not just young but they were also horribly immature. Urban Meyer was infuriated with the way those young men approached their craft that season. If young players like Marco Wilson and Shawn Davis can get their heads in the right place, they might be able to fill the void. If that happens, this could be a very special season for the Gators and their fans.
One more aspect that warrants discussion as a sneaky strength for this Florida team is special teams. With Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend, the Gators field a kicker and punter that are among the best in the nation. Those two guys can change football games with their kicking and could well be the deciding factor in at least one game this year. I hope to see Toney on returns as he seems scary good in the open field.
The Gator Nation comes into this season with more anticipation than any in a long time. If the quarterback and secondary play is good, this team could be in the discussion for the college football playoff come December. I expect a win over Michigan and against Tennessee a few weeks later. In my opinion, this season will hinge on the LSU and Georgia games. Ain’t it Great to be a Florida Gator?