With a large group of guys from last year’s Top-10 Florida football team off to pursue NFL dreams, the Gators need some new talent to step up.
Maybe it’s a redshirt freshman who shined in limited playing time last season, a veteran who has patiently waited for his turn to step into a larger role or a player coming off an injury that postponed his journey a bit.
Some of the factors that went into making this list include how much each player has contributed in his time at Florida, attrition and need at his specific position and takeaways from the spring.
#10. CB Marco Wilson
It’s no secret what Wilson can do. The redshirt sophomore cornerback stepped into a starting role immediately as a freshman in 2017. He followed in big brother Quincy Wilson’s footsteps as he finished with 34 tackles and led the team with 10 pass breakups in his first season.
Even bigger things were expected of him as a sophomore. He picked up Preseason All-SEC honors before a freak play against Kentucky in Week 2 derailed his season. Now, he’s eight months post-ACL tear and close to full strength again.
Last season, Trey Dean stepped into Wilson’s spot as a freshman. Now that he’s back, the secondary is sitting pretty. With C.J. Henderson on the opposite side of the field, the Gators will have a pair of potential NFL draft picks locking down the corners while Dean takes over the nickel position for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
The bad news is this is not Wilson’s first knee issue. He previously tore his ACL in high school, and that can lead to even more complications. If he can just stay healthy, he’s going to be a problem for opposing receivers.
#9. WR Jacob Copeland
This is an interesting one. Copeland came to Florida as the No. 12 wide receiver in the nation and lofty expectations were put on him immediately. Then, he injured his knee soon after arriving on campus and underwent surgery. That put him out of commission for several weeks, and it’s almost impossible for a receiver (especially a freshman) to jump right into the rotation halfway through the season.
He ended up redshirting and got limited playing time at the end of the season, but he should see the field a lot more in 2019. Copeland is an explosive playmaker and could add another layer to an already deep group. Depth might be his only problem. He didn’t get to prove himself too much in spring with a pulled hamstring early on.
The couple of practices he did participate in, he electrified and showed just why those expectations were put on him in the first place. Even wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales said it took him by surprise at first.
But Copeland isn’t just going to be handed a spot because of his talent level. He has to get some experience in the offense, and that requires staying healthy long enough to get in there.
#8. LB Ventrell Miller
Miller played like a guy fighting for his spot on the field in the spring game, because that’s exactly what he’s doing. He led all defensive players with eight tackles and was especially effective in stopping the run.
He and fellow redshirt sophomore James Houston will continue battling it out as Florida’s top two backups. While Houston got a little more playing time last season, it was Miller who had an edge in most of the game-type situations throughout spring.
Both are hard hitters with the ability to make big plays. They’ve shown that in limited opportunities so far, and even left many wishing they’d gotten a few more chances.
The Gators have to find a way to replace the production of Vosean Joseph, who led the team in tackles in 2018. Miller has what it takes to help with a big chunk of that.
#7. RB Malik Davis
Oh, look, another player looking to bounce back from an unforgiving history of injury. Davis turned heads as a freshman in 2017 and looked to be on the way to a stellar first season before going down with a torn ACL against Georgia. Before that, he ran for 526 yards and two touchdowns on 79 carries. He led the team with an average of 6.7 yards per carry and would have easily been the team’s leading rusher if not for missing the last four games.
Lamical Perine finished with just 36 more yards in all 11 games that year.
Davis tried to pick up where he left off last season alongside Jordan Scarlett, but a broken ankle in Week 3 delayed his return even longer. Meanwhile, Perine became Florida’s leading rusher with 834 yards and seven touchdowns as he and Scarlett alternated carries. Perine is set to be the bell cow for the Gators in 2019, but that No. 2 running back spot is still up for grabs.
Dan Mullen likes to keep fresh bodies on the field, so there is plenty of opportunity for carries. Davis will have to compete for it with Dameon Pierce, who impressed as a freshman last season. Pierce and Davis offer very different skill sets. Pierce will run through everything in his path to get a few extra yards and pick up first downs, while Davis is a guy with speed who can make devastating cuts and take it to the house at any given time.
Now back to 100 percent, Davis still looks to have every ounce of speed he did pre-injury. This could be the year he finally breaks the curse and shows what he’s truly capable of.
#6. TE Lucas Krull
Krull might be the most interesting person on Florida’s roster. From his constantly changing golden locks to his infectious personality, he’s just as entertaining off the field as he is on it. He started out his college career playing baseball before deciding to return to football. That is not an easy transition after two years away from the game, but the risk was worth it for the Gators to bring in the 6’6 255 pounder.
He just got his feet wet last season as he played mostly on special teams and totaled just six catches for 75 yards. Both Krull and Mullen said he needed that time to get back into football mode and learn the offense. With several seniors holding down the position in 2018, Florida didn’t need him to do much there. But now that those guys are gone, he’s going to have to be a key contributor.
An intriguing part of Krull’s game is his throwing ability. Florida might throw a wrench in there with the former pitcher at some point this season. It did on one play last season, and that resulted in the touchdown that led Florida to victory over LSU.
Krull is a major mismatch, and the Gators will find a way to take advantage of that. He showed out in the first practices of spring before suffering a shoulder injury that put him in a sling and kept him in non-contact mode for the last few weeks.
#5. OL Brett Heggie
Heggie’s journey at Florida has been a tough one. He’s essentially been a walking injury since the day he arrived on campus. He did not play his first season due to a wrist injury suffered in high school, a knee injury ended his 2017 season early and various issues, including a high ankle sprain, kept him off the field for much of 2018.
He’s another player whose talent is not in question. Heggie is that nasty offensive lineman Florida has been in need of for some time now. At 6’4 and a solid 314 pounds, he’s a monster and plays like one. For the short amount of time he played at 100 percent as a redshirt freshman, he often looked like the best player on the field and earned SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors against Vanderbilt.
The Gators lost all but one starter from last year’s offensive front. Heggie didn’t start at all a season ago as he was slow to come back from injury, but with seven starts to his name, that makes him Florida’s second-most experienced lineman. His experience and unteachable abilities should help him lock down one of the starting guard positions.
The only thing standing between Heggie becoming an All-SEC caliber player is his health. Keeping him on the field is a must this season.
#4 WR Kyle Pitts
Pitts came to Florida as a tight end, but now his role is a little more ambiguous. He could still line up there this season, but he made the switch to wide receiver near the end of last season and it seems it stuck. At 6’6, 246, he’s another one of those mismatches the Gators have at their disposal.
He’s as good a route runner with as good of hands as any receiver on the team. Pair that with his size, and Pitts is a problem for opposing defenses. He made just three catches for 73 yards a season ago, but his 52-yard touchdown reception against Idaho left Florida fans wanting more.
They will surely get more in 2019. Whether it’s at wide receiver or tight end, Pitts will find a place on the field and his presence will be known. He made that abundantly clear with some eye-popping plays in spring. Sometimes it just felt unfair when he went up against Florida’s lesser experienced defensive backs. He even gave the veterans all they could handle.
And as a true sophomore, there is still so much more room for him to grow in the offense.
#3. LB Amari Burney
Another linebacker trying to fill the hole Joseph left is this sophomore standout.
He played defensive back in a reserve role last season and appeared to be primed to take over at nickel when Chauncey Gardner-Johnson left. It turns out Florida’s coaching staff had other plans. Now, Trey Dean is holding down the nickel and Burney has slid back to linebacker.
He’s one of the best athletes on the team, and he’s still listed as such on the roster. His versatility means he doesn’t have to be limited to a single position. If the Gators need him at linebacker, he will play linebacker. If he’s needed in the secondary, he will go back there. But if any player meets Florida’s mantra of fast, physical and aggressive, it’s Burney.
As a freshman, he had 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a sack, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry. After watching him in bowl practices last year and spring practices this year, it looks like those numbers will skyrocket.
#2. WR Trevon Grimes
With the way Florida spreads the ball around to its receivers, no one put up jaw-dropping numbers a season ago. But Grimes should have a chance to build upon his production as a junior.
The Gators didn’t rely on the Ohio State transfer as much as originally expected, but he did end up being the team’s third-leading wide receiver with 364 yards and a couple of touchdowns last year. A large portion of that came from a 118-yard performance at FSU. That was the most receiving yards in a single game by any Florida player in 2018.
Grimes has great hands and a big body to make big plays for the Gators. He and quarterback Feleipe Franks have unmatched chemistry as best friends and roommates, and that showed as Grimes started to get more opportunities late in the season.
In the spring game, he showed out even more with a record-breaking 196 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions. Against a vanilla defense or not, it was an impressive glimpse of what’s to come.
#1. DL Zach Carter
Carter has been a true team player in his first two years with the Gators. After redshirting in 2017, it looked like he would be ready to contribute on the defensive line in 2018. He only saw limited action in nine games and finished with eight tackles, a tackle-for-loss, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
He came to Florida as a highly rated prospect who expected to make an impact immediately. Some players would have already put their name in the transfer portal, but Carter said he never even considered leaving. Now, he’s turning heads and could be one of the top defensive linemen on the team come fall.
It’s easy to see the redshirt sophomore put in a ton of work in the offseason. He put that work on display all spring long. That is partly due to Florida’s extremely inexperienced offensive line, but also simply because Carter is a beast.
The real test will come when he faces stronger SEC offensive fronts, but if his spring is any indication of his fall, opposing quarterbacks are in big trouble. He gives Todd Grantham some options as well, as he plays mostly defensive end but can also hold his own inside at the three-technique.
It’s hard to believe anything other than a breakout season is coming Carter’s way.