Dan Mullen is doing a lot with a little, given Florida roster thinness

How many players does it take to field a top ten team in college football?

The scholarship limit is 85. Many teams have important walk ons in specialized roles like long snapper, and sometimes at punter or kicker too.

But setting aside special teams for a moment, just how many players are required to field one of the best teams in the country? Right now, Florida is giving the lower limit a real test.

Chris Bleich entering the transfer portal is the latest hit to UF’s roster. He can still choose to take his name out and remain in Gainesville if he wants, but the coaches are talking like his departure is certain.

Taking him off the books leaves Florida with 74 recruited scholarship players, 11 under the limit. Grad transfers, regular transfers, dismissals, nonqualifiers, a US visa issue, and a medical retirement brought the count down from 88 at sundown on the February signing day to just 74 today.

Not all of the 74 are available. UGA transfer Brenton Cox is not eligible to play as the NCAA has not approved a waiver for him. Four players are out for the season to injury: Feleipe Franks, Elijah Conliffe (according to himself on his Instagram feed), the younger David Reese, and CJ McWilliams.

Therefore, the Gators have 69 recruited scholarship players who are eligible and not out for the year. That we know of, anyway. True freshman Jaelin Humphries was still recovering from a leg injury of some sort in fall practice and hasn’t appeared in any games. Unless he goes in at the end of a blowout win between now and the bowl, he’s functionally rendered out for the year to injury too.

Call it 68, then. Of course, Humphries is not the only true freshman who’s on track to redshirt this year.

Kingsley Eguakan, Will Harrod, Ty’Ron Hopper, Chester Kimbrough, Dionte Marks, Riley Simonds, Lloyd Summerall, Michael Tarquin, Ja’Markis Weston, Ethan White, Trent Whittemore, and Nay’Quan Wright all have played in four or fewer games so far and could still redshirt. Kimbrough has played in four, while Hopper has played in three including on special teams last weekend against Georgia. White has appeared in two games and is now the sixth offensive lineman according to John Hevesy. They’re the most likely ones to burn their redshirts this year.

But unless an injury puts White into the lineup, it’s unlikely any of those players will get a lot of meaningful offensive or defensive snaps the rest of the year. They might play late if the Gators run up the score on Vandy, an FSU team checking out on the year, or an overmatched ACC team in the Orange Bowl. They won’t be out there for entire series in the first half in any game.

Even counting Kimbrough as a guy who isn’t redshirting, that brings the usable roster down to 57 players. Of course, Kimbrough is not the only player who isn’t redshirting but isn’t playing a big role either.

Emory Jones gets some spot duty here and there, but the LSU game aside, he’s just not playing much. Among the offensive players, neither are Iverson Clement, Rick Wells, Keon Zipperer, T.J. Moore, or Griffin McDowell. It’s hard to count Malik Davis as a regular contributor anymore with his two carries against LSU, one against South Carolina, and DNP-coach’s decision against Georgia. Kemore Gamble didn’t appear against the Bulldogs either. Kadarius Toney has been out most of the year and didn’t play much last weekend.

Then on defense, Andrew Chatfield has played sparingly up front. Lacedrick Brunson and Jaydon Hill haven’t recorded a tackle since the Towson game at the end of September. Quincy Lenton pretty much only plays special teams.

What does that leave Florida with?

The offense is essentially a 17-to-18 man operation: one quarterback (Trask), two running backs (Perine, Pierce), six to seven receivers (Jefferson, Swain, Hammond, Cleveland, Grimes, Copeland, and Toney when healthy), three tight ends (Pitts, Krull, Lang), and five offensive linemen (Buchanan, Delance, Forsythe, Gouraige, Heggie). You can pad it to 20 by including Toney, Davis, and Gamble if you want, but that’s not even a full two-deep. With no reserve linemen who weren’t on the redshirt track as of last weekend, it’s not like it’s a balanced 20 anyway.

The defense has a bit more to work with. It’s more of an 23-man operation: seven defensive linemen (Zuniga, Shuler, Campbell, Carter, Ancrum, Slaton, Dunlap), eight linebackers (Greenard, Reese II, Moon, Miller, Houston, Burney, Bogle, Diabate), and eight defensive backs (Henderson, Wilson, Stewart, Davis, Taylor, Stiner, Dean, Elam).

That’s when everyone is healthy, of course. Greenard and Zuniga have been in and out up front. Mullen expects Moon to be out for the rest of the regular season and deemed Burney doubtful for this weekend’s game. They’re down to 21 for Vandy if Burney doesn’t go — and he probably won’t, since Florida has been holding out players who aren’t 100% from games that are likely wins.

Add it all up, and Florida is looking at 41 scholarship players to play appreciable roles on offense and defense this weekend. That’s assuming all of Toney, Greenard, and Zuniga are healthy and still counting Davis and one of Gamble/Zipperer on offense.

You have to add a few more to fill out the team. Tommy Townsend and Evan McPherson have been excellent this year. Long snapper Jacob Tilghman and right punt shield Tanner Rowell are key players at overlooked positions, while Brunson and Lenton are mainstays on special teams.

Completing the picture, Florida is hanging onto a top ten spot in the College Football Playoff rankings with 47 total players that are eligible, (mostly) healthy, playing appreciable roles, and not on track to redshirt. That depends on your definition of “appreciable”; you could go as low as 45 if you want to minus Davis and that other tight end, and sadly Zuniga and Greenard appear liable to go out at any time.

Realistically, no team uses all 85 scholarship players plus key walk-ons in a season. The SEC caps travel rosters for road games at 70, and no one’s ever argued that cost them a game due to it keeping them from bringing a key contributor.

But 47 players who could conceivably play an appreciable role in a conference game when including everyone from the lightly-used backup tight ends to a running back who might get three carries before garbage time to the long snapper and punt shield guy is a very low number. It’s not a balanced 47 either, because again, without Bleich there are literally no backup offensive linemen who weren’t slated to redshirt as of a week ago. And some of those 47 who I don’t need to name are only playing big roles because there is no one around to displace them.

No one who doesn’t wear orange and blue is going to feel sorry for this state of affairs. Mullen and Todd Grantham are trying their best with what they have, but what they have in terms of numbers of players is less than most programs of Florida’s stature. If you want to know why they aren’t changing things up to this strategy or that strategy, keep in mind that they simply may not have the players to do those things.

That the Gators are still 7-2, in the top ten, and having losses only to top-six teams is a sign of a great coaching job, even if last weekend’s performance by them wasn’t their best.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2