Football is in the air. In a couple of weeks, the Gators will open fall camp with nobody knowing what to expect from them.
On one hand, the Gators came six points and a thrown shoe away from making their first College Football Playoff appearance in 2020. They improved one of the worst defenses in school history by adding a pair of transfers on the defensive line, hiring two new coaches and signing an excellent recruiting class in the secondary.
On the other hand, the offense carried the 2020 team, and most of the key players from that historically great offense are in the NFL now.
While we won’t know for sure what the 2021 Gators will look like until the opener against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4, we should start to get some answers in fall camp.
In the fourth part of our fall camp preview series, we break down the five non-early-enrollee newcomers you should pay the most attention to during fall camp.
Athlete Diwun Black
Black is worth watching simply because of the journey he took to UF. He committed to the Gators in August 2018 as one of the top-100 recruits in the country. However, due to academic issues, the Forest, Mississippi, native wasn’t able to enroll at Florida.
Instead, he went the junior college route and shined. In 2019, he made 46 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception and five pass breakups to lead Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College to the NJCAA national championship. He was ranked as the No. 1 overall junior college prospect in the 2021 class on the 247Sports Composite.
UF would’ve been completely justified if they had forgotten about Black and pursued only high school recruits at the linebacker and safety positions. Black would’ve been completely justified if he had taken advantage of his No. 1 ranking by reopening his recruitment and finding another Power Five school to play at.
Instead, Black and UF stayed loyal to each other, and Black finally enrolled in May.
For that reason alone, he should be a fan favorite.
But Black could also turn some heads with what he does on the field this season. UF listed him simply as an athlete when he signed in December, though some recruiting services listed him as a linebacker.
He’s basically a defensive back in a linebacker’s body. He’s a long and explosive athlete, as evidenced by him scoring 35 points and hauling down 10 rebounds in the Class 9A state championship basketball game at Osceola High School as a senior. He has solid coverage skills, and his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame means he should have no problem playing close to the line of scrimmage and laying the wood in the backfield.
The Gators could deploy him in a hybrid outside linebacker/strong safety role this fall. Where he practices and which coaches he works with in fall camp will be things to watch.
With the defense searching for difference-makers, Black could be the missing piece.
Wide Receiver Marcus Burke
Burke was one of the crown jewels of the 2021 signing class, and the Gators hope he’ll become part of the next group of star receivers following the departures of Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes after last season.
The top-200 recruit out of Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville has the physical tools to be a matchup nightmare for defenses. At 6-foot-3, he has a large catch radius, similar to Grimes, Justin Shorter and Xzavier Henderson. What makes him stand out is the elite athleticism that he pairs with that large frame. He can move to the slot and run past linebackers and safeties or line up outside and make contested catches over the top of cornerbacks. He rarely drops passes.
In time, he could prove to be Dan Mullen’s next “unicorn,” as he referred to tight end Kyle Pitts last season.
Like all freshmen, though, he’ll need to adjust to the college game and improve several facets of his game before he’s ready to pile up the catches against SEC defenders. That’s especially true for Burke, given that he only played two years of high school football. In 21 games, he caught 58 passes for 1,201 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Burke needs to work on his route-running and blocking techniques and learn to play more physically. Being bigger and faster than most defenders isn’t enough at this level.
That development starts in fall camp. If things go well for him, he might just earn himself some snaps this season. Jacob Copeland, Henderson, Shorter and Trent Whittemore seemed to separate themselves from the pack in the spring, but Mullen and receivers coach Billy Gonzales would love for a couple of more guys to join the mix.
Who knows? Maybe Burke will be one of those guys. Even if he’s not, he’s still an integral part of the offense’s future plans and is worth monitoring.
Kicker Jace Christmann
Yes, we’re really going to talk about a kicker. Christmann joined the program as a walk-on graduate transfer from Mississippi State over the summer.
He made 32 of his 40 field goal attempts with the Bulldogs, with a long of 51 yards. He missed just one extra point in four years. He was named a Freshman All-American after the 2017 season by the Football Writers Association of America. His 80 percent field goal success rate tied for the best mark in Mississippi State history, and he’s tied for fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list.
However, Christmann lost his starting job to Arizona State transfer Brandon Ruiz last season. Ruiz opted to return to Mississippi State this season, which prompted Christmann to reconnect with the first head coach of his college career in Mullen.
There’s no guarantee that the grass will be greener for him in Gainesville, though. Redshirt senior Chris Howard has a strong leg, and he converted both of his field goal attempts and all five extra points when he filled in for Evan McPherson against Missouri last season. Howard exited the spring as the starter, so this will be an under-the-radar position battle in fall camp.
Offensive Lineman Yousef Mugharbil
At No. 270 in the 247Sports Composite, Mugharbil is one of the highest-ranked offensive line signees under John Hevesy’s watch. As such, he figures prominently into the team’s future plans, especially with as many as three starters leaving after this season due to either graduation or the draft.
The Murphy, North Carolina, native primarily played tackle in high school, but some recruiting experts believe his future is on the interior of the offensive line. He has the size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) and tenacious mindset to be an effective run blocker. He’s also athletic enough to get to the second level and wipe out defenders on pull blocks.
Not to be overlooked is his love for the game and the dedication he showed to his high school teammates. His senior year of high school football was postponed to the spring, and he chose to cross the finish line with them instead of enrolling at UF in January, which was his original plan. You can read more about Mugharbil’s journey to UF at https://www.gatorcountry.com/feature/yousef-mugharbil-fierce-competitor-loyal-teammate/.
He played in a run-heavy offense in high school, so his pass-protection skills are a major work in progress. Will Hevesy play the long game by keeping Mugharbil at tackle and working on his pass protection, or does he work him at guard, which is his more immediate path to playing time?
Gators fans would love to see Mugharbil have an excellent camp and give them something to feel good about up front after a rough couple of years.
Linebacker Jeremiah Williams
Anybody whose nickname is “Scooby” has to be good at football, right?
The Gators certainly hope that’s the case. Williams, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder from Birmingham, Alabama, is the second-highest-ranked member of the 2021 class and the highest-ranked player to enroll over the summer.
Williams will likely begin his career as a situational pass-rusher due to his smaller frame, but he could develop into a Mohamoud Diabate-like hybrid between defensive end and linebacker as he tacks on some strength in the weight room.
Williams is an excellent athlete who exhibits great instincts and terrific closing speed. He recorded 107 tackles, 25 tackles-for-loss and 15 sacks during his sophomore and junior seasons of high school. His weight is really the only concern with him physically.
He likely won’t play much this season simply because the Gators are stacked at BUCK and have more experienced options at linebacker, but he’s worth keeping a close eye on because of his long-term potential.
You’d like to see him look comfortable with the smaller nuances of the position by the end of fall camp and show signs that his lofty ranking wasn’t a mistake.