Football is in the air. In about a week, 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 fifth and final part of our fall camp preview series, we analyze five key position battles to watch for in fall camp.
Brenton Cox pretty much wrapped up the starting job at BUCK in the spring. If he stays healthy, he should rank among the conference leaders in sacks this season.
But Todd Grantham loves to rotate three or four players at the position and even put two of them on the field at the same time on occasion. He’ll have several intriguing options to sift through.
Jeremiah Moon returned for a sixth year. When healthy, he’s a fairly consistent run stopper who gives offensive linemen trouble with his extremely long wingspan. Staying healthy, though, has been an uphill battle for him. Three of his five seasons have ended prematurely due to injury. Can the Gators rely on him, or are they ready to move on?
Khris Bogle has the look of an emerging star. He’s 6-foot-4 and has gotten his weight up to 242 pounds. That extra muscle should allow him to be more of a three-down player, which was one of the only things that held him back last year. He’s a highly athletic and skilled pass rusher, as he made two sacks in the final four games of the season and forced a fumble against Oklahoma.
David Reese, Lloyd Summerall and Andrew Chatfield were all highly regarded recruits who will look to contribute this season for the first time in their careers.
If Bogle continues to make progress against the run and refine his pass-rushing moves, this should be his job to lose.
Projected winner: Bogle
Stewart Reese and Ethan White will both be starters, but exactly where will be determined in fall camp.
Reese has played in 48 games at Mississippi State and Florida, primarily at right guard but also some at right tackle. He’s never played center in a game before, but he exited the spring as the starter at the position as the Gators replace Brett Heggie.
He was known as one of the premier run blockers in the SEC during his time as a Bulldog, but he was only average in his first year at UF. Part of that can be explained by a shoulder injury he suffered against Georgia, but it was still discouraging to see him not play up to standard along with the rest of the line.
At 6-foot-6 and 345 pounds, the Gators need him to be the mauling road grader that they brought him here to be.
White, meanwhile, was on track to start the opener at center last year, but a knee injury suffered in a fall scrimmage kept him out for the first half of the season. By the time he came back, he was relegated to a backup role.
After adding a little bit of weight after his injury, he trimmed back down to 319 pounds over the summer. Offensive line coach John Hevesy said they would start to work him at center again toward the end of the spring and heading into the fall.
Reese is by far the most experienced offensive lineman, and he owns the best track record as a run blocker. Those two things should give him the nod.
Projected winner: Reese
Kaiir Elam should lock down one side of the field, but the Gators need to find his sidekick. This figures to be a three-way battle between Jaydon Hill, Avery Helm and Jason Marshall.
Hill, a junior, started five games last season. He broke up seven passes, which ranked second on the team. He possesses solid coverage skills, but he isn’t a flashy player. He’s more of the safe option while some of the guys with higher ceilings develop behind him. He exited the spring as the presumptive starter.
It seems inevitable that Marshall will crack the starting lineup at some point; it’s just a matter of when. He’s a former five-star recruit who didn’t turn down Alabama to sit on the bench at Florida. He got some first-team reps in the spring and did a nice job in coverage against Xzavier Henderson and Justin Shorter. Grantham’s defense is known as one of the more complicated schemes in the SEC, so Marshall needs to earn the coaches’ trust with a solid camp.
Helm seems to be the forgotten man in this battle, but you shouldn’t dismiss him. He’s one of the fastest and highest-jumping players on the team, and he also received first-team reps in the spring. He only played in the Cotton Bowl as a freshman last year, though, which would make a starting role a huge step forward for him.
As the well-known commodity of the group, Hill will likely start the opener against Florida Atlantic and likely through at least the Alabama game in week three. The Marshall era, however, will begin very soon.
Projected winner: Hill
The battle to start next to Ventrell Miller should primarily be between Mohamoud Diabate, Amari Burney and Ty’Ron Hopper, though Derek Wingo and Diwun Black could make some noise with strong performances in fall camp.
Diabate looked a little uncomfortable and lost at times over the first half of the 2020 season as he transitioned from BUCK to inside linebacker, but the light seemed to come on down the stretch. He finished second on the team with 69 tackles. He also contributed seven tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
He made tackles-for-loss against Alabama and Oklahoma and forced a fumble in the latter.
He’s an athletic freak with superstar potential. He applies pressure to the quarterback, tackles well in open space and has excellent range and closing speed. If he improves his run fits, look for a huge year from Diabate.
Burney has all of the physical traits you look for in a modern linebacker. He has solid coverage skills from his time as a defensive back, and his 239-pound body is able to absorb the heavy blows that come with playing a full season in the SEC.
But for some reason, he just looked confused and out of sorts last season. If he becomes more assignment-sound this fall, he could have a big rebound year.
Hopper, who began high school as a cornerback, possesses exceptional coverage skills for a linebacker, but he likely still has some work to do in the running game before he’s ready to be a three-down player.
Diabate has the best skillset and the best credentials for the starting job, and his versatility should allow the Gators to play three linebackers at times this season.
Projected winner: Diabate
Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer have the unenviable task of following Kyle Pitts at the tight end position. They could both have great seasons, and it’ll still feel like somewhat of a letdown after Pitts’ historic 2020 campaign.
Gamble and Zipperer are both solid veterans whose skillsets complement each other well.
Gamble, a redshirt senior, has played in 36 career games and is known as more of a run blocker than a receiver. You can make the argument that he’s better at blocking than Pitts. He’s only caught 17 passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns in his career, and drops have been a weakness.
Zipperer should be more of a flex tight end. He caught 11 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2020. He’s a good route-runner and highly athletic, but he also needs to cut down on his number of drops. The Gators figure to line him up on the end of the line, as an H-back and out wide.
Freshman Nick Elksnis is also worth keeping an eye on. He stood out with his advanced receiving skills in the spring, making several contested catches over the middle of the field. He needs to improve his blocking, but he may be able to earn himself a bigger-wide-receiver type of roll with a strong fall camp, similar to what Pitts did as a freshman.
Because all three players have different skillsets, UF figures to rotate at the position. Gamble is the best blocker and the most experienced, which makes him the most likely to start in a more run-focused offense.
Projected winner: Gamble