Returning stars and hotshot newcomers tend to generate the most excitement when looking ahead to the upcoming football season. After largely being out of sight and out of mind for a year, redshirt freshmen often get overlooked.
That should not be the case for the Gators in 2021. They have several freshmen who didn’t play much in 2020 due to simply having entrenched veterans ahead of them on the depth chart or needing a year to refine their skills and improve their physiques.
Since the NCAA chose not to count the pandemic-affected 2020 season against players’ eligibility, every member of the 2020 signing class could technically be considered a redshirt freshman since they still have four years of eligibility left. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll limit ourselves to only the players that UF listed as redshirt freshmen on the official spring roster.
Here are five redshirt freshmen who could make a large impact this fall.
Running Back Demarkcus Bowman
Yes, this is kind of cheating. Bowman is one of those “hotshot newcomers” that was mentioned in the intro that has stolen the headlines this offseason. Still, he only played in two games at Clemson, and he’s a redshirt freshman, so he still counts.
Even through the lenses of Dan Mullen’s phone on Instagram Live this spring, the physical tools that made Bowman a five-star recruit were easy to see. He possesses elite speed and change of direction, and he also has enough power to be an effective runner between the tackles. Getting better at pass-protection and catching the ball out of the backfield will be keys for him this fall.
Playing time won’t be easy to find. The top three running backs from last year are all back in Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright and Malik Davis. Lorenzo Lingard seemed to make big strides in his first spring camp since transferring in from Miami.
But Bowman’s well-rounded skillset and explosive-play potential should earn him a decent number of touches. He’s simply too talented to keep on the sideline for long.
Punter Jeremy Crawshaw
As the only scholarship punter on the roster, Crawshaw is expected to take over the punting duties this season.
The Australian was ranked as one of the top punters in his class and reportedly averaged more than 45 yards per punt at ProKick Australia, an organization founded to serve as a feeder of sorts to top college programs and the NFL.
He made his college debut in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma and averaged 49 yards on his two kicks, with one of them being downed inside the 20-yard line. While Australians have become famous for their rugby-style punts, Crawshaw kicks it in the traditional American way.
Crawshaw should continue Florida’s tradition of excellent punting and serve as the holder for extra points and field goals.
Cornerback Avery Helm
It seems like only a matter of time before true freshman Jason Marshall joins Kaiir Elam in the starting lineup to form a formidable duo at cornerback. But in today’s pass-heavy day and age in SEC football, you need more than two guys who can be trusted to play well in man coverage.
Jaydon Hill has had some nice moments throughout his career, but he’s far from spectacular. The hope is that a group of young corners led by Helm steps up to provide quality depth.
Helm only played against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl in 2020 but received some first-team reps this spring.
The secondary is an inherently injury-prone position, so don’t be surprised if Helm ends up making a start or two this season. How well he plays when called upon could be a huge factor in some games. He’ll also be expected to contribute on special teams.
Quarterback Anthony Richardson
It’s no secret that Mullen loves to involve his backup quarterback in his game plans. Even with a Heisman finalist taking snaps last season in Kyle Trask, Emory Jones still played in nine games and recorded 32 passing attempts and 32 carries. And, of course, who could forget the way Mullen and Urban Meyer masterfully managed the snaps between Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in 2006?
Mullen likes to get his backup some snaps on the biggest stages so that they don’t have that deer-in-the-headlights look when it’s finally their turn to take the reins of the offense.
So, even with Jones sliding into the starting role this season, Richardson will play. You can take that to the bank. What his role will look like is anybody’s best guess.
Whereas Jones possessed a vastly different skillset than Trask with his ability to run and throw outside of the pocket, Richardson and Jones are similar types of players. Both are dual threats at different stages in their development as passers. There doesn’t appear to be a clearly defined section of the playbook that Richardson can operate that Jones simply cannot.
Richardson is quite a bit larger than Jones at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, which means he could have a Tebow-like role in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
He also saw some snaps at wide receiver against Alabama and Oklahoma last season. Mullen never does anything by accident, so you can bet on there being some variations to that formation this season.
With Jones struggling with his accuracy in the spring and Richardson having a strong local fanbase from his time at Eastside High School, maybe Richardson will have a chance to snatch the starting role by the end of the season.
Defensive Back Kamar Wilcoxson
Wilcoxson was one of the youngest true freshmen in the country last season, as he graduated high school a year early and enrolled at UF at the start of the fall semester.
As expected, there was a steep learning curve for him. He only played against Missouri when the secondary was severely shorthanded following the COVID outbreak and against Oklahoma when just about everybody got in on the action.
With a full offseason under his belt, Wilcoxson enters 2021 with the possibility for significantly more playing time. His biggest strength is his versatility. He has a safety’s body and shows a willingness to get involved in the running game. He also has solid coverage skills and a swagger that borders on cockiness that the best cornerbacks seem to possess.
He trained at STAR in the spring and should compete with Tre’Vez Johnson for the starting job in fall camp. Even if he loses that battle, he’ll still be a valuable member of the secondary due to his ability to play every position. He also figures to have a large role on special teams.