Jefferson, Ivey, Lewis returning give Dan Mullen’s first year a boost

It’s been a great start to January for Dan Mullen from a player-personnel standpoint.

Usually when a new head coach comes into a program, any players that have a possibility of leaving early for the NFL Draft will do so. It’s a bit of a chore to learn an all-new staff and system for only one year, and the money that comes from professional football is always hard to pass up.

Despite that general trend, three important Florida players have announced that they’re returning for their final years of eligibility. All of them are a big deal.

The first was tight end C’yontai Lewis:

Lewis says that he “left a lot of money out there”. I’m not so sure that’s true, but it’s still a big benefit to the offense to keep him around for another campaign.

Mullen’s offense makes good use of tight ends and H-backs, so Lewis might be able to play his way into the draft next fall. With DeAndre Goolsby having exhausted his eligibility, nothing is standing in the way of Lewis becoming the top player at that position. Last year’s tight end signee Kemore Gamble earned some praise in fall camp but ultimately redshirted, and Moral Stephens had a couple of good games but lacks Lewis’s skill and experience. Unless early signee Kyle Pitts can challenge him, Lewis should get the spotlight there.

The second one was bigger when Cece Jefferson announced his plan to come back:

Jefferson’s career has had detours with work done as a defensive tackle, but he should have a terrific senior season as an edge rusher in Todd Grantham’s new defensive regime. The Gators will again be deep at defensive end as they were last year with only Jordan Sherit leaving, but Jefferson will be the headliner.

Finally, Martez Ivey made his intention to return known:

Ivey might be the most important of them all. Not unlike Jefferson, his career has included him moving around based on roster insufficiency. He came in as a tackle but played guard for two years while waiting his turn behind David Sharpe. A side effect of other injuries and depth issues, he finished 2017 at guard as well.

It’s unclear right now whether he’ll be a guard or tackle for Mullen, but having a talented four-year starter as one of the options at left tackle is tremendous. Jawaan Taylor is the only other player with real extensive experience at the tackle spot. Mullen won’t be forced to lean on new JUCO transfer Noah Banks, early signee Chris Bleich, or a young player who may not be ready like Stone Forsythe if he doesn’t want to.

Certainly one angle to the announcements is that Jefferson and Ivey coming back prevents the Gators from being in the unusual situation of having no former 5-star recruits on the roster. According to the 247 Sports Composite, they are the only guys in Gainesville to earn that honor as high schoolers.

The 2018 recruiting cycle may yet bring such a player, and quarterback signee Emory Jones is very close to it as it is. Even so, it says a lot about the recruiting done by the previous coaching staff that UF is in such precarious position that it needed surprise returns from Jefferson and Ivey to avoid being bereft of former five-stars.

More importantly, Ivey and Jefferson will have the opportunity to be team leaders for next year. The team this past year lacked clear leadership from the players after Marcell Harris went down and given the rotating door at quarterback. It will be up to them to step up and fill those roles, but they’re there for the taking if they want them.

Mullen must be ecstatic to get all of these guys back for next year. Lewis ensures that tight end isn’t a complete question mark. Ivey provides a good option at two different positions on an offensive line that lacks quality depth beyond the front line. Jefferson has proven himself worthy of his own recruiting hype and should be a monster in opposing backfields next year.

The positive momentum of the summer of 2017 came to a crashing halt with the preseason injury to Harris and the revelation of the credit card scandal in fall camp. It turned into a bruising football season, with the head coach being fired and the team only winning four games.

Mullen’s hire breathed hope into the program, and that hope was buoyed by these players coming back for their senior seasons. It’s still a long time until Gator fans can see the team on the field try to put the bad feelings of last year behind them, but 2018 is off to a great start.

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