It’s a sadly routine occurrence that football teams lose players to injury. The cliche that soon follows is, “next man up”, but in the case of starters, seldom does that next man turn out to be as good as the one who went down. Some players are simply less replaceable than others.
Here are my picks for the three players who would be the hardest to replace on the 2021 Gator football team should bad injury luck strike.
To be clear, they’re not necessarily the three best players. Zachary Carter will be in the running for best player on the defense, but UF has plenty of edge rushers. They aren’t all as good as Carter is, but there are enough guys there to fill in. Florida is blessed with plenty of top-notch running backs, but their plentiful numbers makes the loss of any one of them more manageable.
The ones who appear among the least replaceable mainly for the experience factor above all else are Jacob Copeland on offense and Ventrell Miller on defense.
UF left spring feeling good about a half dozen or more receivers, which would tend to push Copeland down the rankings here. However, he is the only guy in the corps who has played major snaps in more than one year.
Justin Shorter did get a lot of action a year ago, but he’s still fairly new and spent the first few games just blocking and catching screens while he learned the offense. His 25 catches last year, in fact, are barely more than the 21 that Copeland had in 2019 while being the team’s seventh option among receivers and tight ends. Losing Copeland would be a blow, even if not a crushing one, to a receiving group that will see a lot of action for new faces.
Miller has grown into a mainstay role in the middle of the defense. While he’s not a Brandon Spikes-level performer, he did lead the team in tackles last year with more than 25% more than the next guy and has played a ton of snaps over the years.
UF does have up-and-comers at linebacker like Mohamoud Diabate and Ty’Ron Hopper, so Miller might not be as key a player this year as last. Even so, most of the potential rising stars are the faster outside linebackers as opposed to being a run stuffer like Miller is. It’s not clear if Florida has another as good at that particular role, making Miller a hard one to replace on his side of the ball.
3. Emory Jones
The first place most folks go with “hard to replace” rankings is quarterback, and Jones does make the list for Florida. By fall he’ll have twice as many collegiate years as his backup will, making him by far the most experienced with the speed of the college game.
I do think UF will be in good hands with Anthony Richardson whenever he does take over the spot. That’s why I don’t have Jones higher on the list. I am not, however, one of the ones out there expecting Richardson to have a chance at taking the starter’s job this year. If you’re in that boat, then Jones might not make your list at all.
Jones’s combination of experience and electric running ability makes him unique among the quarterbacks Mullen has coached, so I think an offense tailored to him can be a new kind of dangerous for opposing defenses. Only Richardson’s obvious talent and athletic ability keep Jones from being higher on my list.
2. Kaiir Elam
The Gators are thin at cornerback this year, and Elam almost certainly will be the best of them all. He has a demonstrated higher ceiling then that of Jaydon Hill, the only other corner on the roster with significant experience. The burden of stopping opponents’ best outside receivers this year will fall to Elam first and foremost.
The only reason the position isn’t a five-alarm fire is that borderline 4/5-star early enrollee Jason Marshall pushed Hill for the starting spot opposite Elam. Marshall will have some growing pains because even the best true freshman corners do, but he shores up the depth chart in a big way. We’ll see how Jadarrius Perkins, a top-five 247 Sports Composite JUCO player for 2021 who signed with Missouri but then transferred to UF, does in fall camp to establish himself in the pecking order.
But even if Perkins shows himself to be better than a replacement-level player, Florida feels far, far better about its corner spot with Elam than without him. No other position on the defense swings so much based on the presence of a single player.
1. Richard Gouraige
In 2018, Gouraige was one of Dan Mullen’s first hard-fought recruiting wins. Gouraige has spent the last two years getting some seasoning as a guard, but his destiny has always been to move up to the prestige role of protecting the quarterback’s blind side.
In limited time at left tackle last year, he didn’t remove all doubts about his ability to block the fastest rushers off of the edge. He didn’t display an overwhelming mean streak in run blocking as a guard either. Regardless, he’s easily the team’s best option at left tackle. With a full offseason of work at the position, there’s no reason he can’t be one of the better ones in the SEC.
What makes Gouraige the hardest to replace are the massive question marks about depth at tackle.
The top reserve tackle last year was Michael Tarquin, who has worked at right tackle when making spot appearances. By all reports, he never came all that close to unseating incumbent starter Jean Delance despite the latter’s frequent struggles in pass blocking. In that light, throwing Tarquin in the game at left tackle doesn’t seem like an appealing proposition any more than sliding Delance over to the left side does.
The listed backup at left tackle last year was T.J. Moore. He entered the transfer portal in late March, and he’d never seriously competed for playing time since signing with the 2017 class anyway. Stewart Reese played some tackle at Mississippi State early in his career, but it was at right tackle and he wasn’t that great at it. He’s an interior lineman for a reason.
The only other appealing option that I could see is Joshua Braun, who signed as a nominal tackle prospect before playing some at right guard in 2020. His listings of 6’6″ and 352 pounds are certainly more guard-like than most tackles have, and he’s being slotted in at guard in everyone’s guesses at a post-spring depth chart. Gouraige being a guard the last two years shows that even starting multiple years at guard doesn’t foreclose on the possibility of moving out to tackle. It just would be a big ask considering how much practice time Braun has been spending at guard since coming to Gainesville.
In short, there is no slam-dunk option for replacing Gouraige at left tackle. They can either go with someone who’s focused on right tackle without really excelling at it, or they can roll with someone who’s been almost completely focused on interior line play. Putting Gouraige in bubble wrap for the summer might be the best plan of them all.