Then and Now: Gators offense

With Dan Mullen entering his fourth season on the UF sideline this fall, most of the roster is composed of players that he recruited to Florida, either directly out of high school or via the transfer portal. So, it seems like the perfect time to analyze the job he’s done of overhauling a roster that was short on depth and established stars prior to his arrival.

Given Mullen’s reputation as a slightly above average recruiter, you might be a bit surprised at just how much better the Gators’ roster is now compared to Jim McElwain’s final team.

Below you’ll find the roster broken down by position with a brief discussion of the groups and a final verdict on which unit is better.

Up first is the offense.

Quarterback

2017: Jake Allen, Luke Del Rio, Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Malik Zaire

2021: Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, Emory Jones, Jalen Kitna, Anthony Richardson

Breakdown: This is like trading in a dead horse for a Ferrari. The 2017 quarterback room consisted of players who couldn’t get on the field at Oregon State and Notre Dame, one of the most maligned quarterbacks in school history, a high school backup who was still two years away from his breakout moment and an intelligent but physically limited quarterback who transferred to Dartmouth.

Del Rio was probably the best quarterback on the 2017 team, and he would probably be the third-best starting option on the 2021 team.

Of the four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster now, three of them were four-star recruits. Most importantly, you can envision a scenario in which all four of them could become starters at some point in their Gators careers. There aren’t any players like Zaire or Allen who, frankly, felt like a waste of a scholarship.

UF’s 2021 quarterback room also has a nice amount of space between players as it pertains to eligibility. Del Rio-Wilson and Kitna understand that they’re not going to start anytime soon, so they’ll likely stick around at least a couple of years.

If you’re looking for the single biggest difference between the Mullen and McElwain eras, this position is it.

Verdict: 2021

Running Back

2017: Malik Davis, Adarius Lemons, Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett, Mark Thompson

2021: Demarkcus Bowman, Malik Davis, Lorenzo Lingard, Dameon Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright

Breakdown: For the purposes of this story, we’ll pretend that Scarlett didn’t get suspended for the entire 2017 season. If you just look at the top-two running backs in the rotation, the edge probably goes to the 2017 team. Scarlett and Perine were both extremely physical runners with a propensity for generating big plays at just the right moments. Perine also became one of the top pass-catchers and pass-protectors among running backs in the SEC by the end of his career.

However, what the 2021 team lacks in top-end talent it makes up for with excellent depth. They have a pair of former five-star prospects in Lingard and Bowman who will likely battle for third-string snaps this fall.

The 2021 team also has good diversity in skillsets, which should help Mullen scheme for a variety of defensive looks. Pierce and Wright are shorter backs who run like bowling balls, running through arm tackles left and right, a trait that should prove valuable given the status of the offensive line. Davis and Bowman are lightning-quick athletes who are at their best when they get the ball in open space. Lingard falls somewhere in between. Davis and Wright should also excel in the passing game.

This one is really close, but the 2021 team’s depth puts it over the top.

Verdict: 2021

Wide Receiver

2017 (Top five): Antonio Callaway, Josh Hammond, Brandon Powell, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland

2021 (Projected top five): Jacob Copeland, Xzavier Henderson, Justin Shorter, Rick Wells, Trent Whittemore

Breakdown: This comparison is complicated by the youth and inexperience of the 2021 wide receiving corps.

Callaway was an extremely talented playmaker who produced one of the most memorable plays in Florida football history. But was that 11th straight win over Tennessee worth all of the off-the-field headaches he provided? Powell was the heart-and-soul of that 2017 team; you could always count on him to give his best effort even once the program fell to shambles down the stretch. Swain and Hammond didn’t play up to standard until Mullen took over and moved them to the slot.

The 2021 unit is loaded with potential, especially on the perimeter. Henderson and Shorter are both big-bodied receivers who should give Jones solid targets to throw to in the red zone and on deep balls. Copeland is a quick, elusive receiver who needs to run better routes and catch the ball more often, similar to the predicament Kadarius Toney found himself in last summer. Copeland will likely shift between the slot and the two outside spots.

Like running back, you can make an argument for either side, but the 2017 team’s combination of elite talent in Callaway and experience earns them the nod. Ask me again in a couple of months, and my answer might be different.

Verdict: 2017

Tight End

2017: Kemore Gamble, DeAndre Goolsby, C’yontai Lewis, Moral Stephens

2021: Nick Elksnis, Kemore Gamble, Jonathan Odom, Keon Zipperer, Gage Wilcox

Breakdown: Despite losing one of the best tight ends in college football history in Kyle Pitts, the 2021 tight end group still enjoys a clear advantage in both talent and depth.

Gamble is better as a blocker than as a receiver, and Zipperer needs to become a more consistent threat in the passing game. Still, if they can’t get the job done, the Gators have a pair of true freshmen in Elksnis and Wilcox that they’re very high on. Elksnis impressed during the spring by all accounts and is built in Pitts’ mold at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds. This might be a year of transition at the position, but the future should still be bright.

The 2017 tight end group, meanwhile, featured four players who basically served as an extension of the offensive line. The four of them combined for 26 catches.

Verdict: 2021

Offensive Line

2017 (Starters): Martez Ivey, Brett Heggie, T.J. McCoy, Fred Johnson, Jawaan Taylor

2021 (Projected Starters): Richard Gouraige, Josh Braun, Stewart Reese, Ethan White, Jean Delance

Breakdown: That 2017 offensive line looks a lot more talented now than it did at the time. Taylor was a high second-round draft pick. Johnson went undrafted but spent the 2020 season on the Cincinnati Bengals. Heggie was one of UF’s most consistent run-blockers throughout his career when healthy, and Ivey was a five-star recruit.

The 2017 offensive line had a decent amount of talent; they just didn’t have the coaching or offensive scheme to fully take advantage of it.

The 2021 unit looks like it will continue the struggles of the last two years. Gouraige should be the highlight of the group, as his size and athleticism make him a great fit to protect Jones’ blindside. The interior of the line weighs more than 1,000 pounds, but they still got pushed around way too easily by the defensive line in the spring, which essentially forced the running backs to have to bounce outside to gain any sort of meaningful yardage.

Delance has been an absolute disaster at right tackle the past two years, and there’s a good chance that he doesn’t finish this season as a starter.

This is the only position group on the offense where the offensive line personnel is clearly worse now than it was when Mullen arrived.

Verdict: 2017

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.