For long-suffering Gator fans, fall camp presents a catharsis of sorts. The bitter three-game losing streak to end the season is but a distant memory and hope is renewed once again.
The off-season brought a lot of changes for the Gator football team. Some good, some bad.
Gone is defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan with former Virginia Tech DB coach Torrian Gray hired to replace him.
Gray is well respected not only on the recruiting trail where his presence has already begun to pay dividends but also on the field where he has coached numerous All Anericans and NFL draft picks.
He inherits perhaps the best starting corner combo in the country in Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, and along with starting free safety Marcus Maye, the Gators secondary could once again be among the nation’s best.
Juniors Duke Dawson, who followed up a great camp with an outstanding spring game, and Nick Washington round out the first team rotation while sophomore Chris Williamson and true freshman Chauncey Gardner provide depth.
Gardner is a speedy, big hitting free spirit who can lineup in multiple spots and was a fan favorite in the last recruiting class. He enrolled early and had a solid spring. He’ll be a fun player for fans to watch.
Gone also from last year’s team are both starting quarterbacks.
Will Grier, of course, got suspended mid-season for a positive test for PED’s and subsequently left the team when head coach Jim McElwain refused to guarantee him a starting spot upon his return. He has since transferred to West Virginia.
Treon Harris, who became the starter after Grier was suspended, sat out all offseason due to a university investigation and recently decided to transfer out.
After being ineffective as Grier’s replacement it was obvious he would not return as a quarterback and the decision to transfer was probably in his and the team’s best interest.
The announced move to wide receiver would likely have left him on the bench for his career and as such would only take up a precious scholarship.
To replace them, coach Mac brought in two true freshman and a graduate transfer to compete with Luke Del Rio, who sat out last season after transferring from Oregon.
Of all the position battles in fall camp, this one will capture the most attention from fans and media alike.
Of course, everyone including new Gator Ambassador Steve Spurrier, believe that Del Rio has already been annointed as the starter after going 11-12 for 176 yards with two td’s and looking all-world in the spring game.
“He (Del Rio) did a good job letting the game come to him,” Florida’s second-year coach Jim McElwain said after the spring game adding “it’s amazing what happens when you throw it to the open guy. You get a pretty good stat line.”
His spring game performance should certainly give him a leg up on the starting job but don’t discount Austin Appleby, the grad transfer from Purdue. He played well in the spring game as well going 8-11 for 80 yards, but just didn’t seem as poised in the pocket as Del Rio.
That’s not surprising with Del Rio having a full year to digest the playbook and Appleby only a few weeks.
Coming into the spring game, however, Del Rio had done little to differentiate himself from the others making his spring game performance somewhat of a surprise. Gametime, however, he seemed to put it together and ran the system as it’s designed.
“[the coaches] do a great job of installing plays, and putting guys open for us,” Del Rio said in the post-game. “So I just kind of let the o-line do what they do. Let the wide receivers do what they do and I just went through the progressions. It’s easier that way. The coaches are right, ‘Run the offense. It works.’ “
For fans and media who have dissected play after play from last season’s Gator offense, that’s very promising. Last season’s offensive failings weren’t a function of guys not getting open, it was a quarterback who was unable to stay in the pocket, go through his progressions, or hit open, sometimes wide-open, receivers.
Hopefully between Del Rio and Appleby, the Gator offense can return to what it looked like against Ole Miss rather than the way it finished the season.
Behind them are true freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks both of whom enrolled early and were able to take part in spring practice.
Frank’s came in with the pedigree after being an Elite 11 finalist, but it was Trask, the career high school backup, who appeared more polished in the spring.
Not that it matters much. Barring unforeseen injury to either Del Rio or Appleby, both will likely redshirt this season.
Also gone from last season’s Gator offense is starting running back and 1,000 yard rusher Kelvin Taylor who graduated on to the NFL.
Taylor was a bell cow for the Gators last season getting the tough yards, playing big in big games, and keeping defenses honest without much push from a young offensive line.
The good news for Gator fans is the running back corps this season should be better top to bottom and might be the deepest in the conference.
Returning at running back are Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett who combined for 338 yards as true freshman.
While they played like true freshman for the most part, they’ve now got a year of learning behind Taylor under their belt. And with another offseason to dive into the playbook they should play much faster this season which should allow their natural abilities to come out.
Newcomers are junior college transfer Mark Thompson and true freshman Lamical Perine.
Barring backfield injuries, Perine will likely redshirt, but Thompson could very well be a star.
He’s the big back that Gator fans have been craving for some time. Listed at 6-2 242, Thompson has the size to run over people but surprisingly has the moves to leave defenders face down in the dirt.
The Gators backfield is stacked and the biggest problem for them might be finding enough touches for everyone.
While the Gators appear to be improved at quarterback and running back, the question remains how improved they will be along the offensive line and can they find some depth in camp.
Gone are Trip Thurman, who played every position on the line at one point in his career, and graduate transfer Mason Halter who was serviceable at best for the Gators.
The good news is the Gators played three true freshman extensively last season and some other backups got valuable experience.
Fourth year junior Cam Dillard returns at center hoping to nail down the starting spot something he has been unable to do in the past.
Antonio Riles, Tyler Jordan, former five star recruit Martez Ivey, David Sharpe, and Fred Johnson round out the main rotation.
Behind them is a bunch of inexperience.
One of the bigger camp battles will be to see who can step up and secure a spot in the rotation.
The main group is solid, perhaps still a year away from being dominant, but can they play more consistent than last season? If injuries arise can they find a some capable backups who can step in without a significant drop off?
Inquiring minds want to know.
The coaches need to know.
While not being sexy, the battle for playing time on the offensive line could possibly be the most important of fall camp for the Gators.
At linebacker, the Gators lost three year starter Antonio Morrison, the heart and soul of the corps the last few seasons. He graduated and has moved on to the NFL.
The Gators return Jarrad Davis, who considered leaving early after his junior season but the end-of-season tanking by the Gators left a foul taste in his mouth and pushed him to return for one more go at it.
Davis very well could be the best linebacker in the conference and will likely push for national post-season honors.
Alongside Davis, junior Alex Anzalone returns from a shoulder injury and replaces the departed Morrison.
Anzalone is a former five star recruit out of high school and was playing at a high level before the season-ending injury last year. He’s agile, plays fast and physical, has great natural instincts, and is a sure tackler.
Junior Matt Rolin also returns hoping to salvage a promising career that, like Anzalone, has been hampered by injuries which started before he ever arrived in Gainesville.
Could this finally be the year that senior Daniel McMillian finally puts it all together? Let’s hope so. He was a big time high school recruit who just hasn’t lived up to his billing since he arrived in Gainesville.
One newcomer that fans should pay close attention to is converted safety Kylan Johnson. The redshirt freshman has bulked up nicely (6-2 228) to make the transition from safety to linebacker. He’s a big hitter, with good speed and solid cover skills. He looked good in spring practices and followed it up with 8 tackles and a pick in the spring game.
Another newcomer to watch is true freshman David Reese. At 6-0 239 pounds, he comes in with an SEC-ready physique and should push for playing time this season. How much playing time will likely be determined by how well he picks up the playbook.
If Anzalone and Rolin stay healthy, McMillian steps up, and these newcomers provide effective depth this unit could turn out to be among the SEC’s best.
Two of the biggest losses for the Gators in the offseason were defensive tackle Jon Bullard and defensive end Alex McCalister.
They will surely miss Bullard’s presence in the middle. He was stout against the run and gave the Gators a great push up the middle in passing situations.
McCalister’s outside pass rush will be sorely missed as well. The Gators had difficulty getting to the quarterback after McCalister’s late season issues forced him out of the lineup.
The good news is that this unit, despite lacking some star power of past years, might be the deepest on the team.
CeCe Jefferson, Bryan Cox Jr., and Jordan Sherit return on the outside while Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Taven Bryan, and Khairi Clark return to man the tackle spots. Youngsters Jabari Zuniga, Keivonnis Davis, and Luke Ancrum should provide depth.
They’ll move CeCe inside/out this season trying to take advantage of his strength and quickness to get into the backfield and put pressure on the quarterback from different angles.
One of the more fascinating newcomers to watch in fall camp is true freshman defensive end Antonneus Clayton. The talented pass rusher went under the radar for most of his recruitment but really blew up after a dominating performance during Under Armor All American practices.
“It makes me feel that… I was right all along,” Clayton was quoted by Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel after a standout performance in the UA All American game.”All these guys came in doubting me like I didn’t play against any competition in high school. They thought I was going to get [exposed] here.”
“You look at me now and I’m beating like these five-star O-linemen, showing out for Florida … I beat a lot of those five-star O-linemen, yeah.”
He’s bulked up to around 240 which is still a little light to be an every down player in the SEC but his speed, strength, and athleticism should get him in on passing downs as the Gators look for an effective pass rush.
“I feel myself coming in a taking over for Alex McCalister’s spot,” Clayton said. “Kind of a rush end, dropping back in coverage, coming off the edge. That’s how I see myself, coming in and spot filling in.”
Where the pass rush will come from will certainly be one of the bigger questions for the Gators as they begin fall camp.
If they can find a way to get to the quarterback the line has the talent and depth to once again be one of the top units in the conference.
Back to the offense, the Gators lost their top two pass catchers from last season in receiver Demarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee who combined for 88 catches for 901 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Nonetheless, the Gators may very well be improved in this department this season.
Back at receiver are Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell, Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson, and C.J. Worton. Alvin Bailey transferred out in the offseason.
Of this group, Callaway and Powell are proven, Fulwood and Thompson are serviceable while Worton remains the wild card.
An immensely talented receiver with great hands and athletic ability, Worton could be poised for a breakout season if he can get it together between the ears and practice more consistently.
While the Gators return some talent at receiver, the big talk in the offseason was the newcomers.
JUCO transfer Dre Massey was likely the top JUCO receiver in the country. He’s a speed demon who makes acrobatic catches and can make people miss in the open field something the Gators are sorely in need of.
As good as he is, however, true freshman Tyrie Cleveland might be better.
A five star recruit, he has all the tools with size, speed, great hands and athleticism. He’s physical off the line, aggressive when the balls in the air, and he’s the deep threat the Gators offense has been missing for years. And despite not having the advantage of spring practice he could still make his way into the rotation if he can pick up the playbook.
All eyes will be on him as camp begins.
Two other true freshman who could possibly work their way into the rotation are Freddie Swain and Joshua “Hot Sauce” Hammond.
Both are long receivers with good ball skills and are smooth route runners. While they both were enrolled for spring ball they played like freshman for the most part as expected.
It will be interesting to see how they perform in camp and if they can step into the rotation or take a redshirt.
At tight end, C’Yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby return and could very well have breakout seasons also.
Both players are athletic mismatches with solid hands and they could put up great numbers in a system that seeks to utilize the tight ends extensively in the passing game.
Finally, of all the changes the Gators have undergone in the offseason, the biggest by far was the signing of junior college kicking sensation Eddie Piniero.
After the worst kicking performance I’ve seen in Gainesville in the 39 years I’ve been following Gator football, coach Mac made finding a kicker a top priority and went out and flipped the nation’s top recruit from Alabama.
Before committing to the Gators, Piniero was already an Internet sensation with Vines showing him kicking 70+ yard field goals.
When he flipped to the Gators, it almost broke the Internet. He’s likely the most celebrated signee since Emmitt Smith.
Predictably, former starting kicker Austin Hardin transferred out in the offseason.
It’s been a long but certainly very interesting offseason for the Gators with changes throughout the roster. Improvements abound and fans are hoping they can build on an SEC East title and championship game appearance in coach Mac’s first season.
On the eve of fall camp excitement abounds for fans, players, coaches, and media alike.
Are you ready for some Gator football?