Feleipe Franks

Auburn hasn’t played Florida since 2011 and the Tigers haven’t traveled to The Swamp in over a decade. That will change when Auburn travels to The Swamp for an early October road game that could be one of the team's toughest all season.

The Gators finished last year with a 10-3 record and at No. 7 in the final AP top 25 poll. Going into 2019, the Gators are considered a near-consensus top-10 team and are expected to challenge rival Georgia for the SEC East title.

Despite having five players selected in the recent NFL Draft with six more players being signed as undrafted free agents and enduring a tumultuous offseason that has seen 10 Gators enter the transfer portal, Dan Mullen and company return a good deal of talent on both sides of the ball.

 

Offense

The Gator offense took a big step forward in Mullen’s first year. Florida was 109th (out of 130) in NCAA scoring offense in 2017 — a number that jumped all the way to No. 22 last season.

The biggest reason for the offensive jump was the emergence of quarterback Feleipe Franks. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound redshirt junior finally got a chance to be the Gators full-time starter in 2018 and capitalized with over 2,800 total yards and 31 touchdowns.

Franks is a big-bodied, dual-threat quarterback who will look to take the leap from good to great with another year of experience. If he can improve his accuracy (58 percent last year) and continue to develop, Franks can become one of the country’s best signal callers.

Despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher last year and losing starter Jordan Scarlett to the NFL, the Gators are probably pretty happy with where they stand at running back. 

Senior Lamical Perine evenly split carries with Scarlett last year. With Scarlett gone, Perine, an Athlon Sports preseason All-SEC second team selection, should be able to excel.

Perine had 826 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. More impressively, he averaged 6.2 yards per carry and at nearly 230 pounds, won’t be easy to take down.

Sophomore Dameon Pierce had a solid 424-yard campaign as a true freshman and should be a strong complementary piece alongside Perine in the backfield.

In 2018, no Gator receiver really separated themselves as a true No. 1 option. Former Ole Miss wideout Van Jefferson led the Gators with 503 yards and six TDs. Now a redshirt senior, Jefferson has solid size and enough talent to once again lead the team.

Ohio State transfer wideout Trevon Grimes was a former five-star recruit. At 6-foot-5, he is a strong breakout candidate for the Gators. Grimes only had 364 yards in 2018 but his natural talent and size should be able to create mismatches across the SEC.

The offensive line will likely be the biggest question mark for Florida going into 2019. The Gators had one of the better O-lines in the SEC last year but have to replace four starters from that unit.

Most pressingly, the losses of offensive tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, both of whom were named to an All-SEC second team last year, will likely hurt the Gators.

Redshirt senior center Nick Buchanan is the team’s only returning starter on the line and should lead a unit that could struggle early in the year as new starters get more experience.

 

Defense

The Gator defense definitely had its ups and downs in 2018. Holding Michigan to 15 points and Mississippi State to just six is impressive; On the other hand, allowing 30-plus points to Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina shows just how inconsistent the Gator defense was at times last year.

Overall, the Gators had a very solid defense — especially in defending the pass, where they ranked third in the SEC.

However, Florida also lost star players at cornerback, linebacker and defensive end and will have to find a way to replace those key players.

On the defensive line, senior Jabari Zuniga will have to replace the departed Jachai Polite.  The 6-foot-4, 257-pound Zuniga should have no problem in doing just that as the physical, explosive pass rusher is arguably the Gators' best defender.

Zuniga totaled 45 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks last year—numbers that should increase with the senior now being the focal point of the D-line. 

Expectations for Zuniga are high with the pass rusher being named to the Butkus Award watch list and Athlon Sports’ preseason All-SEC first team.

At linebacker, the Gators will have to lean on the talents of senior David Reese II. Reese II, despite missing three games last year due to injury, finished second on the team with 77 tackles.

Reese II is an experienced four-year starter on the defense with All-SEC expectations.

Florida has churned out several top defensive backs in recent years. The validity of their reputation as “DB-U” is up for debate; however, one thing remains the same — the Gators will likely be hard to pass on.

Last year’s top cornerback, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, is now with the New Orleans Saints. Junior C.J. Henderson, who is expected to step into the lead defensive back role, filled the stat sheet up last year with 38 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks, nine pass deflections, two INTs and two forced fumbles. 

He has an elite combo of size (6-foot-1), speed and ball skills. With Henderson being named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-SEC first team, the junior is expected to become Florida’s next lockdown corner.

A talented trio of safeties round out the Gators' defense. Juniors Brad Stewart Jr. and Donovan Stiner and senior Jeawon Taylor all had 40-plus tackles last year. While the trio won’t get the attention that Zuniga or Henderson get, they could be the difference between the Gators having an average or elite defense.

 

Special Teams

The Gators have one of the best kicker-punter duos in the SEC if not the country.

Sophomore Evan McPherseon was the conference’s most accurate kicker (89.5 percent) as a true freshman. After a season that saw him hit 17 of his 19 field goal attempts, he was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-SEC third team.

Also a preseason All-SEC selection, redshirt senior Tommy Townsend led the NCAA in yards per punt in 2017 and will look to capture that same success two years later.

 

Overall

The Gators will likely begin the season in the top 10 and are seen as the only true threat to Georgia in the SEC East.

The development of Franks and Perine as the team’s top two offensive weapons is key.

And while teams might find success against a less-experienced offensive line, the Gators should excel in shutting down opposing offenses.

Zuniga, Henderson and Reese are all All-SEC talents and despite losing considerable depth through the draft and transfer portal, the Gators should be among the league’s best in Dan Mullen’s second year as head coach.

The Gators have a great mix of both offensive and defensive talent and are one of those teams that can beat you by holding you to 10 points or dropping 40 points on your defense.

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