Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon
No. 10 Florida
2018 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 5 offense, 8 defense
A smooth transition under Dan Mullen
Following the completely underwhelming Will Muschamp era and the weirdness of Jim McElwain’s tenure, Florida fans have to feel pretty good entering the second season under Dan Mullen.
The Gators went 10-3 in 2018, a season capped off by a four-game winning streak that included a 41-15 throttling of an undermanned Michigan team in the Peach Bowl. But it didn’t start off all that well. Florida had its 31-game winning streak over Kentucky snapped in Week 2 before rebounding with five straight wins. Back-to-back losses to SEC East foes Georgia and Missouri followed before the strong finish to the year.
That strong finish certainly provided positive momentum for Mullen’s program entering the offseason. Expectations are extremely high in Gainesville once again, but it will be a tall task to usurp Georgia in the division. Still, for the Gators to climb up the division standings and finish No. 10 in the final College Football Playoff rankings in Mullen’s first season is quite the jumping off point.
But things haven’t been all positive. It’s been an offseason where Florida players were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Most recently, defensive back John Huggins was dismissed from the program after an accusation that he choked a female tutor became public.
Mullen said Huggins was no longer on the team because he was “not living up to what we expect of the Gator standard.” Huggins became the fourth UF player accused of violence against women in a 10-month span (all have been dismissed).
With the opener against Miami around the corner, UF can’t afford any more distractions.
The rise of Feleipe Franks
Entering the 2018 season, Mullen held an open quarterback competition even though Feleipe Franks started eight games in 2017. Mullen didn’t inherit a bare cupboard by any means, but the offense was so stagnant under McElwain that Mullen had to pretty much start from scratch.
Franks was clearly the best QB on the roster but had yet to put it all together. He especially struggled with accuracy. Franks won the job, Mullen structured the offense to emphasize his strengths, and by the end of the year Franks’ confidence grew and he was playing like one of the better signal callers in the SEC.
Franks finished the year with 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also rushed for seven scores.
“I think as the year went on, he understood what his abilities were and he decided to use all of his talents,” Mullen said at SEC Media Days. “I think when he bought in to using all of his skill set to play, and not trying to limit himself or not trying to worry really about what everybody else thought, he was going to be a better player, and he did that. I think he started to block out all of the outside noise, all of the other opinions.”
A redshirt junior, Franks still has room to improve and plenty of talent around him. Lamical Perine is back at running back while the team returns a stable of promising receivers. Van Jefferson, a transfer from Ole Miss, leads that group but guys like Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, Trevon Grimes and Freddie Swain all showed flashes.
The concern on the offense is up front, where just one starter — senior center Nick Buchanan — returns from 2018. There are a few upperclassmen in line to assume starting roles, but they don’t have any significant experience.
A defense without an obvious weakness
Much like the offense, the defense kept getting better. It took some time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to fit the pieces together in his system. The defense especially struggled in the red zone, but the Gators were firing on all cylinders by the time the Florida State and Michigan games rolled around at the end of the year.
Entering 2019, the defense doesn’t seem to have an obvious weakness. David Reese, a senior who is the team’s returning tackler, is the leader of the unit at middle linebacker. Jabari Zuniga highlights an experienced defensive line and looks ready for a big year after putting up 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year. Another pass-rushing threat will be Jonathan Greenard, a Louisville transfer who has 70 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in his career.
The secondary, despite the loss of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, looks especially strong. C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson are the starters at corner, and they’re good ones. Henderson is one of the team’s top NFL draft prospects. Wilson, coming off a torn ACL, started as a true freshman in 2017 and is expected to be fully healthy for Week 1. And at safety, three players — Brad Stewart, Jeawon Taylor and Donovan Stiner — have significant starting experience.
The defense should be solid all around and may need to keep the team in games if the offensive line struggles.
Biggest game: vs. Georgia (Nov. 2)
The Gators will have their share of challenges before November rolls around, especially a trip to LSU on Oct. 12. But Georgia should be the class of the SEC East once again. If the Gators want to take the step back into the ranks of the elite programs in the country, they’ll have to take down the Bulldogs in Jacksonville.
LB Jonathan Greenard
Jachai Polite put up 19.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks last year playing the “buck” linebacker in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense. In 2019, Louisville transfer Jonathan Greenard looks primed to assume that role. Greenard, who played under Grantham at UL in 2016, had 15.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2017 before missing all of 2018 with a wrist injury.
Biggest question mark
From Jacquie Franciulli of GatorTerritory.com: I can tell you what is not a concern: quarterback. Dan Mullen has his guy in Feleipe Franks and this certainty is a welcome change for Gator Nation, since Florida was not this certain on who would line up under center for the opener since Tim Tebow.
However, the big concern is now who will protect him. The Gators lost four of their five starters on the offensive line from last season. Although their projected starters have some experience under their belts, their second-team line lacks that experience — during practice a few true freshmen have lined up with the second team. Mullen and his staff hope that the gap between the first- and second-team line will shrink as the group earns game experience.
Gator Territory’s breakout player
LB Amari Burney
Although there are a few candidates, I am going with Florida linebacker Amari Burney. The Gators moved the sophomore from nickel to linebacker this spring in hopes he could fill the hole left by Vosean Joseph. As a freshman he made his name on special teams and quickly earned the staff's trust. Burney is fast and athletic but also physical, and that versatility makes Burney a huge asset to Todd Grantham.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
CB C.J. Henderson
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: It could be an excellent year for cornerbacks in the draft next spring, and Henderson’s name deserves to be among the first ones mentioned at the position. The 6-1, 195-pound cover corner has the look of an early contributor in the NFL with his great instincts, top-shelf athleticism, blitzing ability and what will be three years of starting experience with another full year in 2019.
Henderson has been knocked as a “finesse” corner, but I really don’t see the issue. He’s a technician who gives scouts a fairly high floor as a prospect with no major weaknesses. Perhaps you’d like to see him be more of a sniper, but we also have seen other CB prospects in the past respond to this criticism by gambling too much and getting away from what they do best, knowing that the NFL places a premium on finding playmakers on the back end. If NFL defenses can’t stop offenses cold in their tracks, then taking the ball away becomes that much more important.
That said, Henderson belongs in the discussion as one of the best few corners in college football. He projects to be a top-50 pick on his current trajectory at the very least and possibly a first-rounder, especially once he tests through the roof at the combine and shows his personality and temperament to NFL execs (Henderson is praised for his character, work ethic and approach). Yes, there will be many others at his position to weigh him against next year, but I really like what I’ve seen to this point from Henderson.
RB Dameon Pierce
Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett were the top two running backs for the Gators in 2018, rushing for 826 yards and 776 yards, respectively. With Scarlett opting to go pro, Pierce steps into that No. 2 role behind Perine. It’s a role that could be pretty significant in Florida’s offense. Pierce averaged 6.1 yards per carry last fall, rushing for 424 yards on just 69 attempts. He could carve out a nice role and be worth a late pick, especially if you’re in an SEC-only league.
If Florida handles Miami in a high-profile opener, the Gators could very well start the year 5-0. The second half of the schedule is where things get tricky. The Gators will be favorites against teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Florida State, but trips to LSU and Missouri won’t be easy. Neither will the Cocktail Party against Georgia, especially if UF’s offensive line struggles. It’s a cop out, but 9-3 feels more on the nose for this team than 10-2. Push.
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