-Photo by Jordan McPherson
Take a deep breath, everyone. You can finally say it. Football is back. The Gators open spring practice on Tuesday with the first of 15 practices that will culminate with the Orange & Blue Spring Game on April 7.
A lot notable faces -- among them Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Jarrad Davis, Joey Ivie, David Sharpe, Alex Anzalone, Marcus Maye and Austin Appleby -- are gone, but a talented group returns for head coach Jim McElwain’s third season at the helm as UF attempts to reach the Southeastern Conference Championship for the third straight year.
As things start to get underway, here is a one-stop-shop primer for what to expect from the team this spring.
But first, let’s start with a recap.
The Gators are coming off a 9-4 season in which the team won the SEC East for the second year in a row. There were highlights, none probably bigger than the goal-line stand at LSU (relocated and a month delayed because of Hurricane Matthew) to clinch the divisional crown. There were also a fair amount of lows -- Yes, you Gator fans are probably hoping to forget the back-to-back losses at Florida State (31-13) and to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game (56-14). Injuries also played a factor in the season, with the Gators losing starting quarterback Luke Del Rio twice, first to a sprained MCL on a low hit during the North Texas game and then to an injury on his non-throwing shoulder against Arkansas that required offseason surgery. Veteran linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone and safety Marcus Maye also had their seasons cut short, forcing younger players to step up late in the season.
Who are those new faces?
Florida has five early enrollees this spring, each hoping to make an impact in some way, shape or form. Here’s a quick glance at those five.
Offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort (Booker T. Washington): Telfort, a 6-6, 318-pound lineman, was solid as an outside offensive lineman during his time at Booker T., helping the Tornados rack up 4,200 yards of offense during his senior season. Enrolling early at UF will only help his chances of getting playing time during his first year. Telfort will more than likely start as a backup with Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor likely assuming the two tackle spots unless he moves inside as a freshman like Ivey did. Regardless, he has the skill and the experience to make an impact early.
Tight end Kemore Gamble (Miami Southridge): Gamble is an athletic pass-catching tight end who faces an uphill climb early in his Florida career. Gamble, a 6-3, 241-pound tight end who earned second-team All-Dade honors by the Miami Herald as a senior at Miami Southridge, will have to start his career behind DeAndre Goolsby, C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens while battling for reps this spring.
Athlete Kadarius Toney (Eight Mile (Ala.) Blount): Slot receiver is likely going to be his position when its all said and done, but Toney, a multi-talented football player, will get his chance to make an impact under center this spring. McElwain wants to implement a running aspect to the quarterback position, and Toney -- the 5-11, 180-pound football player -- has the potential to bring that better than both Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks.
Defensive tackle Kyree Campbell (Wyoming Seminary Prep School): Florida lost a chunk of its interior defensive line production with the graduation of Joey Ivie and with Caleb Brantley declaring early for the NFL Draft. With that, Campbell -- a three-star prospect -- has a chance to make an impact this spring due to the lack of depth. His main competition includes Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark and Jachai Polite during the spring before the rest of the freshman class rolls into Gainesville, so Campbell with have plenty of opportunities early to make a statement to the coaching staff.
Linebacker James Houston (American Heritage): Houston is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in high school, so he will only participate in non-contact drills this spring. The 6-1 233-pound linebacker will have a chance to learn the playbook but will have to wait until the summer at the earliest to implement what he has learned into on-field situations.
Quarterback: Once again, Florida is looking for a new starting quarterback, and with Luke Del Rio sidelined for the spring after undergoing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, it’s almost a lock that the battle will come down to a pair of redshirt freshmen in Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Franks, a former four-star recruit from Crawfordville (Fla.) Wakulla High, looks to be the frontrunner for the job as Florida opens up camp. The biggest key for Franks is improving his accuracy, which was arguably the main aspect of his game that he struggled with last spring. Trask has upside, but his lack of experience even at the high school level still puts him behind Franks despite both being in the system for a full year. Early enrollee Kadarius Toney will also get a few looks at quarterback to help add a running dimension to the position.
Running back: The Gators return their main three running backs from last year in Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson. Scarlett, who paced the group with 889 rushing yards and six touchdowns, should continue to be the workhorse of the group. The biggest thing to watch with this group is how they respond to their new position coach, Ja’Juan Seider.
Wide receiver: Put in the simplest way possible, Florida has depth at receiver. Deep threat Antonio Callaway is back. Tyrie Cleveland is back after a freshman campaign that saw a lot of positives late (cue the 98-yard catch-and-run during the LSU game). Reliable slot receiver Brandon Powell is back. Dre Massey is back after tearing his ACL on Florida’s first play of the season. Plus, the Gators still have Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond on the roster and bring in two more receivers in the fall in James Robinson and Daquon Green. Separating yourself early will be key for these receivers.
Tight end: Both DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis return after a 2016 season where they both experienced highs and lows. Goolsby led Florida tight end with 342 yards and three touchdowns on 38 catches and was a major security blanket in the flat for Austin Appleby throughout the season. Lewis recorded 184 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2016, with his best performance of the year coming on one drive during the win against Georgia, during which he caught a sideline pass for 17 yards and then scored a 19-yard touchdown three plays later. Moral Stephens and early enrollee Kemore Gamble also look to vie for playing time
Offensive line: Florida lost two of its main offensive linemen from last year in left tackle David Sharpe (NFL Draft) and center Cam Dillard (graduate transfer). Even at that, Florida still has veteran players and experience to work with. Martez Ivey will move over to left tackle after spending his first two seasons primarily at guard. Jawaan Taylor will remain at right tackle after a standout freshman season. T.J. McCoy will likely hold on to the starting center spot, while Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson will presumably open camp as the starting guards. How the group shapes up from there will be determined over the next month, with six underclassmen hoping to shape up the rest of the group.
Defensive line: The defensive end position looks solid early on with the return of CeCe Jefferson, Jordan Sherit, Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton and Keivonnis Davis. The interior of the line, however, will be inexperienced. Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark will have to lead the group early on, which could be a make-or-break factor for Florida’s pass rush.
Linebacker: Likely starting middle linebacker David Reese will be sidelined for the spring while healing from wrist surgery, which means the group of Kylan Johnson, Vosean Joseph, Jeremiah Moon and Cristian Garcia will be Florida’s top four for the spring. James Houston, an early enrollee, will also be non-contact for spring ball. UF’s young linebackers showed promise last year after both Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone were sidelined mid-season with injuries.
Cornerback: This position won’t be fully cleared up until the fall after Florida’s five cornerback signees enroll. Until then, the Gators’ main known prospects to help reload DBU are senior Duke Dawson and sophomore Chauncey Gardner. Dawson primarily played the nickel last year but will make the move to outside corner to take over one of the two starting spots replacing Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Gardner will likely continue to be a hybrid cornerback/nickel corner/safety once the season starts, but lack of depth for the spring will force him to take his share of reps outside. UF also has Joseph Putu, Chris Williamson, C.J. McWilliams (non-contact) and MacArthur Burnett at their disposal at cornerback.
Safety: Marcell Harris, heading into his fifth year with the program, is expected to be the leader in the defensive backfield, taking on the role that Marcus Maye had last year and Keanu Neal the year before that. Nick Washington will likely start next to him when camp opens up. Quincy Lenton and Jeawon Taylor are out for the spring while they respectively nurse a foot and shoulder injury, but have the chance to become valuable members of the secondary once healthy.
Kicker/Punter: Florida returns what can probably be viewed as the best kicker-punter duo in the country in Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend. Pineiro finished his first year of collegiate football with an 84-percent efficiency rate (21-for-25) and closed the year by making his final 12 field-goal attempts -- five of which were at least 40 yards out. Townsend led the nation in average yards per punt (47.89), with 29 of his 64 punts traveling at least 50 yards, 27 pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line and just seven being called for touchbacks.