We are approaching two months away until the Florida Gators snap the football on another season. After a solid recruiting cycle that saw the school in many post-spring Top 25 rankings, there is tons of excitement with Gainesville with head coach Dan Mullen at the helm.
If the team is going to have success in a highly competitive SEC, here are five players expected to have a breakout season in the Swamp.
After safeties Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal left Florida to go to the NFL, the Gators struggled in the 2017 season to fill the void at the safety position. As a result, Florida struggled to limit big passing plays from opposing offences, giving up an average of 8 passing yards per attempt (107th in the country).
This is why there are great expectations for safety Jaewon Taylor to have a productive season with the team. At six feet, 206 pounds, Taylor has the physical attributes to block the running lanes for opposing receivers, while being able to use his great hands to create turnovers.
The key for Taylor will be to stay healthy for the entirety of the season. He has suffered multiple shoulder injuries during his time in Florida thus far. So far this spring, he had to participate in non-contact practice.
Despite limited practice, he has been playing the role of leader for the secondary, which must carry over into the regular season.
“First it’s being a leader now,” Taylor said. “It’s my time to step up and make sure the young guys know what they’re doing at any aspect of the game. Also my role is to take control of the defence and I feel like I’ve just got to do that.”
Similar to Taylor, Gators running back Malik Davis possesses a great deal of talent but unfortunately caught the injury bug. Seven games in, he suffered a torn ACL, forcing him to have season-ending knee surgery.
The Gators strength on offence is their running game, led by Lamical Panine, who rushed for 562 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Despite playing four fewer games than Panine, Davis ran for 526 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. This demonstrates his quick agility and ability to find the holes and run for big yard plays.
If he gets back to normal health, expect Malik to be the engine for the Florida running game. But recovering from ACL injuries takes time and according to Gators running back coach Greg Knox, the deadline to come back is out of his hands.
“That goes back to our trainers. I take everything I get from the trainers, evaluate that and look at it, says Knox. “Then they’ll tell me how much to use him, how much I can’t use him, when I can use him, when I can’t use him,” Knox said. “So everything will be dictated from his rehab progression and where he’s at and what our training staff feels he’s capable of doing.”
For a team that was tied for 69th in the country in sacks (23), one area of tremendous improvement is their pass rush. This is why the Gators need outside linebacker Jeremiah Moon to step up his performance in order to be a critical piece of getting after the opposing quarterback.
At 6’4, 216 pounds, Moon is a freak athlete, drawing similar comparisons to former UF linebacker Jevon Kearse. However, last season, the linebacker disappointed with only tallying 23 tackles, one of them for a loss.
With Dan Mullen at head coach, he believes that Moon can show incredible versatility at his position. Not only can he be an edge rusher but there can also be different plays where Jeremiah drops back into coverage.
If he can master different roles, Moon will be a formidable threat for opposing offences with tremendous upside potential.
Last season, wide receiver Van Jefferson played for the Ole Miss Rebels, acquiring 42 receptions for 456 yards. But as a result of Ole Miss’s rule breaches that have led to NCAA sanctions on bowl games, the wideout transferred to the nearby University of Florida to play for the Gators.
According to his former high school football coach Will Hester, Jefferson’s relationship with Gators wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales was the deciding factor to transfer to Florida.
“With Coach Mullen going to Florida and basically everybody in the program at Florida is going to be starting over with a new offense so he’s not going to be behind or anything of that nature — he’s going to kind of be on an equal footing with everybody else — so he felt like that was probably the best situation for him,” Hester said. “And obviously Billy’s resume speaks for itself with the number of players he’s put into the NFL and the next level.”
Jefferson has a lot to prove for a team that is still searching for a starting quarterback. But he has already impressed his wide receiver coach during spring practices.
“He’s making plays right now. One-on-ones, he’s getting matchups, he’s running by defensive backs, he understands a little bit more, probably. He’s got a little bit more experience,” Gonzales said.
“He’s a great player,” said sophomore Kadarius Toney. “I look up to him really. Even though he just got here, I really look up to him because I like the way he runs his routes, the way he separates and stuff like that. He’s just overall a great player. Be looking forward to him this season.”
In 2017, the Florida Gators defence was 69th in the nation in scoring (27.3 points allowed per game) and gave up 349.3 total yards per game (31st in the country).
This was the most amounts of yards the team had given up since 2007 and the most points since 1946, which was not passable under Coach Mullen standards.
Jabari Zuniga is the focal point asset to have a breakout season as a defensive end pass rusher. At 6’3, 246 pounds, Zuniga is an assassin on the field, utilizing his speed and size to power through the offensive line to go after the quarterback.
Over the last two seasons, the defensive end has shown his brilliance with nine sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss.
According to Jabari, working with defensive coach Chris Rumph has helped him develop into a player with tons of confidence heading into next season.
“I feel like I’m way more prepared mentally than I’ve ever been,” said the defensive end. Everything Coach Rumph has taught me, I think I’m finally putting it together. I’m just going out there and not really thinking as much and just reacting.”
But Zuniga understands that the stakes are higher this year to not only impress his coaches and scouts but also put the team in a position to win consistently.
“I just gotta work harder than I did last year,” Zuniga said. “Now that I’m on everybody’s radar, I gotta do a good job of staying there and exceeding expectations.”