In his second season, Jim McElwain is leading a very different squad than the one that went 10-4 and won the SEC in his first season. The Gators will have new starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and various positions scattered across the defense.
Ideally, all the pieces fit and Florida reminds the media why it deserves a little more credit as the defending division champs. But, any time you’re replacing so many starters, there can be headaches. It could be a very rough year if certain big shoes aren’t filled, and a couple injuries or suspensions could lead to major concerns.
With that in mind, here are Florida’s dream and disaster scenarios for 2016:
Luke Del Rio makes SEC games look like the spring game: Del Rio shined in the Orange and Blue Debut, going 10-of-11 for 176 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t just the stats alone – one couldn’t help but notice his grasp of the offense and knowledge of the plays, needing very little time to identify the open receiver and get the ball out of his hands, a noted departure from the final eight games started by Treon Harris. If Del Rio has time to throw and the receivers are getting open against SEC defenses, the Gators will be in an excellent position to repeat as SEC East champs.
Antonio Callaway leads a dynamic receiving corps: The Gators need Callaway in 2016, but he can’t do it all by himself. Getting reinstated will be step one, but other receivers will still need to establish themselves so that defenses cannot focus on Callaway alone. In 2015, SEC secondaries had to deal with containing possession receiver Demarcus Robinson as well as Callaway. Competition in fall camp should reveal a capable No. 2 wideout to step into the Robinson role.
The three running backs perfectly complement each other: Replacing a 1,000-yard rusher like Kelvin Taylor is no easy task, and the Gators will likely ask three running backs – Jordan Cronkrite, Mark Thompson and Jordan Scarlett – to divide the workload. There’s a chance for each to specialize in certain situations, allowing all three to stay fresh into the fourth quarter and hopefully avoid taking too much of a bruising. While Taylor certainly gave it all he got in 2015, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the ground game, particularly in terms of big gains.
Cece Jefferson turns into Jonathan Bullard 2.0: Bullard moved from edge rusher to defensive tackle in 2015, and it went about as well as Florida defensive coaches could ask. Bullard provided a run-stopping force in the middle while still maintaining a formidable presence in the pass rush. After a solid freshman season at defensive end, it appears Jefferson will be asked to follow in Bullard’s footsteps. It’s always hard to replace an NFL talent at any position, but Jefferson, a former five-star signee, has the strength and athleticism to make a similar impact as an interior lineman.
The starting quarterback is not injured or suspended: The Gators might not have realized how good they had it when guys like Chris Leak and Tim Tebow performed every Saturday without incident. In the past five seasons, the starter (or in the case of 2014, presumed starter Treon Harris) has been injured or suspended at some point during the season. If Florida could get through the season with the quarterback depth chart affected only by performance, it would be a welcome relief.
Quarterback woes continue: As much as Gators fans want to believe in Del Rio, they must remember that he has transferred twice and thrown a total of 18 in-game passes since graduating high school in 2013. His backup is expected to be Austin Appleby, who lost the starting job at Purdue (not exactly Alabama or Clemson). If Florida has to look beyond the two veterans, it will turn to a pair of true freshmen, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, either of whom would go through unavoidable growing pains.
The committee approach hurts running game more than it helps: Florida coaches are taking somewhat of a risk if the ball-carriers are pigeonholed into roles such as pass-catcher (Cronkrite) and power back (Thompson) that potentially tip defenses as to what is about to be called. None of the three is a proven SEC back yet, and if none excels at his area of expertise, it could put more pressure on the passing attack.
The Gators aren’t able to stop the run: When Heisman Trophy candidates are discussed this season, you’re bound to hear LSU RB Leonard Fournette, Georgia RB Nick Chubb and FSU RB Dalvin Cook mentioned as potential finalists. Florida has to face all three, along with Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd, who gashed the Gators for 238 yards on the ground last season. If UF can’t stop the run, it’s going to be a long season.
Antonio Callaway misses significant time: Things look positive with Callaway back on campus and using football facilities, but he’s yet to be officially announced as back on the team. Callaway is the only proven returning playmaker on offense, and if he’s absent at the start of the season, it will be noticeable. Without Callaway, the Florida passing game would be relying on many freshmen and former backups to step up.
The injury bug strikes the linebackers: Florida is thin at linebacker in terms of experienced depth. Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison took most of the snaps last season. With Morrison gone, Alex Anzalone is expected to play alongside Davis. In terms of pure talent Anzalone could be considered an upgrade, but he’s yet to have a healthy season since signing in 2013. If either starter goes down, the Gators could be in trouble.
Source: Saturday Down South