GAINESVILLE — There are a lot of unknowns with the Florida Gators as they prepare to open preseason camp Friday.
They closed practices all spring and didn’t have a spring game, so the public hasn’t gotten a look at them since the Cotton Bowl fiasco against Oklahoma. And we won’t get one, either, until the Sept. 4 opener against Florida Atlantic.
Even with that uncertainty, here are five things we are confident about on the cusp of Dan Mullen’s fourth season.
1. Quarterback Emory Jones isn’t only a runner …
Every sign still points to Jones becoming UF’s starter (although Anthony Richardson will play, too).
“My confidence in Emory as a player is extremely high,” Mullen said.
Including as a passer.
Jones’ previous role was to be a change-of-pace running option. But the Gators stressed Thursday that Jones is more than an elusive runner. Running back Dameon Pierce prefers to call Jones “a mobile pocket passer” rather than a dual-threat quarterback because Jones “can launch that ball.”
“If y’all think Emory Jones is not going to throw the ball,” defensive back Trey Dean said, “that’s a mistake.”
2. …but expect a lot of running this fall
Running back is Mullen’s area of least concern with three returning productive backs (Pierce, Nay’Quan Wright and Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis) and a pair of five-star transfers (Lorenzo Lingard from Miami and Demarkcus Bowman from Clemson).
“All five of us (are) dangerous,” Pierce said.
Their touches were limited last year because of a loaded passing attack led by Bucs rookie Kyle Trask and once-in-a-generation tight end prospect Kyle Pitts. With Pitts and Trask gone, expect UF to rely more on its ground game; Mullen and Pierce both teased Thursday to more two-back formations.
3. The defense will improve
Some of our confidence comes from a progression to the mean after last year’s historically bad season. But some of it comes from the front seven. Two top linemen (Brenton Cox and Hillsborough High alumnus Zachary Carter) are back. UF boosted the interior with transfers Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) and Antonio Valentino (Penn State). And linebacker Jeremiah Moon is healthy after missing eight games last fall.
“I think we’re going to be nasty,” Moon said.
4. The receiving corps will rely on depth
Last year’s offense centered on two first-round pass catchers (Pitts and Kadarius Toney) and another elite talent (Eagles rookie Trevon Grimes) who combined for 31 of UF’s 46 passing touchdowns.
This year’s offense doesn’t have that kind of star power, but it does have depth. Expect it to look more like the 2019 pass game.
That year, nine different players caught at least 10 passes and one touchdown, with all of them ranging between 194 and 657 yards. A spread-the-ball system this year will include former five-star recruit Justin Shorter and blue-chip talents Xzavier Henderson and Jacob Copeland.
“We’ve been quiet,” Shorter said, “but we can’t wait for this year.”
5. This season will look more normal than 2020 but not quite like 2019
“I hope we’re able to get the stadium where we want it to be and get the excitement back in the stadium ...,” Mullen said.
Key word: Hope. The spread of the Delta variant could complicate things.
Regardless, Mullen said the Gators have learned and adjusted from last year’s protocols. UF didn’t stay in a hotel during camp last year but will this year based on a better understanding of the virus and vaccinations.
“I think we’re just a lot more educated on how we adjust within what we’re doing to keep everybody as safe as possible,” he said.
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