The last time the Florida Gators saw a handful of juniors move on to the NFL Draft was the 2009 season and fans have certainly not forgotten how the team looked in the two years subsequent to those departures.
And while Florida now has four junior starters having declared for the 2013 NFL Draft to go along with the nine senior starters departing the program, the Gators are in a better position to move forward next season even if there may be a few bumps in the road.
On offense, Florida will lose five starters including left tackle Xavier Nixon (senior), left guard James Wilson (redshirt senior), running back Mike Gillislee (senior), wide receiver Frankie Hammond, Jr. (redshirt senior) and tight end Jordan Reed (draft).
The Gators have freshman LT D.J. Humphries ready to replace Nixon, numerous offensive linemen (including JUCO transfers) and running backs who can fill in at left guard and rusher, and young wide receivers who will be fighting it out all spring and summer for both wide receiver spots.
Finding a fill-in for Reed is another story as freshman Kent Taylor did not see much action in 2012 and classmate Colin Thompson took a redshirt season after joining the team with a foot injury. Coaches could move junior Trey Burton to more of a full-time tight end role in order to provide more playmaking ability at the position.
Florida also has a replacement in line for kicker Caleb Sturgis (redshirt senior) as freshman Austin Hardin has retained all four years of his eligibility by not playing in 2012. He is expected to win the job in 2013.
Where the Gators will have to do the most shuffling is on defense now that the team has lost seven starters from its normal alignment including defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd (draft) and Omar Hunter (redshirt senior), Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray (redshirt senior), Mike LB Jon Bostic (senior), Will LB Jelani Jenkins (draft) and safeties Matt Elam (draft) and Josh Evans (senior).
Junior defensive end Dominique Easley has decided to return, which gives Florida some flexibility as he can play both inside and out. UF has a number of defensive linemen returning including talented reserves like junior Damien Jacbos and redshirt sophomore Leon Orr who can hold down the middle as well.
The emergence of freshmen standouts Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler, Jr., along with the likely return of Buck LB Ronald Powell from injury, should ease any concerns by fulfilling the team’s needs at pass rush.
Freshman Antonio Morrison is the odds-on favorite to replace Bostic in the middle, and a veteran like redshirt sophomore Michael Taylor or an incoming freshman like Daniel McMillian (Jacksonville, FL) could jump into Jenkins’s vacant spot.
Where the Gators will struggle the most is in replacing both of their safeties. Sophomore De’Ante Saunders would have filled one of those roles, but he and the school have parted ways. Florida has an impressive crop of underclassmen on the roster and an equally talented defensive back recruiting class on its way in, but like wide receiver, those safety jobs will have to be won through intense in-camp competition.
If ever head coach Will Muschamp’s “man down, man up” is to apply for the Gators, the 2013 offseason is the time.