If there’s one thing the 2016 Pro Day hosted by the Florida Gators proved on Tuesday, it’s that the coaching staff has an incredible number of holes to fill on both sides of the ball if the program hopes to have any chance of returning to the SEC Championship Game.
The Gators that worked out at Pro Day included three starters in the secondary, two on the defensive line, two on the offensive line and one each at linebacker, running back, tight end and wide receiver. That’s a total of 11 starters or half of the total players that suited up every Saturday. Now factor in that Florida is also looking to find a new starting quarterback and you have a team that faces many more questions than it does answers entering its second year under head coach Jim McElwain.
At some positions, the replacements are more obvious than others. On Monday, McElwain, defensive line coach Chris Rumph and offensive line coach Mike Summers broke down some players who have been stepping up and could earn starting roles next season.
Wide receiver: While the departure of Demarcus Robinson does take a playmaker off the field, his inconsistency should make him easily replaceable. More concerning is the status of sophomore Antonio Callaway, 2015’s breakout performer who is currently suspended from the team, and junior Brandon Powell, who is sidelined by injury.
For a while, McElwain had mostly been signing he praises of freshman early enrollees Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain, but with redshirt junior Alvin Bailey knocked off the field with an injury of his own (he should return this week), another new member of the roster in junior transfer Dre Massey has caught the coach’s eye. “I think Dre Massey has really done a great job. He’s probably benefited from Bailey not being here in terms of getting reps at a couple different positions. I feel like he’s really taken some steps forward in that receiver group, and that’s really good to see,” the coach said.
McElwain also sun the praises of senior Ahmad Fulwood, a former four-star prospect who has underwhelmed during his Gators career by totaling just 35 receptions for 387 yards and two touchdowns with career lows of six catches, 61 yards and no scores last season. “I think Ahmad’s done a [great job],” said McElwain, who was speaking fondly of Fulwood for the second consecutive media availability. “I was really happy with his practice. I mentioned Dre I think is really making strides. That’s been good to see, just to see the competitive nature that Ahmad has been practicing with, that would be a guy I’d probably circle as standing out a little bit.”
Offensive line: After a poor practice for the unit on last week, McElwain said the unit performed quite well in its last outing by showing improved communication and limiting busts on combination blocks. “I thought we did a little bit better job moving forward off the ball, not taking steps back,” he added before noting that consistency is still an issue for the unit.
Though two starters are gone from the unit and sophomore standout Martez Ivey is missing spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, Summers believes his young offensive line has taken a step forward from last year. He sees them catching up to the speed of the game, preparing for practice the right way and even understanding terminology better. Still, the Gators are focused on the basics with a unit that will be under a lot of pressure this season. “This is a fundamental spring for us: footwork, hands and eyes. That’s what we’re spending most of our time on, just trying to get those guys in the right position.”
Sophomore Fred Johnson, a surprise in 2015 due to his relative inexperience, is almost assuredly going to be starting or at the very least playing a high number of snaps for Florida. “New things happened to him and it didn’t phase him. For him to be able to get the kind of playing time he got last year was so valuable for us. Now he’s able to take that learning and take it one notch higher,” explained Summers. “I think there’s no ceiling on his development. He can really be a special player someday.”
Summers pointed to redshirt junior Cameron Dillard and junior David Sharpe as the unit’s best leaders but noted that sophomore Tyler Jordan leads by example and has established himself as a starter at guard due in large part to that leadership, toughness and intelligence. “I’m really expecting big things from him,” Summers said of Jordan.
Perhaps most importantly, Florida is no longer incredibly shallow at offensive line. Depth was a major issue for the Gators in 2015, and though many of the players are quite young, there is at least a significant number of talented bodies that Summers can now coach up and get ready to contribute.
“It feels really good because I don’t have to jump in there and be one of the guys in the drill to fill it out. It’s getting really hard for me to get down there in three-technique,” Summers joked. “The numbers have made our whole team able to practice differently because we can separate drills now. … It’s helped our whole football team having the numbers. Now we just have to make the numbers better; all those guys in that group have to continue to get better.”
Defensive line: The toughest player to replace on the entire team will undoubtedly be Jonathan Bullard. In fact, it will probably take two players to mitigate the lost production caused by Bullard’s absence. In steps redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who will man the middle and take up a lot of those snaps. Lining up either beside him inside or on the outside of the line will be sophomore defensive end CeCe Jefferson, who himself had a great year as a true freshman in 2015.
“He’s a guy that’s gotta really pick up Bullard’s production,” said McElwain of Jefferson. “I’m not saying he’s going to be Jon Bullard, that guy’s a special player now. [Jefferson] has the capability of getting there some day. He’s gotta stay healthy as well; he’s had a wrist and a hamstring and something else here and there. We need to get that piece out of him. The versatility that he brings and when he really wants to he can be a dominant guy at the point of attack. Consistency is what he still has to reach for.”
Rumph believes Jefferson is special because he “gives a lot” each day and could legitimately go out and “play all four positions if he wanted to.” Jefferson is so athletic that he can not only rush the passer with the best players in college football but also create problems inside against slower, less agile linemen.
One player also on the tongues of both McElwain and Rumph was sophomore Keivonnis Davis, who only played in four games last season. McElwain noted that Davis took full advantage of extra practice reps created by the absence of redshirt junior Jordan Sherit, who missed days with an injury but should return this week. Rumph said Davis has made “tremendous” improvement.
“That guy has done a really good job just picking up the defense and the other guys have done a good job coaching him up, calming him down, giving him confidence in himself and his own abilities. No telling [how much opportunity he has]; it’s all on him. … He’s doing well. He’s picking up the scheme. He’s settling down, and he’s playing within himself. He’s not out there reaching; he’s doing things in the framework of the defense.”
Notes and bits:
» McElwain on how junior transfer running back Mark Thompson has been playing: “He was a little high [in his pad level] at times but that’s natural just the way he’s built. … He had some valuable yards after contact in some of the situational things, so it was good to see that.”
» Summers on Ivey being absent due to rehab: “He’s such a competitor and this is a frustrating time for him. He wants to be part of his group, and certainly, we want him to be there. We’re doing the right thing by him, and he’s working hard on his rehab. It certainly is painful for him not to be part of the group right now.”
» Summers on redshirt freshman Brandon Sandifer: “Improving. The main thing that he’s been able to do since he’s been here is lose an enormous amount of weight. That’s certainly helped him with his movement skills and putting him in the right position. He’s on that same developmental path that those young guys were on last year that got playing time. … We’re trying to slow the game down just a little bit, but when he gets his hands on you, he can move you. He’s got great anchor ability and he’s got great fits inside. We just got to complete the package with some experience and a little confidence.”
» Summers on redshirt sophomore Kavaris Harkless: “He’s improved as well. I’ve been excited watching him come on. He’s been slow developing up to this point. This is really the first spring where I’ve start to see him make some strides, which will help us with depth and give us another guy we can count on.”
» Rumph on redshirt freshman DE Jabari Zuniga: “He’s looking really good. Trying to get some more weight back on him – the right weight. It’s good to see a guy [who], during the bowl prep, really did a lot of good things. And then you get a break, season’s over, spring ball and you want to see if that guy’s going to pick up where he left off or he’s going to start all over. He’s one of those guys who just picked up, and I’m really pleased with him.”
» Rumph on redshirt sophomore Khairi Clark: “He’s doing well. He cut some weight. He’s down 15 pounds, so he’s starting to move better, in better condition, so I’m happy.”
» Rumph on redshirt sophomore Thomas Holley, who due to a chronic hip condition dropped weight and moved from tackle to end: “No, I didn’t [recognize him]. … I was looking around, thinking I was being Punk’d. I’m just happy for him, just pleased with him. It’s a blessing to see him out there, going through it. I don’t worry about how he does; just being out there is tremendous.”