Image Credit: UAA
Roster turnover is expected for every team entering a new season, but with the Florida Gators losing so many contributors to graduation and the NFL, it is more important than ever for head coach Jim McElwain to find a new set of players to step up in his second season at the helm of the Gators. While many making college football expert picks are projecting UF to finish third in the division, let’s just say the team has other plans.
Below are some of those names who you need to know — but may not just yet — with Florida less than two weeks from the start of the 2016 season.
Offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor: Well, he won’t be hard to miss. At 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, the true freshman is one of the largest players on the roster. That size is not to his detriment though, not when McElwain refers to to him as the team’s “Energizer Bunny.” To this point, to be blunt, Taylor has worked his ass off in practice. And though he may not start, he’s pushing the competition and should be part of the rotation along the front five. “The good thing is he’s really pushing Fred [Johnson], too. … Competition is something that you need. He’s a good player. He’s got to learn how to do with the ankle a little bit and go out and get it.”
Tight end Moral Stephens: Though he’s likely third on Florida’s depth chart, the redshirt sophomore should see immediate playing time in the opener with classmate C’yontai Lewis suspended. McElwain was sure to point out Stephens’s improvement over the spring and summer. He played in seven games as a redshirt freshman but did not record any stats. “[He’s] come leaps and bounds and has put three practices [together] back-to back-to-back, which is great news. I’m excited about that. Now, I said something good. so I hope he doesn’t just [revert]. I’m not ready for him to go to the NFL or anything, but he’s really done a heck of a job and I’m proud of him because I think he’s seeing what he’s capable of doing.”
Wide receiver Dre Massey: A junior transfer, Massey certainly does not lack playing experience. In just nine games at Holmes Community College last season, Massey racked up 1,000 total yards (receiving and rushing) and nine touchdowns. His presence gives the Gators a one-two punch in speedy, shifty wideouts along with junior Brandon Powell; both stand at 5-foot-9 and weigh around 180 pounds. As such, Massey is pushing Powell for snaps, particularly in the return game where Massey may have an advantage in the competition — particularly as Florida considers reducing Powell’s snaps to keep him and his foot healthy. “Man, he gives us a lot of versatility in a lot of different ways — not only in the return game but in a lot of things that we’re going to do offensively,” said McElwain. “He’s one of those kind of multi-spot guys. He can throw it. He can catch it. He can run it. So he’s another guy to be looking for in that [return] situation.”
Defensive backs Joseph Putu and Jeawon Taylor: Four-star Chauncey Gardner is a known newcomer for most fans, but Putu and Taylor could have just as big of an impact this season. Putu, who is playing cornerback and “get[ting] better every day,” comes to Florida from North Dakota State College of Science where he racked up 10 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries and five forced fumbles as a sophomore in 2015. Taylor is a product of Alabama who has “really emerged in the secondary” during practice as defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is playing him at safety and nickelback.
Linebackers Kylan Johnson and David Reese: There’s little argument that linebacker is the position in which the Gators need to find quality playmakers the most this season. Enter Johnson and Reese who, if they can figure out a way to put it all together despite their young age, could make a major difference for Florida. Johnson, a redshirt freshman who played quarterback in high school, was originally going to play in the defensive backfield before bulking up to 231 pounds and moving down. Reese has been a pleasant surprise since he stepped foot on campus. The true freshman racked up 363 tackles over three seasons as a starter in high school and has a penchant for knocking the ball out, too.
“[Johnson] was one of those guys, along with David, that really played well in the spring — really grew to the position. And he had been making huge strides,” McElwain said. “Probably the biggest thing [for him] is formation motion recognition and being comfortable helping the other guys get into those spots. His ability moving down from safety to now not having to get into as many substitution parts when he is in the game, I think, is huge. We obviously need him to get healthy, but at the same time, he’s going to be a really good player.”
Running back Lamical Perine: The brother of Oklahoma star rusher Samaje Perine, Lamical is one of five players who could get snaps at the position in 2016, which does not bode particularly well for him considering he’s a true freshman. That said, McElwain praised him as someone whose “gotten really good” throughout practice. Coaches can split snaps between two running backs and maybe figure out a way to get touches for four, but Perine will have to beat out some talented players to make a true impact in 2016.