What will Florida Gators football look like in 2018?

By Adam Silverstein
October 16, 2017
What will Florida Gators football look like in 2018?
Football

Image Credit: ESPN Images

Usually, it is wise to wait until the end of a season — or perhaps into spring practice — to project what a football team will look like the following year. In the case of the 2017 Florida Gators, who stand at 3-3 (3-2 SEC) and are closer to flirting with bowl eligibility than they are contending for a Southeastern Conference title this season, perhaps this is the right time to wonder aloud how this team will be assembled in 2018.

Yes, Florida does have a bye this week to get healthy and prepare as much as it can for No. 3 Georgia. The problem is that the Bulldogs are running on all cylinders right now and look poised to bludgeon the Gators for really the first time in 20 years. (UF is 13-5 against UGA since 1998 and has not lost a game by more than 12 points).

With all of that in mind, let’s see where things might stand in 10 months.

Head coach

Barring total and utter disaster, head coach Jim McElwain is keeping his job into next season. While he has now officially found a spot on the hot seat after leading consecutive losses in The Swamp for the first time in three years and fourth time since 2010 (it had not happened since 1988 before that), he will remain in that chair and may even earn a one-year contract extension for a recruiting purposes (though unlikely). Truth be told, the Gators have simply invested way too much into the McElwain era to give up on it this quickly with the coach facing this much adversity.

McElwain’s chosen quarterback in all three of his seasons has played six healthy games or fewer. Will Grier got suspended a year for performance-enhancing drug usage and then transferred (whether he was pushed out is moot now). Redshirt junior Luke Del Rio hurt a knee early in the 2016 season and then both of his shoulders before being sidelined; it was decently clear that McElwain knew Del Rio would be a better option than redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks in 2017 but wanted to give the youngster a try because the team’s ceiling is only so high with Del Rio.

Couple that with the team’s nine indefinite suspensions — including to starting juniors wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett — and myriad of injuries to top players, and McElwain doesn’t have a horseshoe but a hand grenade stuck somewhere in his office. An extremely young and inexperienced defense is missing two veteran defensive backs as well as a star defensive lineman and is starting as thin a linebacking corps as one could imagine. A lot of that falls on poor defensive recruiting since he took over the program, but nevertheless, just because something is an excuse does not mean it can occasionally be legitimate — and missing one-quarter of your players in a given season is legit adversity.

Just as Will Muschamp was given a year to bounce back from 4-8 — including a home loss to Georgia Southern — McElwain will get another chance despite him not being a direct hire of new athletic director Scott Stricklin. But make no mistake, failures in 2018 of Muschamp proportions will lead to change because Florida cannot afford to wait any longer on turning this program around.

Offense

Coaches: This is the biggest mystery facing the Gators in 2018, and it of course starts with offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The fact of the matter is that Florida’s offense has been terrible for the better part of a decade now, and the Gators hired a supposed offensive genius in McElwain to fix it. That has not happened. There are two trains of thought here: either Nussmeier is the fall guy, or he and McElwain are truly tied at the hip and McElwain believes his mantra of the team’s woes purely being an execution problem. While that does undoubtedly play the biggest role in Florida’s offensive struggles, the play calling and offensive game management deserve questioning as well. Nussmeier does get more blame than he deserves most of the time, but a guy who helped Alabama set school records in nearly every offensive category in 2013 should be way better than this. If the Gators offense gets healthy and continues to mire in mediocrity, Stricklin may make McElwain’s decision for him. As far as the assistants, they all return.

Suspensions: The second top story will be whether Callaway and Scarlett, two presumed starters, will be around next season. Normally this would be on the top of everyone’s mind, but as Florida looks headed to playing the entire 2017 campaign without these two, their eligibility would be a bonus. Unfortunately, this is also a tough nut to crack because so much remains unknown. Assuming both are indeed charged with third-degree felonies and offered pre-trial deferments, chances are they will be made eligible ahead of the season. Callaway and Scarlett could both decide to jump to the NFL rather than stay in school, and though their respective draft stocks would take massive hits — Callaway from Day 1 to Day 2 (he would hope) and Scarlett from potential Day 2 to assured Day 3 — it could be a prudent move, especially for Callaway, who cannot stay out of trouble. It is for that reason that I think there’s a split here with Callaway playing his last down at UF as Scarlett returns to the team to save face, improve his draft stock and remind evaluators of his ability. McElwain would seemingly be OK with accepting either or both players back, and having Scarlett in the fold would be a big boost for the offense.

Quarterback: Franks and Del Rio will both be eligible to come back, though Del Rio looks headed for graduation and/or a move into coaching. Incoming five-star freshman Matt Corrall will be overhyped and an expected competitor for the starting job, which will go to Franks. Future redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask and redshirt freshman Jake Allen will also be involved, giving McElwain four healthy scholarship quarterbacks — all of whom he recruited — and his strongest room in four seasons.

Running back: With Scarlett back and future sophomore Malik Davis showing out in 2017, the one-two punch will be set for Florida. Junior Lamical Perine and sophomore Adarius Lemons will spell the aforementioned players with Mark Thompson graduated, but McElwain will have to convince Perine that he will move back into a starting role as a senior in 2019. Four-star incoming freshman Dameon Pierce will redshirt.

Wide receiver: Callaway and Brandon Powell no longer on the team officially turns the reigns over to future junior Tyrie Cleveland and sophomore Kadarius Toney. Redshirt sophomore Rick Wells transfers, while four-star incoming freshmen Jacob Copeland and JaMarr Chase — along with sophomore Daquon Green — push and possibly supplant juniors Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain for their spots on the depth chart. As with quarterback, depth at wide receiver is suddenly an incredible strength.

Tight end: DeAndre Goolsby graduates, and future redshirt seniors C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens consider moving on after being underutilized for nearly their entire careers. That puts sophomore Kemore Gamble and redshirt junior Kalif Jackson into bigger roles with incoming four-star freshman Kyle Pitts pushing for serious playing time out of the gate.

Offensive line: As long as no one transfers, Florida returns nearly a dozen scholarship linemen save for left tackle Martez Ivey, who heads into the 2018 NFL Draft and gets selected early. Incoming four-star freshman Curtis Dunlap pushes to start out of the gate.

Defense

Coaches: Unless any head coaching jobs open in the state of Florida — UCF’s Scott Frost and South Florida’s Charlie Strong could both be on the move (and you never know about FAU’s Lane Kiffin), though Strong departing is less likely — defensive coordinator Randy Shannon returns for his second year at the helm and makes significant progress coming off a 2017 season that was very much a trial by fire campaign for a handful of freshmen and second-year players. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who was promoted to co-defensive coordinator and received a raise as such from the Gators, also sticks around as do the rest of the assistants.

Defensive line: Florida loses Taven Bryan, Cece Jefferson, Jordan Sherit and possibly redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga to the draft and graduation but fills in right behind them with a talented slate of linemen already on the roster. The Gators currently have an extremely weak recruiting class coming in at this position, one that must be added to in a major way if they hope to fill in the depth and maintain a healthy rotation behind those players.

Linebackers: With two seasons of game experience under their belts, future juniors Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson and David Reese finally see it click. Coupled with contributions from maturing redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Moon and other youngsters, the linebacking corps begins to find its shape again under Shannon. Incoming four-star freshman David Reese creates jersey identification problems as sharing a name with the active Reese creates more-than-should-be-written offseason stories about their identical names.

Defensive backs: Nick Washington and Duke Dawson both graduate and leave for the draft, and Joseph Putu joins them off the team, but redshirt senior Marcell Harris gets granted an additional year of eligibility following his Achilles injury and returns for a sixth season. Florida’s defensive backfield is the thinnest it has been in decades from a depth perspective with only incoming four-star freshman Amari Burney likely capable of playing next season. Future sophomores Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson, Brad Stewart, Brian Edwards and Shawn Davis begin a true reformation of DBU with juniors Chauncey Gardner and Jeawon Taylor taking massive steps forward.

The defense as a whole is better than it was in 2017 but flips some of its problems, struggling to get as much pressure at the quarterback but being stronger overall in middle and defensive backfield.

Special teams

Coaches: Special teams coordinator Greg Nord is canned. If not, McElwain is blind or simply does not care about special teams the way most coaches in the nation — and his predecessors at Florida — do. While the legs of UF’s specialists have been tremendous, the coverage units in all four phases of the special teams game have been awful. That’s completely on Nord, and McElwain needs to see and understand what everyone else who watches the Gators play has known for more than a year: Nord has to go. Florida is on the verge of not returning a kickoff or punt in a season after doing so in 12 consecutive years. With the amount of game-breaking talent on this any UF team, that’s an absurd thing not to do. Forget even returning a kick for a touchdown, the Gators have barely returned the ball at all — and when they do — it’s never for any significant gain. This should be an absolute no-brainer decision.

Kicker: Eddy Pineiro will have a year of eligibility remaining and could stay for his redshirt senior season. He could also leave early for the NFL and start making money while getting his degree at a later date. This is truly a coin flip. Future redshirt senior Jorge Powell, who was 1-for-2 on field goals in his career before suffering a season-ending injury in 2015, would still be on the roster should Pineiro depart and has enough talent to take the job. But Florida would most certainly recruit another scholarship kicker.

Punter: Exit Johnny Townsend, one of the best booters in program history, and enter redshirt junior Tommy Townsend. Yes, they’re related. The younger Townsend would take over for his brother after transferring to Florida from Tennessee in 2016. The former U.S. Army All-American would start.

Returners: Who knows? The Gators have not settled on a non-Callaway returning, and even him holding the role was questionable due to his value for the team. Perhaps a more seasoned Adarius Lemons becomes the primary man in his sophomore season.

Schedule

Florida will host Charleston Southern, Kentucky, Colorado State, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina and Idaho at home, playing Mississippi State cross-division on the road along with Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida State at their homes. Of course, the Florida-Georgia game remains in Jacksonville, Florida. This schedule is intriguing for a number of reasons, primarily because McElwain will face an improving CSU team (currently 5-2) that he left for the UF job, and former Gators offensive coordinator Dan Mullen will get to host his former team. Talk about a double potential for disaster in those games — both of which occur in September as Florida will play five games in the first month of the season, three in the SEC and two (Tennessee, Mississippi State) on the road. Yikes.

29 Comments

  1. Mg says:

    Nice overview. Sad we have to look to next year only half way through this season. I don’t know how you define utter disaster, but 5-6 winning only uab and Missou would qualify for me

    • GATOR-6 says:

      You’re correct Mg….but I’ve noticed that UAB is making progress that they aren’t supposed to be making, and nobody can deny that Mizzou can at least put points on the board. Probably, if we don’t have any real offensive design by then, too many to overcome. Not being pessimistic, just taking nothing for granted any longer.

  2. Blanez says:

    This article “sounds” hopefull, not completely “hopeless”. I am certainly looking forward to seeing if Matt Corral, “is” the answer for the Gators at quarterback. 2008 is a long time ago…… Go Gators.

  3. Gatormatic says:

    If things go as planned (they never do), or as you laid out in this piece, sounds like we will have a very strong team capable of winning the SEC East and more. I’m sort of excited – as excited as you can be for a team a year from now even though they still have 5 games left in the current season.

  4. Lee says:

    There are close to a dozen football players “indefinitely suspended” because of credit card fraud, WHAT THE HELL is your definition of “total and utter disaster”?
    UF used to be the the preeminent institution of education in Florida. It is rapidly denigrating into the laughing stock of the NCAA and you are wondering if Calloawy and his 6 or 8 or 9 suspensions will be on the team next year.
    You should come clean and bring your tomahawk chop out into public.

    • 1974Gator says:

      Lee, you are the one who sounds like the chopper. If you are a UF fan, I recommend you start taking Prozac/Xanax regularly and come back this time next season.

    • OrangeAndBlueVictorious says:

      ‘Used to be?’ Did you miss all of the news where UF made it in to the top 10 rankings of public universities?

      Just because a few knuckleheads on the football team decided to make poor decisions doesn’t mean the academic performance or integrity of the university is now in question. The fact that they’ve been suspended and held to the same standards as everyone else would provide evidence to the contrary, in my opinion.

      I agree with 1974Gator….it’s time to take a step back and calm down, Chicken Little.

  5. Luke says:

    Oh has it come to this? Dreaming of 2018 when we are 6 games in?

    Great article – and I agree there a lot to look forward to. I love mac – and our team has great talent – but there is a toughness / tenaciousness that is missing. They don’t really play as a team. Their offensive schemes are rudimentary. The D has shown great improvement since game 1 exposed them – but they can’t keep up when the offense can’t score.

    I think Mac has earned the right to play his team next year – but I agree with the author, that the leash is short…. at least with the alumni.

    • GATOR-6 says:

      I hear you, Luke. I think what’s really missing is sense of urgency, and the passion that the Gators used to be known for. The absence of those things are palpable, except for when they’re not, which is also when we sustain drives and score. Not enough, granted, but I do see it then (and only then, sad to say).

  6. SW Fl Joe says:

    I fully agree Nuss and Nord have to go, either to an analyst position or the unemployment line. And after some of Mac’s comments I also think we see a change in the S&C program.

  7. John says:

    QB Jake Allen should not be discounted by fans who may not have seen him play at St. Thomas Aquinas HS in Fort Lauderdale. He is an impressive talent and a quality person. It will be interesting to see if and how Florida develops him. He won’t be ready next year in my opinion but he is a player to keep an eye on. I’m happy to hear that you feel the QB Room will be much stronger in 2018. Allen could be a great asset even if he backs up Corrall as every team needs more than one good QB–especially with all the injuries.

    • Michael Jones says:

      You are absolutely right about Allen. I think he has SEC star potential. But that is the nature of fans. While Corrall is still going through Spring football and trying to figure out the playbook, the next QB we’ve recruited will supposedly be the answer.

  8. 1974Gator says:

    This is something we should all reflect on. I hope Adam will allow that I have used an excerpt of a recent article by David Parker to make this point. DOSE of REALITY – I would like to address the Florida faithful. Or to be more specific, the Florida unfaithful. Those of you who want to see Jim McElwain fired this year because the offense is struggling and we have lost some games. This may come as a jolt of cold water in your face, but it is time to face these facts:

    Steve Spurrier isn’t walking through that door. Urban Meyer isn’t walking through that door. Charley Pell isn’t even walking through that door.

    Please understand this: There will NEVER be another Steve Spurrier. There will NEVER be another Urban Meyer. Florida may be this magical place to which the best young coaches just gravitate uncontrollably because of all its beauty, wealth and abundance of advantages. But that doesn’t change the fact that legendary coaches do not abound in the college football landscape. In fact, they are the rarest commodity in the sport. Right now there’s only one in the entire college football universe: Nick Saban. And there’s another who used to be, but is now a shadow of his pre-esophageal spasm self. And they simply don’t come along often. Takes years, decades of time to find another. And in the mean time, you go with whoever is going to win you some conference and national titles whenever possible.

    Don’t take my word for it. Look at the history of every top program in the game.

    You know how many years Alabama fans had to wait between Bear Bryant and Nick Saban? A quarter of a century. In that time, they had but one good coach, Gene Stallings, who was so appreciated for his one national title that they forced him out of the program. And this is the most revered program in the sport. But it’s not in fact the most successful. That would be Michigan.

    You know how many years Michigan had to wait between Fielding Yost and his 6 national championships and their next legendary coach Bo Schembechler? It was 43 years! And P.S., Schembechler never even won a single national title. After Yost, the Wolverines had three coaches win four national titles over the course of 30 years, then waited half a century for their next and only national title since then, won by Lloyd Carr, who was far from lionized but did finish as the 4th- winningest coach in program history in 13 years, with 5 conference titles. So Michigan’s benchmark is somewhere between 40 and 50 years between legendary coaches.

    The next winningest program in the country is Notre Dame. They obviously had the very good fortune of having Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy just 11 years apart, and then another 11 years between Leahy and Ara Parseghian, but that was a different era. That was the tail end of a time when teams like Yale, Lafeyette and Colgate used to win national titles. You know it was a different world when national championships were won by toothpaste. The Domers had two coaches win a single national title each over the following 16 years, but neither met fan expectations, and one was even forced out of the job. So since Parseghian retired, the Irish have been looking for their next great coach for 43 years.

    Ohio State is next on the list. They had just one legendary coach, Woody Hayes. Five national titles in 27 years. It was a quarter century before Jim Tressel came along and some success, even a national title, before leaving in disgrace of NCAA scandal. Enter Urban Meyer, who for all his success in Columbus is going to finish his sixth season with the Buckeyes only logging one national title. He certainly has not been the same head coach he was at Florida where he won 2 natties in 3 years and was a drunken team party away from winning 3 in 4. If Urban Meyer is their next legendary coach, then the Buckeyes waited 34 years between them. If not, and I think he’s not, then it’s 40 years and counting.

    Oklahoma has been waiting 29 years since Barry Switzer rode off into the sunset of NCAA shame and scandal. They thought they had a new hero in 2000, but Bob Stoops and his one national title in 18 years falls far short of legendary status. Texas has been waiting 41 years since Darrell Royal retired. USC waited over a quarter of a century between John McCay and Pete Carroll, whose short 1-BCS national title “dynasty” was stripped of that one title and stripped of any credibility, when the NCAA exposed that it was all done by cheating. So really, it’s been 42 years and counting. It’s been 20 years since Tom Osborne left Nebraska. Penn State has only had one, and it’s been 31 years since Joe Paterno’s last championship. Clemson had to wait 19 years between their only national title-winning coaches, Danny Ford and Dabo Swinney, and 35 years between their lone championships. You get the picture.

    Want to look closer to home in the SEC? We already looked at Alabama. Robert Leyland left Tennessee 65 years ago and they’re still waiting for legend #2 to show up. The two best coaches since then – Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer – were both fired. Auburn only had one legendary coach – Shug Jordan – who has been gone for 42 years. And he only won a single national title in 25 years. Ole Miss also had just one in their history, Johnny Vaught, and they’ve been trying to find their next great coach for 44 years. Arkansas has been trying to find the next Frank Broyles for 41 years. LSU? They’ve never even had one. Neither has Georgia or Mississippi State. South Carolina? The winningest coach they’ve ever had was Steve Spurrier 2.0, with only one division title. And it’s not even close. That’s just sad.

    So please understand that Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer are NOT the Florida standard for head coaches. They are the outliers. They are among the greatest head coaches in the history of the sport. And no, those don’t just appear out of the ether and line up to be the next coach at Florida or anywhere else. Especially if Florida becomes a place that fires their coach one year removed from winning division titles two years in a row. Florida already has a reputation for driving away even the beloved coaches. Spurrier and Meyer couldn’t run away from Gainesville fast enough when they decided they’d had it.

    Fire Mac now, and to all prospective head coaches, Florida will be the most beautiful vampire at the dance.

    So we need to take stock in what we have in Jim McElwain. I don’t care if you like him. I don’t care if you value dynamic offense over wins and championships. I don’t care if you have no patience. What I do care about is that everyone make at least an effort to be fair in assessing the complete resume of a head coach before condemning him based on one sub-par season record.

    Because unlike the coach Mac replaced at Florida, we are not seeing his only head coaching resume written before our eyes. He had a track record coming into the job. A track record of a quick and meteoric turnaround at Colorado State, and prolific, balanced offenses at CSU and Alabama. And when he has had a good-to-great quarterback to work with at Florida (Will Grier and/or Del Rio), not only is he 13-1, 9-1 in the SEC, he has also fielded an offense that has ranged between good and unstoppable. And the drop from being a very good offense to being a very bad offense has always occurred the nanosecond Grier or Del Rio have exited and Harris, Appleby or Franks has entered.

    So yes, it really is all because of the quarterback.

    • JB says:

      Did you say we have had an unstoppable offense under Mac? When??? The Ole Miss game and what other game?

      • 1974Gator says:

        It’s an excerpt from an article written by David Parker this week not me. Though Parker’s statement about Del Rio and Grier was bit of an over statement, try focusing on his overall message.

        • Michael Jones says:

          Please don’t urge big-picture logic, restraint, patience and common sense, 1974Gator. And please don’t try to talk us off the ledge. This is “Gator Nation,” and that’s not how we roll.

    • GATOR-6 says:

      Nicely put, 1974Gator. But while I do think that some of the variance is accounted for by the quarterback situation, I do not believe it accounts for the majority. Put differently, it is one factor of several that would be significant enough to load for explanation. You have done a terrific job, however, of properly analyzing what makes a “legendary” coach and the actual latencies between national championships and any given “elite” program. And I agree, looking for one of those guys, by any definition, would be a seriously flawed strategy if in fact Mac is fired. Personally, I would hate for that to happen, as probable as it currently seems to be, but other solutions are at hand short of that. Time soon for logic rather than affect, reckon so.

    • Mark Davis says:

      1974Gator Thank you for providing a mature perspective on the situation. It is a wonderful relief from the typical childish tantrums that have become too popular of late.

  9. Sydney Croud says:

    This was a great and timely article, thank you for writing this. I agree with everything you said. I believe the Gators could have had a pretty good year with Del Rio at the helm and without all the injuries and suspensions. Of course, coaching is to blame as well, but good players and play can cover up a lot of mistakes in coaching. I think Tennessee is kind of similar. Their QB play has sucked and is killing them, so everyone wants to fire the coach.
    The recruiting is the scariest thing, if we can hold on to the current class or even improve it, everything is in place for a good year. However, all of it is predicated upon having a QB that can execute. Look at what happened to FSU after losing their QB. It destroyed their season. With QB depth, we will be strong next year.
    With regards to coach Mac, with proper tools he should be more than fine. I like that he goes for it on 4th, that shows some guts. The rest will work out with personnel in my opinion.
    By the way, I had to laugh when I read Gators on the verge of not returning a kick or punt for the season. yes, they have fair caught every punt and almost every kick off return. Actually, whenever they return it out of the endzone, I cringe and pray they are able to get it to the 20.

  10. JB says:

    Can anyone confirm that Marcell Harris is actually applying for a medical redshirt? If he comes back next year that would be amazing given what we will be losing. Him and Davis or Stewart will run safety, Chauncey can move back to Nickel and obviously our CBs are back at it again. Anyone seen how good CJ and Marco are? Them kids are uber talented.

  11. alex says:

    We have become the program that always has to wait until next year. Unfortunately, programs that fall into this abyss end up like Tennessee

  12. Prophet Donald J Trump (PBUH) says:

    A week from Saturday, we are going to get crushed by a team with a coach in his second year that’s looking at a playoff birth if they win out and I suspect they will. Why isn’t that us? I’M TIRED OF EXCUSES. This coach hasn’t exhibited one ounce of energy since Kelvin Taylor got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a throat cut motion after a touchdown 3 years ago. The whole team has played like they are on Valium ever since.

    • GATOR-6 says:

      Dear Prophet: I’ve been pondering over your comment for the last three days as to why “that isn’t us”. I’ve finally come to two conclusions: (1) because they were better than us to begin with, and (2) that’s the essential, underlying, basic, fundamental question, stated in open text text English, no decoding required, that has driven all of us Gators stark, raving mad for the last several years! You should run for office.

  13. Ben says:

    Isn’t Taven Bryan a junior? Don’t see Zuniga leaving and Dameon Pierce might surprise. He has been putting up monster numbers in Bainbridge. Schedule isn’t bad with 3 home games in a row to work out the kinks at the start of the year and then 3 homes in a row after UGA…

  14. corey mulvihill says:

    I think that the biggest off-season coaching change coach Mac could make would be letting go of coach Nord, and luring Zook back to Gainesville. He might’ve not been the best head coach, but when it comes to two of the Gators biggest needs, special teams and recruiting, there isn’t a better coach to get. If he can pull that off, we’ll see a dramatic improvement in the special teams play, and another improvement on the recruiting front….especially defense.

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