If you asked any player or coach on Florida’s football team before the season started, they likely would have said this is where they expected to be by the bye week: leading the Southeastern Conference East Division with a good chance at making the SEC title game.
But what has been the most unexpected part of UF’s season so far? Football writers Patrick Pinak, Jordan McPherson, Ian Cohen and Ethan Bauer debate.
Patrick: Freshman wide receivers
By far the biggest surprise this season has been the impact of Florida’s freshmen wide receivers.
Led by the explosive Tyrie Cleveland, the bunch stepped up early in the season with injuries and suspensions to players ahead of them on the depth chart.
Consider this: Cleveland and Josh Hammond have each totaled more than 100 receiving yards this season, marking the first time two UF freshmen receivers have accomplished the feat since Andre Caldwell and Jemalle Cornelius in 2003.
Even Freddie Swain, who's tallied 74 receiving yards, is likely to eclipse the century mark in his first year with the Gators.
For perspective, the last time Florida had three freshmen wideouts total 100+ receiving yards in a season came 21 years ago when Jacquez Green, Travis McGriff and Nafis Karim did so.
Two upperclassmen, Ahmad Fulwood and C.J. Worton, were expected to have a larger role but have taken a backseat to the newcomers. They’ve combined for just 71 yards on seven catches.
Of the young trio, the biggest surprise to UF wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon has been Hammond.
But make no mistake, Cleveland has the highest ceiling.
The 6-foot-2 Houston native has emerged as a true deep threat and No. 2 wideout opposite Antonio Callaway. That was apparent in his breakout game versus Missouri, when he hauled in three catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Coach Jim McElwain hasn’t been surprised by Cleveland’s performance. He battled hamstring injuries early in the season, but McElwain knew it was only a matter of time before he’d flash his abilities on the field.
“This guy’s got a chance to be something special here,” McElwain said.
Jordan: No (punt) return on investment
Antonio Callaway lit up the punt return game as a freshman.
As soon as the ball was in his grasp, the speedy wide receiver sliced, diced and torched the coverage unit, each play a potential touchdown. He ended the year returning two punts for touchdowns and averaged 15.5 yards per return — fifth-best in the nation.
This year, however, the punt return game has given Callaway problems. Six games into the season, a combination of poor decision making and an inability to find open lanes has caused him to struggle in a facet of his game where he should excel.
On 14 returns so far this year, Callaway is averaging 2.9 yards per return. That’s the fifth-worst in the country among qualified players. Two of his returns have gone for negative yards. He fumbled two others inside the 10-yard line.
The sophomore might have slightly redeemed himself late Saturday by returning an onside kick for a touchdown in the waning minutes of Florida’s 40-14 homecoming win against Missouri, but that still doesn’t erase the fact that Callaway has mightily underachieved in the return game so far this season.
Ian: Jabari Zuniga, sack leader
Caleb Brantley. CeCe Jefferson. Bryan Cox.
All were expected to pile up sacks this season, and yet Brantley is the only one who has managed to bring an opposing quarterback down.
And then there’s redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga.
The guy was a three-star recruit out of high school and couldn’t get on the field at UF last year because he wasn’t strong or big enough. One year later, he leads Florida and is tied for third in the SEC with five sacks. He’s even forced a fumble.
How surprising is Zuniga’s emergence along the defensive line?
He has more sacks through six games than any defensive player has had at Florida through the same number of games since at least 2008, and that includes NFL Draft picks Dante Fowler Jr., Jonathan Bullard and Carlos Dunlap.
And while coaches and teammates were certainly impressed with Zuniga during the preseason, they definitely weren’t expecting this. Any sane spectator who knew anything about Florida football would have listed at least a handful of defensive linemen who would have more sacks than Zuniga at this point in the season.
Hell, five sacks for Zuniga’s entire season, let alone six games, would have exceeded everyone’s expectations. Only 10 UF players in the last eight years have had more sacks in a season than Zuniga has had through half of one.
So, yeah, you could say Jabari’s leap as the dominant force along the Gators’ defensive line has been (QB) hurried.
Arguing anything else would be sack-rilegious.
Ethan: Perine outshining Thompson
Florida needed help at running back entering the 2016 season. Badly. The Gators had just lost leading rusher Kelvin Taylor to the NFL Draft, and they needed to find a replacement.
Naturally, they first looked inward at a pair of rising sophomores in Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite. But they needed more bodies.
So they turned to recruiting, where coaches managed to land two prospects.
First was Mark Thompson, a four-star, 6-foot-2, 237 pound junior college running back who was supposed to come in and contribute immediately.
Then there was Lamical Perine, a three-star true freshman who was supposed to get buried on the depth chart by Thompson and the two Jordans.
But six games into the season, it’s been Perine who’s made headlines and Thompson who’s struggled.
While he doesn’t lead the team in rushing, Perine’s 300 yards are good for second-most. And his 6.25 yards-per-carry average ranks him as the team’s best.
As for Thompson, the man who claimed he’d rush for 1,000 yards before the team’s bye week — which is this week — is 738 yards short of his goal.
Granted, that’s only 38 yards behind Perine. But given the lofty expectations he carried to Gainesville as a bruising, No. 1-rated back, it’s still entirely unexpected that he’d be outshined by a relatively unknown true freshman.
What do you think has been the biggest surprise of UF’s season so far? Vote online at alligator.org/sports.