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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Florida football will be better in 2017: a rebuttal

<p>Coach Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 24-10 win over Georgia on Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville.</p>

Coach Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 24-10 win over Georgia on Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville.

On Monday, one of my colleagues penned a column saying that Florida football fans shouldn’t be optimistic. That UF won’t be making a third-consecutive trip to the SEC Championship. That with Florida’s daunting 2017 schedule, the Gators are doomed to mediocrity.

His reasons for saying so revolve around that challenging schedule as well as a depleted defense that lost not only eight starters, but its defensive coordinator. There’s also the fact that Florida’s offense hasn’t been able to stop its slog since the days of Tim Tebow.

But nevertheless, I say to my colleague, in the words of ESPN College GameDay host Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Yes, the loss of defensive starters hurts, but it’s not like this hasn’t happened before. Last season, the same question marks surrounded the departures of defensive backs Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves, defensive linemen Alex McCalister and Jonathan Bullard, and linebacker Antonio Morrison.

In stepped Alex Anzalone, Chauncey Gardner, Jabari Zuniga, Caleb Brantley and Marcell Harris, who all played at a level high enough to duplicate the success of their predecessors.

Granted, eight players is more than five, but Florida has — at least theoretically — the talent to make up for what it lost.

In the secondary, where the Gators lost starting corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson along with starting safety Marcus Maye, replacements are available. Gardner, a sophomore DB, senior nickel back Duke Dawson, senior safety Nick Washington and a trio of four-star true freshman corners should plug the holes. Perhaps not as well as Tabor, Wilson and Maye did — it’s hard to replace three probable high NFL Draft picks in one season — but well enough to keep the defense elite.

At linebacker, where Jarrad Davis and Anzalone are gone, the Gators can turn to sophomores David Reese, Vosean Joseph, Kylan Johnson and Jeremiah Moon.

Reese was already named a Freshman All-American by Pro Football Focus, and while the other three don’t have much experience, Moon was a four-star recruit before injury kept him off the field in 2016, and Johnson and Joseph both showed potential last season.

Plus, due to injury, the Gators played without Anzalone and Davis for a good chunk of last season. They were fine.

Finally, while UF loses Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox along the defensive line, Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan both bring experience to the inside of the line, and true freshmen four-star tackles Tedarrell Slaton — Florida’s top 2017 recruit — and Elijah Conliffe are both big enough to contribute right away.

Meanwhile, on the edge, Cox’s loss is almost a non-factor with how little he played last season due to injury. The Gators could go with senior Jordan Sherit, juniors CeCe Jefferson and Keivonnis Davis, redshirt sophomore Zuniga, sophomores Jachai Polite and Antonneous Clayton, or true freshman Zachary Carter.

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This is a good time to jump into that daunting schedule my colleague mentioned, which starts against Michigan in Dallas. He contends that this will be a loss because Michigan blew out the Gators in the 2015 Citrus Bowl and had a better season than UF in 2016. But this argument fails because Michigan enters 2017 with far more question marks than Florida.

The Wolverines lost their starting running back, tight end, three offensive linemen, all four starting defensive linemen, two starting linebackers and four starting defensive backs.

Now, that isn’t to say that Michigan’s replacements won’t be adequate, but it is to say that this shouldn’t automatically be counted as a loss. With all the departures, Michigan — kind of like Florida — is unpredictable entering 2017.

He also says Florida will have a hard time with Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida State.

That’s entirely possible. I’m not gonna sit here in naivete and proclaim the Gators are going to go undefeated.

But with 10 of 11 offensive starters returning coupled with the success Jim McElwain has had in his first two seasons, isn’t it at least fair to give the them a chance?

Ethan Bauer is the sports editor. His columns appear on Wednesdays. Contact him at ebauer@alligator.org, and follow him on Twitter @ebaueri.

Coach Jim McElwain looks on during Florida's 24-10 win over Georgia on Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville.

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