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Thursday, December 09, 2021

New year, new Gators: Breaking down Florida’s offense in 2021

UF looks to fill production hole left by departing players

Florida quarterback Emory Jones gets ready for a play against Idaho during Florida’s 63-10 win on Nov. 17, 2018.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones gets ready for a play against Idaho during Florida’s 63-10 win on Nov. 17, 2018.

The 2020 Florida Gators offense set the SEC ablaze through the air. Quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Kadarius Toney led the Gators to an SEC Championship appearance. The historic offense averaged nearly 40 points and 510 yards per game. Florida’s success revolved around its passing game, as UF averaged an SEC-leading 388 passing yards per game in 2020.

The leading trio from last season all moved on to the NFL, leaving a gaping hole in the Gators offense this season and demanding massive renovation this offseason. Here is a positional breakdown of the 2021 Florida offense and how different it might look.

Quarterback

Trask is now learning from Tom Brady with the Buccaneers, allowing quarterback Emory Jones to finally take over the Florida offense. The redshirt junior spent his last two seasons in Gainesville as a gadget player and in clean-up duty behind Trask, but he’s shown flashes of greatness. He played just 95 snaps in 2020 but was the team’s third-leading rusher, totaling 217 yards on the ground. Pro Football Focus gave him a rushing grade of 86.1 — which topped every quarterback in the country.

Jones also possesses underrated arm talent. Again, small sample size, but he completed 58% of his passes in 2020 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. 

Jones’ athleticism is known, but the key to success for No. 5 is consistency. Jones is a night and day difference at quarterback from Trask, as he’s more mobile and athletic but not quite as accurate. Mullen attempted to hammer home Jones’ passing ability during camp, saying on Aug. 12 there are times during practice where the coach will force his quarterback to stay in the pocket and not allow him to scramble and use his legs. Despite these training tactics, the offense will still have to adjust to Jones’ typical style of play.

Quarterback Anthony Richardson is the other quarterback in the locker room who could see significant playing time like Jones did the last few seasons. While Jones seems to have a firm handle on the starting job, the redshirt freshman could make a push if Jones struggles. Similar to Jones, Richardson is mobile and has a strong arm. He only appeared in four games last season, but he was a four-star recruit and 247Sports’ ninth-ranked dual threat prospect coming out of the local Eastside High School. Richardson had a strong camp, and Mullen said he feels comfortable with both quarterbacks heading into 2021.

Running back

Simply put, even Florida’s coaches know the team needs more production from its running backs in 2021. A new offensive scheme and mobile quarterback should help with that, but the backs also need to improve. Senior Dameon Pierce led the unit last season, totaling 501 yards on 107 carries for an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Redshirt senior Malik Davis followed Pierce in yards with 306, but he also led the unit with 379 yards receiving. 

The duo should be expected to lead the backfield again, but they’ll be supplemented by redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright, Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard and Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman. Wright and Lingard were both used sparingly in 2020 — Wright played 75 snaps while Lingard played eight. They should both see the field more in a run-heavy offense this season. Florida running backs coach Greg Knox spoke about the group’s talent on Aug. 18 and knows they have to rise to the occasion this season.

“I tell my guys all the time we got to step up,” Knox said. “We got to play much better, we got to do a better job. We got to be the bell cows.”

Knox was especially complimentary of the transfers Bowman and Lingard, calling them home-run hitters.

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“If they get in open space, they are a threat to put that ball in the end zone,” Knox said.

Wide receiver

The receiver position saw a mass exodus of production in the offseason. Florida’s top two receivers from a year ago, Toney and Trevon Grimes, both pursued their NFL dreams. Now, it’s up to veterans Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter to anchor a young group of wideouts. 

Copeland will don the sacred No. 1 this season. Worn by Gators greats like Toney and Percy Harvin, the No. 1 jersey carries extra weight in The Swamp, and Copeland is ready to embrace the responsibility.

“[I’m] making sure all my younger receivers stand up, stay tall with everything going on, make sure they keep their head in the game and develop as time comes,” Copeland told the media Aug. 11.

The redshirt junior saw 40 targets thrown his way last season, hauling in 23 for 435 yards. Copeland played more of a deep-threat role in 2020, but he should see his role and target share expand in 2021 with the losses of Toney, Grimes and Pitts.

Shorter, meanwhile, should serve as a large red-zone target for Jones. The former Penn State wideout’s 6-foot-5, 227-pound frame is a welcome addition to the offense after its main 2020 red-zone threat, Pitts, was drafted fourth overall by the Atlanta Falcons. While Shorter wasn’t able to establish himself in Happy Valley, he was an elite recruit coming out of high school. He was ranked as the best wideout in the country in the class of 2018, according to 247Sports.

The rest of the receiver room is flooded with talent and will battle for playing time. Redshirt sophomore Trent Whittemore operated most often from the slot in 2020, tallying 128 yards. He will compete with redshirt seniors Rick Wells and Jordan Pouncey for playing time inside. Sophomore Xzavier Henderson should also see time on the field. Brother of former Gator C.J. Henderson, the sophomore only hauled in nine receptions in his freshman campaign, but his speed and size (6-foot-3) should help him get snaps in 2021.

Tight end

Florida won’t replace Pitts’ production from the tight end spot this season. That’s not an insult to the current roster, but rather a compliment to just how incredible Pitts’ 2020 campaign was. The former Gator won the John Mackey Award for the nation’s top tight end and became the first player at his position to ever be named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the country’s top receiver. 

Despite the loss of Pitts, the Gators still have weapons in the tight end room. Junior Keon Zipperer and redshirt senior Kemore Gamble are the two names to note entering 2021. Both saw an uptick in playing time last season when Pitts was sidelined with an injury, and they seized the moment. Gamble scored a touchdown against Georgia, while Zipperer tallied 47 yards and two touchdowns versus Arkansas. Again, neither player will touch Pitts’ production from a season ago, but they can both line up in multiple areas on the field and are solid blockers. 

Offensive line

Florida’s offensive line will be essential to the team’s success this season. While most of the emphasis last year was on pass-blocking, the shift to the run game will lead to more power run-blocking from the group. Redshirt junior left tackle Richard Gouriage is excited for the shift and said on Aug. 19 the rest of the line feels the same way. 

“That's what we came to Florida for, just to pound the rock down a defense,” he said. “That's what we just really here for, to get in that endzone.”

Gouriage started at left guard in all 12 games in 2020 but will move outside to block the quarterback’s blindside at left tackle after Stone Forsythe’s departure to the NFL.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Florida line ninth in the SEC entering 2021. To surpass that projection, the Gators will need junior guard Ethan White to live up to the hype he’s received this offseason. Gouriage said the chemistry between him and White is growing, calling the left guard phenomenal during media sessions. White missed time in 2020, but he was extremely effective when he saw the field, not allowing any sacks in the four games he played. 

While the left side of the line deals with high-upside youth, the right side will most likely feature older veterans. Right guard Stewart Reece announced his return to UF as a grad student for 2021, while redshirt senior right tackle Jean Delance returns for his sixth season. Both face competition from other backups on the roster but are the projected starters as of now.

Center is the main question mark along the line. After the graduation of Brett Heggie, both Reese and White were in the conversation for the starting center spot, but the Gators are expected to roll with redshirt sophomore Kingsley Eguakun. Mullen said Eguakun embraced everything that being a starting center comes with. 

Head coach Dan Mullen has a whole new set of toys to play with and an offensive attack to retool before kickoff on Sept. 4 in The Swamp versus FAU.

Contact Michael Hull at mhull@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a third-year journalism major with a specialization in sports & media. He has a minor in business and leadership and is a struggling Jacksonville Jaguars fan.


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