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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Florida Football Roundtable: Our writers weigh in on the Gators ahead of the 2021 season

Team MVP, breakout candidates, season predictions and more

Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5, pictured) struts after scoring a touchdown. Jones finally gets the call to start the 2021 season after three years in backup duty.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5, pictured) struts after scoring a touchdown. Jones finally gets the call to start the 2021 season after three years in backup duty.

After a long eight-month offseason, the Florida Gators take the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this Saturday, a clash with Florida Atlantic scheduled for 7:30 p.m. With preseason processions in the rearview mirror, The Alligator’s football writers take a dive into what they expect from the team in 2021.

Who will be Florida’s MVP in 2021?

Ryan: I know it’s cliche to go with the quarterback, but  redshirt junior Emory Jones is going to be the engine that makes the offense chug this year. His legs offer a dimension head coach Dan Mullen hasn’t been able to play with in his time at Florida. His arm strength and ability to improvise when plays break down makes him the prototypical quarterback the game of football is evolving into. Websites like Pro Football Focus project Jones to break out and make himself one of the top ten picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, but even if he doesn’t reach such staggering heights, he’ll still be the player who keeps opposing defensive coaches awake the most on Friday nights.

Zachary: Junior cornerback Kaiir Elam will finish the 2021 season as the Gators’ MVP because he’s the best player on the entire roster. Elam was the only silver lining in a Florida secondary that struggled mightily in 2020. He collected 39 tackles, one for a loss, two picks, 11 pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Pro Football Focus awarded him an 81 coverage grade, good enough for 24th among Division 1 cornerbacks. Many mock drafts for the 2022 NFL draft pegged Elam to come off the board early in the first round. He may not earn the flashy stats to support his claim for team MVP, but opposing offenses will dodge throws to his side of the field. 

Michael: Well, since the obvious choices were taken (thanks guys), I’ll give a bold prediction and go with redshirt junior wide receiver Jacob Copeland. This offense may feature the run more often, but it will still need to throw the ball downfield to win football games. Florida lost its top three receiving options in the offseason in Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, forcing Copeland to step up to the plate. He is wearing the sacred No. 1 jersey this season and embraced the leadership role given to him in the locker room. He totaled just 435 yards and three touchdowns in his limited role last season. In order for this prediction to come true, Copeland needs to ~at least~ double both numbers, which is not impossible. Toney tallied 984 yards and 10 touchdowns as the WR1 in 2020. WIth a lot of inexperience behind him, Copeland is going to need to get open for this pass offense to be effective.

Which player do you expect to break out or surprise the most people?

Ryan: I already tabbed Jones above, so I’ll cycle out to wide receiver Justin Shorter. I wasn’t sure where to go here until I heard Shorter speak Tuesday at media availability. He preached repetition and dedication to his craft in his practice, including catching 450 passes a day from his mother, and lauded his connection and chemistry with Jones. Shorter, the largest receiver on Florida’s roster at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, may have only caught 25 passes a year ago, but there are plenty of receptions up for grabs with Pitts, Toney and Grimes in the NFL. A five-star recruit and the top-ranked receiver in the class of 2018, the former Nittany Lion finally becomes the player everyone saw in his high school tape.

Zachary: To stay in the wide receiver room, Florida fans should expect Copeland to have a monster season. Mullen and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales demonstrated their confidence in Copeland when they awarded him the No. 1 jersey this offseason. History is already on my side because whoever previously donned the coveted jersey during Mullen’s three-year stint at Florida heard their names selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Pensacola, Florida, native also led the team with 18.9 yards per catch. So far, Copeland hasn’t broken out for the Gators due to injuries and a loaded wide receiver room, but 2021 is his year. 

Michael: In order for the Gators to have any success, they need more from their defense in 2021. Enter my breakout player: Brenton Cox Jr. The former Georgia Bulldog finished with four sacks last season — second on the team — against all-SEC competition. Pro Football Focus gave him an 80.8 pass-rush grade for the season, which is very solid, but I expect that number to improve dramatically. With more games against weaker overall competition, there’s no reason why the edge rusher can’t double his sack total from a year ago and maybe even touch double digits. I recently tabbedd Cox as a dark horse for defensive player of the year in the SEC on the Student SECtion podcast (editor’s note: shameless plug, gross - Ryan).

Which position group are you expecting the most from?

Ryan: The running backs not only should expect a heavier workload in 2021, but Florida needs its running game to shoulder more of the load without its aerial assault from last season. Players and coaches alike have indicated an increased focus on the ground game, and the Gators’ running backs should be up for the challenge. Florida’s lead back from 2020, Dameon Pierce, is back for another season, and redshirt senior Malik Davis is healthy and drawing comparisons to his breakout 2017 freshman season. Former five-star transfer Lorenzo Lingard practiced in Florida’s system for a season to finally find familiarity within Mullen’s offense. He and fellow five-star Demarkcus Bowman have been tabbed “home run hitters” by running backs coach Greg Knox. Time to live up to the hype.

Zachary: It’s a toss-up between the running backs and defensive line units for the best position group on Florida’s team, but I’m giving the edge to defensive line coach David Turner and his room. The Gators were fortunate to have Cox and redshirt seniors Zachary Carter and Jeremiah Moon return for another year. Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham added much-needed depth at defensive tackle with Penn State transfer Antonio Valentino and Auburn transfers Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell. They also have sophomore Gervon Dexter waiting in the wings, who Valentino and others tabbed as a future superstar in preseason media. On Monday, junior linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said he, Carter and Cox have all bickered over who will have the most sacks this season. Regardless of who earns the most, the defensive line unit will give opposing offensive lines fits in 2021. 

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Michael: Again, Ryan sniped my selection (editor’s note: I regret nothing - Ryan). Instead of the running back unit, which will be essential to the offense’s success, I’ll give my vote to the linebackers. The Gators return three of their top four leading tacklers from a year ago in Diabate, redshirt senior Ventrell Miller, and senior Amari Burney. Miller led the unit, piling up 88 tackles on the year.Diabate added 69 of his own and Burney tallied 52 despite starting just four games. Florida also has depth at the position and should expect production from the younger linebackers: Sophomore Derek Wingo, redshirt sophomore Ty’Ron Hopper and freshman Scooby Williams all have the ability to contribute. With the three mainstays backing up an impressive defensive line, as Zach discussed, Florida’s run defense should be one of the best in the SEC. 

Florida’s final record in 2021?

Ryan: The Gators drew a tough slate by not only having the titan of the SEC, Alabama, on their schedule, but welcoming the Crimson Tide to town for their conference opener. New Georgia quarterback JT Daniels is presumed to involve himself in the Heisman race, slotting sixth on Bleacher Report’s preseason favorites for the award. Florida could surprise people even with its departed production, but I believe this team’s ceiling is two losses. The offensive line turnover makes me hesitant, but I think they finish 10-2 and work their way into a New Year’s Six bowl.

Zachary: Rinse, wash and repeat. Florida will go 10-2 and earn a ticket to its fourth straight New Year’s Six Bowl. The Gators should handle their business in every game except Alabama, Georgia and LSU. I think UF gets revenge against the Tigers after the infamous shoe and fog game last season. The talent disparity between the Gators, the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide, however, will be too much for Mullen to overcome. He made great strides via the NCAA transfer portal to bridge the gap between the programs, but coaches Nick Saban and Kirby Smart still have too many five-stars for Florida to keep pace. 

Michael: Call me pessimistic, but I think this Florida team goes 9-3. After two interstate cupcake matchups against Florida Atlantic and USF, Florida gets the, uh, privilege of hosting Alabama in Week 3. Now, the Tide lost a lot of offensive talent in the offseason, as Mac Jones, Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith and Najee Harris were all drafted in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, new quarterback Bryce Young is no slouch, and Bama still has weapons on both sides of the ball. Oh, and Nick Saban. Florida loses this one early in the season. The Gators fall to the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville. UGA has been a quarterback away for what seems like a century, and now it has one in former USC transfer Daniels. This Bulldogs team could easily contend for a spot in the playoff. Finally, Florida travels to Baton Rouge in hopes of avenging last year’s loss to LSU. This is a coin flip in the truest sense of the term, and it’ll come down to the health of both sides. However, I give the slight edge to the Tigers, if only because of the threatening aura of Death Valley.

Contact Ryan Haley at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

Contact Zachary Huber at Follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber.

Contact Michael Hull at Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer. 

Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

DM Ryan on Twitter or shoot him an email.

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