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Thursday, May 23, 2024
<p>Wide receiver Justin Shorter goes through a practice drill April 5, 2022.</p>

Wide receiver Justin Shorter goes through a practice drill April 5, 2022.

Playmaking running backs and wide receivers are vital to success in the Southeastern Conference. One of Billy Napier’s biggest tasks as Florida's head coach is to replenish and continue the program's tradition of elite skill position players. 

Napier is known as a run-first offensive coach and is expected to heavily rely on the ground game in Gainesville. He brought over his running backs coach from Louisiana, Jabbar Juluke, to help implement this offensive style. Not only did Napier bring the positional coach, he also brought the former Ragin' Cajun starting running back Montrell Johnson Jr. to Gainesville.

Johnson joins the Gators following a breakout freshman season. He rushed for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to being named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year. Johnson is expected to play a central role in the backfield this season.

A three man rotation is anticipated at running back for the Gators, with redshirt junior Nay’Quan Wright and redshirt senior Lorenzo Lingard expected to contribute heavily alongside Johnson. 

Wright is the only one of the three who has significant experience with the Gators. He’s rushed for 498 yards across three seasons, but is also an established threat as a pass catcher with 318 career receiving yards. Lingard, a former five-star transfer from Miami, has yet to break through the Gators lineup with just 16 carries for 75 yards. An uptick in his usage figures to come sooner rather than later, though. 

While Wright, Lingard and Johnson are expected to shoulder most of the load, freshman Trevor Ettienne could factor in as well. Ettienne, brother of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Ettienne, was a top recruit for Napier in the winter. The 4-star recruit received praise in camp and could see the field in some capacity as a freshman.

The receiver crop is led by wide receiver coach Keary Colbert, who joined Billy Napier’s staff in Gainesville after six seasons at his alma mater, the University of Southern California. He notably helped develop NFL receivers Drake London and Michael Pittman during his time in Los Angeles. 

Colbert inherits a crop of wideouts missing last season’s leading receiver, Jacob Copeland, who transferred to Maryland in the offseason. To fill that void, Napier and company recruited junior Ricky Pearsall from Arizona State. He finished his last season in the desert with 48 catches for 580 yards and four touchdowns. 

Pearsall received the coveted No. 1 jersey, a number typically given to the most elite and revered Gators, especially at the receiver position. In addition to Pearsall, Florida brings back a trio of contributors from last year’s group: Justin Shorter, Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson. 

Shorter is the senior-most player in the receiver group, entering his fifth college season; he’ll look to improve upon a strong 550 yard campaign in 2021. Henderson, the brother of former Gators cornerback CJ Henderson, showed flashes as a freshman last season and is expected to take another step as a sophomore. 

Whittemore, a product of Buchholz High School in Gainesville, has been a reliable depth receiver throughout his college career. He’s caught 29 passes for 338 yards at UF, and is a potential threat on trick plays after throwing two touchdown passes last season. 

Redshirt freshman Daejon Reynolds turned heads in preseason, drawing praise from teammates and coaches alike, and could be poised for a strong first full season at Florida.

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The tight end position, which is led by coach William Peagler, is the youngest and least proven group on Florida’s offense. Senior Keon Zipperer leads the way with 309 career yards, playing mostly as a secondary option throughout his college career. Behind him, redshirt freshman Nick Elksnis and Jonathan Odom will look to assert themselves as key figures for the Gators offense. 

The skill position groups for the Gators are among the biggest question marks on the roster. There’s an abundance of potential and talent, but remove the few upperclassmen and there is little in the way of collegiate production.

Florida opens its season Saturday against the No. 7 Utah Utes at 7 p.m. in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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