Sunday, July 25, 2021

Better or worse? Previewing Florida’s offense in 2021


Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC East team’s offense begins with Florida. Coming Tuesday: Georgia.

The Florida Gators posted one of the most prolific offenses in school history in 2020, leading the nation in passing offense for the first time since 2001 and averaging 40 points per game in the process. The Gators finished 3rd in the country in 1st-down offense, 4th in S&P+ offensive efficiency, and featured two players, Kyle Pitts (10th) and Kyle Trask (4th) who placed in the top-10 in Heisman Trophy voting, becoming only the 4th school this century to have 2 players finish in the top 10 (Alabama, USC, Ohio State). That offense helped Florida overcome the school’s worst defense in nearly 4 decades and capture the SEC East for the first time under Dan Mullen.

The sheer amount of elite playmaking talent on the offense was on display this past April at the NFL Draft, where the Gators saw 2 pass game weapons, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, selected in the first round. Pitts, selected 4th overall by the Atlanta Falcons, became the highest-drafted tight end in professional football history. Overall, the Gators had 4 offensive players drafted and saw 2 other offensive players sign as free agents shortly after the draft.

It was a talent-rich offense that delivered historic production for the Gators in 2020 and replicating that production will be extremely difficult. The Gators must replace senior quarterback Kyle Trask, the Heisman finalist who was Florida’s first game-changer at quarterback since Tim Tebow, one of the nation’s most versatile playmakers in Kadarius Toney and perhaps the greatest tight end in college football history in Kyle Pitts.

Needless to say, that won’t be easy.

Still, there are reasons for optimism, and we’ll explore them below as we evaluate whether Florida’s offense will be “better or worse” in 2021.

Personnel: (slightly) Worse

Key losses: Pitts, TE; Toney, WR; Trask, QB; Stone Forsythe, OT, Trevon Grimes, WR

Key returnees: Emory Jones, QB; Jacob Copeland, WR; Keon Zipperer, Justin Shorter, WR; TE; Malik Davis, RB; Dameon Pierce, RB; Richard Gouriage, OT

Potential breakout players: Copeland, Xzavier Henderson, WR

Skinny: Losing a consensus first-team All-American in Pitts and a Heisman finalist in Trask is a tough 1-2 blow at any program. But it’s the accumulated loss of so much talent in the passing game (6 NFL Draft choices in the last 2 seasons) that makes finding answers at tight end and wide receiver the biggest challenge for Dan Mullen’s offense in 2021. The good news? The Gators have recruited well and used the portal to their advantage on offense. But we still lean “worse” because it’s hard to say any offense that loses a player like Kyle Pitts has “better” personnel than one with Pitts.

Passing offense: Worse

Florida led the country in passing offense in 2020, so there’s nowhere to go but down.

In addition to having the most prolific passing offense in America, the Gators were ruthlessly efficient in the passing game: the Gators finished 7th nationally with 9.6 yards per pass attempt, collected the most first downs in America in the pass game and ranked 4th nationally in 3rd-down passing efficiency.

Trying to replicate these gaudy numbers would be a huge ask anywhere.

The task ahead of redshirt sophomore quarterback Emory Jones, now in his 4th year on campus, will largely be to keep the Gators multiple.

Jones has a terrific, live arm and throws a lovely deep ball. But can he make the crisp short and intermediate throws that Trask did so well to keep the sticks moving? And how will this crop of young, talented, but mostly unproven collection of Florida tight ends and wide receivers respond to life after Kyle Pitts and Kyle Trask? Will Jacob Copeland or Xzavier Henderson, two prized recruiting wins of seasons past, finally break out? They’ll need to if the Gators hope to make defenses play reactively instead of gaining up to stop the run (more below).

Keep an eye of Florida’s 3rd-down passing efficiency number. With a stable full of talent at running back and Jones, a classic dual-threat type of quarterback, under center, Florida probably won’t throw much on 3rd down unless forced to do so. If Jones can keep the Gators in the top 50 in the 3rd-down passing efficiency category, this has a chance to be a great offense.

Rushing offense: (Much) Better

Don’t confuse Florida’s loss of generational talents on offense with a lack of big-time talent on the roster.

On the contrary, Jones was the most successful quarterback runner (minimum 25 attempts) in the country last season, per Pro Football Focus. He’ll likely exceed the 150 carries mark that defined Mullen’s powerful, efficient, run-first offenses led by Dak Prescott at Mississippi State and Tim Tebow at Florida.

He’ll be supported by one of the nation’s deepest running back rooms, a collection of blue-chippers led by grinder Dameon Pierce and versatile backs Malik Davis and Nay ‘Quan Wright. Two 5-star transfers, Lorenzo Lingard (Miami, finally healthy) and Demarkcus Bowman (Clemson), also offer limitless ceilings.

Mullen is a master at modifying his offenses to suit his personnel. It’s why he can succeed with dual-threat legends like Prescott and Tebow and win big with pocket passers like Chris Leak or Kyle Trask.

To help this run game, he’s assembled the SEC’s largest offensive line, a group that pound for pound lines up at 328 pounds and should be the best run blocking group since Mullen’s first year at Florida.

This all points to a powerful run game in Gainesville, which should encourage fans worried the Gators were due for a large drop off on offense.

Special teams: (Much) Worse

The Gators lose an All-SEC kicker in Evan McPherson, who left the program a year early for the NFL (5th round, Bengals). McPherson was the SEC’s most accurate kicker over the past 3 seasons, connecting on 51-of-60 field-goal attempts, including 5-of-7 in his career from 50 yards or longer.

His departure is a significant loss and compounded by the fact this Florida offense lacks the red-zone woes-proof combination of Pitts and Trask. Florida will need more field goals in 2021 with a new quarterback and questions on the perimeter, and for now, the heir to McPherson appears to be Jace Christmann, a grad transfer from Miss State who lost his starting job in Starkville a season ago.

Yikes.

Overall: Worse

Again, Florida would need to finish in the top 3 nationally in offense to be “better” in 2021 than they were in 2020. That’s unlikely, making “worse” the safe answer here.

That doesn’t mean Florida will be “bad” on offense in 2021.

On the contrary, many people in college football circles are excited about Emory Jones taking the reins of the Florida offense in 2021, having spent 3 full years tutoring under the watchful eye of Mullen, one of the sport’s best developers of quarterback talent. There’s not much Jones can’t do on a football field, and he’s had nice moments in his career to date, including being instrumental to Florida’s win over a nasty Auburn defense in 2019. The highest-rated recruit to ever sign for Mullen at quarterback, he’s waited his turn and should make the most of his opportunity. He’s also got terrific personnel to work with, especially at running back, where Florida has five quality options and only one football.

The Gators kicking situation is a bigger concern than the fan base wants to admit, but if Christmann makes good on the talent that led Dan Mullen to recruit him to Miss State to begin with, perhaps losing an NFL-quality kicker won’t hurt as badly as Florida thinks.

Bottom line? This will be a good Florida offense. The question is really what is the distance between good and 2020’s prolific?





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