GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Now that Florida has its 2018 recruiting class mostly set, save for maybe a late addition, the natural segue is to start projecting what those newcomers might do in the fall.
This is a fool’s errand, of course, as the coaches haven’t even had a chance to evaluate the players in practice or drills.
“I can’t say because we haven’t even been on the field yet,” coach Dan Mullen answered Wednesday. “Hopefully these guys continue to develop, get a little bigger, a little stronger, a little faster, [in] a little better shape, and once we hit spring ball, we’ll see what anybody can do.
“Everybody gets worried about the quarterbacks. I can’t throw with them right now, know what I mean? I can’t even be there with a football with them. You know, hopefully we can complete a pass on air or something like that. Last time I took over a head-coaching job, that was a challenge. We didn’t look real good on air, and that was without a defense.”
And if the coaches don’t know yet, how can anybody else know?
All one can do is project and match recruiting stature with positional need, and there certainly are more names than will fit on this list that could end up making a significant impact in the fall.
Mullen hauled in the No. 14 recruiting class in that country (according to the 247Sports composite) while addressing the Gators’ most immediate needs with high-upside, 4-star talent.
But in addition to assessing the newcomers, he and his staff still must assess the returning players who they’ll be working with for the first time.
“The nice thing the new guys have is they signed on for this. Even the ones that enrolled mid-semester, they got the chance to sit down with me and know what my expectations are going to be, so they know what to expect walking in the door,” Mullen said. “But I’m really excited about the buy-in from the guys that were already here.”
This figures to be a highly intriguing spring for the Gators, ripe with story lines and questions that will come into focus once the players put on pads and start assimilating into new offensive and defensive systems.
But here’s one guess at the five freshmen who have the best chance to play immediate roles in 2018:
1. QB Emory Jones
The reasons to think Emory Jones can win the starting quarterback job as a freshman are obvious. He is the only quarterback on the roster that Mullen recruited specifically for his system, and for that matter he is the only true dual-threat QB in the mix.
Also, with Feleipe Franks’ persistent struggles last fall as a redshirt freshman and no other quarterback on the roster with any college experience whatsoever, the position is wide open.
Mullen did praise Franks while addressing fans Wednesday night, noting how Franks never gets beat to offseason workouts and has shown some leadership qualities in their brief time together.
Franks still has the big arm and nice athleticism, but he’ll have to prove he’s a different quarterback than the one everybody saw last fall, while convincing Mullen that he can take a leap forward in his poise and decision making.
If the coaches think Jones is their quarterback of the future and he can convince them he’s not overwhelmed by the stage, it would not surprise anybody to see him claim the starting role as a freshman. But there are a lot of “ifs” attached to that notion.
2. WR Jacob Copeland
Jacob Copeland was the splash addition of National Signing Day for Florida and is the highest-rated recruit in this signing class for the Gators, checking in at No. 69 on the 247Sports composite.
Florida suddenly is deep with high-upside talent at the receiver position, but expect Copeland to find his way into the mix. Mullen raved about his versatility on Wednesday, noting how Copeland (listed at 5-foot-11, 186 pounds) can work out of the slot or be sent deep down field, how he can be motioned in the backfield and used in a variety of ways.
As part of Florida’s recruiting pitch to Copeland, assistant coach Billy Gonzales compared him to former Florida star Percy Harvin, another incredible talent who did a lot of everything for the Gators.
Copeland is a safe bet to contribute as a freshman.
3. S/OLB Amari Burney
Mullen loves versatility on both sides of the ball, and he gets that with Amari Burney, who signed with the Gators in December.
Burney could end up at safety, nickel or outside linebacker for Florida, as the coaches evaluate the personnel. He initially was recruited to the Gators as a wide receiver before deciding he preferred to pursue a future on defense, but the point is Burney possesses the athleticism to make an immediate impact wherever he lines up.
Depending on what Florida does with Chauncey Gardner Jr., whether he remains at safety or transitions to a corner/nickel role, there could be a lot of competition for both safety spots. And then with the team moving to a 3-4 defense and lacking established prototypical outside linebackers for that scheme, that will be another open position this spring.
Arriving last month as an early enrollee will give Burney ample time to showcase himself and try to win one of those jobs.
4. K Evan McPherson
With Eddy Pineiro headed to the NFL, the Gators quickly restocked at kicker with McPherson, who is ranked the top kicker in this class.
He made a 60-yard field goal in high school and was rated the top kicker at the well-regarded Kohl’s Kicking Camp.
He should slide right into the starting role as a freshman.
5. DB Trey Dean
Dean is another 4-star prospect who will compete for early playing time in Florida’s secondary.
Ranked the No. 17 safety in this class, Dean also can play cornerback and impressed with his coverage skills during Under Armour All-America practices in December.
He previously was committed to Tennessee, where he was recruited by new Gators cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren. Once Warren joined Florida, he quickly landed Dean on board. That speaks to Warren’s belief in Dean’s upside and can only help him in what will be a crowded competition in the secondary.