GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida isn’t done filling out its 2018 recruiting class, and there’s optimism around the program that the Gators could add some marquee players on National Signing Day.
But the team’s nine early enrollees are on campus and will go through the offseason conditioning program and then spring practice. They no doubt will have an advantage in trying to make an immediate impact next fall.
While the depth chart is very much in flux at many positions and hard to figure until all the pieces are assembled, here’s a look at those early enrollees and their chances of making a significant contribution in 2018.
Quarterback Emory Jones
The headliner of this recruiting class, Emory Jones will be looked at by many as the favorite to start at quarterback as a freshman. After all, he is the only dual-threat QB on the roster, the only QB recruited by this coaching staff to play in this new spread offense and, presumably, the QB of the future whom the Gators would be well served to get groomed for the years ahead.
He also faces a wide-open quarterback competition where only one other contender — redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks — has any collegiate experience, and it wasn’t a particularly encouraging experience.
Ultimately, Jones still has to prove himself through the spring and in fall camp. If he doesn’t earn the coaches’ confidence and somebody else does — be it Franks or perhaps untested redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask — then his arrival at the position could be delayed.
Expectation: It’s hard to imagine Jones not playing a significant role next fall. That’s what he was brought here to do.
Wide receivers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes
While the Gators continue to pursue their top Class of 2018 wide receiver targets, they already addressed the position in a big way with two notable transfers.
Van Jefferson tallied 91 receptions for 999 yards and 4 touchdowns over the last two seasons at Ole Miss and is hoping to be granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA due to the sanctions against the Rebels and the nature of the program’s coaching change. There has not been an official ruling on that matter, though.
Trevon Grimes, meanwhile, played in two games at Ohio State this past season, catching 3 passes for 20 yards. He was released from his scholarship and permitted to transfer to Florida to be closer to home in light of a personal family matter. That would give him a case to petition the NCAA for immediate eligibility as well. He was ranked the No. 6 wide receiver in the Class of 2017 and brings high-end upside to the Gators.
Expectation: Florida has immediate need at wide receiver, and if both guys can secure eligibility for 2018, they should both factor prominently into the Gators’ retooled offense. Of all the mid-year newcomers, these two and Jones have the most immediate upside.
Running backs Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement
Florida is loaded at running back, and that’s not even factoring in the uncertainty surrounding 2016 starter Jordan Scarlett, who was indefinitely suspended last August for his involvement in credit card fraud.
Presumably, there will be some clarity on Scarlett’s future sometime soon, and that will impact the 2018 outlook for newcomers Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement.
But as Florida’s recent history has shown, running back has been a conducive position for early playing time.
Lamical Perine (421 rushing yards as a freshman) did it two years ago and Malik Davis (526 yards) did it last fall as a freshman before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Fellow rookie Adarius Lemons (136 yards) ended up getting a late look as well last season.
Davis’ projected return is unknown, but it would seem unlikely that he’d be ready for the start of the season. Factor in Scarlett’s uncertainty, and that leaves Perine (562 yards, 8 TDs in 2017) and Lemons as the only sure returning running backs.
In that scenario, it’s plenty likely that 4-star prospects Pierce (No. 9 RB in the Class of 2018, per 247Sports composite) and/or Clement (No. 11 athlete in the class) find their way onto the field this fall.
Expectation: The Scarlett situation makes this hard to project. Without him, there is little doubt that at least one of these two gets significant carries. With him, it will be very competitive for snaps. Dan Mullen had three running backs at Mississippi State get at least 45 carries this past season (in addition to two mobile quarterbacks racking up rushing yards). It was much the same in 2016 with three MSU running backs getting at least 50 carries. Using that as a model, it will come down to Scarlett’s status and competing for roles in the spring and fall.
Remember, this coaching staff, outside of former running backs coach-turned tight ends coach Ja’Juan Seider, has no familiarity with this roster, so even the returning guys need to make an impression. As a veteran, Perine would seem a safe bet for a significant role, but Lemons, Pierce and Clement could well be in a three-way competition for one or two spots, at least until Davis is able to return.
Offensive tackles Noah Banks and Chris Bleich
This is a position group that could change dramatically by National Signing Day, as Florida remains in pursuit of 5-star offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and 4-star tackles Williams Barnes and Richard Gouraige. All three players rank among the top seven tackles in this signing class, according to the 247Sports composite.
Any one of them would have a real chance to step in and compete for a starting job.
As for Noah Banks and Chris Bleich, it’s hard to say.
Banks is a junior college transfer with nice size (6-foot-7, 305 pounds), and coaches generally don’t recruit JUCO guys unless they think there’s a chance they can help immediately. He may simply provide depth, but if Florida whiffs on its aforementioned top O-line targets then Banks’ chances of a larger role improve.
Florida returns its entire offensive line from last season, but with left guard Brett Heggie’s timetable for return uncertain after a season-ending knee injury, there is likely at least one starting spot to fill. It also remains to be seen whether Florida would consider moving left tackle Martez Ivey inside to guard, where he played his first two seasons.
Bleich, meanwhile, is a 6-6, 313-pound 3-star tackle who Florida pried away from an earlier commitment to UCLA.
Expectation: Banks has a good shot of contributing in some capacity next fall while Bleich probably is looking at a development year.
Safety/outside linebacker Amari Burney
Amari Burney’s versatility bodes well for his chances of getting on the field in 2018.
Listed at 6-1, 219 pounds, he could end up at safety, nickel or even outside linebacker for the Gators. That will depend on the coaches’ evaluations this spring and who else Florida is able to sign in this class.
Burney is a very intriguing athlete who was recruited by the previous coaching staff as a wide receiver before deciding he preferred to play on defense. He’s certainly a player to watch for both the future and the present.
Expectation: Defense is a guessing game as Florida begins the transition to a base 3-4 scheme. There will likely be returning players changing positions (defensive ends trying their hand at outside linebacker, for example) and fresh evaluations from the coaching staff that could affect other players.
For instance, does Chauncey Gardner, viewed as a more natural cornerback, move from safety to a nickel/corner role? That’s yet to be determined, therefore it’s hard to project where Burney will settle in. But with Florida’s safety play lacking last season, he should be right in the mix with the Gators’ still-young crop of returnees at the position.
Defensive back Trey Dean
Trey Dean was rated a 4-star prospect at safety by the recruiting sites, but he also showed his potential as a cornerback during Under Armour All-America practices.
Dean was a guy the new coaching staff prioritized, so he clearly fits what they’re looking for in a defensive back.
As with Burney, his versatility will help, but it would seem his clearest path to early playing time would be at safety. With Nick Washington graduating, Marcell Harris choosing not to return for a final season and Gardner at least a possibility to move to a different role, the safety spot could be wide open.
Rising sophomores Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner along with fellow returnees Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton will look to prove themselves to the new staff as well. This will be one of the more interesting position battles to monitor during spring and fall camp.
Expectation: Dean was a nice addition and adds some real intrigue to the secondary, but it’s too early to guess how much opportunity he’ll see as a freshman. The chance is there to contribute immediately, but it all comes down to how he fares in that aforementioned competition.