The 2016 college football season is right around the corner for the Florida Gators.
Players are going through the summer workouts right now, and fall training camp begins in six weeks. The Gators need to sort out a handful of uncertainties by September.
Here are the five biggest questions Florida must answer before the season opener:
1. Who will win the quarterback competition?
Luke Del Rio currently holds an edge in the QB race. Gators coach Jim McElwain told SEC Country his expectation for Del Rio is to be as productive — or better — than former starting quarterback Will Grier, now at West Virginia. But McElwain hasn’t named Del Rio the starter yet, and this year’s competition was always going to carry over into the fall.
Graduate transfer Austin Appleby brings valuable playing experience to the position, something Del Rio doesn’t have. McElwain said both players made strides in the spring, but the battle between Appleby and Del Rio should get settled before the season opener.
Prediction: Del Rio maintains his lead and wins the job.
2. What will be the rotation at running back?
The Gators enter this year without Kelvin Taylor, only their second 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. McElwain will look to make up for that production with a running back by committee, consisting of junior-college transfer Mark Thompson and sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett.
While all three players will receive playing time, the rotation and the starter is still to be determined. Cronkrite was more productive as a freshman than Scarlett and ran with the first-team offense in the spring. However, Thompson impressed in the Orange & Blue Debut and could develop into an every-down back with his size.
Prediction: Cronkrite is the starter, but Thompson will get more carries.
3. What position should offensive lineman Martez Ivey play?
Ivey got pulled in two different directions as a true freshman, and that’ll likely happen again in 2016. Florida seems set at left tackle (David Sharpe), right guard (Tyler Jordan) and center (Cam Dillard).
What the Gators have to determine is whether they’re more stable with right tackle Fred Johnson or left guard Antonio Riles in the starting lineup. Johnson played in eight games last year and became a starter by the end the season. Riles, meanwhile, was replaced in the lineup by Ivey, a left tackle by trade. With Johnson going through all of spring football and Ivey missing practice to recover from shoulder surgery, it may be best for the Gators to keep Ivey at guard in place of Riles to get their top five linemen on the field.
Prediction: Ivey will play both spots, but starts at left guard.
4. How healthy is injury-prone linebacker Alex Anzalone?
Two of Anzalone’s three years with the Gators have been plagued by injuries, particularly to his right shoulder. He had surgery on that shoulder in 2013 and re-injured it in the second game of last year, causing him to miss the rest of the season.
Fortunately for Anzalone, his shoulder healed without needing surgery again. He was non-contact in the spring but did everything in practice except hit. He’ll be full-go in preseason camp as he tackles the challenging task of taking over at middle linebacker for Antonio Morrison. Anzalone, a former 5-star recruit, has the ability and football IQ to be the quarterback of Florida’s defense. The question is whether his shoulder will hold up like it did during his sophomore season.
Prediction: If Anzalone stays healthy, he’ll play his way into the NFL draft.
5. Who will replace Keanu Neal as the starting strong safety?
The Gators lost three starters in the secondary from last season, but they have the pieces in place to withstand the departures of Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole.
However, filling the void left by strong safety Keanu Neal could be difficult. His potential replacements, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington, aren’t as talented as Neal nor have the amount of experience. Washington worked primarily with the first-team defense in the spring, but Harris is more of a traditional strong safety and may be Florida’s hardest hitter on the team. It’ll be a close battle for the starting job in August.
Prediction: Washington gets the nod, but Harris will play on obvious run downs.