GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No player will be asked about more, projected more or put under the spotlight more through spring practice and heading into the 2017 Florida football season than redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks.
It’s well established by now that for all of the positives coach Jim McElwain has accomplished in two seasons with the Gators — and there are plenty — he needs to find his quarterback of the future before the program can take the next step.
And he and the fan base alike will hope Franks can be that guy after taking a year to grow in the offense and develop.
So with the suspense spoiled, here’s a look at the 10 most important players for the Gators in 2017.
Honorable mentions: K Eddy Pineiro (More of the same from the fan favorite kicker would be just fine), WR Dre Massey (the hype will resume for the versatile slot receiver after a torn ACL wiped out his 2016 season), P Johnny Townsend (he may be the best punter in the country), S Marcell Harris (the Gators need Harris to be a veteran leader on a retooled defense) and RT Jawaan Taylor (can he take another step forward as a sophomore?).
10. LB Kylan Johnson
Johnson is a central part of the Gators’ next wave of defensive talent as they look to replace a handful of soon-to-be NFL players. He stepped in well in for injured linebacker Alex Anzalone over the second half of the season and will get a chance to prove himself as a full-time starter during his redshirt sophomore campaign.
9. DB Chauncey Gardner Jr.
It’s not clear yet where Gardner will play — cornerback, safety or nickel — but it seems a safe bet that he’ll play a key role wherever the coaches put him. Gardner seized his late-season opportunities as a freshman, grabbing 3 interceptions over the final 3 games. That included 2 picks, with a touchdown return, against Iowa as he won Outback Bowl MVP honors. He looks like the next future stud in Florida’s “DBU” lineage.
8. WR Tyrie Cleveland
Cleveland will be the first to admit that he expected more from his freshman season. A hamstring injury hindered him at the start, and the Gators’ general offensive struggles helped limit him the rest of the way. Nobody will forget that 98-yard touchdown against LSU, though. Considered the top prize in the Gators’ 2016 recruiting class, Cleveland is the most obvious breakout candidate in 2017 and yet another reason to feel somewhat optimistic about the offense.
7. DE Jabari Zuniga
Zuniga did most of his damage early this past season, but he nonetheless led Florida with 5 sacks and ranked second with 8.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman. He projects to be the Gators’ best pass-rushing force in 2017 and will look to build on those numbers. The coaches rave about his physical gifts and if he can take another step forward in his development on the field, he could be a much-needed force up front for this defense.
6. RB Jordan Scarlett
Scarlett has earned the opportunity to be Florida’s unquestioned lead back heading into 2017. He averaged 5 yards per carry and totaled 889 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns despite inconsistent usage as a sophomore. The potential is clearly there for him to do even more if given the opportunity, and if Florida is going to enjoy that breakout offensive season everyone is hoping for, Scarlett will undoubtedly be a central contributor.
5. LB David Reese
Reese already showed he’s capable of producing at the middle linebacker spot. Now he has to show he can replace the leadership void Jarrad Davis brought to that position as well. While Davis’ ankle injury was disappointing for the senior stalwart and the defense in general over the second half of the 2016 season, it has the Gators better positioned now to move forward without him. If Florida was trotting out two untested starters at linebacker next fall, there would be some rational concern for the state of the position, but Reese and Kylan Johnson showed enough down the stretch as injury replacements to allay any such anxiety. Now they’ll look to prove that spot is set for the foreseeable future.
4. LT Martez Ivey
Ivey showed encouraging progress as a sophomore and second-year starter at left guard. He was a two-time SEC offensive lineman of the week. And with David Sharpe moving on to the NFL, the assumption is that the Gators will shift Ivey to left tackle. After all, he was a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 rated tackle prospect nationally in the 2015 signing class. Along with quarterback, no position group will get more scrutiny in 2017 for the Gators than the offensive line. The group simply has to reach another level, and Ivey has the talent to be an anchor piece at the unit’s most high-profile position.
3. CB Duke Dawson
The presumption is that Dawson will move from nickel to fill one of the two cornerback spots vacated by Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. He chose to return for his senior season to boost his draft stock, and proving himself as a full-time corner is his opportunity to do that. It’s also a key to the Gators’ retooling their defense after losing the bulk of their veteran standouts. Dawson moves from steady role player to focal point of the Gators’ secondary in 2017 and how he performs will have a significant impact on how Florida fares defensively.
2. WR Antonio Callaway
The junior wide receiver is Florida’s best offensive playmaker, despite what the numbers over the final nine games of last season might indicate. Callaway was very diplomatic in discussing his disappointing usage this fall, but it’s also clear he’s highly motivated to make a statement in 2017. This is a guy who made an immediate impact as a freshman and has proven he can be a game-altering playmaker when fully utilized. If the Gators are to breakout offensively next fall, he’s going to have to be heavily involved.
1. QB Feleipe Franks
Let’s start with this — not only does Franks still have plenty to prove, but he has to win the job first. Luke Del Rio will be back to compete for the starting role that he opened the 2016 season with, so nothing is preordained for Franks. But the 6-foot-6 prospect represents optimism for a fan base starved for steady quarterback play. Franks was rated as a 4-star prospect out of Crawfordville, Fla., and ranked the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class. He was a big get for the Gators when he flipped from an earlier commitment to LSU and has had a full year to learn the system. Everybody will know a lot more about his potential, though, after spring practice.