GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida coaches and players use the bye week to evaluate their performance to this point, scrutinize what went wrong, what went right, etc., let’s do the same.
There was considerable hype in the preseason for a number of players. Some have lived up to it — even exceeded it — while others have fallen short of those August expectations.
Let’s call this the Gators’ stock report.
Let’s start on with a positive, because there has been plenty of the other sentiment swirling within the fan base this last week.
Here are the five players whose stock climbed the most through the first half of the season, followed by the five who the Gators would like a little more from moving forward:
Five biggest risers
1. Freshman running back Malik Davis. Of course he’s first. The rookie rusher from Tampa has been the star of the season for Florida, leading the team with 506 rushing yards despite receiving only 5 carries over the first two games. He has a legitimate chance to become the first Florida first-year freshman since Emmitt Smith to rush for 1,000 yards. He’s got five straight games of at least 90 rushing yards while showing no signs of slowing down. Davis has managed to totally fill what figured to be a large void when junior Jordan Scarlett was suspended indefinitely. On an offense lacking big plays, Davis is already a fan favorite.
2. Sophomore defensive end Jachai Polite. At Florida’s deepest position group, Polite has managed to rise to the top. Fellow ends Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson dominated most of the preseason buzz from this unit, and both have played well, but Polite has made the biggest jump from last season. He was held up as an example to teammates for his relentless effort in chasing Tennessee running back John Kelly downfield and never giving up on the play. He’s also made some nice highlights in the opponents’ backfield as well, totaling 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble so far.
3. Freshman receiver Kadarius Toney. The “Human Joystick,” as coach Jim McElwain dubbed him. Toney has reminded some fans of Percy Harvin with the highlights he’s racked up to this point. He’s not near that level of production yet, but his athleticism and playmaking abilities are teasing bigger things to come. Toney, a converted quarterback, is being eased into his new position, so the opportunities have been limited. But every time he touches the ball on a quick screen or lines up in the wildcat, fans know he could well take it all the way to the end zone. He missed the last game with a separated shoulder and it’s not clear when he’ll return to action, but eventually he should be getting around 15 touches a game and returning punts once he earns the coaches’ confidence in that role. His future is bright at Florida.
4. Freshman cornerback Marco Wilson. It seemed too convenient to expect that Wilson would arrive and immediately fill older brother Quincy Wilson’s void at corner. Well, he’s doing it. The younger Wilson has been a starter since the first game and has shown terrific coverage skills. Heading into Florida’s last game, Pro Football Focus had Wilson ranked as the best SEC defensive back in coverage of passes at least 10 yards downfield (allowing only 2 completions on 16 such targets). Fellow freshman C.J. Henderson deserves a mention here as well, and has been solid while also getting thrown right into a major role. His two pick-6s show his combination of instincts, ball skills and elite speed. This duo is going to be fun to watch for years to come.
5. Redshirt senior defensive end Jordan Sherit. Sherit is done for the season after hip surgery this week, but he deserves a place on this list. The season-ending injury is a crushing blow to a player who had worked his way back from a knee injury and was playing the absolute best of his collegiate career, seizing his final chance and increasing his odds of landing an NFL opportunity. It’s another reminder that football is a cruel game. Sherit posted 5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a team-high 9 quarterback hurries and 23 total tackles in six games.
Honorable mentions: Sophomore running back Lamical Perine, redshirt freshman left guard Brett Heggie, redshirt junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan, sophomore wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland.
Five guys the Gators need more from
1. Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks. This one is obvious. Again, Franks is a nice guy, and an easy guy to root for. He says the right things in press conferences and by all accounts, he continues to deliver a good work ethic in practice trying to improve. This is not to pile on the young QB, but the results simply haven’t been there. He ranks last among SEC starting QBs in passing yards per game (133.3) and has averaged only 121.5 passing yards in Florida’s last two narrow losses. The same limitations that were apparent at the start of the season remain unchanged, from locking in on a primary target, to not recognizing open receivers downfield, to simple situational awareness things like throwing the ball away rather than taking a sack. Franks may well develop into a star for the Gators in the future, but right now the team needs more from this position.
2. Sophomore safety Chauncey Gardner Jr. Gardner did not seem to appreciate the criticism of his tackling through the early part of the season and, to his credit, he has indeed looked more solid lately. In the preseason, though, Gardner was viewed as a potential star for this defense after flashing his playmaking ability down the stretch as a freshman, notching 3 interceptions in the final three games. So far, he ranks second on the team with 37 tackles and has 3.5 tackles for loss with 2 pass breakups and zero picks He may be out of position at safety, but he still has the potential to be a true tone-setter for this defense once he finds his groove. And with senior safety Nick Washington’s status clouded by his shoulder injury, Gardner and corner Duke Dawson are the only veteran presences in that secondary, so their performance is that much more important.
3/4. Sophomore wide receivers Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain: This is not all on the receivers. The play calling and QB play have a direct impact on Hammond and Swain’s depressed receiving totals, but one way or the other, Florida has to find a consistent secondary option to Tyrie Cleveland and find a way to open up the passing game at least somewhat. Hammond has 11 catches for 138 yards and no touchdowns in six games while Swain has 6 catches for 72 yards and 1 TD. Both were 4-star recruits and have shown their potential in flashes. This may be more about opportunity than performance, but the Gators have to get these guys more involved.
5. Tight end DeAndre Goolsby. Same disclaimer as above. The offensive game plan seemed to totally obscure the tight ends as receiving options through much of the early part of the season. Goolsby has proven he can be an impact contributor in the passing game when featured. He had 7 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama last year. So far through six games, Goolsby has just 9 catches for 78 yards, but the good news is that 6 of those receptions (for 35 yards) came in the last game. Maybe that’s a sign his opportunities will increase. He could be a key contributor to getting this passing game going over the second half.