GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With two games left and a losing season guaranteed, the Florida football team is trying to finish on a high note for pride.
Next season, though, will be a different thought.
With a new coach, a new staff and a new chance to bring Florida back to its winning ways, 2018 could be an early opportunity to make waves.
If the Gators want to be successful, these underclassmen will be vital regardless of who’s coaching.
LB David Reese
David Reese, only a sophomore, has been the Gators’ unquestionable leader late in the season. He called out the team’s lack of effort following the loss to Missouri, and freshmen and veterans alike are looking to Reese to lead the way.
He’s also the Gators’ best player at a position where they have struggled all season. Reese leads the team with 83 tackles — next closest is Chauncey Gardner with 52. He has four games with double-digit tackles and is on a straight path for a successful junior season, barring injury.
WR Tyrie Cleveland
Tyrie Cleveland is Florida’s only proven deep threat on the roster. Even after being hobbled by a high-ankle sprain and only recording 5 catches during the Gators’ losing streak, he still leads the team in receiving yards (388), yards per catch (19.4) and touchdowns (2).
The highlight of the season, still, is the 63-yard game-winning touchdown catch against Tennessee from Feleipe Franks as time expired. When healthy, Cleveland is capable of making many more critical catches.
RBs Malik Davis and Lamical Perine
Malik Davis was poised to take on a lead back role next season before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Georgia. With his timetable to return uncertain, Florida’s next coaching staff will likely rely on Lamical Perine heavily early in the season while Davis gets back to full strength. Perine has held his own this season. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has a team-best 7 rushing touchdowns. Davis, however, is a superstar in the making. Prior to the injury, he was averaging 6.7 yards per carry and had five straight games with at least 90 rushing yards. Both will be vital in 2018 for setting the tone on offense.
CB Marco Wilson
Florida’s young secondary will have to make a big jump next season if the Gators defense wants to get back to anything close to its glory days.
Marco Wilson will be pivotal in that progression. The lockdown corner has started every game this season and is tied for the team lead with 9 pass breakups, a mark that ranks second among all freshmen.
The ‘Bam Bam’ Kids
Florida is likely going to lose redshirt junior Taven Bryan to the NFL draft. Khairi Clark could leave, too. With that, the Gators will need to rebuild the interior of the defensive line with a bevy of new faces.
Luckily, it has a freshman class full of defensive linemen ready to make an impact.
Defensive tackles T.J. Slaton, Elijah Conliffe and Kyree Campbell — along with defensive end Zach Carter — all should be primed for big roles in 2018. The quartet known as the “Bam Bam Kids” has been biding its time and playing spot roles while getting ready for its opportunity to shine.
On size alone, Slaton (6-foot-4, 358 pounds), Conliffe (6-4, 317) and Campbell (6-3, 305) are massive and should have an advantage going up against SEC offensive lines.
Carter, who has not played this season, was a 4-star recruit and the third-ranked strongside defensive end in the 2017 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite. He will likely see a role next season.