In last April’s NFL draft the Florida Gators football team had a total of eight players drafted, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, tight end Jordan Reed, running back Mike Gillislee and kicker Caleb Sturgis. The question now becomes how will the Gators replace these players? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.
Not only did the Gators lose Floyd to the NFL Draft, but they also lost starting nose tackle Omar Hunter to graduation. They did add four defensive tackles in this year’s recruiting class, but have few players on the roster with quality experience at the position. One player they may turn to is defensive end Dominique Easley, a senior who played his first two seasons at defensive tackle. After flirting with the NFL, Easley decided to return for his senior season, looking to improve his draft stock. He finished last season strong and should at least offer the team some versatility at the position. Redshirt junior Leon Orr and senior Damien Jacobs are the only two tackles on the roster with game experience. Junior college transfer Darious Cummings, an early enrollee, and incoming freshman Caleb Brantley should be factors as well.
With Elam and Evans moving on to the NFL, the team will have two longtime starters to replace on the backend of their defense. Senior Jaylen Watkins will make the switch from cornerback and ended spring practice as one of the starters. The other starter is yet to be determined and will likely come down to a battle between redshirt freshman Marcus Maye and junior Jabari Gorman. Another player who could factor in for playing time is Cody Riggs. A former starter at corner, Riggs missed much of last season due to injury and is making the transition to safety.
Bostic and Jenkins were as good as they come at the linebacker position in the SEC over the last few seasons. However, the Gators have plenty of depth at the position and addressed it well in recruiting. Sophomore Antonio Morrison, a big-time talent, will make the switch to middle linebacker and take over for Bostic. As of now, senior Darrin Kitchens is slotted to take over Jenkins spot, but could face competition from redshirt junior Michael Taylor and freshman Daniel McMillian.
Jordan Reed was one of the Gators key playmakers on offense last season and probably quarterback Jeff Driskel’s most reliable target in the passing game. There are four candidates to replace Reed: Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson. Burton and Westbrook are former defensive lineman who switched to tight end last season and are still learning the position. Taylor and Thompson were considered two of the top tight ends in the country coming out of high school and offer the best playmaking ability out of the group.
Gillislee became the first Florida running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. However, the team appears to have plenty of talent on the roster to replace Gillislee. Sophomore Matt Jones, is a big, physical back that came on strong towards the end of last season, finishing with 275 yards rushing, including 81 yards against Florida State. He leaves the spring as the starter. Redshirt junior Mack Brown leaves the spring as the second option, but should be pushed by early enrollee Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Gator great Fred Taylor. The younger Taylor was listed as the top running back in the country by various recruiting services.
Perhaps the player that may prove to be the most difficult for the Gators to replace is former kicker Caleb Sturgis. Among the candidates to replace the team’s all-time career leader in field goals made is senior Brad Phillips and redshirt freshman Austin Hardin. Neither candidate distanced himself from the other throughout the spring and were described as “inconsistent” by coach Will Muschamp. For a team that attempted 29 field goals last season and only scored touchdowns on 52 percent of their redzone opportunities, whomever wins the starting job, will be a large factor in UF’s success.