Home Critical engine Five key players in the Gators’ success in 2021

Five key players in the Gators’ success in 2021

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It doesn’t take a football genius to know that it all starts with the snap. So the player who gets the snap is the de facto key that keeps the engine of football going.

In other words, it stands to reason that the quarterback is the key player on any team. We’re assuming most Florida fans are at least borderline geniuses, so we won’t be insulting their grid intelligence by explaining how vital Emory Jones is in the Gators’ big plans.

We could insult their footballing intelligence with our list of the five most key players besides QB. Remember that “key” is a flexible adjective. These five guys might not collectively be the best players, but the quality of UF’s season will depend heavily on how well they play.

Mississippi State junior kicker Jace Christmann has scored 99 of his 100 extra points and 28 of 36 field goal attempts during his career in brown and white.

5. Jace Christmann, kicker

Not at the slight return of kicker Chris Howard, but the kicking job is up to Christmann to lose. And he will have big shoes to put on.

Evan McPherson scored 51 of his 60 field goals before deciding to bring his talents to the NFL. Field goals should play a bigger role this season, as offense shouldn’t be the red zone touchdown machine it was in 2020.

Does UF really want to give this job to an ex-lifeguard from the state of Mississippi?

Christmann was no ordinary replacement. He scored 32 of 40 field goals in his first three seasons and was named Freshman All-SEC in Dan Mullen’s last season at Starkville.

Mike Leach arrived last year and brought in transfer ace Brandon Ruiz from Arizona State. He was good enough to knock down the incumbent. The Domino Effect kicked in, and Christmann fell into Florida’s arms in January.

He doesn’t have to be McPherson. He needs to get close enough.

After:Florida gets Mississippi state transfer kicker

Florida linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. attacks during the Gators' game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, December 5, 2020 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

4. Brenton Cox Jr., linebacker

Florida expected an instant impact when Cox took the field after being transferred from Georgia. He delivered, with eight tackles, a sack and a broken pass in last year’s opener against Ole Miss.

After that, meh.

The former five-star rookie had some spectacular moments, but he often passed out in the defensive woodwork. It’s an issue in Todd Grantham’s high-pressure scheme, who needs BUCK’s position outside the linebacker to be a disruptive threat.

Coherent play is largely a focus issue, although that doesn’t fully explain Cox’s problem. Her chronically painful left foot turned out to have a crack in the fifth metatarsal.

Doctors screwed it up after the season. Cox was spotted on campus in June in a walking boot and moving around on a scooter. This sparked reports that Cox would miss much of the season due to a “scooter accident,” but Cox should be ready by the opener.

He showed star potential on the right foot. It will be interesting to see what Cox can do on two of them.

After:Todd Grantham revamps Gators defense after season of blackouts

Florida wide receiver Jacob Copeland kicks the ball against Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle (9) in the third quarter of the 2020 SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

3. Jacob Copeland, wide receiver

Florida lost nearly 60% of their offensive production last year, largely in the form of receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes and tight end Kyle Pitts.

The stage is now open for Copeland. Will he grab it?

He was a popular rookie in 2018, choosing Florida over Alabama and Tennessee. You might remember her mother was so upset with Copeland’s choice that she walked away from her signing ceremony.

After redshirting his first year, Copeland slowly integrated into the offensive. He dropped nine passes and his road run needed some fine-tuning, but he caught 45 passes and averaged 18.9 yards per reception last year.

Offense needed him sometimes in 2020. But overall it could have been without him thanks to all those other producers.

Not this year. Jones needs a reliable receiving target, and Copeland is hoping to be that guy. He changed his number from 15 to 1, a number previously worn by luminaries like Toney and Percy Harvin.

If Copeland can live up to that legacy, his mother will likely be thrilled to have chosen the Gators.

After:Champions mindset: Jacob Copeland set for a stellar year with the Gators

Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) intercepts Vanderbilt wide receiver Chris Pierce Jr. (19) during the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday November 21, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

2. Kaiir Elam, cornerback

Being called Florida’s best high school player last year was a bit like being called the tallest jockey in the world. It didn’t take much to stand out in this crowd last year.

Elam did more than just stand out, however. He became an All-America candidate. Expect the junior to turn pro and be a first-round pick.

No one cares about Elam’s game. What makes him so critical are the actors around him.

The secondary is by far the least experienced unit in Florida. There will be new starters safe, and the other corner is up for grabs between Jaydon Hill, real freshman Jason Marshall and transfer Jadarrius Perkins.

There is a lot of untapped talent and potential in the defensive backfield, but no one knows when / if that will gel. There are, however, two certainties.

Florida ranked 100th in pass defense last season, so it couldn’t be worse. The high school cannot afford to lose its most imposing presence.

After:The Florida Gators’ 10 best defensive games of 2020

Florida offensive lineman Richard Gouraige (76) blocks during a game against Missouri in the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, October 31, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo / John Raoux)

1. Richard Gouraige, left tackle

If the quarterback is really the key position, the guy who protects his blind side is the key.

It would be Gouraige. He inherited the left tackle from Stone Forsythe, who skillfully protected Kyle Trask from blows from behind.

Gouraige did his apprenticeship, starting 17 guard games over the past two seasons. He’s been stable but not particularly dominant for a four-star rookie. He knows the responsibility that comes with his new job.

“I came here to play left tackle,” said Gouraige. “I love being on an island and taking on the best edge rushers in the game.”

Jones is more capable of dodging these rushers than Kyle Trask. But if UF’s key to this season is to excel, his most important bodyguard has to do what he came here to do.

After:Richard Gouraige is proud of his new position, protecting the blind side of Gators quarterback Emory Jones


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