2021 Florida and the art of the transfer portal roster makeover

Ian Boyd

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The 2020 Florida Gators were a truly interesting team to follow. The 2019 season had revealed two particular dynamics of their team which were bound to have an impact on their strategy the following season. The first was tight end Kyle Pitts was a budding superstar who could be a dominant weapon in the college game if featured in the passing game. The second was Texan Kyle Trask was the quarterback on the roster best suited by a mile for executing the sort of dropback passing game which could make the most of Pitts' abilities as a flex target.

So while Florida head coach Dan Mullen has typically had a reputation for utilizing running quarterbacks and a power-spread approach to offense, the head Gator was instead able to show off his overall understanding of the spacing and angles in the spread offense and field a lethal spread passing attack. Kyle Trask threw for 4283 yards at 9.8 ypa with 43 touchdowns and eight interceptions (nearly half of which came against Oklahoma in the bowl game).

Kyle Pitts and slot receiver Kadarius Toney were the main weapons, Pitts caught 43 balls for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns, Toney caught 70 for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns. The two-headed running back tandem of Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis had only 172 carries combined which yielded 813 yards at 4.7 ypc with four rushing touchdowns. When the Gators finished drives with runs at the goal line, which wasn't often, they were just as likely to involve Trask or running back-up quarterback Emory Jones who combined for five touchdowns.

Pitts was the main component of the Florida offense everything else was built around. A team's inside receivers will almost always reveal the offense's necessary identity and approach to moving the football and the tight end in particular. If you have a lithe play there like Pitts who is "adequate" as a blocker or worse but absolutely lethal as a receiver, it dictates the rest of your offense. You're not going to be majoring in the run game if your blocker in the box is not only not a great blocker but also considerably more dangerous if flexed out or otherwise running routes.

If you're not majoring in the power run game than you need another means of picking up steady, chain-moving gains. The obvious alternative is to rely on more spread passing schemes and naturally this is where Pitts thrived anyways so it was an easy choice. So Trask got the nod for 2019 and 2020 and made the most of his opportunity and for their 2020 run to the SEC title Dan Mullen leaned on pass protection from a very veteran group of offensive linemen and some schemes designed to clear space for Kadarius Toney to run option routes at the sticks.

The Gators' strategy almost worked. They dropped a narrow game against Texas A&M and a bizarre contest with LSU but whipped Georgia and took Alabama to the wire in the title game. Then much of their team opted out of the bowl game and they were wrecked by Oklahoma. Their fatal flaw was a secondary which struggled to communicate and execute all of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's pattern-matching schemes and then a multi-year issue they've had fielding a remotely stout defensive interior. When the Gator offense was scoring in bunches the defense could get some work done but they couldn't be trusted to carry water in a tight or back and forth contest.

Heading into 2021 with different identity markers

The Gators have two quarterbacks on the roster emerging as the heirs apparent to Kyle Trask. The first is Emory Jones, who's likely to win the job at least early in the year, and who has never shown a mastery even of a simplified passing game. Jones is a well-regarded talent for plays like this:


This is a very creative play design, typical of a Mullen-coached team, but you spend time designing and installing plays such as this one when your quarterback has this kind of explosiveness and willingness to execute power run concepts. It's a counter run scheme but instead of pulling the tight end to serve as a lead blocker for the running back, the tight end releases up field on a POP pass which holds the middle linebacker and prevents him from following the pulling guard to the point of attack. The running back then serves as the lead blocker for the quarterback.

Here's the other option, redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, running the same play.


Emory Jones is listed at 6-2, 210, Richardson at 6-4, 232, and you can see the difference between their weights and relative strengths pretty clearly in their execution of this same design. Both of them can move well and easily, but Jones is more explosive and while he isn't afraid of contact he'll avoid tacklers. Richardson looked at Oklahoma's safety on this play as a target rather than someone to be mitigated. Neither player is nearly as proficient in the dropback passing game as Kyle Trask, but it's just as well because Kyle Pitts ain't here either.

An interesting component to Florida's blowout defeat against the Sooners beyond the snaps of these two young quarterbacks was the shuffling along the Gator line. In the Richardson clip you see perhaps 3/5ths of the 2021 Florida offensive line.

Left guard Richard Gouraige (6-5, 313) slid out to left tackle and the Gators put in Ethan White (6-5, 346 pounds) at left guard and Josh Braun (6-6, 352 pounds) at right guard. 2020's right guard, Stewart Reese (6-5, 354 pounds) returns in 2021 for an extra year thanks to COVID but he's sliding inside to center.

I buried the lede in the parenthesis there but Florida is fixing to play a trio of 340+ pound linemen as their interior in 2021. Quite a bit of heft coming at opponents and both White and Braun are pretty solid as pullers in Florida's gap runs like counter and power. The backfield will include senior running back Dameon Pierce, explosive up and comer Nay'Quan Wright, and some other additions we'll get to later.

While Mullen will undoubtedly work hard to get his quarterbacks at a higher level in the passing game this offseason and work out some of his typical tricks for the Gators' new generation of wideouts, this team is clearly going to be much more power-run oriented than in recent seasons. I expect these two quarterbacks to end up combining for somewhere between 150-200 carries while the running backs get a similar amount of work. It'll be a completely different approach than in 2020 with Mullen scheming up leverage for the run game to march down the field.

Such an approach though will not lead to as many points or as efficient of possessions as we saw from Florida in 2020 though when Trask was zipping the ball around the field 40 times per game. In 2021, a power running Florida team will need to play some defense.

Transfer portal to the rescue!

The Gators are in decent shape across most of their defense simply plugging in returning components. Cornerback Kaiir Elam had a solid year in 2020 and Jaydon Hill also played well in spot duty, safety has converted corner Trey Dean and some younger guys who caught useful action in 2020, the defensive line's edges returns Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter with Texas blue chip Princely Umanmielen waiting in the wings.

Where the Gators keep getting stomped is down main street where they have not fielded a good nose tackle in the Dan Mullen era and have not had a player drafted since he took over for the 2018 season. Here's the flip side of the Cotton Bowl Classic, Oklahoma running at the Gators.


I don't believe Tedarrell Slaton is as big as he's listed (6-5, 340) but for all his size he doesn't do much against the double team here from the Sooners. Meanwhile strongside end Zachary Carter gets singled by a tight end and can't make the play. It's a modest 6-yard gain but it's coming directly at the big guys up front for Florida. As it happens, Slaton is now gone anyways.

So Dan Mullen and his staff prepared the rituals, recited the incantations, and opened up the transfer portal in Gainesville. Out of it came former 4-star defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk from Auburn, who started a year ago, and Antonio Shelton (Valentino?) from Penn State who was a three-year starter for the Nittany Lions. Shelton actually caught my eye recently while studying Michigan's offense and the efficacy of their run game in 2020, some of their bigger linemen and schemes which overpowered other Big 10 foes ran into a brick wall against Shelton.

Florida will now be able to return their starting inside linebackers and two leading tacklers (same guys, Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate) behind a pair of 315 pound tackles who can obstruct guards from advancing on them and force some double teams in the box. It's hard to overstate how essential these additions could be for the Gators, who are likely to have a team strategy in 2021 in which they attempt to be the most efficient team at pounding the ball off tackle with the run game.

Speaking of powering the ball in the run game, Florida has two blue chip running backs on the roster in 2021 who have yet to play a major role in the offense. The first is Lorenzo Lingard, who was a 5-star out of high school who's yet to see much action. The second is DeMarkcus Bowman, a 5-star who spent last year with Clemson but decided to head back to his home state of Florida for the 2021 season.

Between a few roster developments planning ahead and then some transfer portal infusions, the Gators are completely making over their roster for the 2021 season to go from being a finesse, spread passing team who struggled to stop the run to having a massive, gritty interior on both sides of the ball. These days your team's identity can change that fast. The best coaches for big time programs are the ones with the knowhow to make considerable adjustments from year to year to make the most of the available talent. With the transfer portal you're potentially competitive every year but only if you can evolve enough to bounce between strategies.
 

Ian Boyd

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Dan Mullen is an interesting test case for the "good coach, mediocre recruiter" type at a name brand type school.
Yeah, sort of. They’re recruiting top 10 type classes still and he seems to have an awareness of what the strengths and weaknesses of recruiting from there are, probably because he’s won national championships there.
 

stilesbbq

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Your point on inside receivers being a tell on the identity of the offense is an interesting and good one.

Color me skeptical UF's interior D-line play and their QB's passing ability take big steps next year.

SEC East will be very interesting next year behind UGA.
 

Ian Boyd

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Color me skeptical UF's interior D-line play and their QB's passing ability take big steps next year.
It's a totally different group in the interior D-line. It's not really about making strides there so much as a wholesale overhaul of the roster. And believe me, Shelton is tough to move up front.

The QBs probably improve considerably this offseason, how could they not while getting all the reps and attention from Mullen and his staff and seeing the offense tailored to their strengths and weaknesses? But they won't be able to do what they did last year in the passing game. It won't be the plan.
 

fullbackdive

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This would dishearten if me if I were a gator fan. The "quarterback as a running back" approach doesn't seem like the way to beat the Bamas of the world--unless you hit on somebody truly special like Cam Newton, or lean hard into option principles like Mullen did with Tebow.
 

Ian Boyd

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This would dishearten if me if I were a gator fan. The "quarterback as a running back" approach doesn't seem like the way to beat the Bamas of the world--unless you hit on somebody truly special like Cam Newton, or lean hard into option principles like Mullen did with Tebow.
I think they'll do the latter. The power-option type game like this needs two adjuncts. Most importantly, you need a deep threat option over the top or some way to inflict explosive plays. The Tebow Gators had Percy Harvin for that task. Then, you need some solutions for passing downs, and for that Mullen has a lot of 4/5-wide spread sets with option routes.

Normally there's a ceiling on this style but you can make it work if you still have a few passing dimensions and you play great defense. Probably next year's Florida team will be a 9-10 win team though at best. That's still a good season and maybe you build something that can be more fearsome in 2022.
 
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kevinbelt

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This would dishearten if me if I were a gator fan. The "quarterback as a running back" approach doesn't seem like the way to beat the Bamas of the world--unless you hit on somebody truly special like Cam Newton, or lean hard into option principles like Mullen did with Tebow.
Well, with Emory Jones under center, the quarterback as quarterback approach isn’t going to beat the South Carolinas of the world, so you gotta try something.
 

fullbackdive

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Well, with Emory Jones under center, the quarterback as quarterback approach isn’t going to beat the South Carolinas of the world, so you gotta try something
IMO it remains be seen if Emory is even good at executing option stuff. Being a good runner and being good at the option aren't always (or even often) overlapping skillsets. If he isn't, oh boy
 

fullbackdive

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Well, with Emory Jones under center, the quarterback as quarterback approach isn’t going to beat the South Carolinas of the world, so you gotta try something.
Just to be clear: if I was a gator fan, I certainly wouldn't want Emory Jones throwing it 40+ times per game; what I would've wanted is Mullen going out over the offseason and trying to bring in a kid with a skillset like Trask's.
 
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Ian Boyd

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IMO it remains be seen if Emory is even good at executing option stuff. Being a good runner and being good at the option aren't always (or even often) overlapping skillsets. If he isn't, oh boy
It now occurs to me I’m not sure I’ve seen him run a lot of option stuff. He’s definitely very good in the QB run game tho and Mullen will scheme some isolations and get him up to speed in the option route game.
Just to be clear: if I was a gator fan, I certainly wouldn't want Emory Jones throwing it 40+ times per game; what I would've wanted is Mullen going out over the offseason and trying to bring in a kid with a skillset like Trask's.
They just lost Toney and Pitts tho and have some run game personnel. If only for a year I think this makes sense. I bet also that his eval on Richardson will prove to have been solid.
 

kevinbelt

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IMO it remains be seen if Emory is even good at executing option stuff. Being a good runner and being good at the option aren't always (or even often) overlapping skillsets. If he isn't, oh boy
You’re right; I really wouldn’t bet on that either.
 

_b ez_

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It now occurs to me I’m not sure I’ve seen him run a lot of option stuff. He’s definitely very good in the QB run game tho and Mullen will scheme some isolations and get him up to speed in the option route game.

They just lost Toney and Pitts tho and have some run game personnel. If only for a year I think this makes sense. I bet also that his eval on Richardson will prove to have been solid.
Wouldn't the idea be to just to go back to the 2018 playbook when they had Felipe Franks, Lemichael Perine, and Van Jefferson? Jones is a much bigger threat in the run game than Franks which should help open up the options and play actions even more.
 

Ian Boyd

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Wouldn't the idea be to just to go back to the 2018 playbook when they had Felipe Franks, Lemichael Perine, and Van Jefferson? Jones is a much bigger threat in the run game than Franks which should help open up the options and play actions even more.
Yeah, although I suspect they’ll mix it up more than that in the run game. They’ll scheme angles for the RBs, create simple reads on option routes for the QBs, and try to land play-action shots.

My memory of the Franks O was they ran some zone and duo, didn’t run Frank’s much. I think they’ll run the QB a ton, scheme open the best wideout, and get the power-option game going.
 
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The 2020 Florida Gators were a truly interesting team to follow. The 2019 season had revealed two particular dynamics of their team which were bound to have an impact on their strategy the following season. The first was tight end Kyle Pitts was a budding superstar who could be a dominant weapon in the college game if featured in the passing game. The second was Texan Kyle Trask was the quarterback on the roster best suited by a mile for executing the sort of dropback passing game which could make the most of Pitts' abilities as a flex target.

So while Florida head coach Dan Mullen has typically had a reputation for utilizing running quarterbacks and a power-spread approach to offense, the head Gator was instead able to show off his overall understanding of the spacing and angles in the spread offense and field a lethal spread passing attack. Kyle Trask threw for 4283 yards at 9.8 ypa with 43 touchdowns and eight interceptions (nearly half of which came against Oklahoma in the bowl game).

Kyle Pitts and slot receiver Kadarius Toney were the main weapons, Pitts caught 43 balls for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns, Toney caught 70 for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns. The two-headed running back tandem of Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis had only 172 carries combined which yielded 813 yards at 4.7 ypc with four rushing touchdowns. When the Gators finished drives with runs at the goal line, which wasn't often, they were just as likely to involve Trask or running back-up quarterback Emory Jones who combined for five touchdowns.

Pitts was the main component of the Florida offense everything else was built around. A team's inside receivers will almost always reveal the offense's necessary identity and approach to moving the football and the tight end in particular. If you have a lithe play there like Pitts who is "adequate" as a blocker or worse but absolutely lethal as a receiver, it dictates the rest of your offense. You're not going to be majoring in the run game if your blocker in the box is not only not a great blocker but also considerably more dangerous if flexed out or otherwise running routes.

If you're not majoring in the power run game than you need another means of picking up steady, chain-moving gains. The obvious alternative is to rely on more spread passing schemes and naturally this is where Pitts thrived anyways so it was an easy choice. So Trask got the nod for 2019 and 2020 and made the most of his opportunity and for their 2020 run to the SEC title Dan Mullen leaned on pass protection from a very veteran group of offensive linemen and some schemes designed to clear space for Kadarius Toney to run option routes at the sticks.

The Gators' strategy almost worked. They dropped a narrow game against Texas A&M and a bizarre contest with LSU but whipped Georgia and took Alabama to the wire in the title game. Then much of their team opted out of the bowl game and they were wrecked by Oklahoma. Their fatal flaw was a secondary which struggled to communicate and execute all of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's pattern-matching schemes and then a multi-year issue they've had fielding a remotely stout defensive interior. When the Gator offense was scoring in bunches the defense could get some work done but they couldn't be trusted to carry water in a tight or back and forth contest.

Heading into 2021 with different identity markers

The Gators have two quarterbacks on the roster emerging as the heirs apparent to Kyle Trask. The first is Emory Jones, who's likely to win the job at least early in the year, and who has never shown a mastery even of a simplified passing game. Jones is a well-regarded talent for plays like this:


This is a very creative play design, typical of a Mullen-coached team, but you spend time designing and installing plays such as this one when your quarterback has this kind of explosiveness and willingness to execute power run concepts. It's a counter run scheme but instead of pulling the tight end to serve as a lead blocker for the running back, the tight end releases up field on a POP pass which holds the middle linebacker and prevents him from following the pulling guard to the point of attack. The running back then serves as the lead blocker for the quarterback.

Here's the other option, redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, running the same play.


Emory Jones is listed at 6-2, 210, Richardson at 6-4, 232, and you can see the difference between their weights and relative strengths pretty clearly in their execution of this same design. Both of them can move well and easily, but Jones is more explosive and while he isn't afraid of contact he'll avoid tacklers. Richardson looked at Oklahoma's safety on this play as a target rather than someone to be mitigated. Neither player is nearly as proficient in the dropback passing game as Kyle Trask, but it's just as well because Kyle Pitts ain't here either.

An interesting component to Florida's blowout defeat against the Sooners beyond the snaps of these two young quarterbacks was the shuffling along the Gator line. In the Richardson clip you see perhaps 3/5ths of the 2021 Florida offensive line.

Left guard Richard Gouraige (6-5, 313) slid out to left tackle and the Gators put in Ethan White (6-5, 346 pounds) at left guard and Josh Braun (6-6, 352 pounds) at right guard. 2020's right guard, Stewart Reese (6-5, 354 pounds) returns in 2021 for an extra year thanks to COVID but he's sliding inside to center.

I buried the lede in the parenthesis there but Florida is fixing to play a trio of 340+ pound linemen as their interior in 2021. Quite a bit of heft coming at opponents and both White and Braun are pretty solid as pullers in Florida's gap runs like counter and power. The backfield will include senior running back Dameon Pierce, explosive up and comer Nay'Quan Wright, and some other additions we'll get to later.

While Mullen will undoubtedly work hard to get his quarterbacks at a higher level in the passing game this offseason and work out some of his typical tricks for the Gators' new generation of wideouts, this team is clearly going to be much more power-run oriented than in recent seasons. I expect these two quarterbacks to end up combining for somewhere between 150-200 carries while the running backs get a similar amount of work. It'll be a completely different approach than in 2020 with Mullen scheming up leverage for the run game to march down the field.

Such an approach though will not lead to as many points or as efficient of possessions as we saw from Florida in 2020 though when Trask was zipping the ball around the field 40 times per game. In 2021, a power running Florida team will need to play some defense.

Transfer portal to the rescue!

The Gators are in decent shape across most of their defense simply plugging in returning components. Cornerback Kaiir Elam had a solid year in 2020 and Jaydon Hill also played well in spot duty, safety has converted corner Trey Dean and some younger guys who caught useful action in 2020, the defensive line's edges returns Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter with Texas blue chip Princely Umanmielen waiting in the wings.

Where the Gators keep getting stomped is down main street where they have not fielded a good nose tackle in the Dan Mullen era and have not had a player drafted since he took over for the 2018 season. Here's the flip side of the Cotton Bowl Classic, Oklahoma running at the Gators.


I don't believe Tedarrell Slaton is as big as he's listed (6-5, 340) but for all his size he doesn't do much against the double team here from the Sooners. Meanwhile strongside end Zachary Carter gets singled by a tight end and can't make the play. It's a modest 6-yard gain but it's coming directly at the big guys up front for Florida. As it happens, Slaton is now gone anyways.

So Dan Mullen and his staff prepared the rituals, recited the incantations, and opened up the transfer portal in Gainesville. Out of it came former 4-star defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk from Auburn, who started a year ago, and Antonio Shelton (Valentino?) from Penn State who was a three-year starter for the Nittany Lions. Shelton actually caught my eye recently while studying Michigan's offense and the efficacy of their run game in 2020, some of their bigger linemen and schemes which overpowered other Big 10 foes ran into a brick wall against Shelton.

Florida will now be able to return their starting inside linebackers and two leading tacklers (same guys, Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate) behind a pair of 315 pound tackles who can obstruct guards from advancing on them and force some double teams in the box. It's hard to overstate how essential these additions could be for the Gators, who are likely to have a team strategy in 2021 in which they attempt to be the most efficient team at pounding the ball off tackle with the run game.

Speaking of powering the ball in the run game, Florida has two blue chip running backs on the roster in 2021 who have yet to play a major role in the offense. The first is Lorenzo Lingard, who was a 5-star out of high school who's yet to see much action. The second is DeMarkcus Bowman, a 5-star who spent last year with Clemson but decided to head back to his home state of Florida for the 2021 season.

Between a few roster developments planning ahead and then some transfer portal infusions, the Gators are completely making over their roster for the 2021 season to go from being a finesse, spread passing team who struggled to stop the run to having a massive, gritty interior on both sides of the ball. These days your team's identity can change that fast. The best coaches for big time programs are the ones with the knowhow to make considerable adjustments from year to year to make the most of the available talent. With the transfer portal you're potentially competitive every year but only if you can evolve enough to bounce between strategies.

Wow as a Gator fan I am really impressed with your depth of knowledge of our program. You were spot on with so many points here. A few things I would like to add. Watch out for Anthony Richardson at QB to really press Emory Jones. Several insiders have said that he has looked very good in the spring. Also I think some on here fail to realize is that UF was working with a brand new set of WR's in that bowl game. The receivers should be much improved over what you saw in the Bowl game. Obviously we will take a step back at Wideout and TE with the loss of some great ones like Pitts, Toney, and Grimes especially. But UF basically had 1 week to get the QB's and whole new set of Wideouts on the same page against a fast Sooner defense.

UF has one of the best strength coach in the business in Nick Savage and without his guidance during the Pandemic it really hurt the overall toughness especially on Defense. This offseason you can already see players transforming their bodies for the better. I expect a big improvement on Defense especially from players that last year were straight out of HS like DT Gervon Dexter, CB Avery Helms, DE Princely Umanmielen, along with many other frosh and sophomores. The 2 transfers from Penn State and Auburn were critical to shore up the run defense along with improved play from some of the youngsters that are growing up like Gervon Dexter.

Emory Jones can pass the ball too. I think people see the bowl game and forget about the receiver situation in that game. When he was playing with a full compliment of weapons he looked very good throwing the ball. He does have some issues with using touch and slowing it down. But the kid was one of the top QB's in the country coming out of HS. He will be pushed by Anthony Richardson though who eventually could be a great one if he Mullen develops him like I think he can. I do love the verbal commit UF got out of your neck of the woods in 4 star QB Nick Evers from the Dallas suburb Flower Mound . I think Mullen found a diamond in that kid that is rising up the recruiting charts now.

At RB 5 Star Lorenzo Lingard is starting to finally heal from the injuries he brought with him when he transferred from Miami. he had a great spring and is now in the mix along with some of the returnees. Demarkus Bowman had some minor injuries in the spring and will have to make his mark in the fall. He has a ton of talent and UF wanted him really bad out of HS when he played at Lakeland High. Glad to see him come back to UF because kid has a ton of raw talent. Hopefully he can get up to speed for the 2021 season.