GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s most prolific offensive trio in decades, maybe even in school history, is gone. Tight end Kyle Pitts, receiver Kadarius Toney and quarterback Kyle Trask left behind gaping holes for the 13th-ranked Gators to fill this season.
Not even ultra-confident coach Dan Mullen is willing to say it’s doable.
“We always have really high expectations of ourselves,” Mullen said. “We’re going to try to be better than we were last year. That’s kind of our expectation. … We’re just going to do it a little bit different way.”
The Gators (8-4) averaged 510 yards and 40 points a game in 2020 – the program’s most yardage since Steve Spurrier’s final year in 2001 and its most points since Urban Meyer’s second national championship team in 2008. And they did it against an all-Southeastern Conference schedule in the regular season.
Pitts was a matchup nightmare. Toney was an equally daunting threat. And Trask was so good at dissecting defenses and finding open guys that Mullen barely even tried to run the ball. Together, they made Florida a legitimate title contender for the first time in years.
The Gators were in the hunt for the College Football Playoff before three consecutive losses: a stunner at home to LSU, a close one to top-ranked Alabama in the SEC championship game and another without several starters in the Cotton Bowl to Oklahoma.
Mullen spent the last eight months trying to rebuild a unit that lost Pitts, Toney, Trask – drafted fourth, 20th and 64th by NFL teams, respectively – and three more starters.
Emory Jones steps in for Trask after waiting three years for his shot. Jones is a multi-dimensional quarterback, the first one Mullen signed after taking over at Florida in November 2017, and has a stronger arm than Trask and way more mobility.
“This guy, he can launch that ball,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “That’s probably the most underrated aspect of his game.”
Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer have the daunting task of trying to fill Pitts’ shoes. Gamble and Zipperer combined to catch five touchdowns while Pitts recovered from a broken nose in November, but the duo also dropped several balls in the bowl game.
“If I keep grinding how I’m grinding, I think I can be the best tight end in the nation, not just SEC,” Gamble said. “That’s how I feel.”
Jacob Copeland will get the first crack at becoming Florida’s go-to receiver. He had 23 receptions last season for 435 yards and three touchdowns, flashing at times but never showing Toney’s speed or wiggle.
“I don’t know anybody the same” as Toney, Mullen said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody that we would utilize the way we used him within our roster.”
The Gators will get their first real look at all three key replacements when they open the season Sept. 4 against Florida Atlantic. Here are some other things to know about Florida, which begins SEC play two weeks later against defending national champion Alabama:
The worst defense in Florida history got a minor makeover in the offseason. Mullen surprisingly retained veteran defensive coordinator Todd Grantham but replaced secondary coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray with Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar. McGriff and Montinar are tasked with helping turn around a unit that allowed 30.8 points and 428 yards (257.5 passing) a game, all school records.
Few coaches had more public relations problems than Mullen in 2020. He was admonished for wanting to pack the stadium during a pandemic, fined for inciting a benches-clearing brawl and placed on probation for NCAA violations. Despite his problems, Florida gave him a raise and a contract extension. But Mullen has started holding his tongue on anything that might be considered controversial, at least so far.
For the first time since 2013, Florida will enter a season with a new kicker and a new punter. Kicker Evan McPherson left school after his junior season and was drafted in the fifth round by Cincinnati. Punter Jacob Finn transferred to Virginia. The Gators are expected to turn to Australian punter Jeremy Crawshaw and fifth-year senior Jace Christmann, who kicked for Mullen at Mississippi State in 2017.
Cornerback Jaydon Hill, a projected starter opposite all-SEC selection Kaiir Elam, will miss the season after tearing a ligament in his left knee in training camp. Hill sustained a similar injury to his right knee in high school.