Six more announced plans to stay in Gainesville through the 2019 season on Friday and Saturday, though — and the returns of wide receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Van Jefferson, running back Lamical Perine, defensive tackle Adam Shuler, edge rusher Jabari Zuniga, and linebacker David Reese are all significant boosts to the Gators.
Cleveland was first to announce his intention to return on Friday.
He was followed on Saturday by Perine, Shuler, Jefferson, Zuniga, and Reese — who all announced within a few hours of each other, and with graphics that look very much like ones prepared in-house by Florida.
Any one of the six returns would have been helpful to Florida, as all six players project to be starters in 2019. Perine was probably the single most important returnee, as Florida’s leading rusher in 2018, but Jefferson was Florida’s leading receiver, Cleveland is a dangerous big-play threat who could still have a breakout year as a senior, Reese averaged the most tackles per game on the roster, Shuler emerged as maybe the most consistent Florida interior lineman after transferring to the program from West Virginia in the offseason, and Zuniga is poised to lead Florida in sacks after serving as the Robin to Jachai Polite’s Batman.
And five of the six players — with the exception of Reese, a marginal pro prospect at this point — likely could have been selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, had they chosen to turn professional. None would have declared with a guarantee to be more than a late-round pick, in all likelihood — though an NFL team could always have fallen in love with any one’s skills during the pre-draft process — but all five Gators are talented enough to merit a pick this year.
And Florida will now no longer need to sweat out any other underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft: Of the 10 underclassmen perceived as possible early entries from Florida’s 2018 roster, all 10 have made public declarations as of this Saturday.
So it is a victory for Dan Mullen and his program that those players are taking an injury risk and forestalling a professional payday by returning for their senior years for the purposes of continuing to rebuild a Florida program that is intent on competing for championships.
And if Cleveland, Jefferson, Perine, Reese, Shuler, and Zuniga help lead the Gators to rings and things in 2019, their returns will be happy ones, indeed.