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Florida’s five most important players in 2019

QB1 is No. 1. You’re shocked, I know.

NCAA Football: Florida Spring Game Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This morning, I published a five-minute, five-question guide to Florida Gators football in 2019. It’s good stuff for the layman who didn’t spend much time thinking about the team this offseason.

This isn’t that post. Here are Florida’s five most important players for 2019.

5) Linebacker David Reese

David Reese, the veteran linebacker who has been in the middle of Florida’s defense since arriving in Gainesville in 2016, is not an exciting player. He’s not particularly fast, nor big, nor really the sort of collegian an NFL scout takes note of. When he announced his return to Florida for 2019, most fans politely sorted him in behind the rest of the group he announced with when considering the importance of his decision.

Hell, he’s not even the most exciting David Reese on the roster, though the other one is out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon.

But the elder Reese made a significant impact on Florida’s defense in 2018 after missing the first three games of the year — somewhat defensively dodgy performances against Charleston Southern and Colorado State and a loss to Kentucky — with an ankle injury, immediately bolstering the Gators in the middle against Tennessee. Despite missing those three games, he still finished second on the team with 77 tackles, marking a third straight year with 49 or more, and despite being maybe the least awe-inspiring athlete in Florida’s defensive starting lineup, he is in line to be Todd Grantham’s defensive quarterback again.

For a defense that got younger, especially around Reese, that experience should be a substantial aid.

4) Cornerback CJ Henderson

I wrote at length about Henderson earlier this morning, and his combination of talent and experience makes him probably Florida’s best defender entering this season in a walk — reason enough for him to have No. 1 on his jersey.

But it’s Henderson’s speed that makes him as good and versatile as he is as a corner, and it’s his hustle — seen in chasedown tackles against Tennessee and South Carolina — that makes him a standard-bearer for the team. I have no qualms about predicting Henderson will have a strong season and enter the 2020 NFL Draft, because I think only injury prevents him from doing exactly that.

But if he does get injured, we’ll see an even greater measurement of his importance.

3) Buck Jonathan Greenard

Greenard, a grad transfer from Louisville who seems to have inherited the top slot at Buck from Jachai Polite largely because of his experience and familiarity with Grantham — who recruited him to Louisville — is really as much a stand-in for “Florida’s best pass-rusher” here as anything. If he can be productive and disruptive at Buck like Polite was last year — a big ask — then he’ll be an important part of Florida’s defense and atop most opponents’ scouting reports.

If he’s not able to do that, Florida is going to need more from Jabari Zuniga as a hand-down rusher or from Greenard’s backups, like the rangy Jeremiah Moon, to maintain the level of pressure that Grantham prefers to bring. And if Florida can’t maintain that level, its coverage is going to be tested all fall.

2) Center Nick Buchanan

The most important offensive player not taking snaps for Florida this fall is going to be the guy performing them. Buchanan is a seasoned veteran at this point, having started 12 games at center a year ago, and his presence on the line is a comfort for offensive line coach John Hevesy, who is replacing starters at the four other positions up front.

Having an experienced center to communicate calls and perform checks is a massive help for an inexperienced line that may be reworked on the fly throughout 2019 — Hevesy and Dan Mullen certainly tweaked elements of Florida’s line play in 2018 — and Buchanan could be a stabilizing force for a unit that needs one.

1) Quarterback Feleipe Franks

What, you were expecting Tommy Townsend?

I’ll quote this morning’s section on Franks in full...

As in every Florida football season since the departure of Emmitt Smith from Gainesville, the Gators’ most important offensive player is their quarterback — and in 2019, that’s Feleipe Franks, about as physically gifted a thrower as has ever donned orange and blue.

Franks stands 6’6” and weighs somewhere north of 230 pounds — Florida coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week that his realization that he was “6’6” and 245 pounds” and thus capable of imposing his will as a runner was key to his growth at the end of the 2018 season — and has arguably the best arm of any Florida QB since Rex Grossman. (That arm is, in fact, so good that the Boston Red Sox saw Franks fire a 94 MPH heater in his first mound work since high school and selected him in the late rounds of the 2019 MLB Draft, giving Franks a nice $40,000 signing bonus for his John Hancock on a contract to play a sport he probably won’t actually play professionally.)

But Franks had significant problems with his accuracy on throws and his general poise through much of his first two seasons, and last year’s first under Mullen threatened to go sideways after Franks underwhelmed against Georgia and took an early seat against Missouri in back-to-back losses. Backup Kyle Trask’s attempt to unseat Franks as a starter during the run-up to Florida’s game against South Carolina was undone by a season-ending foot injury suffered during a trick play in practice, however — and that may have, improbably, led to the spark the Gators needed to finish 2018 strongly.

Franks started slowly in Florida’s next outing as the Gators fell behind South Carolina, but he rallied the Florida offense — and riled up the Florida fan base with a finger-to-mouth shushing gesture for the home crowd in The Swamp — to erase a 17-point lead in the second half and win that game. And then he played the best ball of his career in Florida’s final three outings, torching Idaho, Florida State, and Michigan as the Gators closed 2018 with three wins by an average of 35.3 points per contest.

If Franks can maintain or improve on that level of play, he could lead Florida to another 10-win season, which might also include SEC and national title contention — and perhaps a dark-horse run at the Heisman Trophy. Such are the stakes for the quarterback at Florida. But if Franks struggles or is injured, it would be the greatest blow possible to Florida’s season, as his backups are the little-used Trask and redshirt freshman Emory Jones, who combined to throw just 38 passes in 2018.

So, yeah, the tall guy in No. 13 is the most important player on offense — and the roster.

...and I’ll reinforce this: His ceiling is winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Florida to the College Football Playoff.

No one, not even Franks or Mullen, knows whether Florida’s starting QB will actually reach that ceiling this year. But Franks is the first Florida starting QB to be situated to even strive for that level since Will Grier, and is being coached by the guy who was the offensive coordinator when Florida last produced a Heisman winner and won a national title.

The sky, for once, seems to be the limit — and it’s because of Franks’s celestial talents.