The five most important players on any roster need not be the five most exciting players on the roster. And that’s true for the Florida Gators in 2019, too, as there’s only one name that carries over from our list of most important Gators to the top five electrifying ones.
And that’s true even though we start with an pair of honorable mentions, including one name showing up again.
Honorable mentions: Buck Brenton Cox, cornerback CJ Henderson
Cox is on this list because the Georgia transfer is potentially Florida’s most disruptive defensive player should he be granted clearance to suit up in something more than practice. He’s likely to be a star in those practices until that time, though, and fans will be clamoring for him and information on his waiver process until it’s complete — because, and see if you follow the logic here, a five-star edge rusher in Todd Grantham’s system is a very exciting prospect to think about.
Henderson, meanwhile, is here less for how exciting his play at corner is or isn’t — and he’s not a massive gambler at the position — but for what could be if Florida ever unleashes him on special teams. He might be the fastest player on the roster, and if he weren’t so valuable to the Gators as a defender, he could be a game-breaker catching kicks and punts.
5) Wide receiver Jacob Copeland
But it’s probably better to consider a player who actually could get deployed on special teams for a list like this, and Copeland certainly could fit that role.
Copeland played only very sparingly in 2019 while recovering from multiple injuries, and he literally only caught one pass as a true freshman. But do you remember what he did with that pass?
Yeah, he’s here for good reason.
It will be legitimately difficult for Copeland to see the field this fall, thanks to an utterly loaded wide receiver corps in front of him, but he possesses speed and quickness that only one other Florida wideout can touch — and you can probably guess both who that guy is and where he will rank on this list.
4) Linebacker (?) Amari Burney
I put just one defensive player on this top five because I think Florida’s offense is set to be exciting like it has rarely been in recent years in 2019.
But Burney is a defensive player could well light people up in the vein of Vosean Joseph, and well merits this spot.
Florida doesn’t have an every-down menace up front unless Jabari Zuniga takes a leap (or Cox gets cleared). Its safeties are considered adequate to good, not game-changers, and its corners are more solid than daring. But Burney, who has linebacker size (6’2”, 224 pounds) and defensive back quickness, is my odds-on favorite to be the reaper on the field this fall, and will have chances to do so both as a second linebacker and possibly as a Star defender in nickel and dime situations.
Burney is young, sure, and his on-field career thus far has mostly been limited to special teams. But I think that changes this year — and maybe in a hurry.
3) Running back Malik Davis
If this were a personal list of players I alone am most excited to see this fall, Davis might be No. 1. The Tampa native was so good as a freshman that his season-ending injury seemed like a deeply cruel fate for him and Florida alike; as a sophomore, incurring another such injury left him seeming star-crossed, but Florida found enough firepower without him that he faded from consciousness.
I hope that won’t be the case this year. Running backs with Davis’s quickness and burst through holes are rare, and he didn’t get to run behind the fully operational Florida offensive line last year, instead having to settle for a unit in flux over the season’s first three games. But he did pick up 90 yards on the ground in five consecutive games in 2018, and all reports suggest he’s fully healthy after those two injuries.
Davis is a complementary back for the Gators, who will ride Lamical Perine as far as his broad shoulders will take them and have thumper Dameon Pierce and freshman Nay’Quan Wright to compete with Davis for the remaining carries. If Davis is as good as he was in his brief cameos in years past, though, I have little trouble seeing him become the one that Florida fans get most excited to see in the backfield.
2) Quarterback Feleipe Franks
Franks is an ungainly runner. His, uh, sprint for 80 yards against Texas A&M in 2017 is an example of how even a top-level athlete can look completely unathletic while playing sports.
Franks doesn’t throw the prettiest ball, either. His motion’s a bit elongated, and the zip on the ball often isn’t apparent until it’s out of his hand. If you are looking for pure aesthetics from your Florida QB, Rex Grossman is still your Platonic ideal.
But those balls do come out smoking on occasion, and Franks also showed very good touch at times in 2018. And Franks may still run like an ostrich attempting to escape predators (Do ostriches have predators? Don’t look that up!) more often than not, but he seemed to realize that long strides and lowered shoulders really do work to gain ground as last season ended.
And if I’m being honest, I don’t think Dan Mullen has had a more naturally talented starting quarterback — ever. Franks has a better arm than Tebow and Dak Prescott, and is taller and bigger than both of those guys. He’s not as refined as Alex Smith was, sure, but refinement isn’t that exciting.
What Franks can do at his best in Mullen’s offense is something we’ve only glimpsed so far. If we get a sustained look at that in 2019, I’ll be thrilled.
1) Wide receiver / running back / Wildcat quarterback Kadarius Toney
We’ve failed Kadarius Toney by not giving him a nickname.
Reggie Nelson was “The Eraser.” Dallas Baker got “Touchdown Maker.” Danny Wuerffel was “Danny Wonderful.” Even Tim Tebow had people calling him “Baby Rhino” for a while.
But the closest we’ve gotten to one for Toney is probably Toneycat — which really describes the package of plays he ran under Jim McElwain, and doesn’t capture how much more Mullen let him do in 2018.
So let me propose one: “Thrill Ride.”
Nothing Toney does on the field with the ball in his hands is orthodox. He’s constantly trying to plant both feet at the same time to be able to juke either way, or sizing up each defender for a spin move. He can go north and south with speed, but dances east and west with some of the best players ever. And I’m frankly not sure if I’ve ever seen the first tackler bring him down in the open field.
All of that is thrilling for fans to watch, if a bit nauseating for coaches. And it’s why Mullen, hoping to be able to rely on Toney more in 2019, has preached the importance of him learning more routes and protections this offseason — if he can do things other than the spectacular, he should get more chances to be a whirling dervish.
Fans will hope for as many touches for Toney as he can handle this year, and he’s very clearly Florida’s best big-play threat; the excitement should be palpable when he trots onto the field. But if he can be a bit better at the boring things, he should be better able to perform his most brilliant feats when they are required.
And the possibility that he could do that necessary learning is exciting indeed.