The Florida Gators depth charts coming out of spring practice and then again entering the regular season resemble nothing like the one in play for Saturday’s home game against Texas A&M, which marks the halfway point of the 2017 season.
It isn’t a matter of a change here or there, the result of inevitable injuries, or perhaps a younger player emerging to push an upperclassman aside.
A combination of injuries and suspensions have left Florida with a three-deep depth chart that includes 24 freshmen and only nine seniors. Of the available 19 true freshmen from the 2017 signing class (four were suspended when the season started), 14 have been pressed into service.
Only nine of the 16 underclassmen who started in the Outback Bowl against Iowa will be starting again when UF (3-2, 3-1) faces the Aggies (4-2, 2-1).
At mid-week, 19 players were either suspended, out for the Texas A&M game because of injuries or listed as questionable or doubtful. That’s 22 percent of the 85 scholarship players the team is allowed by NCAA rules to carry at one time.
Coach Jim McElwain remains optimistic and refuses to use the loss of so many players as an excuse. He pointed out that beating the Aggies gives Florida a chance to play for the SEC East lead against fifth-ranked Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 28. And it sets up a November stretch run in which beating South Carolina and Missouri would put the Gators right back where they spent the first Saturday in December in his first two seasons: in Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
“Everything is still in front of us,” he said. “How we approach that, how guys choose to attack that will be interesting. I don’t care who’s missing. The guys that we have, have to go out and execute and play [their] tails off. That’s what has to happen. Guys have to be ready.”
The Gators’ issues began when senior Marcel Harris, the glue of a young secondary, went down for the season with a knee injury suffered in a voluntary workout.
Later in the preseason came the news that seven players were suspended while an investigation continued over credit-card fraud. Among then were wide receiver Antonio Callaway, the team’s best offensive and special-teams playmaker and four other players listed on the preseason depth chart, offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort and defensive linemen Jordan Smith, Keivonnis Davis and Richerd Desir-Jones.
Two more players joined that list three days before the opening game: running back Jordan Scarlett, who led the team with 889 yards rushing last season, and wide receiver Rick Wells of Jacksonville.
Also suspended for an unrelated matter was wide receiver James Robinson, expected to make a contribution as a true freshman. He was reinstated, only to ruled out indefinitely because of a heart condition.
Then more injuries began piling up, none worse than quarterback Luke Del Rio, who came off the bench to lead UF’s comeback victory against Kentucky but suffered a broken collarbone the following week against Vanderbilt.
Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland, who took on the role of the team’s main deep threat, sustained a high-ankle sprain in that game and didn’t play last week against LSU. This week, dynamic freshman running back/receiver/Wildcat quarterback Kadarius Toney (shin and shoulder), offensive guard Brett Heggie (concussion) and safety Nick Washington (shoulder) of Jacksonville may not play.
McElwain said some players have been trying to solider on. Safety Chauncey Gardner and Washington have played hurt and Cleveland is telling coaches he wants to try and play this week.
The bright side has been players such as Toney, running back Malik Davis (the team rushing leader with 401 yards), defensive end Jachai Polite, defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton and defensive backs C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson taking advantage of opportunities. Based on the current depth chart, the Gators will return 38 of 44 players listed on the two-deep.
“Everyone’s frustrated but we’re a tight-knit group and we’re going to come back and work hard,” said offensive guard Tyler Jordan.