The loss of RB/WR Percy Harvin as an early entry to the NFL left the 2009 Gators with Tim Tebow, and mere mortals for playmakers. Without Harvin and WR Louis Murphy, Florida needs to replace 14 receiving touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns.
On the bright side, attrition of playmakers on defense was non-existent. The Gators have a lot of returning talent ready to step up, and this is a roll call of the top returning playmakers and gamebreakers on both sides of the ball.
Florida returns four receivers who had at least three touchdown catches last season. David Nelson and tight end Aaron Hernandez each had five touchdown catches, and Hernandez returns with the most receptions and yards.
Nelson is a big target who is finally showing his potential. Hernandez has great hands, deceptive speed, and is a load to take down in the open field. Both look to improve on their 2008 production.
Riley Cooper and Deonte Thompson both had three touchdowns, and with their speed they should be able to get more involved. Thompson also has the elusiveness to see some touches in the run game.
There are several highly rated recruits behind these four, but none as proven.
Florida returns three 600+ yard ball carriers (Tebow included).
Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, two of the fastest players in college football, each averaged 7.8 yards per carry—with Demps getting seven touchdowns, and Rainey tallying four.
Emmanuel Moody looks to improve on his 424 rushing yards, while maintaining his high yards per carry (7.2).
The electric Brandon James may also see some time in the backfield, but will still do most of his damage on special teams.
Rainey, Demps, and James will all get looks on screens and Percy-type plays.
Ballhawks and Other Big-Time Defenders
Florida returns nine players who intercepted a pass, with five players who had at least three interceptions.
Ahmad Black, who would not have started but for an injury to Dorian Monroe, led the way with seven picks, returning two for scores.
The other safety, Major Wright, grabbed four picks, and bruised many bodies.
Brandon Spikes contributed four interceptions (two for scores), along with several sacks and tackles for losses.
Rounding out the leading ballhawks are corners Joe Haden, and the freshman sensation of the 2008 season, Janoris Jenkins, with three interceptions each...along with backup safety Will Hill, with two picks.
Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham each return as two of the best defensive ends in the country. They combined for 15.5 sacks, and several more tackles for losses. Cunningham displayed an impressive ability to strip the ball with three forced fumbles.
The returning defensive tackles combined for a few sacks while freeing up the ends, and with Omar Hunter healthy, the unit looks to be even more disruptive this year.
Despite their strong performance in 2008, the defensive line has a lot of room to improve, and should be one of the best units in the country.
Field Position Flippers
Brandon James is one of the keys to Florida consistently winning the field position battle, and he is always a threat to take it the end-zone. He was one of the leading punt returners in the nation, and had two returns for touchdowns.
He has been so consistent as a punt returner that Florida fans tend to overlook his mediocre (by his standards) kick returning last year.
The kick return team as a whole will have to work on springing James for some long returns.
The real gem of the special teams is the block units. Florida returns every player who blocked a kick (punt/FG) last year.
Carlos Dunlap blocked three kicks, Jeff Demps blocked two kicks, and Joe Haden, Ahmad Black and the rising sophomore end Willie Green each added a block.
Opposing coaches will be faced with a tough decision in 2009 in choosing whether to protect their punter from the block team, or sending coverage downfield to prevent James from doing what he does best.
Those are the Gators' skill position players and defenders who had a significant hand in Florida's 2008 BCS title, and repeat in 2009. Two or three unknown or unproven guys will probably step up to make big plays, but these are the guys who are sure to be the focus of opposing coaches' gameplans.