Coach Dan Mullen, defensive lineman Zach Carter and linebacker Ventrell Miller were Florida's three representatives last week at SEC Media Days, and all three were asked about the same player who wasn't in attendance.
After two football seasons with Kyle Trask as the starting quarterback that produced trips to the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl — not to mention last season's trip to the Southeastern Conference title game — Jones is now holding the reins for the Gators. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound redshirt junior from LaGrange, Georgia, was once committed to Ohio State and is oozing with athleticism, but can he be effective in guiding an attack that has to rebuild following the losses of tight end Kyle Pitts, receiver Trevon Grimes and the do-everything Kadarius Toney?
"He came in as a very celebrated high school player, and I think for a couple years now, he's learned, he's grown and he's developed," Mullen said. "He's a completely different player than he was when he walked in with his understanding of the game and with his maturity. He also had an opportunity to look at a Kyle Trask, who went from pretty much an unrecruited player but worked, prepared, bought his time, learned how to do it the right way and all of a sudden was a Heisman Trophy finalist and a second-round draft pick in the NFL.
"When you look at that and you look at a Dak Prescott, who didn't play for his first several years on campus and now is one of the highest paid athletes in the country this year — I think Emory has shown the maturity early on that it wasn't like, 'I have to play from day one.'"
Amazingly, Jones already has appeared in 24 career games for the Gators, and he has made the most of his limited opportunities. Jones has 92 rushes for 514 yards (5.6 yards per carry), and he has completed 55 of 86 passes (64.0%) for 613 yards with seven touchdowns and an interception.
Much of that, however, has been in mop-up duty, and Florida defenders are not relying on the offense to rack up at least 31 points in every regular-season contest again this year. Fourth-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham saw a drop in production last season, a notable one, as the Gators surrendered at least 28 points seven times in 12 games.
"Our points are not going to be as high this year," Miller said, "so we plan on shutting people out this year. That's the expectation for my defense."
Last year: 8-4 (8-2 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Florida Atlantic in Gainesville (7:30 on SEC Network)
Fun fact: Following Florida’s 2008 national championship season, the Gators owned a sparkling 7-2 record in SEC title games. Their record is now 7-6.
Up next: Georgia
Carter and Miller are certainly the leaders of a defense that added Auburn defensive tackle Daquon Newkirk through the transfer portal. The strength of the unit, though, should be the cornerback tandem of Kaiir Elam and Jaydon Hill.
The Gators return top rusher Dameon Pierce and possess a legitimate receiving threat in Jacob Copeland, but the chief reason for offensive optimism is Mullen's track record.
"I don't know what my bread and butter is, because we've been all over the place with every different style of quarterback," Mullen said. "If you go back, even to me being a coordinator, to the Alex Smiths and the Chris Leaks through the (Tim) Tebows to Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott, there have been so many different variations.
"One of the reasons we've been successful is that we never try to take a square peg and put it into a round hole. It's identifying what our guys do really well and building around the strengths of not just the quarterback but the offense as a whole. We will do that again this year."
Florida's 8-4 season a year ago was soured by the home loss to a mediocre LSU and the 55-20 thrashing endured at the hands of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the latter of which transpiring after multiple weapons for the Gators chose to opt out. In between, however, was the 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship contest, with the Gators serving as the only team last season to play the Crimson Tide to a one-possession game.
"I just felt like we really have some unfinished business, and I wanted to be a part of that," said Carter, who led last season's Gators with 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, of his decision to return. "I remember after the SEC championship game — I probably stayed on the field for about five minutes, watching the confetti come down and all of that. I'll never forget that moment. At that moment, I knew I was like, 'We'll be back.'
"I made a promise to myself to give everything I've got this year."
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