Florida 2019 spring football preview: Can Mullen keep momentum going?

Feleipe Franks showed growth in his first year under Dan Mullen, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee him the Gators' starting QB job headed into 2019. Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Florida exceeded expectations in Year 1 under Dan Mullen, closing the season with a dominant performance against Michigan in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl to cap a 10-win season and top-10 finish. That strong start helped the Gators sign a top-10 recruiting class as well, their first since 2014. With momentum clearly on its side, Florida cannot afford to take a step back going into the 2019 season. The hard work to avoid that begins in the spring, with quarterback and a retooled defensive front headlining the biggest storylines.

2018 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC)

Spring practice starts: March 12

Spring game: April 13

Biggest offseason position battle: Feleipe Franks showed a tremendous amount of growth in his first year under Mullen, capping the 2018 season with a monster performance against Michigan in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.

But that doesn't necessarily guarantee he has the starting job heading into the 2019 season.

Mullen wants an open competition this spring to push all his players to get better, Franks included. Many expect Emory Jones to be in the mix this spring, but the biggest question is whether he has improved enough to overtake Franks, who is clearly further along in the offense. Franks, and the position as a whole, remain a work in progress. But anybody who saw Franks' progression throughout 2018 has to be encouraged, as Florida is in far better shape at quarterback than it has been in years.

Strength heading into spring: Receiver was once a position of weakness, but Florida returns everyone who played a major role in 2018: Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Trevon Grimes, Freddie Swain, Kadarius Toney and Tyrie Cleveland. Without question, this group has experience, depth and talent, another reason it's so important to get even more out of the quarterback position in 2019.

But the receiving group won't be limited to its veterans. Jacob Copeland, an ESPN 300 prospect in the Class of 2018, will get his opportunity to make some plays in the spring after redshirting a season ago. It's clear this group is the deepest Florida has had in quite some time, so it's natural to expect a much bigger year for the unit as a whole in 2019.

Spring storyline to watch: Florida lost two of its best players on defense in Jachai Polite and CeCe Jefferson at the hybrid rush end spot, making this one of the bigger questions the Gators have to address. Polite had a breakout season in 2018 with 16 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and five forced fumbles. And though Jefferson dealt with injuries and a suspension, there's no denying the type of impact he had during his Florida career. With both of them gone, watch for transfer Jonathan Greenard, Jeremiah Moon and redshirt freshman Andrew Chatfield, an ESPN 300 prospect who signed in the Class of 2018.

Another question is whether Jabari Zuniga could play at the rush end spot. Zuniga gave the Gators' defensive front a huge boost when he decided he would return to school. He had a big year playing defensive end a year ago and is the returning leader in tackles for loss (11) and sacks (6.5). Florida also signed three ESPN 300 rush ends in the 2019 class: Khris Bogle, Mohamoud Diabate and Lloyd Summerall. Diabate is already in school and will participate this spring.

Instant-impact addition: Greenard. The rush end comes to Florida as a grad transfer from Louisville, where he developed into the program's best pass-rusher during his sophomore season. Greenard was injured in the opener against Alabama a year ago and ultimately missed the rest of the season. But there's no question he can provide an instant impact at a position that loses Polite and Jefferson. In 2017, Greenard had 15.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks -- and that was with only five starts. He's enrolled and will participate in spring practice.

"You're talking about a guy that has shown that he can do it at this level and is going to be ready to go play when we kick off the season next year," Mullen said. "That's really an important addition for us."

2019 game to get excited about now: Georgia, Nov. 2.

Sure, the opener against Miami is going to reignite an old rivalry for one evening. But let's be real. That game won't have any bearing on whether the Gators make it back to the SEC championship game. The real rivalry game that probably will have the biggest impact (apologies to Tennessee) is Florida's matchup with Georgia. Kirby Smart has built a program and recruiting powerhouse up in Athens, and Florida has to get back to the dominance it once had in the series if it wants to compete for SEC championships again.

That is a difficult proposition with Smart in charge, but one that clearly awaits this team from now into the future.