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Keanu Neal joins Vernon Hargreaves, three others in leaving Gators for NFL

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Florida’s deep secondary loss will turn into the NFL’s gain once again.

Talented All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III confirmed last month that he will be leaving the Gators early for the NFL.  A couple of days later, one of Hargreaves’ defensive backfield mates has followed suit.

“This was honestly the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but prayer and family support helped a lot. … It’s time to take the next step in my life and attain my dream,” safety Keanu Neal wrote in an Instagram post announcing that he will be leaving Gainesville early for the NFL.

A photo posted by Keanu Neal (@42problemz) on Jan 6, 2016 at 9:32am PST

The 6-1, 216-pound Neal started 21 games the past two seasons.  As a third-year junior this season, Neal was third on the team with 96 tackles.

Neal becomes the fifth Gator to declare early for the NFL, joining Hargreaves, running back Kelvin Taylor, defensive end Alex McCalister and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.

Florida’s Kelvin Taylor, Demarcus Robinson and Alex McCalister entering 2016 NFL Draft

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Add three more names to the list of underclassmen declaring early for the 2016 NFL Draft. On Monday, Florida announced the early departures of running back Kelvin Taylor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and defensive end Alex McCalister. All three will join teammate Vernon Hargreaves III as early entrants to the NFL Draft next spring.

“I’m expecting those guys to play all-out,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said in a released statement. “They’ve been working out. I think these guys have a pretty good feeling of they’ve got one more opportunity to be proud of what they put on film, to show their worth.”

Taylor, the son of former NFL running back Fred Taylor, has rushed for 985 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Robinson is Florida’s second-leading wide receiver this season, catching a team-high 47 passes for 505 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman Antonio Callaway is the only receiver on the team with more receiving yards.

McCalister has appeared in nine games, missing the last three games due to a foot injury. In his time on the field, he has recorded 26 tackles, six and a half sacks and recovered two fumbles. He was already ruled out for Florida’s appearance in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan as a result of his foot injury.

Floria is also losing quarterback Will Grier to a transfer. Grier, suspended for one calendar year for a banned substance, was granted a release from his scholarship by Florida, McElwain confirmed.

“The one thing I’ll never do is make someone do something they don’t want to do,” McElwain said. “In life, sometimes a change of scenery is good. In this case, he’s going to go have a successful career and go on to play in the NFL. We’ll help him and support him in every way we can.”

Between the transfers and early NFL Draft entries, Florida will have some key spots to fill in the coming year.

Defense the story of the half for Seminoles and Gators

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No. 12 Florida is already locked into playing for the SEC championship next week, but any thought of potentially playing in the College Football Playoff could be in some serious danger at home. At halftime in Gainesville, the Gators are trailing rival No. 13 Florida State 10-0 and struggling to keep drives alive.

Both teams have played well on defense, as demonstrated by the combined third-down conversion success between the two offenses. Florida has converted just three of 10 third-down attempts, while Florida State has gone without a third-down conversion despite having seven tries. The Seminoles did convert a fourth down play, and it was a big one.

Sean Maguire had one of those “no, no, no, yes!” moments midway through the first quarter. On fourth and goal from the one-yard line, Maguire rolled right and looked for an open receiver. As he ran out of room on the right side of the field, he threw against his body to a covered Jeremy Kerr in the end zone and somehow managed to thread a needle for a touchdown. The score lifted the Seminoles to a 10-0 lead.

Florida  was dealt a scare in the final minutes of the half. Running back Kelvin Taylor needed to be helped off the field after appearing to injure his left ankle. He returned after missing just a couple of plays for the Gators.

No. 11 Florida on brink of SEC East title after chomping Georgia

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It wasn’t supposed to happen this year, what with Jim McElwain still picking up the pieces left by the Will Muschamp regime and quarterback Will Grier suspended for the rest of the year and then some. It wasn’t supposed to happen this year, but it is. After a 27-3 thrashing of Georgia Saturday in Jacksonville, No. 11 Florida all but clinched a spot in its 11th SEC championship game and first since 2009.

All that’s required from here is a win over Vanderbilt next week. If that doesn’t happen, all the Gators would need is a win over South Carolina the following week (both games are in The Swamp) or a ‘Dores loss to Texas A&M or Tennessee in the weeks to follow. Point is, Florida is winning the SEC East, Georgia is not, and it could not be more obvious why.

On a day when neither team found consistent play from its quarterback, Florida did everything Georgia did not, staking itself to a 20-0 halftime lead through the trusted bit of well-timed opportunism the Gators have used throughout McElwain’s first season. The downpour started when Georgia’s Reggie Davis muffed a punt at his own five-yard line, and Florida’s Nick Washington recovered in the end zone to give the Gators a 6-0 lead (the ensuing PAT was blocked). The score remained that way until Florida quarterback Treon Harris, who’d missed nine straight passes to that point, hit Antonio Calloway for a 66-yard catch-and-run score with 5:06 to play in the second quarter.

As if that didn’t end the game right there, Florida’s defense made sure of it two plays later when Vernon Hargreaves III snagged a tipped interception at the Georgia 20 and returned it to the five-yard line. Kelvin Taylor punched in a three-yard score two snaps later.

Georgia had a chance to pull within two scores early in the third quarter when Davin Bellamy sacked and stripped Harris at the Florida 26, but the Bulldogs settled for a 27-yard Marshall Morgan field goal. The Dogs had one more chance midway through the fourth quarter when, facing a 2nd-and-goal at the Florida 3, Bauta tossed a pressured throw into the end zone, which deflected off Jalen Tabor‘s right hand and into the waiting arms of Florida’s Keeanu Neal.

The Gators hammered the final nail in the coffin with a six-play, 80-yard drive, punctuated by a 16-yard Taylor touchdown run.

Making his first career start, Bauta confirmed Georgia’s offense is comprised of one injured running back and zero capable quarterbacks. The junior completed 15-of-33 passes for 154 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. With no passing game to help him and no Nick Chubb to spell him, Sony Michel struggled to find room with just 11 carries for 45 yards.

Florida ran roughshod over Georgia for the second year in a row, as Taylor led the charge with 23 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns, Jordan Scarlett added nine carries for 96 yards. Harris rushed 10 times for 39 yards while connecting on 8-of-19 throws for 155 yards and a touchdown.

In all, the score can be accurately and acutely summarized in two statistics: Florida out-rushed Georgia 258-69 and enjoyed a whopping 5-1 turnover margin.

The loss drops Georgia to 5-3 (3-3 SEC) on the year, and clinches a 10th straight season without an SEC championship and a third straight year without an SEC East crown in a span when the division hasn’t produced a national championship contender.

That is, outside of this Florida team that just implanted its cleat in Georgia’s chest.

Florida chomping Georgia through one half in Jacksonville

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Faton Bauta has failed to spark Georgia in his first start, and his Bulldogs trail No. 11 Florida 20-0 at the half in Jacksonville.

Florida opened the scoring thanks to the generosity of Georgia punt returner Reggie Davis. Retreating to his own five to receive a punt from Florida’s Johnny Townsend, Davis muffed it and Nick Washington recovered the ball for the Gators inside Georgia’s end zone. The ensuing PAT was blocked. (Oddly enough, the score came with time expired in the first quarter, meaning there will be kickoffs to open the first, second and third quarters.)

Georgia’s offense, so inept for most of the half, missed spectacularly on its one chance to score in the half. Jump-started by a 37-yard kickoff return, the Bulldogs moved to a 3rd-and-1 at the Florida 36 when Bauta missed a wide open Jay Rome with room to run. Mark Richt elected to go for it on fourth down, and Sony Michel was hounded for a loss of three yards.

Treon Harris, who had hit only two of his 11 throws to that point, broke the game open with a 66-yard catch-and-run score to Antonio Calloway with 5:06 to go before the break. Vernon Hargreaves III snared a tipped interception on Georgia’s next possession, and Kelvin Taylor rushed in from the three two plays later.

Bauta completed 9-of-17 throws for 79 yards with two interceptions, and Georgia’s ground game has produced only 15 yards on 11 attempts.

Harris meanwhile, has connected on only 3-of-12 throws, but gained 97 yards with a touchdown among those completions, and Taylor has carried 16 times for 91 yards and a score.

Overall, Florida out-gained Georgia 212-94 while allowing only four first downs.

Georgia will receive to open the second half.