Random, rambling observations from the nosebleed section.
Is it me, or did Jeff Driskel look like a first year starter against LSU? After his rapid improvement through the first four games maybe we expected a little too much from him against one of the quickest defensive lines in all of college football. The LSU front four is so good they rarely blitz and can max protect with their talented defensive backs. Throw in Kevin Minter playing the game of his life with 20 tackles and two sacks, and you have the recipe for a first year starter looking the part. It’s no surprise the Gators drove to their first touchdown when Minter went out with “fatigue”.
Speaking of first year starting qb’s, when was the last time one at UF went 5-0 to start the season? 1997 with Doug Johnson at the helm. Didn’t make it to 6-0 though losing to LSU 28-21. Before that two other Spurrier first year qb’s went 5-0, Danny Wuerffel in 1993 and Shane Matthews in 1990. Both of course went on to lose number six as well, Matthews to Tennessee and Wuerffel to Auburn. Let’s hope Driskel has better luck this weekend against Vanderbilt.
Who was the last Gator running back to lead the SEC in rushing? Fred Taylor in 1997. Through five games, Mike Gillislee is leading the league with 109 yards per game. With a young qb and still unproven receiving corps, there’s a good chance he could finish the season in first place as Muschamp and Pease seem content to stick to the formula of tough inside running, protecting the football, and playing tough defense. With upcoming games against NFL style defensive lines in Georgia, South Carolina, and FSU expect them to continue to pound the ball inside with Gillislee. Oddly, the question coming into the season was could he carry the rock 30+ times per game and would he be able to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his career. While he hasn’t been injury free he has played through it and shown a toughness few knew he had, hitting the hole hard, moving the pile, and keeping the chains rolling. He is EXACTLY what Will Muschamp said he wanted at the position when he took this job. Good for him and expect to see him drafted on the second day of the upcoming draft.
Speaking of the NFL draft, expect three juniors to come up in the draft conversation this year with Shariff Floyd, Dominique Easley, and Matt Elam seeking advice particularly if they continue to play like they have so far this season. Not saying any of them will leave, especially with Floyd and Easley dealing with injuries just expect their names to be bandied about as potential early entries. They are the anchors of what will likely end up a top five defense by years end. Look for Lerentee McCray’s name to possibly pop up on day two of the draft if he keeps playing the way he has so far. Quick edge rushers who can drop into coverage are premium picks these days and McCray is playing his way into that conversation so far.
In 35 years of watching Gator football I do not think I’ve seen a worse situation at punt returner or kick returner for that matter than we’ve seen this year. It’s the only thing keeping our special teams from being tops in the country. We’ve got Mr. Automatic at kicker in Caleb Sturgis . On field goals from 55 yards in he is fearless and he consistently booms his kickoffs keeping opponents starting drives deep in their own territory. Kyle Christy has been one of the best punters in the country in both distance and in pinning opponents inside their 20 yard line. He consistently flips field position for the Gators allowing the coaches to play conservative with their young qb. Their young gunners Loucheiz Purifoy and Chris Johnson are two of the absolute best in the country. Speedy, difficult to block, and absolute fearless headhunters they both nail returners who fail to fair catch and they can get underneath punts inside the 10 yard line to keep the ball from being a touchback. At returner, however, no matter who’s been back there coaches just can’t seem to find anyone that can make good decisions. Too many times they fail to field the ball giving up precious field position, or they fair catch a returnable punt. The rare time they field and attempt a return they gain little yardage. The Gator’s punt return average is 9 yards per return which is good for 114th in the country. It’s been a headscratcher, for sure, especially at a school that traditionally has fielded some great ones at that spot.
While I’m thinking about it let me be, not the first, but the latest to give a great big shoutout to the big uglies. The much maligned, often misunderstood Gator offensive line. The veterans on the line have been through a lot the last few years and have borne the brunt of message board moaning, whining, and down right meanness. Guys like the oft-injured 6th year senior James Wilson, the message board dartboard Jon Halapio, Xavier Nixon, Jonathan Harrison, et al who have had to go through two head coaches with contrasting offensive philosophies, three offensive coordinators, and countless beatings by top five defensive lines week after week in the SEC. These guys have seen it all, heard it all, and with help from a new strength coach Jeff Dillman have now become the second half monsters Muschamp has preached about since he took over. Their hard work in the off-season has helped them maul teams in the 4th quarter in every game this year and left LSU defensive lineman Jeremy Mingo to say, ”They were definitely more physical than last year.” Perhaps their highest praise so far was to receive ESPN analyst Mark May’s helmet sticker after the LSU game.
Back to Driskel, playing quarterback is a lot like being a poker player: you got to know when to hold em and when to fold em. In high school, Driskel played on a team devoid of talent outside of his running and passing skills. Consequently, he spent a lot of time running for his life when protection broke down. When he got to Gainesville, of course, the coaches tried to teach him to trust his teammates and stay in the pocket and attempt to get the ball to his playmakers. The downside of doing that for an athletic qb is that it creates some hesitancy to running when pressured and, as such, can lead to sacks. We saw that against Texas A&M and it reared it’s head again last week against LSU. Not coincidentally, both of those teams feature some of the best pass rushers in the nation. Driskel just has to understand when he’s playing against defensive lineman with speed, strength, and quickness and the play breaks down he just has to be decisive at either finding a lane and making a play with his legs or getting outside the tackle box and throwing the ball away. He’s great at making the first guy miss, but at that point it’s either tuck it and run or throw it away. Besides, the best way to slow a great pass rush is qb draw plays, it forces defensive lineman to stay at home to protect the running lanes and that allows him an extra second or two at least to make a play with his arm.
Freshman watch: look for Matt Jones, Raph Andrades, and Latroy Pittman to play early and often this week. This staff seems more than willing to give young guys meaningful minutes in real time game action and this week sets up as a good one for these guys to get in and make some plays. Also, look for Jonathan Bullard, Dante Fowler, and D.J. Humphries to continue to make solid contributions this week. They have played a ton of minutes this year and expect that to continue against Vanderbilt.
Two things I’m hoping to see this week: downfield passing and play action. While this is in the gameplan every week, I expect an extra focus this week with tough games coming up against South Carolina and Georgia. Vandy’s defense is fairly weak against the pass and Pease’s offense is designed to take what the defense gives them. Look for play action early to take advantage of the Commodores aggressiveness and to try to solve timing issues that have plagued them all season.
That’s all for now, so take care and Goooooo Gators!