The Mack Attack Leads the Florida Gators Over Toledo 24-6

It was the Mack Attack today for the Florida Gators as Mack Brown, filling in for injured Matt Jones, rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns leading them to a 24-6 victory over the Toledo Rockets. Jeff Driskel had an efficient day at quarterback going 17-22 for 153 yards and 1 td.

With Matt Jones watching from the sidelines the question was would Brown be able to step up or would the Gators have to go to a running back by committee. Brown answered that question resoundingly as he had 97 yards and two td’s at halftime. Jones is expected back next week but look for Brown to continue to get his share of the load as the season progresses.

The Gators finished with 262 yards rushing overall as backups Mark Herndon and true freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of Gator legend Fred Taylor, picked up where Brown left off. On the Gators final drive, they combined for 75 yards and falling just short of the goal line as time ran out.

Coming in the Gators had hope to show some depth. They did that, but for most of the game didn’t need to as Brown gave them everything they could ask from him starting in place of starter Matt Jones. Brown was a workhorse, fighting for yards, breaking tackles, and was never stopped for a loss. The Gators will have a good one-two punch when Jones comes back next week.

Another question coming into this game is how would the defense respond after losing so many starters after last season and starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy to suspension? The answer was- Nicely!

The Gators looked very much like the dominating defense they were last season finishing top 5 in almost every major statistical category. They played fast and physical the way Muschamp preaches his defense to play. They definitely got the sermon in this one. Normally efficient Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens, was harassed all day by a defensive line and blitz scheme that forced him into hurried throws and inaccurate passes. He finished the game 17-38 for ony 155 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception by true freshman Vernon Hargreaves, the Gators first turnover of the season. It wasn’t all on Owens, however, as he was victimized by a number of dropped passes.

The Gators, as usual, were very tough against  the run holding superstar David Fluellen to only 46 yards on 9 carries, 28 of which came on one carry. Toledo never could get the running game going as they were playing from behind all day. The Gators were as efficient as you could ask for holding Toledo to 1-13 on third down. That was the story of the game for the Rockets.

The bigger story of the day for the Gators was penalties. The Gators have been at the bottom of the conference in penalties the last two seasons. They continued that trend today in the worst way finishing with 10 penalties for 70 yards. The Gators had a number of offensive drives stopped due to penalties and one killed a scoring opportunity all together.  The defense had their share of silly penalties as well including a fourth down substitution violation coming off of a Toledo penalty which continued a long drive for Toledo.

This game effectively was over at halftime as the Gators jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead, However, the Gators came out of halftime flat and allowed Toledo to hang around long enough to keep it somewhat interesting for fans. Driskel was very efficient in the first half, opening 10-11 for 101 yards. He did have one fumble in the first half one of few mistakes he made on the afternoon.

The Gators showed a little pop in their passing game in the first half with Driskel distributing the ball to a variety of receivers and making some plays downfield. In the second half, though, they stayed with the running game trying to shorten the game and keep the high powered, up tempo Toledo offense off the field.

Overall, it was a good first effort against a talented, determined opponent. Some areas for improvement were exposed, but certainly there were many more positives than negatives in this one. Still not sure how good this team really is but they certainly looked better overall on both sides of the ball than they did in last season’s opener against Bowling Green.

The Gators step up in class next Saturday as they travel to Miami to take on in state rival the Hurricanes.

5 Things to Look for vs Toledo

Jeff Driskel leads the Gator offense in their season opener against Toledo.

Jeff Driskel leads the Gator offense in their season opener against Toledo.

The Florida Gators begin the 2013 football season at home today against Toledo. With all the questions about this team coming into the season, here are five things to look for in the opener.

1) Will Jeff Driskel show the improvement coaches and players have been raving about in the offseason?

Everybody, coaches, players, and even Driskel himself have raved about the difference in Jeff Driskel going into this season from where he was last season. His knowledge and understanding of the offense, his command of the huddle, his ability to read through his progressions, his film study, his accuracy, and his confidence have all been mentioned as areas of vast improvement for Driskel through the offseason. Year two as starter and year two in this offense there should be a huge leap. He looked very sharp in fall camp but it remains to be seen if that translates into improved play on the field during game action. While his performance in this game may not be totally indicative of how well he will perform when the Gators open SEC play, it’s important for his confidence and that of the offense as a whole that he gets off to a fast, successful start to the season.

2) Who will step up at wide receiver to make plays and become the go-to guy that Driskel can rely on this season?

When Jordan Reed left after his junior season for the NFL draft, the Gators lost their leading receiver, the majority of their passing offense, and Jeff Driskel’s go-to guy. The wide receiver corps was everything short of inept last season, but has drawn rave reviews from coaches and players alike in preseason camp giving Gator fans hope that the moribund passing game will turn around this season. The question for fans is how well this unit will perform in an actual game? And who will step up to be the go-to guy this season as Reed was last?

Quinton Dunbar, last season’s leading pass catching wide receiver, has been said to have stepped up his game considerably in the offseason and has cross-trained at the X receiver position as well as his usual Z position. The staff is expecting him to make more downfield plays and be more consistent than last season. Solomon Patton, who was relegated to running jet sweeps last season, has been effective in the passing game thus far in preseason at the Z and at slot receiver, and Trey Burton is expected to see more plays in the passing game at slot receiver as he worked on route running, separation, and pass catching in the offseason. The guy that Gator fans are salivating to see in game action is Demarcus Robinson, a true freshman that brings size, speed, and natural pass receiving abilities which the passing game has been missing for a few seasons in Gainesville. How well this unit performs will be key to the Gators offensive fortunes this season.

3) With Matt Jones out, how effective will the running game be?

With Jones out due to the effects of a viral infection until next week’s game against Miami, how well the backups perform may be key. Will one guy step up or will it be a committee approach? The only back with any game experience is fourth year junior Mack Brown, who has been a disappointment at best after arriving in Gainesville as a highly rated high school back. There’s never been a definitive word on why he has languished on the bench, but likely it’s a combination of being fumble prone and just not being an effective inside runner. If that’s the case in this game, expect a running back by committee approach including former walk on Mark Herndon, converted defensive back Valdez Showers, and true freshman Kelvin Taylor. Muschamp had previously mentioned one of the two freshman backs would be redshirted this season and with Adam Lane not making the “trip” in the game day bus to the team hotel, it appears that he is the redshirt candidate.

Muschamp mentioned the other day that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. No one has a bigger opportunity in today’s game than Mack Brown. If he’s going to see the field and be a productive member of this rushing attack he must take advantage of this opportunity today or he’ll likely end up as an another highly recruited bust. While he’s not small at 6’0 215, the word is he plays smaller than his size and is more of a scat back, which would leave him as more of a role player than a marquee back in Muschamp’s downhill offense. Today, however, he’s got to play like a marquee back or you might see him overtaken by freshman Kelvin Taylor. Taylor, the son of Gator great Kelvin Taylor, is a prototypical Muschamp back with size, speed, vision, and cutting ability who is patient but can hit the hole hard. The only thing holding him back right now is understanding the playbook and holding on to the football, something that will keep you on the bench in Muschamp’s offense.

Herndon is a great story, a walk-on who worked hard and earned a scholarship this season and makes the depth chart, but realistically he’s only a stop gap measure til Taylor becomes consistent enough to play full time. Showers is a role player who will fill Omarius Hines’ role from last season getting the ball in space and using his speed, vision, and athleticism to make plays on the outside.

The running game is certainly a team strength, especially once Jones returns, with a deep, talented offensive line but this week’s game is an audition of sorts for how the depth chart ultimately shakes out moving forward this season. Expect to see a lot of guys in and out as Muschamp looks for somebody to step up and be consistent in order to become the full time backup for Matt Jones.

4) With a revamped defense, particularly at linebacker and safety, how well will the Gators defense perform against a high powered Toledo offense?

Normally, an opening opponent from the MAC doesn’t instill fear in an SEC power like Florida. However, the Toledo offense is prolific, proven, and very talented. With senior quarterback Terrance Owens running the show, a versatile guy who can run as well as throw, the Gator defense will be tested to be patient and disciplined in their pass rush not giving Owens lanes to throw and run through as they seek to bottle him up in the pocket and force him to rush his throws. The most dangerous player may just be running back David Fluellen who finished 8th in the nation in rushing yards last season. He is a big, strong back who they try to create one on one matchups for and he has the ability to both run through tackles as well as make tacklers miss. Once again, the Gators must be disciplined in their passing rush to not fall victim to the delayed handoff and they must be sure in their tackling. The final piece of the offensive puzzle for Toledo is wide receiver Bernard Reedy who is a Biletnikoff Award watch list member and a dangerous return man. He caught 88 passes last season for over 1100 yards so the Gators must be aware of where he is at all times and provide blanket coverage as well as provide top side help.

The middle of the Gators defense has been revamped this season with newcomers at middle linebacker and safety. In this game they will be without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy, and the backups Michael Taylor and Jaylen Watkins will need to play well in order to contain this high powered, up tempo offense. The linebackers and safeties will be sorely tested providing deep help and trying to contain Fluellen as well. How well these two units perform will be key to stopping Toledo’s offense.

5) Will the Gators pass rush be improved from it’s average numbers last season?

The Gators finished in the top five nationally last season in almost every statistical category except one: sacks. For whatever reason, they struggled to get a consistent pass rush last season. They started to show some life towards the end of the season as true freshman Dante Fowler and Jon Bullard began to catch up to the speed of the game and use their natural ability to  put pressure on the quarterback. After an offseason of film study, work in the weight room, and solid coaching on technique, those two guys are poised to have a break out season as bookends on the defensive line. They played last season on instincts alone but now they have experience and an understanding of what to do and how to do it at this level. It remains to be seen if that adds up to more sacks, but with the Gators having a lot of new guys stepping into the starting rotation, it’s important that these two guys step up to take some pressure off the backend of the defense. Today’s game will be a tough test as the spread offense of Toledo, like Missouri last season, likes to get the ball out quick to their speedy guys in space as well as hand it to the back on delayed hand offs to take advantage of overly aggressive pass rushers. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the Gator pass rush, up the middle and from the edges, responds this season to the challenge the staff gave them in the off season.

Florida Gators Open at Home versus Toledo

Head coach Will Muschamp begins his third season as he leads the Gators against Toledo.

Head coach Will Muschamp begins his third season as he leads the Gators against Toledo.

The long offseason for the Florida Gators ends at 12:21 eastern tomorrow as they take on MAC opponent Toledo in the Swamp. The offseason, which saw the Gators lose a ton of talent to graduation and to the NFL, meant opportunity to a lot of younger players and backups who look to solidify a starting spot and help the Gators rebound from a tough loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. The Gators are a 24 point favorite over the Rockets which is basically meaningless as the Gators have failed to cover the spread in recent years against opening opponents and that may yet be the case again this season as the Rockets return a veteran offense to run their version of the spread against a rebuilt Florida defense.

Toledo’s returns the bulk of the offense that finished 31st in the nation last season in total offense and 3rd in the MAC. Senior quarterback Terrance Owens returns to lead the Toledo spread offense. Owens threw for 2707 yards (225.6 yds per game) and 14 touchdowns last season adding 395 yards on the ground with 5 td’s.

Toledo running back David Fluellen finished 8th nationally in rushing last season. photo credit to toledoblade.com

Toledo running back David Fluellen finished 8th nationally in rushing last season. photo credit to toledoblade.com

Senior running back David Fluellen is back as well after rushing for 1498 yards last season and 13 td’s good for second in the MAC and 8th nationally. He is a Doak Walker award candidate for the nation’s top running back as well as on the Maxwell Award list which goes the nation’s top player overall.

Another award candidate for the Rockets is senior wide receiver Bernard Reedy who doubles as a punt and kick returner. Last season he was All-MAC at three different positions. First team at wide receiver and punt returner and second team at kick returner. He is a candidate for both the Biletnikoff Award (top wide receiver) and the Hornung Award ( most versatile).

The Gators, who lost the middle of their defense after last season with Shariff Floyd (DT), Matt Elam (SS) and Jelani Jenkins (SLB), leaving early for the NFL as well as Jon Bostic (MLB) and Josh Evans (FS) graduating, will have their hands full against an experienced offense like Toledo’s. They spread the defense out and try to get some one on one matchups in the running game and the passing game. Owens, Fluellen, and Reedy are all capable of making big plays against a revamped Gator defense. The Gators will have to play sound assignment football and be sure in their tackling in order to contain this potent offense.

It all starts with quarterback Owens.

“Toledo presents some problems that way in that their quarterback is very mobile,” Gator defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. “He can run around and scramble well and you can’t give up pass rush lanes. We definitely, in every game plan, want to affect the quarterback. We’ve got to do that in different ways. And he can make you pay when you get out of your lanes and (he can) do some things up the field. That’ll be a challenge for our defense, obviously a point of emphasis. it’s something they really rely on to move the ball.”

Running back Fluellen is the star of the offense however. at 6’0″ 215 he has good size to break tackles and take on linebackers and safeties one on one as well as good quickness and agility to plant his foot and make his cuts. The Gators have to be very sound in the pass rush as they love to use the delayed handoff like any spread team to take advantage of a defense’s aggressiveness in getting to the quarterback.

“He (Fluellen) can put a foot in the ground and get north,” Durkin said. “He’s a physical guy, he runs through tackles and he’s got really good feet. He can change direction. he does a lot of things. He’s good out of the backfield, he can catch the ball. They use him many different ways and rightfully so, he’s got a great skill set.”

“We got to know where we need to be and be tackling well,” Durkin added.

Fluellen is definitely the real deal and is certainly talented enough to play at the next level. Gator players need to understand this and not underestimate his abilities.

“You got to go in and realize this guy, he can play,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “He’s just like one of us, he could have been here, he could have been anywhere.”

“He’s really good, he’s really fast, he’s really consistent at catching the ball. We got our work cut out.” Watkins added.

Reedy is another weapon the Gators need to pay attention to when he’s on the field. With 88 receptions and 1113 receiving yards last season, Reedy can certainly stretch a defense and make plays downfield. He’s also a very dangerous return man finishing last season 22nd in the nation in punt returns (11.2) and 16th in kickoff returns (27.7). This is one area the Gators have certainly excelled at the last two seasons covering punts and kicks led by starting corner and special teams gunner Loucheiz Purifoy. They will be tested right out of the gate this season as new special teams coordinator Jeff Choate has his hands full with Reedy.

The Gators counter the prolific Toledo offense with an experienced and deep defensive line as well as arguably the nation’s best cornerback rotation with Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins who will play multiple positions in the backfield, and true freshman Vernon Hargreaves last seasons’ top high school corner back recruit.

Ronald Powell returns from an ACL injury and moves to strong side linebacker. photo credit to usatoday.com

Ronald Powell returns from an ACL injury and moves to strong side linebacker. photo credit to usatoday.com

At linebacker there are multiple question marks as their top player, sophomore middle linebacker Antonio Morrison, is sidelined for the game due to a suspension for his offseason arrest for punching a bouncer. In his place, career backup Michael Taylor steps in. Former defensive end Ronald Powell makes his return from a torn ACL which sidelined him all of last season by making the switch to strong side linebacker. Neiron Ball and Darrin Kitchens return at weakside linebacker and as backups at middle linebacker. Behind them are three true freshman WLB Daniel McMillian, MLB Jarrad Davis, and SLB Alex Anzalone. This unit will be severely tested in this game and, arguably, the Gator defensive fortunes rest on how well this unit responds.

The Gators have question marks at safety as well after losing both starters after last season. Redshirt freshman Marcus Maye steps into Matt Elam’s vacated spot at strong safety while former corner Cody Riggs will take the free safety spot. Behind them are junior Jabari Gorman (FS), sophomore Brian Poole (SS), and true freshman Keanu Neal (SS) as well as versatile corner Jaylen Watkins who can play multiple positions in the backfield. This unit will be sorely tested as well and must play up to expectations if they hope to contain the Toledo offense.

Defensively, the Rockets return only four starters from a defense that was average at best. Their strength is at linebacker where they have some talent and experience with Junior Sylvestre, Trent Voss, and Chase Murdoch.

“Their guys are good on defense,” offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “And what they do scheme-wise and how they move around, the energy their kids play with. They’re going to cause some confusion with what they do up front because I feel they’ve got some depth. They’re not just going to sit there and play straight up on us. They’re going to maneuver, plant, and twist and try to cause some confusion up top.”

“They’ve got a real athletic kid in Silvestre,” Pease added. “They like him, he’s talented, he’s big. They’re letting him see the ball, then he’s coming down and making plays. They’ve got some experience in Murdoch and Voss as backers and they’re kind of reliable guys that are steady in there and make plays, and they know how to get to the ball and they play with a lot of effort.”

They are very inexperienced in the backfield and shouldn’t pose a huge problem for the Gator passing game which is hoping to start strong out of the gate this season after last season’s lackadaisical effort. There is a Gator connection in the defensive backfield with former Gator Jordan Haden, the brother of Joe Haden, who signed with Florida but left after his freshman season.

“I think in the back end they’re very simple they’re going to be young,” according to Pease. “Madison is their most experienced guy. So they’ll probably keep it simple allow them to keep the ball in front of themselves, make plays.”

Mack Brown steps in at running back for Matt Jones against Toledo with his first career start. photo credit to zimbio.com

Mack Brown steps in at running back for Matt Jones against Toledo with his first career start. photo credit to zimbio.com

The Gator offense has a big question mark at running back coming into this one with starter Matt Jones out for the game as he continues his recovery from a viral infection that kept him out of fall camp up until Wednesday of this week. He is expected to return for next week’s game with Miami. Fourth year junior and career backup Mack Brown steps in at running back for this game but the Gators will likely use a rotation which includes former walk-on Mark Herndon, converted defensive back Valdez Showers, a former high level high school back, and two true freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Gator great Fred Taylor, and Adam Lane.

“I think scheme-wise, what we do, it probably stays the same,” Pease said concerning the effect of not having starter Matt Jones in the lineup. “But I think how we go about it, it probably changes it because Matt was going to be tired after every game. Now I don’t know. We’ll see. See who kind of has the hot hand. We’ve got guys who kind of get used at roles. They’ve got to embrace their role. If they want more of their role, then do a good job.”

Mack Brown will start and teammates are confident he can perform at a high level despite being a slightly different type back than Jones.

“Mack Brown, he’s a scat back and he can be a hard-nosed type running back,” according to defensive end Dante Fowler. “He’s really balanced to be a running back. He brings a lot, he hits the holes really fast, he has nice footwork. (Opposing defenses) just be ready to stick your nose in there sometimes. With Mack Brown you never know what he can do.”

As for the two talented true freshman,

“I think they factor into the game plan,” according to Pease. “When you say game plan, once again, they’ve got to understand their role. Will they be in there? They have the opportunity. Is the game plan built around them? Probably not right now. But we’ll see.”

Quinton Dunbar returns to lead the Gator wide receiver corps. photo credit to zimbio.com

Quinton Dunbar returns to lead the Gator wide receiver corps. photo credit to zimbio.com

They also have significant question marks at receiver and tight end. Quinton Dunbar is the leading returning receiver after tight end Jordan Reed left early for the NFL draft. The staff and teammates have raved about his performance in the offseason and he is expected to have a breakout season this year.

“He’s really stepped up. It’s night and day” according to starting center Jonathan Harrison. “The level of maturity and growth that we’ve seen in Dunbar is amazing. He’s more selfless and he really is willing to do whatever it takes to benefit the team.”

Soloman Patton returns from a broken leg and will play at Z receiver as well as in the slot. The word is he has stepped up his level of play significantly after being relegated to running the jet sweep last season and has been a consistent playmaker in preseason camp. Trey Burton is another who has reportedly improved since last season. He reportedly has done significant work on his route running, pass catching, and separation skills in the offseason. He’ll lineup in the slot, at H-back, and as a wildcat qb.

Three true freshman receivers have moved into the rotation after fall camp Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, and Chris Thompson. They’ve apparently moved ahead of returning sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman.

“I don’t know that they (Pittman and Andrades) were lost in the shuffle, but they are guys who were told before camp that they need to be productive,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “You know we have some good players coming in, I don’t care about where you are from or what class you are, the most productive guys will play. Those guys have been a little bit more productive.”

Demarcus Robinson has likely generated the most buzz from fans and coaches alike as he has really stood out in spring and fall camp with his size, speed, and ability. A big, strong receiver, he has the size to fight for jump balls, something that’s been lacking in Gainesville for a while, as well as great hands and leaping ability. He’s a natural receiver that catches everything he gets his hands on and is very hard to defend.

“He’s really developed for a young kid,” Pease said. “Physically he’s developed. He’s got a lot of talent, he’s got great hands. Is the kid going to make mistakes? Yes, because he’s a freshman. Does he have the ability to be fun to watch? Absolutely. is he fun to be around and to coach? Absolutely.”

Fulwood is another big strong receiver that has natural ability and great hands. He should see some playing time early this season as well. Thompson is a speedy guy who will likely man the jet sweep this season as well as special teams as a returner. Starting corner back and three way player Loucheiz Purifoy will be the X factor for the Gators as they will put in a weekly package of offensive plays for him in an attempt to get better downfield production from the position.

“There will be a package a week involved for him,” Pease said. “Touching it, throwing it to him, or possibly running.”

“I think he’s a kid that loves football,” added Pease. “I think he’s very natural being a football player. He makes it look so natural sometimes. I think he’s good at it, I think he understands it.”

Overall, the wide receiver corps should be vastly improved statistically over last season’s paltry numbers, the lowest in Gainesville since 1989 the year before The Ole Ball Coach took over. If nothing else they should be more efficient, better on third down, and make more explosive plays than last season. That alone will be more than enough to ask for in Muschamp’s offense which is predicated on the inside run game.

“The receivers are making plays on the ball that they didn’t make last year in practice,” corner back Jaylen Watkins said. “Going against Roberson, Purifoy, and me they won some of the battles this year as opposed to last year.”

At tight end, the Gators have big shoes to fill after last season’s leading receiver Jordan Reed left early for the NFL. Though Clay Burton has apparently won the battle for starting spot, this will likely be a tight end by committee approach as the Gators seek situational production from the position. Burton has the best combination of size and receiving ability able to both be an in-line blocker for the run game as well as a receiver in the passing game.

“I think Clay is just a very dependable guy that can play multiple spots,” Muschamp said. “As far as playing on the line and also playing what we call the “move” position, and being able to do some different things as well as that’s concerned.  So he’s a guy that gives you a lot of variety as far as when he’s in the game, you know, how are they going to count him as far as an on the line tight-end, and an off the line move guy.”

Tevin Westbrook also has good size, length, and is very athletic and can be considered a close number two at the position just not quite consistent as Burton.

“Well I think that Tevin has been a guy who gives you multiple things on the position as far as blocking at the point of attack,” according to Muschamp. “Some things as far as receiving he’s got his length, he creates some things in the run game that we really like, and his length creates some things in the passing game that we like. So, he has developed himself to not mind sticking his face in the fan a little bit and blocking at the point of attack, which was an issue before and his buy in for that is that he is a contributor on multiple special teams and also a guy who can do both things at the tight end position.”

Colin Thompson also has good size but is more of a blocker than a receiving threat. All three will see significant time as the Gators often use a two tight end formation.

With a deep, experienced, and talented offensive line expect a lot of the running game tomorrow as Will would certainly like to set the tone for the season with his downhill running game. Gator fans who are hoping for a return to the fun and gun of the Spurrier years will certainly be disappointed as Muschamp is still tied to the running game philosophically. However, expect them to be a little more aggressive in spots than they were last season especially with some downfield throws as they would also like to get the passing game on track early in the season. With Driskel a year older, more mature, and more confident, expect to see a little more throws on first and second down, especially play action, once they get established in the running game.

“I think, one, we’re more experienced,” Pease said of this season’s offense. “And we can take an approach to be a little more aggressive because of knowing the plays and what’s involved and how we attack defenses compared to last year. Is this going to be what it was last year? No, because we’ve got different components involved in all aspects. You’ve got guys with more experience up front, you’ve got a quarterback that’s got more experience.”

“There’s more people that can be more productive around on the perimeter particularly with the receivers. I think we’ve got to do things to get the ball in their hands, but they’ve got to also do things that they can be productive and make the defenses accountable to them.”

Overall, the Gators will likely be tested defensively, but offensively they should have little problem imposing their will. The questions will be how well the defense is able to play sound assignment football and tackle in space and if they can establish the running game early and often. If so the Gators should have an easy time and backups will likely see extensive second half time. If one or both of those is an issue than they might be in a dogfight to the end like they were in last year’s season opener against Bowling Green.

Kickoff is at 12:21 eastern time from the Swamp in Gainesville. Broadcast is on the SEC network and you can check here for local broadcast affiliates.

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Florida Gators Defense: New Year, New Challenge

“I’m excited to see those guys get out there. We’ve got a great group of guys that are talented that can play the game the way we want it to be played and I’m looking forward. I think they’re going to go out there and do a great job.”

Florida Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin

New defensive coordinator leads a defense which lost a ton of talent from last season. Photo credit to foxsportsflorida.com

New defensive coordinator leads a defense which lost a ton of talent from last season. Photo credit to foxsportsflorida.com

Last season the Florida Gators put up a strong defensive effort finishing 5th in the nation in total defense, 4th in rushing defense, and 2nd in pass efficiency defense. After the season, however, the Gators lost a ton of defensive talent to graduation and to juniors leaving early for the NFL draft. Overall, they lost both starting defensive ends, a starting defensive tackle, both starting inside linebackers and both starting safeties. Seemingly,this should be a rebuilding year for the Gator defense. However, they do return their top three corners, have a lot of experienced talent returning at linebacker and on the line, and have a number of newcomers stepping onto the depth chart this season. Certainly there will be some drop off from last season’s amazing defensive run, but just how much depends on a couple of things. Namely, how do the returning players respond to moving into starting positions and how do the newcomers respond to playing in front of 90,000 people in the Swamp?

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic that this defense will be good. Let’s break it down by unit.

1) The corner back rotation is strong.

Loucheiz Purifoy returns to lead Gator defensive backfield. Photo credit to heavyinthegames.com

Loucheiz Purifoy returns to lead Gator defensive backfield. Photo credit to heavyinthegames.com

Arguably, this unit may be the nation’s best with Loucheiz Purifoy, who’s projected to be a first round draft pick should he leave after this season, Marcus Roberson, who will compete for All-SEC honors along with Purifoy, and Jaylen Watkins a three year starter at corner for the Gators. Purifoy is so good that the staff experimented with moving Watkins to safety in the spring and will use him in a variety of spots this fall.

Despite having only one season of experience, Purifoy is the star of the squad.  Long and rangy with speed, he’s one of the fastest players on the team overall, he fits the mold that Muschamp likes in his corners. At 6′ 0″, he’s able to play taller receivers straight up and can fight for jump balls. His long arms and big hands allow him to play strong press coverage and knock receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage. He also has good feet and hips which allow him to break on routes and on the football. Players and coaches alike love his talent and effort.

“Loucheiz is very physical,” according to defensive end Dante Fowler. “He has all the things that a corner back needs. He can press you, he can off-play you, and he’s very, very fast. I think he has all the tools to be a great corner back.

“I believe he’s growing,” defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. “He’s becoming more mature to the game. He has a year in experience, he played a lot last year so he knows the game. He knows how to prepare for the game, so he’s becoming older and better.”

“Loucheiz,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said, ” the best way to describe him is ‘he’s a competitor’. You see that. Whatever you ask him to do, he goes and does it really hard and does it well. He’s a guy that can help us in all three phases of the game.”

Adding, “he’s a tough guy.”

Roberson, going into his third year as a starter at corner back, was talented enough to start ahead of Purifoy as a true freshman. He’s another tall, rangy corner with good speed and athleticism, great feet and hands, and quick hips. He and Purifoy make it very tough on offenses to make throws downfield. They do a good job of keeping plays in front of them, they’re quick, sure tacklers, and they rarely let receivers get down the field. Their ability to play man press coverage sets the tone for the defense and allows the staff to do different things up front including stunts and blitzes.

Watkins is the wild card for this backfield. He’s a versatile player that can play multiple positions including corner, safety, nickel, and dime and allows the staff to get all three players on the field at the same time. Asked about Watkins versatility, Durkin responded:

“Love it. His versatility, obviously, it’s great as a coordinator when you have a guy who can do many things for you that’s helpful and he does them all well. As a leader back there for us, as a senior, a guy who’s played a lot of football for us, that’s been great.

“When you watched us last year those guys rotated all year long. Roberson, Purifoy, Watkins all rotated and we’re going to continue to do that. They’re all good football players, it doesn’t make sense to have just two of them playing and one watching.”

” We have a couple of different combinations and we use different packages on defense to get them all on the field.”

The fourth member of the corner rotation will be true freshman Vernon Hargreaves, the top high school corner in the country last season, who will see time providing depth at the position. Hargreaves is a coaches son who is extremely mature for his age and is likely the most talented corner coming out of high school since “Prime Time” Deon Sanders. Players and coaches have raved about his maturity, his work ethic, and his skill set.

“Vernon, he’s just a ball hawk,” said Dante Fowler. “He’s a playmaker.”

“His work ethic (is impressive),” added Dominique Easley. “He wants to learn, he’s in his book every day, and his ball skills (are impressive).”

2) The defensive line is deep, talented, and mature.

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

Despite losing it’s best player in Sharrif Floyd and both starting defensive ends, this year’s line may well end up being better overall. The two true freshman defensive ends, Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard, played early and often last season and gained a ton of experience. Their potential is so good that the staff moved Ronald Powell, the nation’s top defensive end in the 2010 class and returning from two ACL injuries, to outside linebacker. Despite playing only on instinct last season, both players really came on late in the season. With a strong offseason in the gym and training with the staff as well as watching film, these two are expected to have breakout seasons this year. On Dante Fowler, starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley remarked,

“Last year he was young. I believe he was just playing the game off his athletic ability. This year he knows the game, he knows how to study the game, so he’s much more advanced than he was last year.”

“Dante had a great camp,” corner back Jaylen Watkins said. “He took more strides than I’ve seen out of any freshman. Him playing a lot last year in those big games got him ready for being a starter this year. He’s definitely a mature guy. He was a mature guy coming in last year and that’s why he saw the field.

On Bullard, Easley said,

” Jon Jon he improved a lot. I know when he first came in he was very raw. He was just a very raw football player. But being able to have the off-season to get in shape, studying film, working on technique, and stuff like that, it’s going to bring a lot of confusion to offensive coordinators because he can play defensive end, defensive tackle. He can line up everywhere, he’s very versatile.”

Speaking of Easley, he returns for his senior season after questions whether he might turn pro after last season along with his classmate and line mate Sharrif Floyd. He’s another versatile guy who’s played both end and tackle throughout his Gator career but will be counted upon to man the middle this season in Floyd’s absence. He’s shown flashes of talent throughout his time in Gainesville that had him listed as the number two tackle in the nation (behind Floyd) coming out of high school. He has, however, been plagued by nagging injuries that have made him miss numerous games each season. Barring injury this season, the staff is expecting him to have a big season for the Gators. To his credit, Easley said the main reason he came back for his senior season is because his mother wants him to get his degree. That’s a big deal considering he has a child to support and most certainly would have been a decently high draft pick last season had he left. Another reason for coming back according to him is to establish his legacy at Florida.

“(I came back) for the simple fact that I don’t believe I left my mark here the way to wanted to leave it,” Easley said.

And how do he want to leave his mark at Florida?

“Be one of the best,” Easley said. “Be called a Gator great.”

Two other returning tackles poised to step up this season are Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs. Orr is a fourth year junior who has played a lot of snaps at Florida but will be counted upon as a starter and leader along the defensive line this season.

“Leon’s played his best football throughout this camp,” Durkin said. “He’s done really well. He’s embracing the role at being a veteran now, a guy that’s going to be counted on to play more snaps for us. He’s shown evidence on tape to be ready to do that. I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Senior junior college transfer Damien Jacobs is also expected to perform at a high level this season. The top junior college in the nation two season’s ago, he played a lot last season but still required some time to get acclimated to line play in the SEC. This season, with Floyd gone, he should see significantly more playing time and will be counted on as a veteran to both play well and help with bringing younger players along including fellow East Mississippi alum Darious Cummings.

A couple of young guys stepping into the rotation this season are redshirt freshmen Bryan Cox, Jr. and Alex McCalister. Both guys sat last season gaining weight and strength in the gym and learning technique and roles on the scout team. They’re both expected to provide solid depth this season as they step into the rotation.

“Bryan Cox is a high motor guy,” Durkin said. “Plays really, really hard, great effort. Always getting after it. That’s what we’re about on defense. He’s a physical guy.”

“Alex McCalister, he’s a guy that had to come in and redshirt a year and help get his body right. He was slender for the position. He still has a ways to go on that but he’s more in a position now where he can go out and help us and give us some snaps in the game. And we’re going to count on him to do that.”

“The whole deal is when those guys are in there, you got to play a hundred miles an hour when you’re in there. There can’t be any drop off. And I think those guys understand that and they’ll do that for us.”

3) Good mix of experience, depth, and talent at linebacker

Antonio Morrison steps in at middle linebacker this season. Photo credit isportsweb.com

Antonio Morrison steps in at middle linebacker this season. Photo credit isportsweb.com

Despite losing four year starter Jon Bostic and three year starter Jelani Jenkins after last season, this corps returns a mix of veterans and talented youth that ultimately may be an upgrade for them. True sophomore Antonio Morrison returns to man Bostic’s old spot, after playing backup to both Bostic and Jenkins last season. Morrison is a physically mature, hard hitter who made the play of the game against FSU last season when he knocked quarterback E.J. Manuel out of the game. He has a strong understanding of the defense and his role and is a natural at the position. He has a good nose for the football and loves to hit, something required in a good middle linebacker.

“He made it very clear that he likes hitting people,” Durkin said during the spring. “We like people who like hitting people on defense. He made that statement very clear early on. The players recognized it. The coaches recognized it. We knew we had something there.”

An offseason of work in the weight room has increased his size from the 220 range he played at last season up to 235 going into this season. Reports are that he hasn’t lost any of the quickness, speed, or violence he displayed last season. He will have to sit out the first game, however, due to a suspension for his offseason arrest for punching a bouncer.

In his place, Michael Taylor will start and will be counted upon for solid back up play throughout the season. A career backup, Taylor has nonetheless played a ton of snaps and the staff has full confidence in his abilities. Two more experienced veterans are Darren Kitchens and Neiron Ball two versatile players who will back up at middle and split time at weakside linebacker. Like Taylor, both of these guys have played a lot of football for the Gators and have a good understanding of the defense and bring solid talent to the positions.

“We have guys (at linebacker) Michael Taylor, Darren Kitchens, Neiron Ball, all guys with playing experience that have played a lot for us around here so I don’t see any drop off there (without Morrison),” said Durkin.

Coming off a lost season due to two ACL injuries, Powell returns and has made the switch from defensive end to strongside linebacker. Powell brings size, speed, and playmaking abilities to the position and is poised to have a breakout season this year. Just getting back on the field, though, will be a major accomplishment for him after reinjuring the knee after rehabbing the original injury.

“Well I think, you know, a guy who’s been though a tough deal,” head coach Will Muschamp said on Monday. “You go through two ACL’s the setbacks, and as hard as he worked to get back the first time, that’s what people don’t realize, I mean he was a guy who was probably going to end up playing for us the latter part of last season before the second tear happened.  So, a guy that’s just put so much in to, as a coach, you get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing somebody put so much into something, and now you’re going to see them have the benefits of going out and playing.  Which sometimes, that’s really what’s fun about playing college football.”

His maturity and experience will be counted on by the team on the field this season but it was his maturity off the field helping Fowler learn Powell’s old spot in the off season that really stand’s out.

” (Ronald’s) a guy that’s willing to take somebody under his wing, a young player, and help him develop.  That’s what good football teams do, that’s what good football programs do.  They help develop the young players within how we practice, how we approach meetings, all of the things we need to do to be successful, and that’s what we got a bunch of older guys that understand that now.

Behind the veteran’s there is a crew of true freshman from last season’s heralded recruiting class poised and ready to provide solid depth for the Gators this season. Of that group, Daniel McMillian is the star. He came in physically ready to play, much like Morrison did last season and his work ethic and desire have put him in the rotation this season backing up Powell at strongside.

“McMillian, he has a nose for the football,” Dante Fowler said. “He was meant to play linebacker. He’s a hard-nosed football player, he likes to stick his head in and he always wants to learn and he always wants to try and get better.”

Two other freshman, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone will likely see time this season as well providing depth. Both guys came in with good size and are physically mature. Davis is a hard hitter and a natural at middle or strongside linebacker. Anzalone has size and speed and should see time backing up at weak and strong side linebackers.

“The young guys we brought in are going to play and compete and help us,” Durkin said. “And we’re very excited about where those guys are at through camp so I think we’ll be fine.”

4) The safeties are young but talented.

Probably the biggest concern after last season is the safety position where the Gators lost both starters and had zero experience behind them. Coming into the season, however, the staff feels much more comfortable. The reason is converted corner Cody Riggs and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye. The staff had done a lot of experimenting in spring and fall camps trying to find replacement at both positions including working three year starting corner Jaylen Watkins there. Cody Riggs, slightly undersized for the position was a pleasant surprise as he continually made plays and showed he had the talent and ability to fill in at Joshua Evan’s vacant free safety spot. Considering the amount of passing being done in the conference now, especially with more teams moving to the spread, free safety needs to have some corner skills and Riggs fits the bill perfectly.

Marcus Maye is another that has really stepped up in the offseason and showed he has the talent and desire to make an impact replacing three year starter Matt Elam at strong safety. Maye is a hard hitter with good ball skills that had shown the talent from the start but just needed a season to learn the defense. Apparently he learned a lot watching Elam last season. He and Riggs have huge shoes to fill but the staff and teammates have complete confidence in them.

“Marcus and Cody did a great job,” Jaylen Watkins said. “And that’s what we were looking for as a defense. Two guys to go back there and do their job.”

Behind them are junior Jabari Gorman, sophomore Brian Poole, and true freshman Keanu Neal. Gorman and Poole have both really stepped up in the offseason and have given the staff confidence that they will provide solid depth without a dropoff. Neal is a physically mature true freshman who might be the hardest hitter on the team and is strongly reminiscent of Matt Elam in stature and in his hitting ability. Both Poole and Jaylen Watkins will see time at safety and at nickel and corner in situations.

Overall, this team lost a ton of NFL caliber talent in the offseason, but returns a unit that is deeper, experienced in spots, and relying on some talented youth at some other. It appears to be a good mix and the staff is confident these guys can get the job done this season without a significant drop-off in production from last season. It may not happen right away, however.

“With any team it’s an ongoing learning process throughout the year,” Durkin said. “I think you talk about last year, we were a different defense in game 11 or 12 than we were in game 1. I don’t see that any differently now. We have guys that have played, we have good experience that are playing for us whether they were starters or not they’ve played a lot of football. And we’re going to continue to play a lot of guys. There will be some guys playing out there that haven’t played a college football game yet. It’s our job as coach to prepare them, get them ready. And I feel like we’ve done that. We’re going to continue to do that the next couple of days. I’m real excited to see our guys get out there.”

The season kicks off at 12:21 eastern in the Swamp against MAC foe Toledo University. Broadcast is on the SEC network. Check here for local broadcast affiliates.

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Florida’s Brent Pease: We’ll do What We’ve Got to Do

Brent Pease begins his second season as offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators. Photo credit foxsportsflorida.com

Brent Pease begins his second season as offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators. Photo credit foxsportsflorida.com

“We’ll do what we’ve got to do to win games. That’s our number one objective when we go on the field.”

Florida Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease

Through all the X’s and the O’s, the recruiting battles and depth charts, the motivational slogans and the pep talks, the bottom line for a college football team is simply doing what it needs to do to in order to win games.

For Florida fans who watched a moribund passing game last season and who have high expectations for a reversal of offensive fortunes this season for the passing game, this statement may bode ill. The statement was in response to a question from a reporter about returning to a semblance of offensive balance this season after last season’s 65-35% run/pass ratio. Pease wasn’t very comforting when he eschewed a 50/50 ratio and instead spoke of a 60/40 ratio which isn’t much different from last season. Of course, if the Gators can hit more downfield plays, convert more third downs, and take less sacks on the 40% passing then Gator fans will be quite happy. Pease’s statement, however, sounds eerily like last season as the staff repeatedly towed the party line about not being concerned with looking pretty, just doing what it takes to win the game.

The Gators come into this season with a ton of question marks, but the biggest obviously will be how much different this season’s offense will be compared to last year’s. There are many reasons to be optimistic, and there are many other reasons to be skeptical. We’ll start with the skeptics.

First, and foremost, it’s the same staff, same scheme, and same philosophy. 

As long as Will Muschamp is the head coach, don’t expect to see the Fun & Gun in Gainesville. Muschamp has made it very clear from day one that his philosophy is to pound the rock. After you pound the rock, you pound the rock. Then you pound the rock some more. When you get tired of pounding the rock, you pound the rock some more. It’s not that Will is averse to the forward pass, it’s just that he’s averse to the forward pass. But seriously folks. Muschamp likes to control the line of scrimmage, protect the football, control the clock, and control the tempo of the game. All of the above signal a run/pass ratio heavy on the run and maybe at best picking your spots to throw. It’s not to say they won’t try to open it up a little more this season, it’s just that until somebody, anybody steps up in an actual game situation to make a play downfield, expect Muschamp to keep it close to the vest. There are reasons to think there might be some playmakers in Gainesville based on camp, but again, until somebody steps up in an actual game and does it, there’s no logical reason to believe it will happen and don’t expect Muschamp to do anything different.

Secondly, it’s the same quarterback running the same show.

I know, I know he’s a year older, wiser, and more mature. However, like the wide receiver position, until we actually see him perform accurately in a game, until we actually see him go through his progressions in an actual game, until we see him make plays downfield in an actual game, do we really logically have a reason to believe? Sure the staff says he looks good. They always say that. They have to say that. Have you ever seen a coach not named Spurrier say that his quarterback sucks? Sure he looked good in spring and preseason camp and scrimmages, but we’ve all seen this act before haven’t we? Guys light it up in practice and scrimmages and then stink it up when the stands are 90,000 strong right? Driskel may very well live up to the hype, live up to his potential as the top rated quarterback coming out of high school, but until he shows that promise in an actual game, fans should remain skeptical. Even if only for their own mental health.

Third, it’s the same supporting cast at receiver.

I know all about the great wide receiver recruiting class. I wrote all about them on signing day. However, if you look at the depth chart, it’s the same guys as last year short of Andre Debose who is out for the season, but has been nothing but a disappointment at the position throughout his career. The three freshman listed on the depth chart Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Floyd, and Chris Thompson simply replaced the backups, last year’s true freshman Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman who would have had to make a major step up just to consider their performance mediocre. Heck, a couple of German Sheperds could take their place on the depth chart and no one would miss them. So the same lineup is back and is a year older but unless they went out and found themselves some instant talent, there is no logical reason to believe they will be very much improved over last season. Of course, those true freshman could very well step up and show out, but the odds of freshman making a big impact at that position are very low.

Finally, Jeff Driskel has no legitimate back up in case of injury.

Now this might sound odd because it is making a big supposition, but considering the amount that Driskel runs, designed or otherwise, the odds of him missing time due to injury remains high. Driskel was quite lucky last season to only miss one game (an easy opponent) and part of another considering how many hits he took. The Gators can only hope he could be so lucky this season. Remember, the first time an opponent faces you, they don’t know what to expect. The next time you can well expect they’ve game planned for you and will be actively trying to get big hits on you and take you out. If that happens, the Gators have no adequate backup to take his place. Sure Tyler Murphy’s been here forever, and got some reps with the first team during fall camp but to expect him to be able to capably lead the Gators to victory against the likes of Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, or FSU is lunacy. If Driskel goes down, the Gators are dead in the water and that’s the bottom line.

So now that we’ve gotten the pessimist’s viewpoint out of the way let’s take a look at some reasons to be optimistic that the Gator offense will be much improved this season, particularly in the passing game.

First, it’s year two for Pease.

This fact cannot be overlooked and is one that I’ve yet to hear discussed. As a coordinator, much like a player the first season is kind of a feeling out period and there’s a learning curve. Installing the offense and learning how your personnel fit into that scheme is a work in progress that first season. All the X’s and O’s in the world mean nothing if your personnel cannot run it effectively or haven’t learned it inside and out. Much like the Gator defense struggled in year one of Dan Quinn’s defense and then soared in it in his second season, it’s not unrealistic to expect the Gators to make huge stride’s in year two of Brent Pease’s offense.

“I think, one, we’re more experienced,” coach Pease said. “And we can take an approach to be a little more aggressive because of knowing the plays and what’s involved and how we attack defenses compared to last year.”

It’s also important to consider that Pease had the whole offseason to watch film and see how SEC defenses defended him as well as see how his players handled the offense. This should have allowed him to tweak the offense and his personnel and scheme to better take advantage of defenses this season. It remains to be seen how effective this will be but there is reason to be optimistic.

jeff driskelSecondly, Jeff Driskel is back and more mature.

An offense, particularly in the passing game, can only go as far as it’s field general takes it. Throughout his youth football career and up until last season, Jeff Driskel was able to simply rely on his athletic ability. Never before was he truly counted on to read defenses, go through progressions, and make accurate throws. While his talent, ability, and potential have never been in question, his knowledge and understanding of the passing game and field leadership was very limited. That alone explains why Muschamp and Pease limited Driskel’s decision making last season. It’s why they kept his passing options short and sweet while relying more on his legs and the rushing game to mask his deficiencies and protect the football. A whole offseason to reflect, watch video, critique every situation he faced, and further learn the offense has to have made an impact. Driskel’s a smart kid who was simply green. His maturity level, vocal leadership, and confidence have grown by leaps and bounds and it is apparent watching his on-field demeanor. It has rubbed off on his teammates as well.

” (Driskel is) much more vocal,” according to defensive lineman Dominique Easley. “I believe he has much more confidence in himself. He’s more vocal to the team, he understands what his role is.”

Confidence, alone, may be the biggest aspect of his growth. Last season, while confident as a runner, he appeared to be somewhat timid in the passing game and as a leader. Being in a quarterback competition, being thrust into the starting position, and having some level of distrust or malcontent among his teammates left him nervous, looking over his shoulder. That’s definitely not a situation you like from the quarterback position. With backup Brisset leaving in the offseason and Driskel returning as the entrenched starter, his confidence level has grown by leaps and bounds.

“It’s easier to be more vocal when you’re the set quarterback,” Driskel said during SEC media days. “When there’s a competition, you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I’m a lot more confident because I’ve played more and gotten a lot more snaps and played one year as the starting quarterback. I’d say the guys respect me a lot more this year. I’ve opened my mouth a lot more and just being around the guys, it just comes with it. You don’t flip a switch; it grows.”

Center Jonathan Harrison returns to lead the Gator offensive line. Photo credit to espn.com

Center Jonathan Harrison returns to lead the Gator offensive line. Photo credit to espn.com

Third, they finally have depth and experience on the offensive line.

This may just be the biggest reason to have confidence that the Gator offense should be improved this season. When Muschamp was hired at Florida he made a point in his opening press conference to mention that the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. What he meant by that is every team has good lineman on both sides of the ball. Usually the team that wins the line of scrimmage wins games regardless of what they have at skill positions. A year ago, the Gators were good on the offensive line but terribly inconsistent. While they did pave the way for the first Gator 1,000 yard rusher since 2004, too often teams were able to stymie the rushing game and they gave up far too many sacks. Some of that had to do with learning their third new offense in three years, thinking rather than reacting. The speed of the game in the SEC, especially with the talent the SEC has on the defensive line means you can’t be successful as a lineman if you’re having to think about what you’re doing, where you’re supposed to be, who you’re supposed to block. This was a major issue last season for the Gator offensive line. Another year in the system alone should remedy that, at least for the returning players such as Halapio, Harrison, and Humphries.

A bigger problem last season was the lack of depth. The top five guys played well for the most part, but behind them there was a huge dropoff in play. The line had a number of injuries that plagued it throughout the season meaning there were lineup changes week to week and it showed in the middle of the season when the Gators hit the meat of their schedule without their best five guys. This season there was an infusion of experienced talent that gave the Gators instant depth and ability. Transfers Tyler Moore (Nebraska) and Max Garcia (Maryland) both started as freshman at their respective original schools. Not only did they play but they played at a high level. Garcia was at Florida last season running the scout team so he was able to absorb the offense for a season. Moore is a versatile, talented player that earned the starting job at right tackle over last season’s starter Chaz Green, who unfortunately just suffered a season ending injury. Another newcomer that has been impressive is junior college transfer Trenton Brown who at 6’8 365 lbs. is a mammoth of a man, likely the largest player in Gator history, and with his long arms and unique athleticism should make an impact on the Gator offensive line this season.

“We still feel pretty good about our situation,” coach Muschamp said about the offensive line. “You know when Jon [Halapio] comes back, it gives you nine guys you feel comfortable about as far as playing experience.  Max [Garcia] and Tyler [Moore] are new to us, but both of them have played at a high level.  So both guys are guys that we have a large comfort level with. D.J. Humphries has played a lot for us and played extremely well.  Jon Harrison, you know, I’ll take him over any center in the country, as far as how he plays and how he approaches the game and being the rock for us up front.  Kyle Koehne, Trip Thurman, and Ian Silberman are all guys who have played and/or started games, Trip hasn’t, but Ian and Kyle have, and Trenton Brown has been a guy who has come along for us.  But that’s why you recruit, you have injuries, especially on the offensive line; it’s a far cry from three years ago, or two years ago, whenever it was, we had about seven offensive lineman on scholarship.”

Matt Jones. Photo credit espn.com

Matt Jones. Photo credit espn.com

Fourth, Matt Jones is the prototypical Muschamp back.

Ever since Urban Meyer took over bringing in smaller, speedy, scat back types, the Gators have been plagued with an inability to get the tough yards, to pound the rock up the middle of a defense and impose their will. When Muschamp took over attempting to install a pounding, downhill running game, he was stymied with Demps and Rainey, speedy backs but too small to take the inside pounding this offense requires. Last season, the Gators were able to get close to what they needed in that offense with Mike Gillislee, but was still not quite prototypical. Enter Matt Jones at 6’2″ 226 and now you have the size Muschamp covets at the position. Jones backed up Gillislee last season so he has some game experience and he really started to come on late in the season showing the promise that Gator fans have hoped for since Muschamp took over. He’s a big guy that hits the hole fast and hard, he can take on contact as well as make the quick cuts similar to what Gillislee could do. That taking on contact is really what separates Jones from Gilly. Jones can punish linebackers and defensive backs who step up into the hole while still having the agility to make his cuts and bounce off tacklers. Jones really showed out against FSU in the second half helping Florida move the chains when they needed to close out the game.

Finally, the wide receiver corps is a year older and has some talented depth.

I know what I said earlier, but somehow Gator fans have to believe that the returning receivers who were all extremely young last season and playing in a new offense have to have improved in the offseason. To their credit, the lackluster numbers wasn’t all on them. Driskel was often off target or late with his throws putting them into difficult situations, something you certainly do not want to do with a young receiving corps. Another offseason of learning, growth, and practice on timing issues should help considerably. Driskel having more confidence in himself, able to read through his progressions, and make more accurate throws should help this unit considerably as well. Additionally, having guys like Soloman Patton who was relegated to running the jet sweep last season step up in the offseason and leading wide receiver Quinton Dunbar showing improvement in his game has to give Gator fans some level of hope. Trey Burton has been said to have become a better receiver in the slot, improving his route running, getting separation, and making tough catches. It all adds up to improvement in the receiving game for the returning players at the position. Like Driskel and the offensive line, another year in the system should allow them to react rather than think which means they’ll be able to showcase their athletic ability more this season.

“The receivers are making plays on the ball that they didn’t make last year in practice,” corner back Jaylen Watkins said of the receiving corps’ improvement in the offseason. “Going against Roberson, Purifoy, and me they won some of the battle this year as opposed to last year.”

Additionally, the newcomers Robinson, Floyd, and Thompson give the Gators an added dimension they haven’t had since Muschamp has been here. Namely, size, speed, and natural ability. Robinson is 6’2″ while Floyd is 6’4″ giving them height to go up and grab footballs as well as bigger targets for Driskel to both see and hit with the football. Both guys have shown a natural ability for route running and grabbing the football. Robinson is said to be able to make all the tough catches the Gators couldn’t make last season.

“He’s really developed for a young kid,” according to Pease. “Physically he’s developed. He’s got a lot of talent, he’s got great hands.” Adding, “Does he have the ability to be fun to watch? Absolutely.”

Thompson is a speedster that will be valuable in the slot where he can matchup with linebackers and nickel backs and use his speed to make plays. Of course, these guys are freshman so Gator fans shouldn’t get their hopes up too high about how much success these guys will have this season, but it is encouraging to know that they present opportunities for the Gators to not only make plays but also to force defenses to account for them. If nothing else, they should prevent defenses from loading the box against Driskel and Jones like we saw so much last season. The mixture of experienced veterans and talented youth should add up to improvement in the passing game.

“There’s more people that can be more productive around on the perimeter,” Pease said of the passing game evolution this season. “Especially with the receivers. I think we’ve got to do things to get the ball in their hands, but they’ve got to also do things that they can be productive and make the defenses accountable to them or we’re going to be facing a lot of situations where there’s heavy boxes and there’s going to be hard runs inside.”

Loucheiz Purifoy will have a package of offensive plays this season. Photo credit alligator.org

Loucheiz Purifoy will have a package of offensive plays this season. Photo credit alligator.org

The X factor in the receiving corps is two way player Loucheiz Purifoy, the starting corner who will see a package of plays week to week on offense for the Gators. Purifoy is a natural playmaker whether it’s being a lockdown corner or as a gunner on the punt and kickoff coverage teams or as a receiver. He is one of the fastest players on the team and has a knack for playmaking going back to his high school and youth football days.

“I think he’s a kid that loves football,” said coach Pease. “I think he’s very natural being a football player. So to be playing defense and then all of the sudden switch over to do a play on offense and all of the sudden hit a post route. He makes it look so natural sometimes. I think he’s good at it. I think he understands it.”

Pease was somewhat mum about their exact plans for him but did say,

“There will be a package a week involved for him. Touching it, throwing it to him, or possibly running.”

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Florida Gator’s Dominique Easley: Pursuit of a Legacy

Dominique Easley before UAB game 2011. Photo credit zimbio.com

Dominique Easley before UAB game 2011. Photo credit zimbio.com

“I don’t believe I left my mark here the way I wanted to leave it.”

Florida Gator defensive tackle Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley, a high school Army All American who came to Florida in the vaunted top ranked 2010 recruiting class along with fellow five star defensive stalwarts Ronald Powell, Shariff Floyd, and Matt Elam. is a study in character. By that I mean he is a real character. Since the day he set foot on the Gainesville campus, Easley has been a card. A cut up. A real engaging personality. From his dancing on the field to his cutting up with his teammates, Easley is certainly a well known personality with a zest for life. His teammates love playing with him.

“Being on the field with him is really funny,” defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr. said. “I remember in high school I saw him dancing and stuff and I was like ‘ooh’. I have a nice dance with him. He’s a fun guy to be around, especially on the football field.”

To the staff’s credit, they haven’t tried to stymie Easley’s personality. They’ve allowed him to be himself and it’s helped to create team chemistry.

“(the staff gives you) a lot of freedom. They believe in family and family is being truthful to yourself and being who you are at all times. I mean, I’m going to be me.”

“Me” is  a lot of fun for players, fans, and media members alike as he’s long been an interview favorite for Gator beat writers as well as national media always looking for a good story.

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

His personality aside, however, it’s his character on the field that has Gator fans eager to see what mark he can leave in his final season in Gainesville. As a consensus five star high school all american, he’s always had the talent and the promise. He showed that getting on the field as a true freshman in Urban Meyer’s final season as head coach. He has shown his versatility being an inside/outside guy wherever the coaches have needed him to play. With Shariff Floyd gone to the NFL and the promise of true sophomore sensations Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard, Easley will man the middle of the defensive line for the Gators this season.

His seriousness on the field, his work ethic, and his fiery high energy leadership has really rubbed off on the rest of his defensive teammates.

“Dominique, just his play in general gets us fired up,” said senior corner back Jaylen Watkins. “Just like Matt (Elam), they go out and they go hard every play. When you got a guy like that, ten other guys see that, in general, they just want to go. They don’t want to leave him out there by himself.

Watkins added, “He’s definitely our energy guy. A lot of people aren’t energy guys as leaders but he’s definitely one. It’s good to have one of those guys.”

High praise for a guy who was more known for his gregarious personality early in his career. Despite his high motor and his potential for greatness he’s been victimized by nagging injuries that have kept him off the field numerous times throughout his career. It’s those nagging injuries that have kept him from realizing his full potential on the field at Florida. He was projected as high as a possible second round draft pick if he had left after his junior season last year. The knock? His penchant for missing time due to those nagging injuries.

So he came back to Florida for his senior season. Despite having a small child to care for, he came back. Despite the prospect of a career threatening injury he came back. Why? The reason is likely not what you might think.

Asked directly by a reporter, “Why did you come back?” he responded

“My mother.”

“She wanted me to get my diploma,” Easley said.

Character.

To a guy who eats, drinks, lives, and breathes football, sometimes it isn’t about football. He gets it. One day football will be gone. It may be today, it may be twenty years from now, but regardless one day football will be gone. A degree is forever. He gets it.

To some measure, however, it is about football too.

He went on to answer the reporter’s question saying,

“And for the simple fact that I don’t believe I left my mark here the way I wanted to leave it.”

“How do you want to leave your mark?” the reporter asked.

“Be one of the best. Be called a Gator great.”

Perhaps even more important is his desire to lead his team to greatness.

“Me I always won a championship wherever I went so I believe before I leave here I have to win a championship.”

Last season was a teaser as the Gators went on a strong run to an SEC east division championship before losing a heartbreaker to Georgia in Jacksonville. After losing a ton of talent to graduation and players leaving early, the prospect of a championship looked dim. However, with the infusion of new talent in key spots, the maturation of younger players, and maturity and depth along the lines, at quarterback, and in the defensive secondary, the Gators could very well surprise this season and make another run at an eastern division championship and possible SEC title.

And, perhaps, Dominique Easley can leave the mark he wants to leave both as a Gator great and as a Gator champion.

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One Man’s Misfortune

“One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.”

Florida Gator head football coach Will Muschamp

Most of the time when a coach speaks, particularly to the media we chalk it up “coach speak”. In other words, generic phrases used by coaches that sound wonderful but in reality have much less meaning. When coach Muschamp uttered that phrase in his Monday morning media session, it wasn’t purely coach speak. The truth of the matter is that injuries happen all the time in the game of football. As much as fans cringe when they hear the news of injuries particularly to experienced starters, there are players behind them on the depth chart that need to see it as their opportunity.

So it was in preseason camp when fifth year senior Andre Debose went down with a season ending injury. A blow to a wide receiver corps that was already lacking in experience and depth? Yes. However, to young guys like sophomores Raph Andrades and Latroy Pittman as well as true freshman Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Floyd, and Chris Thompson it’s an opportunity. There are only so many practice reps and game snaps to go around. When a man goes down it gives another player reps or playing time they may not have gotten otherwise. It’s always disappointing when an experienced player goes down, but it means it’s incumbent upon backups to step up their level of play and gives them the opportunity to shine. Of the above mentioned guys, it appears the three freshman have taken the most advantage of their opportunity and moved ahead of the sophomores on the depth chart released yesterday.

“Well I don’t know that they (Andrades and Pittman) were lost in the shuffle,” Muschamp said on Monday. “But they are guys who were told before camp that they need to be productive. You know we have some good players coming in, I don’t care about where you are from or what class you are, the most productive guys will play. Those guys have been a little bit more productive.”

One man’s misfortune… is another man’s opportunity.

Take Mack Brown and Mark Herndon, as another example. Clear cut starting running back Matt Jones missed all of preseason camp due to a viral infection that ravaged him and dropped fifteen pounds off his frame. With Jones out, it gave heralded true freshman Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane opportunity to showcase their skills much like Robinson and Floyd did at wide receiver. Only they weren’t as successful. Fourth year junior running back Mack Brown and former walk-on Mark Herndon stepped up in Jones absence and secured their place in the rotation as starter and backup in Jones’ absence. Will they stay there? That remains to be seen on how they perform in game action. For their part, Muschamp believes there will be no drop off from Jones to Brown. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease might not be so convinced.

“I think schemewise, what we do, it probably stays the same,” Pease said on Tuesday. “But I think how we go about it, it probably changes it because Matt was going to be tired after every game. Now, I don’t know. We’ll see. See who kind of has the hot hand. We’ve got guys who kind of get used at roles. They’ve got to embrace their role. If they want more of their role then do a good job.”

As for the two true freshman?

“I think they factor into the game plan. When you say game plan, once again they’ve got to understand their role. Will they be in there? They have the opportunity. Is the game plan built around them? Probably not right now, but we’ll see.”

Another injury created some opportunity as well. Senior captain and right offensive guard Jon Halapio also sat out the entire preseason camp with a torn pectoral muscle. His injury gave the staff the opportunity to cross train younger and newer players giving them much stronger depth than they’ve had in Muschamp’s two years. Transfer Tyler Moore, projected starter at right tackle, will be filling in at right guard in Halapio’s absence proving his versatility. Chaz Green, who had been having his best camp according to the staff was expected to start at right tackle while Moore is at right guard and was expected to provide solid depth at both tackle spots but now is out for the season after suffering an injury to his labrum that will require season ending surgery.

His loss creates even more opportunity on the offensive line for junior college transfer Trenton Brown who will move into the backup spot at right tackle behind Moore. It also helps younger guys like Trip Thurman, Ian Silberman, and Kyle Koehne who get more reps and are also being cross trained at various spots on the line. Of all the injuries, this one is the easiest for the Gators to recover from due to their improved depth this season.

“We still feel good where we’re at (on the offensive line),” Pease said. “I feel bad about Chaz because Chaz was having his best (camp) since I’ve been here. His best practice habits, his best practice time. We were kind of expecting good things from him. You take a hit in the depth because of the experience that he does have but other guys need to understand that it’s time to step up. The old saying goes “carry the flag”. Someone’s down, the next guy’s got to step up. I think kids have done that, I think they need to see their opportunity and go with it.”

“We feel we’ve got 8, 9 guys we can play with right now,” Pease added. “And that’s a lot better than where we were last year. We’re going to be fine.”

Halapio down, opportunity for other’s to step up. Chaz Green down, opportunity for other’s to step up.

One man’s misfortune, is another man’s opportunity.

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