The long college football offseason is nearing an end as the countdown to the 2013 season reaches it’s final week. The first gameweek of the season begins tomorrow as the Gators can finally focus on an opponent, MAC member Toledo.
The Gators begin the 2013 season short of a ton of talent, mostly on defense, that led the Gators to an 11-2 record and a #9 final AP ranking. What they left behind is a ton of talent, albeit somewhat less experienced, and a hopefully much improved offense.
On defense, the strength is a corner back rotation that may arguably be the best in the nation with Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, considered by many draft analysts to be a first round draft pick should he leave after this season, as well as three year starter Jaylen Watkins and top rated true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III. The defensive line will be anchored by senior Dominique Easley a versatile inside-outside guy who will likely see more time inside this season, returning true sophomore bookends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler and Buck End/outside linebacker Ronald Powell. Depth will be provided from junior college transfers Darious Cummings and Damien Jacobs, redshirt freshman Bryan Cox, Jr. and Alex McCallister, and junior Leon Orr.
The question marks coming into the season are at safety, where the Gators lost both starters, and linebacker where they lost both starting inside linebackers. At safety the Gators are very green but talented and deep with Cody Riggs, an undersized athletic former corner taking over the free safety spot and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye a rangy hard hitter filling in for Matt Elam at the strong safety spot. Depth will be provided by junior Jabari Gorman, sophomore Brian Poole, and true freshman Keanu Neal, who may be the hardest hitter in the secondary.
At linebacker, hard hitting sophomore Antonio Morrison takes over for Jon Bostic at middle linebacker. The other starting spots will likely go to Neiron Ball, who appears to finally be fully recovered from the medical condition that sidelined him for his first couple of seasons, Darrin Kitchens, and Ronald Powell who moves to outside linebacker from his usual defensive end position. Michael Taylor will fill in for Morrison during his start of the season suspension and will provide depth at both inside linebacker positions. Behind them will be a trio of talented true freshman Daniel McMillan, Jarrad Davis, and Alex Anzalone. Those three along with Matt Rolin who is out for the season, may represent the strongest true freshman linebacker class in Gator history. That’s a strong statement considering the talent that has come through Gainesville over the years.
Offensively, the Gators are looking for a huge leap from quarterback Jeff Driskel. In his second full season as the starter and after losing backup Jacoby Brisset, Driskel is the unqualified leader of the Gator offense. Behind him are highly inexperienced backups Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg.
At running back, Matt Jones, last season’s backup to Mike Gillislee, returns to anchor the downhill running game that Muschamp likes to run. He starts the season on the bench however, due to a viral infection that sidelined him the whole of preseason camp. His return is indefinite. In his place, former top rated high school back but career bench sitter Mack Brown steps in hoping to show the promise many fans had for him when he signed with the Gators. Depth is provided by former walk-on Mark Herndon who was caught by surprise at the end of preseason camp by the coaching staff and awarded a scholarship for this season, and Valdez Showers, a former defensive back who was switched to running back during preseason camp. Showers was a high school running back and represents a change of pace style for the Gators and will primarily fill the role that Omarious Hines played last season. At fullback, Hunter Joyer returns to provide outstanding lead blocking for the Gator running backs. All everything Trey Burton returns as well to provide solid backup at fullback as well as his usual wildcat/H back/ wide receiver roles. Two top rated true freshman Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane showed great promise in camp but had issues with fumbling that likely will keep them on the bench. The staff was mum on whether they would play or be redshirted this season.
The strength of the offense this season will be the offensive line, with returning starters Jon Halapio at right guard, jonathan Harrison at center, Chaz Green at right tackle, and D.J. Humphries at left tackle. The Gators picked up a ton of depth along the line with the additions of transfers Tyler Moore, a right tackle who will open at right guard filling in for Halapio who is out with a torn pectoral muscle until at least the Tennessee game, and Max Garcia a left guard who is flexible enough to slide over to left tackle as well. One of the more interesting additions will be mammoth junior college transfer tackle Trenton Brown who at 6’9″ and 365 lbs. may well be the largest player in the history of the Florida Gators. The Gators have a lot of versatility as well in backup centers Kyle Koehne and Trip Thurman who can play any positions along the line and can be counted on to provide solid depth this season.
The biggest question mark on the team overall coming into this season would certainly have to be the wide receivers. Last season’s squad provided the least production at the position since 1989, the year before Steve Spurrier brought the fun n gun to Gainesville. In fact, the main production in the passing game came from tight end Jordan Reed who left after his junior season for the NFL. Don’t look for history to repeat itself here as the tight end position is very green this season with Clay Burton having the edge coming into the season. Two sophomores, Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson the top tight ends coming out of high school two seasons ago, should see plenty of time as well with Taylor being more of a receiver and Thompson being more of a blocker. Converted defensive end Tevin Westbrook may see some action as well. Overall, the Gators lose a ton of playmaking ability at the position, but gain depth and in-line blocking ability which is important in the running game.
At wideout, the Gators should be improved if not vastly improved. Quinton Dunbar, last season’s top wideout producer, returns to lead the Gators. The word out of camp is he has improved dramatically and should have a breakout season. Fifth year senior Andre Debose was said to be set to finally show his potential at more than just returner when he was injured in camp and out for the season. The Gators are seeking a medical redshirt for Debose. Another returning receiver that is said to be poised to step up his level of production is Soloman Patton who previously had been limited to running the jet sweep but is being counted on to be a down field playmaker this season and really showed out in camp. Sophomores Raph Andrades and Latroy Pittman are a year older and should provide some production beyond downfield blocking this season. Trey Burton, who fills many roles on offense, is said to be vastly improved as a receiver this season and should be able to provide solid production in the slot.
The wild card will be starting corner Louichez Purifoy who spent some time at wide receiver and whom the staff had said would see increased time at the position this season as they look for downfield playmakers. However, with what the staff saw during preseason camp from returning players and a couple of true freshman, it appears Purifoy’s role on offense may be downplayed. The two freshman are Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. Robinson, the star of the five man receiver recruiting haul for the Gators, has been everything that the staff was hoping for when they signed him. A big, rangy receiver with speed, he possesses natural receiving ability able to fight for jump balls and snag balls out away from his body. The staff is really confident in his ability to provide the downfield threat the Gators have lacked in previous seasons. Fulwood, at 6’4″ is the tall receiver they’ve lacked and also has the strength to fight for balls in the air as well as fight his way through press coverage. The staff has heaped a load of praise on both freshman through preseason camp and, while neither will be starters to start the season, expect them to play a ton and likely move into starting spots as the season progresses. Two other freshman who will likely see some time are speedster Chris Thompson, who will be active in the return game as well as running the jet sweep, and Ahmad Bailey, a shifty slot receiver who has playmaker written all over him but is green as a receiver after playing quarterback in high school.
Overall, the Gators lost a ton of talent and experience after last season, but gained a ton of talent and depth this season. Defensively, they may lose a step from the top five ranking they posted last season, but don’t expect them to drop far if the youth plays up to their potential. A new defensive coordinator in former special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin could potentially be problematic as well. Offensively, the Gators should be much improved if the running game steps up and the receivers can produce as well as the staff thinks they will. The line with improved depth, talent, and help at tight end should be the team strength and can be counted on to open up holes in the downhill running game for the stable of backs as well as provide improved protection for Jeff Driskel who’s play should be vastly better this season in his second season in Brent Pease’s offense.
The Gators open the season ranked #10 nationally in the AP poll but still only third best in the SEC East behind Georgia and South Carolina. The ranking may be a little high considering the amount of talent that left Gainesville after last season and the inexperience of the returning players. However, if the returning players and talented true freshman class can gel and step up at key spots, it’s not unlikely that this Gator team could make a serious run at the East title and possibly an SEC championship. The schedule is tough with Miami in game two and their usual LSU and FSU games as well as Georgia and South Carolina but it is a schedule that lends itself to a high ranking if they can make it through successfully.
The season begins at 11:30 am Saturday 8/31 at home in the Swamp versus MAC foe Toledo.