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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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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