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.