Florida Gator Recruiting: The Friday Five 3/14

If it’s Friday it’s time for the Friday Five where Swamp Music introduces you to five recruits on the Florida Gators recruiting board. After putting together two consecutive top ten recruiting classes, the Gators staff is hard at work building relationships and seeking top talent for the 2015 class. And with recruiting starting earlier and earlier, they are working on 2016 as well and even some for 2017. Crazy to think about it but with recruiting being so competitive, college coaching staffs have to always keep their eye on the future.

Four star cornerback Marcus Lewis from Washington, D.C. Gonzaga high has the Gators in his top two. (elevenwarriors)

Four star cornerback Marcus Lewis from Washington, D.C. Gonzaga high has the Gators in his top two. (elevenwarriors)

One 2015 recruit the staff is really high on is Washington, D.C. four star cornerback Marcus Lewis. Lewis is a big time corner from the same area that recent Gator enrollee cornerback Jalen Tabor hails from. At 6’2 180, Lewis has great size and length and also has great speed running a reported sub 4.4 forty. According to Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Dohn who covers that area of the country,

“Lewis is the type of long, athletic cornerback teams crave. His size and mentality make him a possible safety as well, but he has the athleticism and hip flexibility to play cornerback. He is at his best driving on the ball and closing to make the tackle. He gets off blocks well and can shut down the corner in the running game. He has the speed to cover down the field and he has good ball-tracking skills.”

Head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin are always on the lookout for tall, speedy, athletic corners and Lewis fits the bill perfectly. As always, it can be tough to recruit out of state guys but Lewis has listed the Gators in his top two with Ohio State leading.

Lewis told 247sports recruiting analyst Luke Stampini that he is impressed by how Florida coaches it’s defensive backs and gets them to the NFL,

“That definitely helps (getting db’s to the NFL).  That shows they know what they are doing. They put a lot of guys in the league and that’s still going to happen because they got some great defensive backs right now.”

It’s still early but it is a good sign that Lewis has the Gators so high early on. Having Tabor on board could help the Gators chances down the road as Tabor is well respected in the D.C. area and he is a good recruiter in his own right. Lewis is slated to visit the Gators the weekend of the 21st, according to Stampini, as he makes a swing through Florida to visit all three of the major state schools. Once he makes it on campus, it will be easier to get a read on the Gators chances here.

Keeping that eye on the future the Gators offered a couple of big time 2016 recruits this past week. The most recent was Port Arthur, TX all purpose back Kameron Martin who was offered on Tuesday. At 5’10 170, Martin is a typical spread option type running back, smaller back with really good speed. Martin reportedly runs a sub 4.4 forty and has a quick burst through the hole, with good change of direction speed. Despite his size, he’s not much of a jitter bug. He doesn’t dance around a lot, he gets north and south quickly and gets past slower lineman before they have a chance to react and once he gets to the second level he has the speed and moves to make people miss and outrun them.

Currently, he lists Texas as his leader, he’s the cousin of former Longhorn running back Jamaal Charles, but has yet to receive an offer from the home state school. While the Gators are in the mix with their offer, they have a lot of ground to make up if they truly want to get him out of Texas. A good showing by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s newly installed spread offense would go a long way to getting Martin to take notice of the Gators.

https://twitter.com/TeamKamMartin/status/443835976956129280

Another 2016 recruit who recently received a Gators offer is Columbus, GA Carver high school dual threat quarterback Jawon Pass. At 6’5 200, he is a big, strong armed quarterback who is a talented runner as well and he plays for one of Georgia’s top high school programs. Because of his size, athleticism, and arm strength, Pass has drawn many comparisons to former Florida and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. While he is still young and still raw, Pass possesses a good skill set for the type of offense that Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper runs.

Like Martin, Pass’ recruitment is starting to blow up and he’s getting offers from some top programs. Currently, Clemson leads and he reportedly is high on Auburn and Georgia as well. The Gators have gotten their hat into the ring, but as with all offensive recruits on Florida’s board right now, the Gators must show some major improvement in the upcoming season if they hope to have a shot.

An interesting note, Pass claims that he intends to go to the same college as his brother Khane who is a 2015 safety recruit. Most of the schools that have offered have offered his brother as well but no word if the Gators have done so. That will be interesting to keep an eye on moving forward.

Another 2016 recruit previously offered by the Gators is Newton, PA Council Rock North quarterback Brandon McIlwain. Like Pass, McIlwain’s recruitment has been blowing up lately getting offers from a number of top schools including Penn State and Ohio State as well as SEC stalwarts Auburn and South Carolina. He is another big, strong-armed dual threat quarterback with good athleticism, a prototype for the modern college spread formation qb.

An A student in the classroom, he has a high football IQ and is physically gifted not only with his arm but with his legs as well, according to Steve Wiltfong of 247sports. He has a very strong arm and a quick release and he already possesses the ability to make throws which belie his youthfulness. In his first two seasons of high school football, he has thrown for over 3,000 yards and run for over 1300 yards. He continues to rack up offers and is already one of the most highly recruited 2016 prospects. If he continues to progress at the rapid pace that he has the last two years, he could be one of the top players in the nation by the time he is a senior.

A South Carolina legacy, he reportedly is high on the Gamecocks and Penn State so the Gators have an uphill battle for sure if they hope to secure his services. There is plenty of time, however, between now and signing day 2016 and once again, if the Gators offense takes flight under Roper, don’t count them out in this one.

2017 wide receiver Emmanuel Greene from Coconut Creek high school on his Florida visit back in February. (gatorzone)

2017 wide receiver Emmanuel Greene from Coconut Creek high school on his Florida visit back in February. (gatorzone)

While the Gators are hard at work on 2015 and 2016, they haven’t stopped there, however, as they have already started showing extensive interest in 2017 wide receiver/defensive back Emmanuel Greene from Coconut Creek high school. Just a freshman last season, he played much older displaying good hands and speed as well as great body control and escapability. Kind of smallish at 5’9 155, Greene looks well suited for the slot position and has a skill set tailor made for the spread offense.

He visited Florida back in mid February with his coaches and a few other teammates and appeared to have a great time. Obviously there is a lot of time to go in his recruitment but the Gators are off to a great start with him.

Check out Green’s freshman highlights here.

That is it for this week’s edition of the Friday Five. Stay tuned to Swamp Music for all the latest FREE Florida Gators recruiting news and info.

Are You Ready for Some Football? Five Burning Questions for Florida Gators Spring Football: Defense

Freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves leads the Gators defense. (bleacherreport)

Freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves leads the Gators defense. (bleacherreport)

Spring football arrives in exactly one week for the Florida Gators with much anticipation from Gator Nation still reeling from last seasons 4-8 debacle, the worst season in Gainesville since they went 0-10-1 in 1979. While a lot of the problem was on the offensive side of the football, the defense had it’s share of problems as well last season.

After losing it’s starting defensive tackles, defensive ends, inside linebackers, and both safeties after the 2012 season, last year represented a rebuilding year for the Gator defense. Now a year older, the defense needs to see improvement. They will, however, have to replace three of their top four corners as well as the interior of its defensive line once again.

Despite returning a lot of starters there are still many questions surrounding this defense. Today we present five burning questions on defense for the Florida Gators as we head into spring football practice.

1) Who will start opposite Vernon Hargreaves at corner and who will provide depth at the nickel and dime spots?

The Gators lost three of their top four corners after last season. Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson both left early for the NFL draft while Jaylen Watkins was lost to graduation. The only returning starter is freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves who quickly worked his way into the lineup and a starting spot last season as a true freshman. He had a stellar freshman campaign and looks to have a breakout season this year. An All American season is not out of the realm of possibility for this talented young man. The biggest question facing the Gator defense heading into spring is who will step into the starting spot opposite him?

Of the returning players, Brian Poole is the most experienced of the true corners and most likely to compete for the other spot. Nick Washington and Marcus Maye are versatile enough to compete there as well but are more likely projected at nickel and dime as well as at safety.  One player to keep an eye on is true freshman Jalen Tabor who may very well earn the spot opposite Hargreaves if he picks up the defense quick enough.

An early enrollee, Tabor will go through spring practice and have every opportunity to secure a starting spot. Like Hargreaves, he was a five star corner coming out of high school and has the build, speed, and skill set which projects him to have All American potential at Florida. True freshman Duke Dawson is also enrolled early and will be in the mix as well but, like Maye and Washington, he is more likely suited at one of the nickel or dime spots.

Quincy Wilson and J.C. Jackson, two talented 2014 defensive back recruits, arrive in the fall and may have an opportunity to get in the mix but it will be interesting to see if anybody can step up in spring practice and nail down starting spots ahead of their arrival.

2) Can the Gators get better and more consistent production out of the safeties?

After getting stellar production out of Matt Elam and Josh Evans in 2012, the Gators safeties took a step back in 2013. Of course, that’s to be expected after losing your top two safeties and all that experience starting over with “green” players.  Don’t get me wrong, they had talent last season they were all just young and inexperienced and it showed. It’s not that their play was horrible, just inconsistent. Often guys were caught out of position, there were communication issues, and problems with tackling which is something you really can’t have from your safeties. Coming into spring practice the Gators have some solid talent returning and a couple of newcomers to add to the rotation.

Experienced returnees include senior Jabari Gorman, redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye, and true sophomore Keanu Neal. Redshirt freshmen Nick Washington and Marcel Harris will also figure into the mix at safety. Additionally, it’s very possible early enrollee Duke Dawson as well as incoming freshmen Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter could also get a look here.

It’s very imperative that the missed assignments and tackling problems from last season get solved before the start of next season. One of the biggest stats the staff tracks for both the offense and the defense is explosive plays which are plays of 20+ yards. Obviously, holding down the number of explosive plays your opponents create increases your chances of winning. Strong and consistent safety play is imperative to minimizing explosive plays. Simply put, Gators gave up far too many explosive plays last season. They will need to improve greatly in that area next season if they hope to rebound from last season’s train wreck. As such, the competition for both safety spots will be wide open through spring practice and hopefully a few guys will step up and provide some level of consistency at the position. There is a ton of potential across the defensive backfield, it’s time for players to step up and realize some of that potential.

3) Can the Gators shore up the middle of their defense?

With Shariff Floyd and Omar Hunter manning the interior of the defensive line along with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins at the inside linebackers spots, the Gators were solid against the run in 2012 finishing 2nd in the nation in run defense. Last season was a much different story, however, particularly after losing Dominique Easley to a season ending knee injury. Once again, the Gators were not horrible just terribly inconsistent. Once they got into the meat of their schedule against good running teams, the Gators struggled in stopping the run game. It’s not all on the line, however, as the new linebackers were often caught out of position, taking bad angles, or plain missing tackles.

With Easley and Damien Jacobs lost to graduation, once again the Gators will be replacing their top two defensive tackles. Back ups Leon Orr and Darious Cummings return as well as some new faces such as Caleb Brantley,  Jaynard Bostwick, and Antonio Riles. head coach Will Muschamp has made it very clear in the offseason that there are no incumbent starters. Every job is wide open and players must come prepared to compete or get passed by those who do. With the Gators rotating lineman in and out to maintain fresh legs, expect all five and possibly a couple of other players to get in the mix at tackle.

At linebacker, the Gators are loaded with junior Antonio Morrison and sophomore Jarred Davis back to man the Mike spot, as well as senior Michael Taylor and sophomore Daniel McMillan at the Sam linebacker spot. All four are talented players but all had their issues last season with gap assignments, technique, and tackling. They must improve collectively and individually this upcoming season.

Regardless of how the depth chart shakes out at defensive tackle and linebacker, the bottom line is the Gators absolutely must have better play across the board from the interior of their defense. Stopping the run and being sound in the interior is a must in Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin’s defensive schemes and it sets up everything else they do particularly against the passing game with their pressing man to man and pressure blitz packages.

4) Will the Gators be able to generate a significant pass rush?

This is not a new issue for the Gators, it’s a question which seemingly gets asked every season for the last several. The Gators have struggled with getting a consistent pass rush for quite a while. Whether from the inside or outside, the Gators haven’t been able to affect the quarterback enough to cause problems for the opponents passing game. All too often last season, opposing quarterback’s were able to drop back and make rhythm throws, as well as progress through their reads and cause havoc in the Gators defensive backfield.

Junior ends Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard are in their third year and, while they’ve played well in general, it’s time for them to step up and become the pass rush threats we all thought they would be when they signed with Florida. Hopefully the infusion of new talent, particularly Brantley and Bostwick, will help provide some interior pass rush like Floyd did so well getting into passing and scrambling lanes making it difficult for opposing qb’s to get comfortable in the pocket, make their reads, make good timing throws, and scramble for first downs. Bryan Cox, jr and perhaps Alex McAlister may step in as well and provide quality depth this season at the buck position, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

With the proliferation of spread offenses and teams which pass 30+ times per game, it’s become imperative that defenses be able to to get to the passer consistently, generating sacks and disrupting the timing and efficiency of opposing offenses. If they can do that successfully their odds of winning go up astronomically. The Gators will be giving everybody a look in the spring as they search for a pass rush and every player along the line will have an opportunity to step up and secure a starting spot or playing time at the least.

There is no substitute for a strong pass rush and the Gators will be seeking to identify players who can provide it.

5) While this isn’t really defense, one of the biggest questions for the team overall is can the Gators shore up their special teams?

Behind specialists like kicker Caleb Sturgis, who finished his Gator career as the school record holder in career field goals made, and punter Kyle Christy, special teams were indeed special and a team strength in 2012. Last season, they fell completely apart.

With sophomore Austin Hardin and Frankie Velez both struggling with accuracy, field goal kicking was an adventure and a lesson in futility last season while punter Kyle Christy, a Ray Guy award finalist in 2012 for the nation’s best punter, head scratchingly seemed to forget how to punt in the offseason. He couldn’t punt for distance or accuracy, often shanking punts and failing to pin opponents inside the twenty which is something he was very successful at one season before. It reached a point mid season where the staff lost all faith in him and replaced him with true freshman Johnny Townsend.

To try to get more consistency and production from the kicking spot the staff brought in a preferred walk on Brooks Abbott who had previously been a kicker at Virginia Tech before taking a season off at a junior college in Jacksonville. The three kickers will have an open competition for the job in the spring and fall and the staff is hoping at least one guy steps up in a big way.

Muschamp also brought in a new special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler who returns to Florida from New Mexico where he helped the Lobos greatly improve their special teams. Previously he was an assistant special teams coach under both Muschamp and Urban Meyer at Florida before taking over the special teams duties at New Mexico.

It will be very interesting to see what changes have been made in the offseason by the new special teams coordinator and if they’re able to get back to the level they were at in 2012 when they had one of the best units in the nation across the board. We’ll get our first look in spring practice.

While the Gators had an unusually difficult season in 2013, most experts believe it was an aberration due mostly to injuries and in part to youth and lack of solid leadership which often happens with young teams. The Gators will certainly need to develop some leadership moving forward and spring practice will be a chance for them to develop that on the practice field before the start of summer.

After suffering through the ignominy of last season’s 4-8 record, Gator fans are eager to see their team get back on the field and get back to work. Spring practice for the Florida Gators begins next Wednesday March 19 and will culminate in the Orange and Blue debut on April 12. Lots of questions abound as the Gators seek playmakers across the board and players try to secure their spot on the depth chart.

So I guess until then there is only one question left to answer?

Are you ready for some football?

Are You Ready for Some Football? Five Burning Questions for Florida Gators Spring Football: Offense

New Florida Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will be transitioning the Gators offense. (gatorvision)

New Florida Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will be transitioning the Gators offense. (gatorvision)

For the Florida Gators football team, the 2013 season couldn’t end quick enough. For Gator fans, the 2014 season can’t here quick enough. If you’re one of those that go through withdrawals after the football season ends, spring football is a catharsis of sorts. If you’re one of those who buried their head in the sand during the midst of the worst season in Gainesville since the Gators went 0-10-1 in 1979, spring football might very well be a salvation.

For all the things spring football is not, one of the things it is, is a rebirth, of sorts. It’s a renewal, a chance to cleanse of past sins, wiping away the memories of a lost season in Gainesville. For every video clip and gif of the two Gators blocking each other, for every Miami fan or other rival fan ending an argument with exhibit a- Georgia Southern- spring football is the first chance at rebuttal. It’s an opportunity for optimism, an opportunity to show that last season was an aberration and everything will be alright.

New year, new team, new offensive coordinator, new offensive line coach, new special teams coach, and a new offensive system. If that don’t get you excited, it’s all over for you but the eulogy.

The biggest question? Is that optimism justified? Is there good reason to believe last season was an aberration? Is there good reason to believe this season will be markedly different? In order to answer those questions let’s look at ten burning questions which must be answered in spring ball for the Gators. Today we’ll look at five questions on offense.

1) First, and foremost, how effective will the new “spread” offense be?

The million dollar question for the Gators is certainly can new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper bring the goods to the Gators offense. At a school that’s become well accustomed to offensive showcases under, first, Steve Spurrier and then Urban Meyer, the grumbling you heard the last few seasons even in the midst of an 11-2 season two seasons ago was over the lack of offensive firepower. Like it or not Steve Spurrier forever transformed the face of college football from grind-it-out, three yards and a cloud of dust, play tough defense style football to light up the scoreboard, more is better style offensive football.

For all the good head coach Will Muschamp has done in Gainesville, and contrary to popular opinion it has been a lot, his lack of offensive style is what has him on the hot seat, in the court of popular opinion for sure, if not in the eyes of Athletic Director Jeremy Foley. Muschamp knows defense this much we know. Can he bring the offensive fireworks well enough to satisfy fans and boosters alike? It’s all in Kurt Roper’s hands now. Muschamp is on his third offensive coordinator, the supposed offensive guru Charlie Weiss and the former Boise State phenom Brent Pease both failed in Gainesville. Was it simply a matter of a lack of talent? Was it the wrong schemes for their personnel? Those are legitimate questions but now Muschamp has had four recruiting classes to clean out and stock up. Now it’s time to put up or shut up. That task will be job one for Kurt Roper.

For his part, Roper has been relatively successful wherever he’s been particularly last season where he led lowly Duke to a coastal division title and ACC championship game berth opposite FSU. And, other than Eli Manning, he’s done it with much lesser star power than what he currently has on the roster in Gainesville.

Here’s to hoping that Roper exceeds all expectations next season. Coach Muschamp seconds that motion. While we won’t have all the answers we need here in spring practice, most certainly we need to see enough to at least give fans reason for optimism.

2) Will Jeff Driskel step up in year four and be the quarterback fans thought they were getting when he signed as the nation’ stop rated high school qb or will they open up the competition to the two highly talented freshman?

Make no mistake, whenever an offense struggles, particularly the way the Gators struggled the last few seasons, it more often than not falls back on the quarterback. You can scheme yourself to death, you can load up on talent, but without an adequate field general, your offense will suffer. Period. End of story. No argument.

Keep in mind the key word there was “adequate”. The Gators won 11 games in 2012 with adequate quarterback play. Last season was a train wreck for many reasons which have been well documented but not the least of which was subpar quarterback play. Extremely subpar.

I realize Driskel being lost to a season ending leg injury was the main culprit and that the Gators were stuck utilizing scout team quarterbacks but Jeff didn’t exactly light it up when he was playing either. Better play by Driskel in the Miami game particularly in the red zone and the Gators might have won it going away.

With this being Driskel’s fourth year on campus all the excuses need to be checked at the door. His physical skill set has never been in question. The issue for him has always been upstairs. Does he have the mental makeup to lead this team the way he needs to? The new offense is taylormade for his skill set and should give him the opportunity to showcase a strong arm and good wheels. Can he make good decisions in the time window he has to make them in? Can he put the right touch on passes that are necessary? That’s another area he’s struggled, putting the ball in the right spot and with the right touch for the throw being made and the route being run.

Gator Nation is eager to find out and again we may not have all the answers in spring ball but fans need to see enough to feel comfortable about his chances in the fall. Otherwise we might see a position battle between him and the two incoming freshman, Will Grier who is already enrolled and will go through spring practice alongside Driskel, and Treon Harris.

Of the two freshman Will Grier has the stats, the Parade All American Player of the Year Award, and an early enrollment leg up while Harris has a high school national championship, the pedigree of playing high school ball in arguably the toughest area in the nation, and he is more of a duel threat type qb than Grier which could very well give him an edge in the fall. Keep in mind that Kurt Roper has used a two quarterback rotation extensively throughout his career so there is a good chance one or both of the freshman may see quality playing time next season, particularly if Driskel struggles.

3) Who will step up at receiver?

While a lot of the Gators offensive struggles can be traced back to inadequate quarterback play, we can’t put it all on the qb. For certain the Gators have lacked quality playmakers at receiver since Riley Cooper left in 09. The Gators started to see some improvement in this area last season particularly from Trey Burton, who has graduated, and Quinton Dunbar, who returns. They will need to see more than minor improvement next season if they are to turn around their fortunes. It all starts in spring practice.

The good news for Gator fans is they are loaded at the position numbers-wise if not talent-wise. The bad news is that the Gators have only one receiver on the roster who has more than 30 career receptions, Quinton Dunbar who has caught 90 balls for 1,147 yards and 6 touchdowns. Behind him Andre Debose is the only returning player with significant experience. He returns fresh off a medical redshirt which gave him a sixth year of eligibility after tearing his ACL in fall camp which ended his season last year. He has 29 career receptions for 543 yards and 4 touchdowns. The rest of the receiving corps has combined for 13 receptions for 65 yards and 1 td.

Scary to say the least.

Dunbar, the Gators best and most experienced receiver, should really have a breakout season in the new offense and Debose hopefully will be new and improved after rehabbing his knee. The five receivers the Gators signed in the 2012 class really need to take advantage of spring ball and a new coordinator to showcase their exceptional skills.  Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson need to step it up this spring and be the “big receiver” downfield threats fans expected them to be when they signed. Speedster Chris Thompson, Ahmad Bailey, and Marquis Hawkins also need to step up and show they can be productive in the new offense which is designed to get the ball out quickly to playmakers in space and give them one on one opportunities to make plays. Perhaps nobody has more riding on spring ball than Latroy Pittman and Raph Andrades who have been on campus for a few seasons but have yet to show anything. With the Gators seeking playmakers and a couple of more talented receivers showing up in the fall, the pair might be on the outside looking in by this time next season if they don’t step up.

4) Will the offensive line improve or continue to underachieve?

Coming into last season, the offensive line was thought to the be the strength of the offense. They had finally reached an appropriate level of depth, they had considerable returning experience as well as significant experience among the newcomers, and with them finally having the same offensive coordinator for a second consecutive season fans and analysts alike thought the Gators might have a good season behind a strong offensive line.

What ensued was head scratching if not pure hilarity. Depth was tested early when right tackle Chaz Green was lost for the season and Jon Halapio missed all of fall camp and the first three games due to injuries. The line struggled all season as the staff juggled the lineup weekly due to injury and inconsistent play. The lines struggles culminated in two guys blocking each other on a play in the Georgia Southern game which has been shown repeatedly online and on sports shows for comedic effect.

While they lost the core of the interior line after last season, the Gators do return a solid group of players and a large contingent of redshirt freshman and true freshman who will need to step up next season if the Gators are to improve on an offense which bordered on criminal last year. With four new line recruits already enrolled combined with the redshirts from last year’s class plus the returning lettermen, no corps should have more competition this spring than the offensive line. And with a new offensive line coach in Mike Summers, who came over to the Gators after spending last season at Southern Cal, and a new scheme which emphasizes zone blocking over man blocking, the staff should simplify things considerably and hopefully the line will be more effective as a unit than they have the last few seasons. For those interested in learning more about the differences in the two blocking styles check out this article.

Ever since Will Muschamp arrived in Gainesville, he has talked about the SEC being a line of scrimmage league. The last two seasons have made that all too obvious for Gator fans. Suffice it to say the new spread offense will go only as far as the offensive line takes it. Spring ball will go a long way to establishing whether or not this line has what it takes.

5) How will the tight end position be featured in the new spread offense?

No position was more non-existent last season than tight end. After losing playmaker Jordan Reed to early NFL draft entry after the 2012 season, the Gators went into last season extremely green at the position. The Gators actually had signed the nation’s top two tight ends in the 2012 recruiting class but Colin Thompson has dealt with injuries which have kept him sidelined for the most part and Kent Taylor transferred out after last season. Clay Burton and converted defensive end Tevin Westbrook have been primarily blockers and not much of a threat in the passing game.

The good news for fans is that they signed three athletic tight ends in this most recent class although only Deandre Goolsby is currently enrolled. The other two Moral Stephens and C’yontai Lewis won’t arrive until fall camp. Goolsby, for his part, was the main guy the staff targeted early on in the process and is very athletic and a skilled pass catcher. He will have every opportunity to grab a starting spot in the new offense. With the move to the spread, expect to see the tight end utilized much more than they were last season as Roper has shown a willingness to do such previously.

It will be interesting just how much and exactly how Roper features the tight end in the new offense, particularly with three big guys in Thompson, Burton, and Westbrook who present a big target but may be a little limited in athletic and pass catching ability. Suffice it to say, this group could be the surprise of the spring if they step up in the new offense. Of course, they could fall into oblivion as well if they don’t step up and it’s quite possible under such a scenario that they may not even see the field as the tight end will be much more of a route runner and pass catcher in the new offense than a blocker like they were in Brent Pease’s offense.

Spring football practice is set to begin on Wednesday March 19 and they will have two dozen practices culminating in the spring game, the Orange and Blue Debut on April 12. Those practices will perhaps be more important than any in recent memory as the Gators seek to rebound from their first losing season since 1979.

Tomorrow I’ll have five more burning questions for the defensive side of the ball. Stay tuned to Swamp Music for the latest in FREE Florida Gators athletics news.

Florida Gator Recruiting: Extra Point

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The big basketball weekend brought 11 basketball recruits to the O’Dome on Saturday. It also brought two big football recruits in as well.

Five star defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart both took in the amazing atmosphere of Senior Day at the O’Connell Center. The two have built a considerable bond and appear to be inseparable on the recruiting trail. The latest report is that these two plan on attending the same college. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen but the two sit atop the Gators recruiting board both overall and at defensive end. The good news for Gator fans is that the staff has built a solid relationship with both.

While they are certainly nowhere near a lock for the Gators, I’d have to say the Gator staff has set themselves up well with these two and have to be considered odds on favorite at this point. Of course, there’s still a long way to go before they decide and every major program in America are coming after them.

Having them attend the game yesterday with the rocking atmosphere surrounding a top rated basketball program and a historic day, can’t hurt the Gators chances for sure. It’s good to show recruits that the Gators compete for championships at every level in every sport. Long way to go for these two, who are expected to wait until the all american games before announcing, but the Gators are in solidly in a good position for these two.

Linebacker Adonis Thomas, from Lawrenceville, GA Central Gwinnett high, recently received an offer from the home state Georgia Bulldogs. Reportedly the Dawgs and the Gators are currently recruiting him the hardest.

The Gators really like his versatility as they are recruiting him for the Buck linebacker position which is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. He has the length the staff covets with a great frame to add weight and he has good speed and solid cover skills as well as great pass rush ability.

With the Gators seeking three to four linebackers in this cycle, primarily outside linebackers, Thomas and Jeffrey Holland appear to be the top two guys on their board. They really like Thomas and expect the staff to put on the full court press for him. While he lists no leaders, many analysts feel he is a strong Gator lean.

Speaking of Holland, he reportedly tripped to Miami this weekend and appeared to be impressed with what he saw from the Canes program. While they may have made up some ground in his recruitment, he is still likely holding Florida and Auburn at the top of his list. Personally, I’ll be terribly surprised if he doesn’t sign with the Gators in the end.

Florida appears to be getting a look from five star defensive end Mekhi Brown, from Columbus, GA Carver high who is currently committed to Alabama. He is expected to visit this weekend to check out spring practice. The Gators are also recruiting him as a Buck linebacker. While still committed to the Tide, Brown reportedly is checking out his options with a few other schools. Of those schools, Florida will get the first look. While he maintains that he has a strong relationship with the staff, he’s still a longshot for the Gators. However, if for some reason he decommits from Alabama, the Gators might be a favorite to pick up his commitment assuming he likes everything he sees on the visit this weekend.

Stay tuned to Swamp Music for more extra points and the latest in FREE Florida Gators recruiting and athletics news.

A Perfect Ending for Florida Gators Basketball

“This is the way to go out. You couldn’t script this one any better. You go 18-0, you get to cut the nets down. Michael Frazier’s birthday, we all walk off the court together, kiss the floor. You know, what else could you want? This was the perfect way to end things.”

Florida Gators senior center Patric Young

Florida's four seniors celebrate setting the SEC record for conference wins in a season by going 18-0. (Phil Sandlin, AP / FR117487 AP)

Florida’s four seniors celebrate setting the SEC record for conference wins in a season by going 18-0. (Phil Sandlin, AP / FR117487 AP)

There were many story lines for the Florida Gators heading into the regular season finale versus Kentucky. Suffice it to say though that more than anything else they were chasing history and seeking perfection.

Mission accomplished.

On Senior Day when the university honored it’s four member senior class before Saturday’s game, Patric Young and the other seniors helped the Gators survive a second half charge by Kentucky leading them to a dominating 84-65 victory over the Wildcats in the process making history by becoming the first SEC team to finish 18-0 in league play.

It looked as though the Gators would easily waltz into the history books in the first half as the Gators raced out to a 22 point lead, the largest deficit Kentucky faced all season, before going into halftime up 49-28. The Gators were clicking on all cylinders using their smothering pressure defense to force turnovers and get out in transition, dominating the glass, and playing textbook offense.

“We were really good offensively, we were good at both ends,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “I thought we played well on both ends of the floor. We were unselfish, we moved it and passed it. I thought we got out on the break, we got stops. Their field goal percentage in the first half helped us get on the break. I thought we capitalized on the break. I though we played really, really well and obviously scored a lot of points there in the first half.”

Kentucky would come charging back after the intermission, however, by extending the Gator defense, driving into the lane, and crashing the boards.

“I thought we got spread out on defense and we kind of played into their hands a little bit in terms of opening up driving gaps for them and them getting the ball to the front of the rim, offensive rebounding,” Donovan said. “Then Randle and their frontcourt guys around the rim caused some problems.”

They went on a 15-0 run to get within 6 points with a little over 12 minutes to go in the game before Billy Donovan finally called a timeout to try to stop the bleeding.

“I sensed a little bit coming out of the locker room, maybe (the Gators were) a little drained,” Donovan said. “I knew Kentucky was going to make a run. They’re too talented not to. Give them credit they battled and fought their way back in there.”

After the timeout, Scottie Wilbekin stepped up with a huge three point shot which stopped a 15-0 Wildcat run and allowed the Gator faithful to finally breathe again. From there, the Gators went on a 24-13 run to extend the lead back out to 17 after Wilbekin hit another huge three and by then it was all over but the shouting.

“Scottie stepped up and knocked down a big three,” Donovan said. “Got the lead back to nine. We made a couple of plays we got it back up to double digits. It pretty much stayed between twelve and thirteen for a few minutes. And then we got some stops and we obviously were able to open the game up there in the second half.”

Patric Young led the Gators with a season high 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 block. Prather and Wilbekin, who played only limited minutes in the first half due to the foul trouble, made amends in the second half. Prather wreaked havoc in the paint with his quickness and athleticism while Wilbekin hit some huge perimeter shots and was an effective facilitator in the second half.

After Kentucky had closed to 6, Prather and Wilbekin combined to score 15 of the next 17 points to take back control of the game. Prather finished with 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal while Wilbekin chipped in 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists.

“I can’t believe we got it done,” Prather said. “I was just so excited. It speaks volume about our character, our toughness, our will to get better. I’m just so happy we got it done tonight.”

Adding, “It’s very special because it shows we really want this for ourselves and for this program. And I feel like with the players on this team we weren’t going to allow a run to beat us.”

Senior leadership taking over for the Gators in the second half on Senior Day. You couldn’t script it any better. Asked about the second half play of his seniors leading the Gators when Kentucky made their charge Donovan responded,

“Yeah those guys answered the bell, they made some plays. And it was good because, in the huddle, as Kentucky made a run, the right things were being said. And there was a focus in their eye of next play, we’re fine, let’s get this stop, let’s have a good possession here. I think the right things were being said in terms of their communication with each other.”

While it was the seniors who took over in the second half, it was the Gators youthful bench, led by freshman Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith, which provided quality minutes in the first half helping the Gators on their big first half run by putting up 20 points collectively, 11 from Finney-Smith.

“I think it says a lot for what Kasey did running our team and the other guys that stepped up because we had to battle through some foul trouble with Prather, Scottie two of our seniors. DeVon Walker played well with two fouls. I thought we had a good contribution from our entire team there in that first half battling through some foul difficulty.”

Freshman Kasey Hill had perhaps his best game as a Gator, particularly in the first half with Wilbekin on the bench, running the Gator offense to perfection using his quickness and athleticism to get into the lane and showing his elite passing skills getting the ball to open shooters off the double team. He finished with 8 points, 7 assists, and a steal.

“I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game by far that he’s had here,” according to Donovan. “I thought he was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough. He played with a motor, he played with energy. I think being a young kid he had to learn a lot. He missed a few games because of his groin. But Scottie goes out with two fouls, I think we’re up by seven at that point, and Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm’s way of getting his third.”

The Gators won the battle of the boards 32-27, against a bigger Wildcat lineup and they finished with 20 assists against only 10 turnovers an amazing 2-1 assist to turnover ratio. That’s a welcome sign for the Gators for a team that had struggled in that area earlier in the season.

“I think our assist numbers are getting up there again which I like to see,” Donovan said. “It’s been now about three games in a row where we’re getting between 16 and 20 assists per game. The ball is moving, we’re utilizing each other well. “

Despite the huge first half, Donovan warned at halftime not to get complacent, that Kentucky would fight back and make a game of it in the second half and his players took it to heart. The Gators won as they have all season, by remaining poised in the face of adversity and fighting through and surviving the big Kentucky run.

“Yeah, we did (believe Donovan),” Scottie Wilbekin said. “We jumped out early on them. We were able to make some threes, get some turnovers, fast break points, and in the second half they did a good job of scoring, I think they had nineteen points in the first ten minutes. And like we’ve always done this year we tried to fight through, weather the storm, and just push through to the end of the game.”

The senior day festivities were highly emotional for the four seniors who are second on the all time career wins list with 113 four behind Walter Hodge’s 117. It was a great emotional send off for both the players and the fans who have built a strong relationship with these guys over their last four years.

“Our fans since I’ve been here in eighteen years,” according to Donovan, “that was one of the greatest send offs I’ve ever seen for a senior class since I’ve been here. And our fans deserve a lot of credit for that. And I’m thankful and I’m appreciative.’

“The one moment where we were all standing when we had our jerseys holding them up,” said Wilbekin. “I got a little emotion. If it had went for a couple of more seconds I might have shed a tear.”

Donovan had warned about not getting too caught up in the emotions of the festivities and allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

“We’ve got to be able to block out all those distractions,” Donovan said. “You cannot allow yourself emotionally to get yourself drained.”

adding, ” I can only imagine what those guys are feeling like, the four of them standing there, as everybody’s cheering for them, and now they have to go back into the locker room and now get ready to play. That’s a challenge, that’s a challenge.”

For their part, they were able to fight through those emotions and make the best of the last home game of their Gators career. They saved the emotions for after the game kneeling together to kiss the floor of the O’Connell Center where they made so many lasting memories over the last four years but on which they’ll never compete again before walking off together one last time.

“When you invest four years. like these guys have invested, it means something to them. They’re going to carry this with them the rest of their lives. They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that has not happened here before. It has not happened in our league before. And to me there were a lot of emotions and I’m proud of the way they handled themselves leading up to this game.”

The players are rightfully proud of their accomplishments as well, but the full magnitude of what they did hadn’t yet fully sunk in.

“I won’t say I don’t think it’s a big deal but it hasn’t hit me yet,” Will Yeguete said. “I think we’ve been working for it for a long time but we’ve just like been winning games, we’ve been winning. But I think we’ll look back on it in a little while we’ve actually done something really special, we’ve really made history. I love those guys, I love being out here, great coaching staff. We’re just having fun, it’s fun playing on this team.”

With the victory, the Gators finished the regular season 29-2, 18-0 in the SEC, and extended their overall winning streak to 23 games as well as their home winning streak to 32 games, all of which are school records. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and focused determination for a team and a senior class which faced so much adversity not only this season but throughout their career.

“It’s pretty cool, it’s pretty cool,” Patric Young said. “We’ve been accomplishing a lot of things this year, but that’s the result from the hard work and everything we’ve invested earlier in this year whether it’s the strong man training, the individual instruction, the going to class, the getting to know each other better. All that stuff, this is the fruit of all that hard work and whatnot.”

They’re not done, however, with the upcoming SEC tournament and then the NCAA tournament, the Gators have much higher goals still ahead of them.

“Celebrate this (18-0 record) because what it was was really, really special and I don’t want anything to take away from what these guys have accomplished up to this point in time,” Donovan said. “But we’re going to really, really need to get emotionally, physically, and mentally recharged again and not live in this for the next week and walk into Atlanta living in it. We’ve got to be able to put this now behind us. Now’s not the time, they need to enjoy this, but they need to come back inspired to take on the next challenge in playing in a conference tournament on Friday.”

Conference tournament notwithstanding, the Gators have even loftier goals as they shoot for the ultimate prize an NCAA tournament championship.

“No I don’t think it’s mission accomplished. We’re in the right direction right now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. I think we’re going in the right direction right now. It’s good we can sit back and say yeah we’ve accomplished something. But the sun’s going to hopefully come back up tomorrow and then we’ve got to get back to work.”

Get back to work. That’s been perhaps the best trait of this team, their ability to get back to work and focus on the next task at hand. Whether it’s been big wins, close wins, or tough losses, this team has been able to forget about the last game and quickly focus on the next one. No time to let their guard down now.

“I talked to them a little bit,” Donovan said. “I think obviously I try to move to the next thing, but I do think you can learn from the past. If you go back and as great as Noah and Horford and those guys were, and they did some unbelievable things here, you can point to those guys clinching an SEC championship and kind of limping to the finish line so to speak, where they dropped three out four, three out of five those two years. And then obviously once post season started they kind of rebooted themselves and played at an unbelievable level both years. I use that as an example a little bit. As good as those guys were and as talented as they were, if you don’t come ready to play, this is what happens.”

The mantra of this team throughout this season has been striving for greatness. According to Donovan, it’s all about getting better every day and striving to be the best you can be.

“I use this term all the time like striving or chasing greatness, I think people sometimes think I mean in terms of SEC championships or undefeated seasons. That’s not what it is, it’s can we be the best we can be today. And then we’re going to let the results fall where they may.”

This team embodies that mantra as good as any prior Donovan coached team.

“Can we chase being the best we can be?” queried Donovan. “In order to do that I think you have to have everybody bought into trying to do that. And I think that they’ve rallied around that. This is a unique and special team, how good can we be and let’s not leave anything left on the table. And let’s be as good as we possibly can. What you want to do as a coach I think is have your team play as close as you possibly can to your ability, your potential. And I think this team has done that. Are we perfect all the time? No. The record says we’re perfect in the league, but we’re not perfect, we’ve had some bad games, we’ve had some games we haven’t played very well. But I don’t think as a coach I could be any prouder of a team striving to be better and better each day.”

For now, however, the Gators will enjoy the win, enjoy the record, and bask in the glow of accomplishing something no Gator team and no prior team in SEC history has ever done.

“Right now we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves right now,” Yeguete said. “We worked pretty hard to accomplish this and right now we just want to celebrate for a little bit. Next we’ll go back and get ourselves ready and just another game. When the time comes you just want to make sure you’re ready to go.”

For sure, there are goals still out there and the Gators will get back to work on Monday as they have all season. But for now, it was the perfect ending of a perfect conference regular season. It ended, according to Scottie Wilbekin,

“The perfect way. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Indeed.

Florida Gator Recruiting: The Friday Five 3/7

Andrew Ivie from Dade City Pasco is high on the Gators radar at defensive tackle. (scout.com)

Andrew Ivie from Dade City Pasco is high on the Gators radar at defensive tackle. (scout.com)

TGIFF.

Thank goodness it’s the Friday Five. Yup it’s Friday, which means it’s Friday Five time. This week we continue delving deeper into the Gators exploits on the recruiting trail for the 2015 cycle with five more recruits on the Gators radar

William Sweet is an offensive tackle/defensive tackle from First Coast high school in Jacksonville, FL. The two way player tripped to Florida for their last junior day and came away with a Florida offer a couple of days later. Problem is they weren’t sure exactly what side of the ball they want him for. He’s equally talented as an offensive and defensive lineman but he wants to play offense in college reportedly and that’s likely where he’ll end up.

Sweet has great size at 6’7 275 with very long arms and a good build to further bulk up from where he is now. He is another player who has seen his recruitment blow up of late getting new offers weekly from top programs. He’s a high school teammate of recent Gator commit Tristan Payton and is reportedly high on the Gators. He spent this past weekend in Tallahassee for their junior day and came away from there with an offer as well. While it’s still early, this one could very well end up a Florida-Florida State battle in the end.

Darrien McNair is an outside linebacker from Ocala, FL Trinity Catholic high school. He’s currently committed to Mississippi State but was recently offered by the Gators while attending their last junior day. He put in a strong showing in the Nike SPARQ combine in Miami recently and the Gators are reportedly high on his athleticism and coverage abilities on the outside.

At 6’3 220, McNair has the right size and build that the Gators look for in their outside linebackers and he also has great speed in the 4.5 range with good instincts and solid tackling abilities. The Gators see him as a Will linebacker who will line up in pass coverage against tight ends, running backs, and slot receivers.

Last season he had 82 tackles including 12 for a loss, one sack, and a pass broken up. He was reportedly very excited upon learning of his Florida offer because it’s close to home and it’s Florida. He remains committed to Mississippi State currently but is keeping his options open and the Gators are definitely high on his list of schools to look into further.

Deon Cain is a dual threat qb from Tampa Bay Tech who is being recruited as a wide receiver. He has a host of offers from top schools including Alabama and Florida State in addition to the Gators. While obviously somewhat raw as a receiver, he does possess great speed, solid open field moves, and is a great playmaker. He has good size and possesses surprisingly good hands and pass catching skills for a kid with little training as a receiver.

The Gators, after taking only two in the last cycle, are expected to load up on receivers again in this class seeking as many as four or five to not only replace depth but also in search of playmakers for new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s spread offense. Muschamp mentioned in the past that he likes receivers who were former quarterbacks because they usually have a better understanding of coverages and can see the big picture of the offense and how they fit in as a receiver.

At this point, the Seminoles are admittedly his leader and likely the team to beat but Roper is very high on the kid and if the new offense shows out next season they could put themselves in a good position to flip him.

The Gators will be looking to reel in a couple of safeties in the 2015 cycle and already have one committed in Deontai Williams from Jacksonville Trinity Christian. One name that has long been floating as a strong Gator lean is River Ridge, LA John Curtis’ Hunter Dale.

Dale, 6’0 180, is a natural at the safety position and is versatile enough to line up at both safety spots. He has good size and speed, great instincts, and is a hard hitter. He also has good cover skills able to match up in man coverage in the slot or against tight ends. In zone formations he can play two deep or single safety equally well with great sideline to sideline speed and good hips and quick feet to break on balls in the air. He’s also a strong run supporter who can play up in the box in run formations and he’s an aggressive tackler who displays good technique in the open field.

Dale has long been thought to be a Gator lean but has a ton of offers from programs like Mississippi State, Arizona State, and UCLA. In the end, I believe he’s the Gators to lose. I think they have a couple of guys ahead of him on their board at this point but if they want him I believe he’ll be a Gator come signing day.

At defensive tackle, one name stands out that might sound familiar to recruitniks and casual fans as well. Andrew Ivie, from Dade City Pasco, is the brother of 2013 Gator signee Joey Ivie. At 6’3 260, Ivie has a similar build and skill set as his older brother and has certainly caught coach Will Muschamp’s attention. Like his brother, he’s a little light right now but has a good build to add weight once he gets on campus.

He’s a typical Muschamp type recruit, high character, hard worker from a great family, and a high ceiling. As a player, he’s versatile enough to play on the outside if necessary but certainly projects as a three technique defensive tackle.  Last season he had 62 tackles and two sacks.

Like most of the kids the Gators are offering right now, he’s underrated at this point but is starting to get more and more attention as we progress into this recruiting cycle. Again it’s still early, but with the Gators always looking to take two dt’s each cycle I would project at this point that Ivie will likely be one come signing day.

On an important note, I’ve heard a lot of grumbling lately on the net about “stars”. It seems the Gators offer a lot of lower rated kids according to the major recruiting services, including the five current commits who are all considered three star players. For one, right now the staff has already offered all the big name guys on their board. That generally happens more than a year prior to signing day. After signing day of the previous class is when the staff starts canvassing for under the radar guys. That’s why right now we’re seeing them offer a lot of guys who don’t have the star power of some of the other guys. Secondly, the staff recruits according to their needs and according to their evaluations. Unlike his predecessor, Muschamp does not consider the evaluation of recruiting analysts and their subjective rating systems. He and his staff rely on video, speaking with high school coaches, personal evaluation of recruits, and most importantly one on one evaluations. That’s why you see a lot of offers go out after junior days or camps. Most recruits outside of the very top guys must show up and talk to the staff and work out for them before they get a commitable offer. So do not get caught up in star power or recruiting rankings with this staff, otherwise as a fan you might be seriously disappointed.

That’s all for this week folks, but as always stay tuned to Swamp Music for the latest in FREE information regarding Gator recruiting and athletics. See you next week and thanks for reading!

Florida Gator Basketball: History in the Making-17 and 0 With One to Go

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the verge of SEC history. (gatorzone)

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the verge of SEC history. (gatorzone)

What a ride!

This season, this senior class, what a marvelous, fantastic, exciting, and exhilarating ride it and they have provided for Gator fans and alumni alike.

This Gator team has crafted a season for the ages that has all but made their fickle fans forget about the Florida Football Flop of 2013. At what was formerly considered a football school, head coach Billy Donovan has crafted a basketball program that other programs have modeled themselves after. Even the student section, now known as the Rowdy Reptiles but which used to be an afterthought at basketball games, is being looked upon as a model for other schools to build their fanbase upon. But it’s this team, this senior class which is doing things which have never been done before in Gainesville. Not even the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams which won back to back NCAA tourneys have done some of the things this team and senior class have done.

Start with a 22 game consecutive win streak, move along to a 31 game home victory streak, a 28-2 overall record, and a 17-0 conference record. All school records for sure and then consider that this senior class has won three out of four SEC titles and it’s obvious this team, this group of four seniors, is special. Very special. And they’re not done yet.

On Saturday in the O’Dome and before a national ESPN audience, the Gators have a chance to make SEC history becoming the first team to go 18-0 in league play. Never been done before. Not by the great Kentucky teams of the past and certainly not by any previous Gator teams. And don’t downplay that record just because they just switched to this 18 game SEC schedule two years ago after conference expansion because for almost twenty years prior to the original conference expansion in 1992, the league had ten members and they played an 18 game round robin schedule where each team played every other team twice each season. If they do indeed beat Kentucky and grab the record it will certainly be special as it will likely be a tough record to match and can never be broken unless for some odd reason the conference adds even more games to the conference schedule which is unlikely to happen.

But speaking of Kentucky, it’s only fitting that the Gators seek to set a new conference record by beating the long time blue blood of the conference. For decades upon decades, Kentucky WAS basketball in the SEC. Sure there have been good teams and good programs over the years. Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama all come to mind during different periods, but none can match the pedigree of Kentucky. Kentucky has long been known for three things: horse racing, bourbon, and Wildcat basketball.

The Gators are relative newcomers on the national college basketball scene having only made their first NCAA tournament appearance in their history 26 years ago and having only been to the tourney a few times before Billy Donovan arrived. Now they seek to not only break a record held by prior Kentucky teams, they also seek to usurp the Wildcats as THE big dog basketball program in the SEC.

Despite the Gators back to back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07, many nationally viewed that as an aberration. A one time luck of the draw getting a talented class of role players to achieve and perhaps overachieve. But as good as that class of Gator players was, this group is continuing to achieve so much more than what those guys did, albeit without an NCAA title to boast of, at least not yet. Three out of four SEC titles has only been accomplished by one other SEC program: you guessed it-Kentucky. This class has also been to three straight Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tourney, something unmatched by any Gator team in it’s history. They have the opportunity to make it four in a row and perhaps this is the season they put it all together and get back to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history and hopefully bring a third tourney title back to Gainesville.

But before the cart gets placed before the horse, there’s a small matter of SEC history to make. The magnitude of it is not lost on the players but the seniors have been taught well and continue to parrot their head coaches “one game at a time” mantra.

“We’ve just been trying to take it one game at a time,” senior center Patric Young said in true Billy Donovan fashion. “We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, to go 18 and 0 in conference play. And just keeping our eyes on the prize, the opportunity to do something great. To be a part of history has motivated us internally.”

Billy Donovan, for his part, is confident that his players understand what’s at stake and will not get overconfident themselves heading into the senior finale.

“I don’t think, through winning, I have seen a lot of them being overconfident and things like that,” Donovan said. “I think sometimes winning can become intoxicating where you get a false sense of really who you are. I think they’ve done a pretty good job of staying relatively grounded through all this stuff. And that’s the thing I think that’s made them really good.

In getting to 17-0 with one to go, the Gators have done a great job of overcoming not only the adversity they’ve faced this season, which has been a long laundry list, but also they’ve overcome human nature and the odds. Winning, particularly when one starts putting a streak together, can bring it’s own sets of problems and the Gators, for the most part, have successfully avoided those pitfalls this season.

“A lot of time players don’t know how to handle success very well,” said Donovan. “And I think these guys have done a pretty good job at least up until this point of handling things well in terms of moving to the next challenge.”

They’ve done it largely due to a good combination of strong senior leadership, coachable young players, focus on the process, and strong chemistry. These guys all like each other, care for each other, help each other, push each other, and play for each other. It’s obvious if you pay any attention at all to the individuals on this team that they are close knit both on and off the court.

“Coaches have pushed us from day one,” Patric Young said. “Laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we’re doing today. We’re all bought into it. We all love each other, we all push each other, we all compete every single day in practice. We do everything it takes to become great. And just the fact that we are seeing the fruits from that and have an opportunity to go 18 and 0 in conference is just a blessing and hopefully we’ll keep our heads on straight, humble going into the game and get it done.”

Donovan added, “I’ve said this before, I don’t think that we’ve got a great margin for error. I think the one thing about these guys is they really are coachable, they try to do everything that you ask them to do. There’s a good connection inside of our team with all of them. There’s a good respect level there. The freshman understand their roles. The seniors have done a good job trying to provide leadership to the younger guys. I think winning is important to them, they’re competitive.”

They, this team and this senior group in particular, have overcome all obstacles and distractions to date. On Saturday, comes one of what could be their biggest obstacles for a team playing at home for a chance at history: Senior Night. While most might not consider that to be a distraction, they could very well be wrong. Dead wrong. Senior Night where the school honors the senior players on court before the game can create two issues for players. One, it focuses on individual accomplishments, of which there are many for this group, but which is something this team has eschewed all season. Their mantra from day one is it’s about the team and group effort. It’s never about any individual guys, how they play individually, or any personal accomplishments. It’s always about a collective group effort and how they each play their roles within the larger group framework. Turning the attention to individuals or individual accomplishments can often have the effect of distracting players from the group goals.

Secondly, Senior Night can often be oh so bittersweet for players who are forced to think about the finality of their time at this school and on this team with this group of players and coaches with whom they have all grown fond. It’s always a highly emotional time for players and certainly will be for these guys who have done so much together and for this school. Different people handle emotional situations differently and often players can become depressed or reach a low emotional state which makes it hard to maintain focus and intensity in a sport which demands it for forty minutes.

Hopefully for this group none of the above will be a real concern. Donovan is convinced it won’t be.

“I haven’t talked to them about that [Senior Night],” Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing for us right now is the same approach we’ve had for seventeen games so far. The next game’s up and get prepared for that. It’s a team we played earlier just like South Carolina. I still think there’s things in front of this basketball team as I’ve mentioned to these guys. There’s a lot of things that they can accomplish this weekend. But it’s going to be one of those things where we can’t, in my opinion, we can’t get wrapped up in the moment of it being Senior Night. Obviously those four seniors have done a lot of special things here. They’ve been to three Elite Eights, they’ve won three out of four SEC championships, they’ve done a lot of special things. And I think sometimes it’s hard for seniors to play in games like that. I’m hopeful that they can get themselves ready to get out there and play and perform. That’s the biggest thing that I’m focused on right now, is us being really emotionally ready to play on Saturday.”

Getting emotionally ready to play their last conference game, the last home game of their college career could easily be the biggest distraction of all for these guys. No matter how much one tries to prepare in advance, there really is no way to do that. That feeling of finality when they walk out onto the O’Connell Center floor could cause them to swell up in pride and it could cause them to break out in tears or worse become depressed and nervous. For certain Gator Nation is hoping none of the above happens on Saturday. Best case scenario is they come out and allow the rockin’ and boisterous home crowd to fire them up and spur them on to one final regular season victory before the SEC tournament begins next week.

If it does, there’s a great chance these guys will make history. Of course, that’s not all folks. Continuing the winning streak, winning the conference tournament, hopefully going deep into the NCAA tourney, and perhaps winning it all will certainly be the goal after Saturday. But until then there’s one more game to go before they can go down as the best team in SEC history. 17-0 with one to go and history in the making. That’s what’s on tap for these Gators this weekend.