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.