The long offseason of suffering that Florida Gator football fans have faced since the end of the 2013 season which was the worst in Gainesville since 1979 (4-8) is coming to an end in barely more than one week. The decline of the Gator football program from it’s high of winning two of three BCS championships from 2006-2008 was steady and steep broken up only by an 11-2 season in 2012. The wheels, however, fell completely off the Gator train last season as injuries mounted the likes of which I’ve never seen in 40 years of following college football. As such, the Gators became the laughingstock of college football hitting rock bottom in their home loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern and the infamous play where two Gator offensive players were seen blocking each other. That loss and the viral nature of the blocking video have left Gator fans eager for redemption.
While opposing fans have had their fill of laughs over the offseason, there is reason for Gator fans to be optimistic that this team can rebound similarly to what we saw with Auburn and Missouri last season. A couple solid recruiting classes along with some talented upperclassmen gave head coach Will Muschamp good reason to proclaim this to be his most talented team across the board.
For the Gators to complete the turnaround, however, and make an SEC East championship run there are five questions which must be answered.
1) Will the Gators offensive line be able to protect quarterback Jeff Driskel?
Of all the injuries last season, 10 starters were lost for the season and 15 players overall, perhaps the biggest was losing Driskel to a broken leg. With no backups having any kind of significant experience behind Jeff last season, the Gators were dead men walking after he went down. With the injury went any hope of competing in the SEC.
Fortunately for Gator fans the staff went out in the offseason and brought in not one but two top rated quarterbacks in Parade Magazine high school player of the year Will Grier and two time state champion Treon Harris. While both have showcased great skill sets in fall camp, the drop off from Driskel to either of the other two is still quite precipitous.
With a new offensive coordinator in Kurt Roper and a new spread offense which is far more suited to his skill set than what the Gators ran under Brent Pease, Driskel finally appears to be confident and settled. Word out of camp is that he is primed to have the breakout season most fans expected when he signed with the Gators as the top rated high school quarterback.
For that to happen, however, the offensive line must protect him. And there is every indication that this offensive line is capable of doing that. As long as they stay healthy. The top seven offensive lineman, D.J. Humphries, Tyler Moore, Trip Thurman, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Chaz Green and Roderick Johnson, are set. The staff appears confident that those seven can compete with the best of the SEC. After them, however, it’s quite tenuous. Of late, JUCO transfer Drew Sarvary and converted defensive lineman Antonio Riles have stepped up as competent backups and have received praise from both Muschamp and Roper.
Another big positive for the offense line is that Roper’s scheme requires the quarterback to get his throws off on time. This rhythm timing, generally within three seconds of the snap, should help minimize the hits that Driskel takes while the zone blocking schemes he employs should help the offensive line be more successful as well. Less thinking and a shorter time to hold blocks hopefully will lead to more offensive success with less sacks and qb hits. It’s definitely not hyperbole to say that protecting Driskel will be absolutely necessary for the Gators to be successful this season.
2) Will the Gators be able to find playmakers to step up at receiver?
For a team that hasn’t had a semblance of an all conference receiver since Riley Cooper left in 2009, I’m honestly not being Captain Obvious when I say this. While the Gators are deep and talented at the running back position as well as talented and experienced at quarterback, it’s safe to say that this offense will go only as far as it’s receivers take it.
The good news coming out of fall camp for Gator fans is that this appears to be the deepest and most talented receiver corps since the 2008 BCS championship team. With wideouts Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Quinton Dunbar, Chris Thompson and sixth year senior Andre Debose providing size, speed, length, and pass catching skills on the outside, the Gators should finally have the deep ball back in their arsenal.
The question marks for this corps should be at slot and tight end both of which are utilized extensively in Roper’s spread offense. At slot there is some talent albeit very young and very inexperienced. Latroy Pittman, Valdez Showers, redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey, and true freshman C.J. Worton all bring solid skill sets to be table just nothing in terms of game experience on the collegiate level. Additionally, expect Roper to slide Dunbar and Debose into the slot at times to create mismatches and get his best receivers on the field at the same time.
Tight end, which is split between a traditional in-line end and a hybrid one in Roper’s offense, is a little more sketchy for the Gators. Needless to say the Gators should get more production out of the tight ends this season after getting next to nothing out of it last season. Gone are the top two tight ends nationally in the 2012 recruiting class Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor who have both since transferred out.
The Gators signed three in the last recruiting cycle with DeAndre Goolsby the only one likely to see action as a true freshman. His athleticism and pass catching skills are reminiscent of Jordan Reed the Gators leading receiver in 2012 who plays for the Redskins now. Back as more traditional in-line tight ends are Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook, neither of which were any more than blockers last season for the Gators. It remains to be seen if they’ll be able to be productive as receivers this year or not.
Beyond them expect to see some other players line up at what is called the B position, the hybrid tight end, including fullback Hunter Joyer and running back Matt Jones. Due to lack of experience and questionable talent, the tight end position is the biggest question mark for the Gators offense heading into the season.
3) Who will win the starting corner slot opposite of freshman all American Vernon Hargreaves and who will slide into the other safety spot opposite Keanu Neal and how well will this unit live up to the lofty standards of past Gator DB units?
Hargreaves and Neal are known quantities at this point. Hargreaves, a preseason all American and likely future first round draft pick, is a natural cornerback talent and already looks like a professional. He has been reported as having stepped up his game considerably in the offseason and is primed for a huge year. Neal is a hard hitter with natural instincts and is reminiscent of both Matt Elam and Major Wright.
Beyond them, however, there are a number of guys competing for the open spots. Returning veterans Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman, and Brian Poole are competing with redshirt freshman Marcell Harris, and Nick Washington as well as true freshman Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson, and Deoindre Porter.
For sure, the Gators are loaded with talent in the defensive backfield and a number of guys will see playing time this season they’re just very young and very inexperienced depth-wise. How well these newcomers in the lineup step up to the plate and how quickly they gel as a unit will be key for the Gators fortunes defensively.
4) Who will generate a pass rush for the Gators and how well will they do it?
Despite all the success defensively under coach Muschamp the one area that has plagued the Gators has been the lack of a consistent pass rush and getting sacks. For whatever reason the Gators haven’t been very good at pressuring the quarterback. Luckily for them they’ve had strong play out of their corners and linebackers the last few seasons which has allowed them to be successful without it. With a young secondary this season, however, it might be imperative that the Gators get after the quarterback.
The two biggest names for the Gators are third year players Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard. Fowler who mans the Buck end position is an elite talent and should finally come into his own this season especially if the Gators can get some solid play from their interior lineman. Bullard the bookend who mans the strong side defensive end position and came in two years ago with Fowler is another elite talent who has been limited only by having to play inside some after losing Dominique Easley last season. He is expected to split time inside and out again this season as the staff seeks to get their best talent on the field together.
Behind Fowler is another athletic pass rusher in Alex McCalister who may very well be the Gators most talented rusher but has had to sit while he bulked up to be able to compete in the SEC. He’s added considerable weight and reportedly hasn’t lost any speed or quickness and will likely see significant playing time behind Fowler this season. Neiron Ball is another guy who will see some time at Buck as he splits time there and at strong side linebacker.
Behind Bullard at end is a strong but inexperienced group led by Bryan Cox Jr., Joey Ivie who, like Bullard, will see time inside and out, and true freshmen Taven Bryan and Gerald Willis. Like McCalister, Cox Jr. has had to wait to get on the field but the staff feels confident that he’s ready to contribute and should see significant playing time this season. Ivie might be the teams most versatile lineman as he has the size and strength to play inside as well as the athleticism to contribute at strong side end. Taven Bryan is likely the most underrated of last cycles recruiting class, a steal as a relative unknown coming out of the bastion of FBS recruiting: Wyoming. Willis, of course, was certainly not underrated as he was considered a five star recruit but definitely a steal coming out of LSU’s back yard to sign with the Gators. He may be one of the biggest surprises for the Gators this year as the staff is excited by the skillset he brings to the table. Like Hargreaves last season, Willis is the most college ready player in this year’s freshman class.
At defensive tackle the Gators return two solid if unspectacular players in NT Leon Orr and DT Darious Cummings. However, it’s what’s behind them that has the coaching staff high on this group. Redshirt freshmen Jaynard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, and Joey Ivie along with true freshman Khairi Clark should significantly upgrade the unit this season. What they lack in experience they make up for in talent. In addition to being solid run stuffers and block eaters, this group is expected to provide some pass rush as well and be more disruptive to the opponents offensive backfield than the Gators have seen in a while.
Overall this is the deepest and most talented line the Gators have had in a number of years. With a young secondary it will be very important that this group holds their own at the point of attack and is able to generate a significant, consistent, and disruptive pass rush if the Gators hope to return to the top of the SEC East.
5) Will the Gators special teams unit be able to get back to being special again this season.
Of all the areas that failed the Gators last year, perhaps the biggest contrast from 2012’s 11-2 campaign and last seasons 4-8 train wreck was the failure of special teams. Top to bottom the Gators had one of the nations best units in 2012. With Lou Groza award finalist and career record holder Caleb Sturgis setting all kinds of records for field goals and Ray Guy award finalist Kyle Christy booming punts and dropping them inside the twenty with regularity, this unit was the team strength.
Last season after losing Sturgis to graduation and seeing Christy lose confidence this unit fell apart. Additionally the loss of career kick return leader Andre Debose to season ending knee injury made this unit even more vulnerable.
Debose is back for a medical redshirt sixth season, Christy is back with an improved drop and renewed confidence, and the battle for the kicking slot shows the Gators may get back to being special on special teams. How special remains to be seen. While not likely to be as great as the 2012 unit, the Gators only need them to be more consistent than last season for the Gators to have a great year. At kicker the competition has been spirited between Austen Hardin, the nations top kicker when he signed out of high school and Frankie Velez who both split time rather unceremoniously last season. Hardin admittedly suffered last season from the pressure of replacing the greatest kicker in Florida history. He worked hard in the offseason on mechanics and being more consistent in his follow through and the hard work has appeared to pay off for him. Velez, who previously was considered the short kick specialist worked on his distance kicking in the offseason and he too appears to be better coming out of fall camp.
At punter, Christy said his issues last season were related to trying to speed up his punts which created issues with his mechanics that eventually caused him to lose confidence. As a result, true freshman Johnny Towmsend was pressed into immediate action. While capable, he too was relatively unspectacular last season. It appears that Christy is back with a more compact delivery and improved confidence while Townsend has shown marked improvement as well. The battle has been very competitive and once again both may see action this season as the staff seeks more production and consistency out of the position. If the Gators are to return to championship contention this season, they will need to see marked improvement, production , and consistency out of both the kicker and punter position as well as the special teams unit overall.