Three Keys to a Florida Gator Victory

The young Florida Gators football team is on the road today in Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in Bryant-Denny Stadium. While not many outside of Gator Nation believe Florida can come out with a win, a victory is a distinct possibility.

Let’s take a look at three keys to a Gator victory today.

1) Offensive line must be able to pass block effectively and do it consistently.

Sounds pretty intuitive but this an area the Gators have struggled the last few seasons. Against Kentucky last week with yet another patchwork lineup the Gators had several miscues and missed assignments that left quarterback Jeff Driskel rushing throws and making mistakes. They got away with it against a young but talented Wildcat defensive front seven, barely.

Alabama, however, is deep and experienced and a much taller order than last week and the Gators cannot afford any breakdowns. Driskel has all the skills necessary to lead the Gators to an upset but only if he has time to go through his progressions and spread the ball effectively. When hurried Driskel’s accuracy drops dramatically.

2) The Gators must establish the run.

Again it’s pretty intuitive but in big games, particularly in the SEC usually the team that wins the rushing battle wins the game.

On the road against arguably their toughest opponent, the Gators must avoid being one dimensional getting themselves in bad down and distance situations. If the Tide defensive line can tee off on Diskel, it will be a long afternoon for the Gators in Tuscaloosa.

The Gators’ stable of talented running backs mostly Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor need to get cranked up early and often against the Tide. If they can it will open up tremendous opportunities in the passing game, particularly the deep ball.

With Demarcus Robinson, Quinton Dunbar, and Andre Debose able to stretch the field vertically, the Gators must pressure the safeties and corners into peeking into the backfield and force the linebackers to make decisions opening up the play action.

If the Gators can rush for over 150 yards today that should bode well for their chances to come out with the upset today.

3) The Gators must be able to generate a significant and consistent pass rush.

Again, pretty intuitive right? Well this is another area the Gators have struggled recently and did so for much of the second half against Kentucky where the lineman appeared to be gassed and lose their legs a little bit.

Against Alabama they’ll need to be effective throughout at getting pressure in quarterback Blake Sims. This far, Sims has faced little pressure and has looked good running the Tide attack. The Gators will need to find a way to disrupt the rhythm and timing of the quarterback and wide receivers to take some pressure off the young secondary which showed that it is very vulnerable and has a long ways to go to reach the level of previous Gator secondaries.

If they cannot effectively pressure the quarterback, Sums and company will have a field day and the Gators will be hard pressed to pull off the upset today.

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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.

The Mack Attack Leads the Florida Gators Over Toledo 24-6

It was the Mack Attack today for the Florida Gators as Mack Brown, filling in for injured Matt Jones, rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns leading them to a 24-6 victory over the Toledo Rockets. Jeff Driskel had an efficient day at quarterback going 17-22 for 153 yards and 1 td.

With Matt Jones watching from the sidelines the question was would Brown be able to step up or would the Gators have to go to a running back by committee. Brown answered that question resoundingly as he had 97 yards and two td’s at halftime. Jones is expected back next week but look for Brown to continue to get his share of the load as the season progresses.

The Gators finished with 262 yards rushing overall as backups Mark Herndon and true freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of Gator legend Fred Taylor, picked up where Brown left off. On the Gators final drive, they combined for 75 yards and falling just short of the goal line as time ran out.

Coming in the Gators had hope to show some depth. They did that, but for most of the game didn’t need to as Brown gave them everything they could ask from him starting in place of starter Matt Jones. Brown was a workhorse, fighting for yards, breaking tackles, and was never stopped for a loss. The Gators will have a good one-two punch when Jones comes back next week.

Another question coming into this game is how would the defense respond after losing so many starters after last season and starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy to suspension? The answer was- Nicely!

The Gators looked very much like the dominating defense they were last season finishing top 5 in almost every major statistical category. They played fast and physical the way Muschamp preaches his defense to play. They definitely got the sermon in this one. Normally efficient Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens, was harassed all day by a defensive line and blitz scheme that forced him into hurried throws and inaccurate passes. He finished the game 17-38 for ony 155 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception by true freshman Vernon Hargreaves, the Gators first turnover of the season. It wasn’t all on Owens, however, as he was victimized by a number of dropped passes.

The Gators, as usual, were very tough against  the run holding superstar David Fluellen to only 46 yards on 9 carries, 28 of which came on one carry. Toledo never could get the running game going as they were playing from behind all day. The Gators were as efficient as you could ask for holding Toledo to 1-13 on third down. That was the story of the game for the Rockets.

The bigger story of the day for the Gators was penalties. The Gators have been at the bottom of the conference in penalties the last two seasons. They continued that trend today in the worst way finishing with 10 penalties for 70 yards. The Gators had a number of offensive drives stopped due to penalties and one killed a scoring opportunity all together.  The defense had their share of silly penalties as well including a fourth down substitution violation coming off of a Toledo penalty which continued a long drive for Toledo.

This game effectively was over at halftime as the Gators jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead, However, the Gators came out of halftime flat and allowed Toledo to hang around long enough to keep it somewhat interesting for fans. Driskel was very efficient in the first half, opening 10-11 for 101 yards. He did have one fumble in the first half one of few mistakes he made on the afternoon.

The Gators showed a little pop in their passing game in the first half with Driskel distributing the ball to a variety of receivers and making some plays downfield. In the second half, though, they stayed with the running game trying to shorten the game and keep the high powered, up tempo Toledo offense off the field.

Overall, it was a good first effort against a talented, determined opponent. Some areas for improvement were exposed, but certainly there were many more positives than negatives in this one. Still not sure how good this team really is but they certainly looked better overall on both sides of the ball than they did in last season’s opener against Bowling Green.

The Gators step up in class next Saturday as they travel to Miami to take on in state rival the Hurricanes.

5 Things to Look for vs Toledo

Jeff Driskel leads the Gator offense in their season opener against Toledo.

Jeff Driskel leads the Gator offense in their season opener against Toledo.

The Florida Gators begin the 2013 football season at home today against Toledo. With all the questions about this team coming into the season, here are five things to look for in the opener.

1) Will Jeff Driskel show the improvement coaches and players have been raving about in the offseason?

Everybody, coaches, players, and even Driskel himself have raved about the difference in Jeff Driskel going into this season from where he was last season. His knowledge and understanding of the offense, his command of the huddle, his ability to read through his progressions, his film study, his accuracy, and his confidence have all been mentioned as areas of vast improvement for Driskel through the offseason. Year two as starter and year two in this offense there should be a huge leap. He looked very sharp in fall camp but it remains to be seen if that translates into improved play on the field during game action. While his performance in this game may not be totally indicative of how well he will perform when the Gators open SEC play, it’s important for his confidence and that of the offense as a whole that he gets off to a fast, successful start to the season.

2) Who will step up at wide receiver to make plays and become the go-to guy that Driskel can rely on this season?

When Jordan Reed left after his junior season for the NFL draft, the Gators lost their leading receiver, the majority of their passing offense, and Jeff Driskel’s go-to guy. The wide receiver corps was everything short of inept last season, but has drawn rave reviews from coaches and players alike in preseason camp giving Gator fans hope that the moribund passing game will turn around this season. The question for fans is how well this unit will perform in an actual game? And who will step up to be the go-to guy this season as Reed was last?

Quinton Dunbar, last season’s leading pass catching wide receiver, has been said to have stepped up his game considerably in the offseason and has cross-trained at the X receiver position as well as his usual Z position. The staff is expecting him to make more downfield plays and be more consistent than last season. Solomon Patton, who was relegated to running jet sweeps last season, has been effective in the passing game thus far in preseason at the Z and at slot receiver, and Trey Burton is expected to see more plays in the passing game at slot receiver as he worked on route running, separation, and pass catching in the offseason. The guy that Gator fans are salivating to see in game action is Demarcus Robinson, a true freshman that brings size, speed, and natural pass receiving abilities which the passing game has been missing for a few seasons in Gainesville. How well this unit performs will be key to the Gators offensive fortunes this season.

3) With Matt Jones out, how effective will the running game be?

With Jones out due to the effects of a viral infection until next week’s game against Miami, how well the backups perform may be key. Will one guy step up or will it be a committee approach? The only back with any game experience is fourth year junior Mack Brown, who has been a disappointment at best after arriving in Gainesville as a highly rated high school back. There’s never been a definitive word on why he has languished on the bench, but likely it’s a combination of being fumble prone and just not being an effective inside runner. If that’s the case in this game, expect a running back by committee approach including former walk on Mark Herndon, converted defensive back Valdez Showers, and true freshman Kelvin Taylor. Muschamp had previously mentioned one of the two freshman backs would be redshirted this season and with Adam Lane not making the “trip” in the game day bus to the team hotel, it appears that he is the redshirt candidate.

Muschamp mentioned the other day that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. No one has a bigger opportunity in today’s game than Mack Brown. If he’s going to see the field and be a productive member of this rushing attack he must take advantage of this opportunity today or he’ll likely end up as an another highly recruited bust. While he’s not small at 6’0 215, the word is he plays smaller than his size and is more of a scat back, which would leave him as more of a role player than a marquee back in Muschamp’s downhill offense. Today, however, he’s got to play like a marquee back or you might see him overtaken by freshman Kelvin Taylor. Taylor, the son of Gator great Kelvin Taylor, is a prototypical Muschamp back with size, speed, vision, and cutting ability who is patient but can hit the hole hard. The only thing holding him back right now is understanding the playbook and holding on to the football, something that will keep you on the bench in Muschamp’s offense.

Herndon is a great story, a walk-on who worked hard and earned a scholarship this season and makes the depth chart, but realistically he’s only a stop gap measure til Taylor becomes consistent enough to play full time. Showers is a role player who will fill Omarius Hines’ role from last season getting the ball in space and using his speed, vision, and athleticism to make plays on the outside.

The running game is certainly a team strength, especially once Jones returns, with a deep, talented offensive line but this week’s game is an audition of sorts for how the depth chart ultimately shakes out moving forward this season. Expect to see a lot of guys in and out as Muschamp looks for somebody to step up and be consistent in order to become the full time backup for Matt Jones.

4) With a revamped defense, particularly at linebacker and safety, how well will the Gators defense perform against a high powered Toledo offense?

Normally, an opening opponent from the MAC doesn’t instill fear in an SEC power like Florida. However, the Toledo offense is prolific, proven, and very talented. With senior quarterback Terrance Owens running the show, a versatile guy who can run as well as throw, the Gator defense will be tested to be patient and disciplined in their pass rush not giving Owens lanes to throw and run through as they seek to bottle him up in the pocket and force him to rush his throws. The most dangerous player may just be running back David Fluellen who finished 8th in the nation in rushing yards last season. He is a big, strong back who they try to create one on one matchups for and he has the ability to both run through tackles as well as make tacklers miss. Once again, the Gators must be disciplined in their passing rush to not fall victim to the delayed handoff and they must be sure in their tackling. The final piece of the offensive puzzle for Toledo is wide receiver Bernard Reedy who is a Biletnikoff Award watch list member and a dangerous return man. He caught 88 passes last season for over 1100 yards so the Gators must be aware of where he is at all times and provide blanket coverage as well as provide top side help.

The middle of the Gators defense has been revamped this season with newcomers at middle linebacker and safety. In this game they will be without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy, and the backups Michael Taylor and Jaylen Watkins will need to play well in order to contain this high powered, up tempo offense. The linebackers and safeties will be sorely tested providing deep help and trying to contain Fluellen as well. How well these two units perform will be key to stopping Toledo’s offense.

5) Will the Gators pass rush be improved from it’s average numbers last season?

The Gators finished in the top five nationally last season in almost every statistical category except one: sacks. For whatever reason, they struggled to get a consistent pass rush last season. They started to show some life towards the end of the season as true freshman Dante Fowler and Jon Bullard began to catch up to the speed of the game and use their natural ability to  put pressure on the quarterback. After an offseason of film study, work in the weight room, and solid coaching on technique, those two guys are poised to have a break out season as bookends on the defensive line. They played last season on instincts alone but now they have experience and an understanding of what to do and how to do it at this level. It remains to be seen if that adds up to more sacks, but with the Gators having a lot of new guys stepping into the starting rotation, it’s important that these two guys step up to take some pressure off the backend of the defense. Today’s game will be a tough test as the spread offense of Toledo, like Missouri last season, likes to get the ball out quick to their speedy guys in space as well as hand it to the back on delayed hand offs to take advantage of overly aggressive pass rushers. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the Gator pass rush, up the middle and from the edges, responds this season to the challenge the staff gave them in the off season.

Florida Gators Football 2013 Preview: Let The Games Begin!

will muschampThe long college football offseason is nearing an end as the countdown to the 2013 season reaches it’s final week. The first gameweek of the season begins tomorrow as the Gators can finally focus on an opponent, MAC member Toledo.

The Gators begin the 2013 season short of a ton of talent, mostly on defense, that led the Gators to an 11-2 record and a #9 final AP ranking. What they left behind is a ton of talent, albeit somewhat less experienced, and a hopefully much improved offense.

loucheiz purifoyOn defense, the strength is a corner back rotation that may arguably be the best in the nation with Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, considered by many draft analysts to be a first round draft pick should he leave after this season, as well as three year starter Jaylen Watkins and top rated true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III. The defensive line will be anchored by senior Dominique Easley a versatile inside-outside guy who will likely see more time inside this season, returning true sophomore bookends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler and Buck End/outside linebacker Ronald Powell. Depth will be provided from junior college transfers Darious Cummings and Damien Jacobs, redshirt freshman Bryan Cox, Jr. and Alex McCallister, and junior Leon Orr.

The question marks coming into the season are at safety, where the Gators lost both starters, and linebacker where they lost both starting inside linebackers. At safety the Gators are very green but talented and deep with Cody Riggs, an undersized athletic former corner taking over the free safety spot and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye a rangy hard hitter filling in for Matt Elam at the strong safety spot. Depth will be provided by junior Jabari Gorman, sophomore Brian Poole, and true freshman Keanu Neal, who may be the hardest hitter in the secondary.

At linebacker, hard hitting sophomore Antonio Morrison takes over for Jon Bostic at middle linebacker. The other starting spots will likely go to Neiron Ball, who appears to finally be fully recovered from the medical condition that sidelined him for his first couple of seasons, Darrin Kitchens, and Ronald Powell who moves to outside linebacker from his usual defensive end position. Michael Taylor will fill in for Morrison during his start of the season suspension and will provide depth at both inside linebacker positions. Behind them will be a trio of talented true freshman Daniel McMillan, Jarrad Davis, and Alex Anzalone. Those three along with Matt Rolin who is out for the season, may represent the strongest true freshman linebacker class in Gator history. That’s a strong statement considering the talent that has come through Gainesville over the years.

jeff driskelOffensively, the Gators are looking for a huge leap from quarterback Jeff Driskel. In his second full season as the starter and after losing backup Jacoby Brisset, Driskel is the unqualified leader of the Gator offense. Behind him are highly inexperienced backups Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg.

At running back, Matt Jones, last season’s backup to Mike Gillislee, returns to anchor the downhill running game that Muschamp likes to run. He starts the season on the bench however, due to a viral infection that sidelined him the whole of preseason camp. His return is indefinite. In his place, former top rated high school back but career bench sitter Mack Brown steps in hoping to show the promise many fans had for him when he signed with the Gators. Depth is provided by former walk-on Mark Herndon who was caught by surprise at the end of preseason camp by the coaching staff and awarded a scholarship for this season, and Valdez Showers, a former defensive back who was switched to running back during preseason camp. Showers was a high school running back and represents a change of pace style for the Gators and will primarily fill the role that Omarious Hines played last season. At fullback, Hunter Joyer returns to provide outstanding lead blocking for the Gator running backs. All everything Trey Burton returns as well to provide solid backup at fullback as well as his usual wildcat/H back/ wide receiver roles. Two top rated true freshman Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane showed great promise in camp but had issues with fumbling that likely will keep them on the bench. The staff was mum on whether they would play or be redshirted this season.

The strength of the offense this season will be the offensive line, with returning starters Jon Halapio at right guard, jonathan Harrison at center, Chaz Green at right tackle, and D.J. Humphries at left tackle. The Gators picked up a ton of depth along the line with the additions of transfers Tyler Moore, a right tackle who will open at right guard filling in for Halapio who is out with a torn pectoral muscle until at least the Tennessee game, and Max Garcia a left guard who is flexible enough to slide over to left tackle as well. One of the more interesting additions will be mammoth junior college transfer tackle Trenton Brown who at 6’9″ and 365 lbs. may well be the largest player in the history of the Florida Gators. The Gators have a lot of versatility as well in backup centers Kyle Koehne and Trip Thurman who can play any positions along the line and can be counted on to provide solid depth this season.

The biggest question mark on the team overall coming into this season would certainly have to be the wide receivers. Last season’s squad provided the least production at the position since 1989, the year before Steve Spurrier brought the fun n gun to Gainesville. In fact, the main production in the passing game came from tight end Jordan Reed who left after his junior season for the NFL. Don’t look for history to repeat itself here as the tight end position is very green this season with Clay Burton having the edge coming into the season. Two sophomores, Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson the top tight ends coming out of high school two seasons ago, should see plenty of time as well with Taylor being more of a receiver and Thompson being more of a blocker. Converted defensive end Tevin Westbrook may see some action as well. Overall, the Gators lose a ton of playmaking ability at the position, but gain depth and in-line blocking ability which is important in the running game.

demarcus robinsnAt wideout, the Gators should be improved if not vastly improved. Quinton Dunbar, last season’s top wideout producer, returns to lead the Gators. The word out of camp is he has improved dramatically and should have a breakout season. Fifth year senior Andre Debose was said to be set to finally show his potential at more than just returner when he was injured in camp and out for the season. The Gators are seeking a medical redshirt for Debose. Another returning receiver that is said to be poised to step up his level of production is Soloman Patton who previously had been limited to running the jet sweep but is being counted on to be a down field playmaker this season and really showed out in camp. Sophomores Raph Andrades and Latroy Pittman are a year older and should provide some production beyond downfield blocking this season. Trey Burton, who fills many roles on offense, is said to be vastly improved as a receiver this season and should be able to provide solid production in the slot.

The wild card will be starting corner Louichez Purifoy who spent some time at wide receiver and whom the staff had said would see increased time at the position this season as they look for downfield playmakers. However, with what the staff saw during preseason camp from returning players and a couple of true freshman, it appears Purifoy’s role on offense may be downplayed. The two freshman are Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. Robinson, the star of the five man receiver recruiting haul for the Gators, has been everything that the staff was hoping for when they signed him. A big, rangy receiver with speed, he possesses natural receiving ability able to fight for jump balls and snag balls out away from his body. The staff is really confident in his ability to provide the downfield threat the Gators have lacked in previous seasons. Fulwood, at 6’4″ is the tall receiver they’ve lacked and also has the strength to fight for balls in the air as well as fight his way through press coverage. The staff has heaped a load of praise on both freshman through preseason camp and, while neither will be starters to start the season, expect them to play a ton and likely move into starting spots as the season progresses. Two other freshman who will likely see some time are speedster Chris Thompson, who will be active in the return game as well as running the jet sweep, and Ahmad Bailey, a shifty slot receiver who has playmaker written all over him but is green as a receiver after playing quarterback in high school.

Overall, the Gators lost a ton of talent and experience after last season, but gained a ton of talent and depth this season. Defensively, they may lose a step from the top five ranking they posted last season, but don’t expect them to drop far if the youth plays up to their potential. A new defensive coordinator in former special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin could potentially be problematic as well. Offensively, the Gators should be much improved if the running game steps up and the receivers can produce as well as the staff thinks they will. The line with improved depth, talent, and help at tight end should be the team strength and can be counted on to open up holes in the downhill running game for the stable of backs as well as provide improved protection for Jeff Driskel who’s play should be vastly better this season in his second season in Brent Pease’s offense.

The Gators open the season ranked #10 nationally in the AP poll but still only third best in the SEC East behind Georgia and South Carolina. The ranking may be a little high considering the amount of talent that left Gainesville after last season and the inexperience of the returning players. However, if the returning players and talented true freshman class can gel and step up at key spots, it’s not unlikely that this Gator team could make a serious run at the East title and possibly an SEC championship. The schedule is tough with Miami in game two and their usual LSU and FSU games as well as Georgia and South Carolina but it is a schedule that lends itself to a high ranking if they can make it through successfully.

The season begins at 11:30 am Saturday 8/31 at home in the Swamp versus MAC foe Toledo.

We are the Boys of Old Florida

We are the boys from old Florida
F-L-O-R-I-D-A
Where the girls are the fairest,
The boys are the squarest
Of any old state down our way

We are all strong for old Florida
Down where the old Gators play
In all kinds of weather
We’ll all stick together
for F-L-O-R-I-D-A

We are the Boys of Old Florida, the fight song of the University of Florida Gators sung traditionally before the start of the fourth quarter of every home game.  After a tough loss to bitter rival the Georgia Bulldogs, it’s probably a good idea for Gator fans to remember the words to this song.  The first thing fans want to do after a stinging loss is head to message boards and call-in shows to whine, complain, and moan about “what went wrong”.  Everybody’s got an opinion of why they lost and what “needs to be done”.  From fire Muschamp (no really I actually saw such a thread on a message board yesterday), to benching Driskel, to packing Pease’s bags back to the WAC ( I know they are in the Mountain West but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good bitch session), to “oh no we suck again”.  Armchair quarterbacks and and armchair coaching staffs alike giving their two cents about why all is lost and the “season is over”.  And don’t dare call them out.  Oh my lord, how dare you, you… you… you sunshine pumper.

Some have questioned Will Muschamp’s loyalty after the Georgia upset

The word fan is derived from the word fanatic which roughly equates to one with an extreme enthusiasm or uncritical devotion.  So you can excuse them if they appear to be ready to jump off a cliff after a tough loss by their favorite team.  And message boards or call in shows are great outlets to vent one’s frustration with their team’s poor play.  At some point though Gator fans need to understand that “through all kinds of weather, we all stick together”.

What does that mean?  It means win or lose we stand behind the team and together for the University of Florida Gators.  In the game of football there are winners and losers and, like it or not, odds are these guys are going to lose one along the way.  It’s how they respond to a loss that determines their season.  As fans it is wise to understand that and respond appropriately ourselves to a tough loss.  Believe me I’d rather eat chopped liver every night than deal with a loss to the Georgia Bulldogs.  But like it or not we have to deal with a loss in this game for the second year in a row.

So what does need to be done?  In my mind not much.  They don’t need to change quarterbacks, change philosophy, or “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as they say.  What they need to do is refocus on who they are and what got them here.

Gators need to refocus on the basics

Running the football.  This is who they are.  They are a run first team that must find ways to move the football on the ground.  The passing game, while not non-existent like many want to proclaim, is certainly a work-in-progress.  They lack consistency in pass blocking and wide receiver execution and Jeff Driskel is not going to light em up any time soon.  I’m reminded of the old quote from John Mckay when asked about his team’s execution he responded, “I’m all for it”.  All joking aside, though, the focus needs to return to the ground game and what it takes to move the chains when they load the box.  Whether that means schematic shifts in blocking or just pushing the guys to get better at getting a hat on a hat and moving their guys, that’s where the focus needs to be in the next couple of weeks.

Taking care of the football.  Sounds simple and every coach preaches it.  However, coming into the Georgia game they had 4 turnovers on the season so they were doing something right.  It’s inexplicable to me how they could cough it up 6 times in one game.  As bad as some offenses have been in my 35 years of watching Gator football I can’t remember the last time they gave it away 6 times in one game.

I do think their lack of intensity played a roll.  When a team is flat and unemotional sometimes they lose focus on the mechanics of what they are doing because they focus too much on the other teams intensity.  I think the staff got a little careless in the play-calling as well.  Just like players who try too hard to make a play and make mistakes, I think the coaches tried to force some downfield plays trying to take advantage of the loaded box rather than play it safe and play field position football like they have all season up to this game.  Too often Florida started deep in their territory and they tried to pass their way out rather than play it safe, use the nation’s leading punter to flip the field, and rely on the fantastic defense that kept Georgia stifled for 54 minutes on Saturday.  Kyle Christy had only 3 punts in this game and that alone was one of the bigger stats from Saturday’s game.

Finally, they have to find ways to eliminate penalties from their game.  Again every coach preaches it and it sounds simple but for some reason this team cannot seem to do it.  Every time Florida got a big play on 0ffense and a little momentum or a big stop on defense, they seemed to get a stupid penalty.  By stupid penalty I mean mental errors, not aggressive errors.  False starts, too many men in the huddle, offsides, or unsportsmanlike penalties that put your team in negative down and distance, a killer for a run-first offense, or which extend drives for the opposing offense have to be dealt with immediately.  This team does not have the capability to overcome them.  Whatever it takes, they have to find a way to eliminate these silly, momentum killing mistakes.

So it’s obvious to me that all is not lost, and the response to this loss doesn’t have to be earth-shaking.  Refocus, bear down, dig up some pride and move forward.  This team still has all it’s goals ahead of it, they just no longer control their destiny.  If Georgia hiccups against one of Ole Miss or Auburn, Florida wins the East with a win next weekend against Missouri.  I realize that’s a tall order and Georgia will be big favorites against both, but remember it’s tough to get up the next week after a big conference win and Ole Miss is a much better team this season than many people realize.

Even if they don’t win the East, they still have tough games ahead against Missouri and the other rival FSU.  Assuming they win out there is still the possibility they can back into the BCS Championship Game if things fall their way like they did in 2006 and 2008.  Short of that they are still playing for a potential BCS game berth in the Sugar Bowl.  Any of those scenarios is a far cry from where most fans and analysts thought they would be when this season began.  So, that having been said, it’s smart for Gator fans to not jump off the Gator Train just yet.  This was just a pit stop along the way and right now it’s “all aboard that’s coming aboard”.

Regardless of what happens, Will Muschamp is our coach, these players are Gators and they are this season’s team.  If you are a Gator whether a fan or alum remember We are the Boys of Old Florida, and through all kinds of weather, we all stick together… for F-L-O-R-I-D-A!

Go Gators!

Upon Further Review…

We’re now approximately 24 hours removed from the toughest loss for the Gators since the Noles loss last season.  Sadly, this one resembled that one in many ways.  Like that fateful day last year, the Gators were the better team they simply could not match the intensity of their opponent and that ultimately led to their defeat.

Defensively, they controlled the running game and kept Aaron Murray in the pocket forcing him to try to beat them with his arm which, for 54 minutes, he could not do.  It’s a rare day a team holds an opposing offense to 1 for 10 on third down with three turnovers and come out with a loss.  Realistically, if not for a highly specious, questionable, some might say biased, but definitely curious defensive holding call against Dominique Easley when he blew up a third down screen pass, Georgia would have been 0-fer on 3rd down.

Muschamp like most Gator fans was not happy with the referees against Georgia

Offensively, while admittedly they had trouble handling Georgia’s blitz and stunt packages, they actually moved the ball throughout the game.   Up until the last Bulldog drive inexplicably extended by a referee call, the Gators offense outplayed the Georgia offense.  Except for one thing: they put the ball on the ground.  While turnovers definitely ended up costing the Gators the game, upon further review,  a closer look reveals the blemishes that had been somewhat covered by the Gators 7-0 start were exposed yesterday.

We’ll start with pass blocking.  It’s not just the much maligned offensive line, it’s everyone.  This team has shown repeatedly week in and week out that it cannot handle elite edge rushers in this league.  That is the one thing that separates this league from the rest of the nation, almost every team has elite, future NFL ends and outside linebackers who can get to the passer.  The Gators are surely not the only ones who struggle against these players but I think they struggle more than any of the elite teams in the league which they are supposed to be.  The Gator offensive tackles and tight ends are just not talented enough, either in quickness of foot, hand play, or in sheer strength to match up with Jarvis Jones or any of the others like him and it shows.

Another area they struggle is recognizing where the rush is coming from.  Too often fans see Driskel sacked or running for his life not because there are too many rushers for the  protection but simply because one or two guys in the protection do not see the rushers and they get an open lane to the qb.  Simple defensive packages like stunts, delayed rushes, or overloads cause major problems for this team and that made them easy picking for Georgia.  It’s not just the lineman, running backs and fullbacks seem to miss too many blocks or “chips” as well and it is a major problem.  The passing game is all about rhythm and unaccounted for pass rushers disrupt that timing and shut down drives.  Week after week, and we saw it again yesterday, there were open receivers downfield but rather than a big play we say Driskel scrambling or sacked due to breakdowns in protection.  Protection issues were directly responsible for a couple of the turnovers yesterday.

Another glaring problem in the passing game is a sheer lack of playmakers in the receiving corps.  It’s easy to blame the line or protection or schemes when you see Driskel scrambling, throwing the ball away, or taking a sack, but many times it comes from a lack of options.  In this league with the great talent on the defensive lines there is a small window of opportunity to make a play passing the ball before it’s time to throw it away or tuck it and run.  Therefore, in order to be successful a team has to have receivers that can get open.  Sounds simple enough, but realistically this league is full of talented defensive backs as well.  So you need players who are not just talented at running and catching, but who understand coverages , know how to confuse defensive backs, and can find the open spots in coverage.  I’m convinced that, other than Jordan Reed, and occasionally Quinton Dunbar these guys are just not very good.

Jeff Driskel still has a long way to go on his learning curve

Finally, Jeff Driskel is young.  While that is no news flash it is important to consider.  After leading 2nd half comebacks on the road against TAMU and Tennessee, we as fans were lulled into thinking Driskel was more mature than he really is.  By mature I don’t mean calmness or confidence, I mean knowledge.  There is a large learning curve for a quarterback from high school to college and even more so in this league.  There’s sophisticated offenses to learn, defensive coverage and rush schemes, technique from throwing to audible to cadence and snap count, and all this at game speed.  Game speed from high school to the SEC is like going from go cart racing to NASCAR.

Consider this, Jeff played at a school that had little talent surrounding him where he had to make plays on every play whether with his arm or with his leg. That is not ideal for learning the nuances of dropback passing because you’re using your athleticism more than technique.  Additionally, as a military brat he moved around a lot and probably didn’t get near as much top level coaching that some guys get and he didn’t play a ton of football coming  into UF.  In other words, he started way down the learning curve.

The staff made it clear when they chose Driskel to be the starter that the choice was made due to his athletic ability.  That alone is key to understanding that the staff felt going in this team would struggle throwing the ball and they needed the one who could make plays when they were unable to throw it.  So it should not be a surprise to anyone they are where they are right now with the passing game.

The Gators couldn’t seem to match Georgia’s intensity

Finally, I’ve not been one to criticize this coaching staff this season, but I truly believe they dropped the ball this week in one area:  they failed to understand the intensity needed to compete successfully in this game.  Don’t get me wrong I love this staff.  Deep down I think this staff has done a masterful job of coaching these players up, of getting them prepared for this season as well as each game, and of making adjustments in game and at halftime.  However, this game is different in one major way, it’s THE rivalry game.  I think Muschamp erred greatly in the week leading up to the game trying to stick to the one game mantra.  While I understand what he’s trying to instill in the players preaching that each game is one game and each game means the same, rivalry games and THIS rivalry game, in particular, is different.  It’s different to the alumni for sure and should be different to the staff and players.

As has been p0inted out repeatedly in the week leading up to the game, Georgia was always the bully on the block stealing the Gators lunch money.  Spurrier, having played here and having had his own bitter Georgia memories, understood that this week is different.  When he became the head ball coach here he instilled in this program the idea that this week is different.  If you can’t get up for this game you don’t belong here. As a result, the Gators only lost once under Spurrier.  Urban Meyer when he took over understood this game was a big one and kept up that intensity and never lost to them.  Even Zook as bad as he may have seemed to Gator fans kept it up for the Gators.

Muschamp is now 0-2 against the most hated rival and it probably is important that he understands if he wants to have a long career here, no matter what he does with the won-loss record, he might want to circle this one on the calendar each year and have a winning record against Georgia.  Losing to Georgia is not acceptable.

That leads us to the one thing that stood out to me the most yesterday: intensity.  Football is a game of aggressiveness, intensity, and emotion.  Usually when two teams are somewhat evenly matched the more aggressive or intense team wins the game.  We saw that yesterday.  In every game, but especially in close rivalry games there are a handful of plays that make the difference in the game and usually the more aggressive team makes those plays successfully.  The Gat0rs came out flat yesterday and never seemed overcome that lack of intensity.  Georgia, on the other hand, seemed aggressive from the start and never lost that edge.  It was the difference in the game.

Football being such an intense, emotional game, it is very hard to get up week after week with the same level of intensity needed to compete at a high level.  It’s even harder to do that in back to back “big” games.  We saw that after the big win against LSU when the Gators were flat against Vanderbilt.  They were able to overcome that because they were more talented than Vandy but still could have lost that game.  We saw it again when South Carolina came out flat and laid an egg against Florida the week after a big win against LSU.  So it should be no surprise that Florida came out flat against Georgia after their big win against South Carolina.  Rather than being the aggressors getting all the loose balls like they were against the Gamecocks, they were the ones losing the football and getting hammered by the Bulldogs.

The funny thing is in the week before the game Muschamp explained that they didn’t want the players to peak before the big game when referring to not making this game a big deal, but somebody forgot to tell the players you don’t want to wait til after the game to peak either.  All kidding aside, though, the Georgia staff or players did a better job getting them ready for the intensity of the game and that alone was the difference in this one.

So, upon further review, the blemishes that had been masterfully covered up during the Gators surprising 7-0 start were exposed for all to see yesterday against Georgia.  Are they as bad as they looked yesterday?  Certainly not.  They have definite weaknesses that the staff and players will need to address if they want to regroup from this bitter loss.  Their goals are still ahead of them they just no longer control their destiny.  It’s time to remember the words of the Florida fight song, “in all kinds of weather, we all stick together, for F-L-O-R-I-D-A”

Go Gators!