Gatorfootball.com – Year 2 of Will Muschamp’s tenure begins with a lot of unanswered questions about the offense and lingering angst over the 2011 season. Gone is the underachieving John Brantley at QB, replaced by 2 true sophomores in Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. I believe the coaching staff has benefited from “addition by subtraction”. Gone is the overhyped Charlie Weis, who did a terrible job of developing QB talent and never adjusted to the skill set of his players. He’s replaced by Brent Pease, who comes from Boise St. with a lot to prove as to how he can game plan against the big boys of the SEC. Former OL coach Frank Verducci came to Florida as Weis’ favored guy, and he simply stunk at both developing players and recruiting. He’s replaced by Tim Davis, who has had success at Utah and previously under Pete Carroll at USC – anything is an upgrade from Verducci. WR coach Aubrey Hill, while a former Gator who played for the Pariah, never seemed to get much out of his players at Florida or previously at scUM, where he was caught up in the Nevin Shapiro recruiting scandal. He’s replaced by former graduate assistant Bush Hamdan, who gets a huge step up in pay grade and is trusted by Pease from their days at Boise St., but, again, will that translate to success in the SEC or in recruiting?
The defense and special teams are largely intact, and again will be relied upon to carry the weight of any possible expectations beyond another mediocre season. Until the offense (and the new OC, OL, and WR coaches) can show they can game plan and put their current talent in the best position to succeed, it could be a rocky start in September and throughout the entire year, trying to overcome growing pains of the young QBs.
Coach Muschamp knows the wolves will start to howl if 2012 leads to only 6-7 wins, but he seems to have the mental makeup and recruiting prowess to continue to re-build the foundation of the program that was decimated during the last 2 seasons under Urban Meyer’s leadership. Patience (something in short supply with Gator fans and in the SEC) will again need to be practiced as Florida continues is climb back to elite status.
This is the unit that will determine how many wins the Gators have this season. It all starts at QB with the 2 sophomores and the new OC, OL, and QB coach. Nether QB was really developed in 2011, and Pease had a lot of work to do in the spring getting these guys ready to not just learn a new offense, but to simply execute the fundamentals better. It seems both will play early in the season to see if one finally separates himself as the starter. Brissett seems to have the inside track after fall practice, but Driskel is the superior athlete and runner – can he learn and execute in the passing game?
More questions abound at running back, where senior Mike Gillislee finally gets his chance to shine, after 3 seasons in the doghouse of previous coaches. Can he carry the load as a workhorse? Can he protect the football? There are a lot of candidates to share the workload including Mack Brown, freshman Matt Jones, Trey Burton, and FB Hunter Joyer. Again, a decent amount of talent with a variety of skill sets, but can Pease utilize each of these guys to their best in helping the offense succeed? I do forsee more short throws to the RBs to help the young QBs gain confidence and help the offense keep the chains moving.
The same theme holds at the wide receiver position. Frankie Hammond, Andre Debose, and Quinton Dunbar have all shown occasional flashes of big-play ability, but there’s no consistency. Freshman Latroy Pittman made a strong impression in the spring and will get on the field early this fall. After that it’s a crapshoot with limited bodies and talent……a disappointing and unnecessary situation at a school like Florida.
The tight end position is one that Pease used to great effect at Boise St., but again there’s a mixed-bag of talent and experience he has to cobble together into a serviceable unit. Jordan Reed is the leader and best playmaker, but not a power blocker in the running game. Omarius Hines is a tough runner with the ball, but lacks elite speed or strength as a blocker. Freshman Colin Thompson was slated to play this fall, as the only player with outstanding size and strength, but will likely be redshirted this fall after a series of ankle injuries. Freshman Kent Taylor will get those snaps instead, but since he lacks the blocking strength of Thompson, he will likely be flexed out in the slot in the passing game, which will make it easier for defenses to diagnose the play. Former DE Tevon Westbrook will be forced to play some this fall, but needs time to develop a new skill set. And then there’s the all-purpose Trey Burton again……he’ll see snaps at RB TE, H-back, and QB this fall. He is one of the few reliable red-zone threats.
What Pease will bring to the table is much more pre-snap motion by the skill position players to help dictate the defensive scheme and coverage and simplify the reads for the QB and WRs……but can they execute this against quality defenses and learn to “play fast” and not think too much about their assignments? The best I can see out of this unit in 2012 is improved time of possession and more success in the red zone (it can’t get worse than in 2011), but it’s definitely not ready to be a consistent force in the SEC right now. There is still a shocking lack in numbers of big-time playmakers that Gator offenses in the past have been loaded with. They should be able to help the defense get more rest and be put in less unfavorable situations than last year, though.
Year 2 under Dan Quinn should show continued improvement for a unit that, while ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed, was exposed against quality OL. The nucleus of another quality unit returns with DL Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, and Leon Orr forming a solid 2-deep rotation at DT, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, and Lerentee McCray at LB, and Matt Elam and Marcus Roberson in the secondary. There is now decent quality depth with S Pop Saunders, CB Jabari Gorman, DE Earl Okine, and LB Michael Taylor.
What could make this an elite unit this fall is the addition of new talent. JUCO transfer Damien Jacobs at DT and an excellent freshman class at all positions will see a lot of snaps early and often this fall. Jacobs is important, as Easley is returning from a torn ACL suffered in the F$U game in late November. It may be a while for him to get back to the level of play he’s accustomed to. Freshmen Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard are all ready physically to get some snaps in SEC play, but need all the reps they can get in practice.
Freshman Antonio Morrison certainly looked the part of a SEC LB in the spring game. Another unexpected bonus is the return of LB Neiron Ball from a life- and career-threatening vascular disorder that sidelined him for all of 2011. S Josh Evans and CB Jaylon Watkins will play often this fall. Jeremy Brown could be a real sleeper at CB, if he finally returns to health after a myriad of injuries during his college career to date; he could assume the starting role opposite Roberson if he gets well. Other candidates for early playing time are freshman S Rhaheim Ledbetter and redshirt CB Louchez Purifoy. Finally, no one is sure of how much Ronald Powell might play this fall. Personally. I am of the strong opinion that the staff should redshirt him, because coming back after only 6 months from a torn ACL is extremely risky physically, let alone the mental hurdle to push through to play at 100% again. The staff continues to say it is more likely to happen than not, but I want the kid to have the proper time to get back to complete health – physically and mentally.
There should be enough talent and depth on the defensive roster to allow Quinn and the other defensive coaches to take more chances and play more aggressive schemes than last season. It remains to be seen if the DL can stand up better against a power running game. The LBs and DBs have to become better playmakers this fall and generate more turnovers to help out an offense that may struggle at times in 2012.
Florida has the luxury of returning one of the best placekickers in the country in senior Caleb Sturgis, with promising freshman Austin Harden coming aboard. The coverage teams were excellent in 2011 and that should continue. Andre Debose is a dangerous KO return man (if healthy), but 1 or 2 reliable punt returners must be found. There is enough skill talent now to find them, but they could be inexperienced, which can be an unnerving thing. The only soft spot is at punter, where Kyle Christy was truly underwhelming last year after coming in with a lot of hype. Field position again will be a key to success for Florida this year as they try to develop a consistent offense.
It will be interesting to see how the new kickoff rule of kicking from the 35 yard line potentially limits the number of returns, and if that negates some of the country’s most dangerous returners, including Debose. Perhaps many coaches will be happy to let the opponent start at the 25 instead of the 20 after a touchback, asking their kickers to simply kick off through the end zone for a touchback. The NCAA legislated this to limit violent collisions and serious head injuries on returns, but it could remove an exciting element of the game. I’m not certain this rule won’t get changed again in the future.
After working out some kinks and shaking off the rust at home against Bowling Green to start the season, the Gators are thrown right into the grinder in game 2 at Texas A&M. The Aggies will be sky-high to show the SEC they belong right away. It will be interesting to see if the A&M players are too hyped up and make a lot of mistakes, but any road game in the SEC, especially until either of Brissett or Driskel show they can lead an effective attack, is dicey. If the Gators lose this one, it could seriously affect their chance the following week at Tennessee, even with a weak Vol defense and little depth on both sides of the Tennessee line of scrimmage. Mental toughness would be sorely tested early on. Kentucky comes to the Swamp for game 4, which should be one of the few easy SEC games for Florida.
After an off week, it’s 8 straight games to finish out the regular season, started by a showdown in Gainesville against defending SEC Champion LSU, which will be the first real barometer (barring injuries) of how the Gators stack up against the SEC’s best. There will be a lot of pressure on the coaches and players to measure up after last year’s beatdown administered by the Tigers. A road trip to Vanderbilt follows, which could be a possible trap game after a tough game against LSU, with South Carolina and the Pariah coming to the Swamp the following week. Again, a test of the maturity of the players to focus each week on the opponent in front of them. The conference schedule continues with the annual trip to Jacksonville to try and avenge last year’s disappointing loss to Georgia, a game that Muschamp knows means a lot to his job security down the line, followed by the other SEC newcomer, Missouri, visiting the Swamp. The Tigers have a lot of weapons on offense, and this game could be very tough after the grind of a full SEC schedule wears down a team physically and mentally.
The end of the season is a strange one, with 2 cupcakes coming to Florida, Louisiana and Jacksonville St., before traveling to Taliban City to try and stop a sickening 2 game losing streak to Florida St. The Gators will have 3 weeks to evaluate themselves after the SEC schedule ends very early, and to prepare an attempt to put the Criminoles back in their place in the rivalry.
Overall, the rhythm of the past 20 seasons and how the schedule is set up has changed drastically for 2012. There are some serious challenges facing this year’s team as they fight to regain respect both in the SEC and nationally. Because of the uncertainty across the board on offense, especially at QB, I can’t see more than 8 wins this year, with 6 or 7 as more of a possibility then 9 or 10. The early 2-game stretch on the road at Texas A&M and Tennessee could be rough if the QBs struggle, and if the unthinkable happens and the Gators lose both games, then it’s going to be a real tough season, even if the offense does develop and improve as the season rolls on. I believe the defense has the talent and depth to rise up and carry the team to a surprise win or two, but the offense could just as easily throw 1 or 2 games away in return. If Florida had the talent and experience it had on the roster from 2005-2009, this would be a 10 win or more season without question, but that isn’t the case……yet.
Prediction: 8-4 overall (5-3 SEC East)