The 2010 season was supposed to be a return to greatness for Florida, perhaps even a spotless ride to another national championship. Instead, Florida 8-5, head coach Urban Meyer quit, the team got nothing from the quarterback position and injuries hit the team hard. Will Muschamp takes over for 2011 has a first-time head coach, which typically means a steep learning curve in the SEC. The Gators still have QB questions, there’s a dearth of playmakers on offense and the defense is basically being rebuilt.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, RG, RT, QB, FB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 3 (LDT, SLB, LCB)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UA, AU, LSU, USC, FSU)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (UA, AU, LSU, USC)
Projected SEC East Record: 4-1 (USC)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Ex
A huge change is underway as Florida moves away from the spread-option and to a traditional I-based pro set under Muschamp and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. As such, nothing Florida did last year is relevant to this year. The new offense would seem to suit the presumptive starting quarterback better, but Florida had to create a fullback and the wide receivers will have to quickly grow accustomed to the new route metrics. In addition, Florida will have three new starters from the center to the left side of its line. There will be some struggles along the way.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC East, 5th overall)
John Brantley may be the happiest player on the Gator roster. No longer does he have to pretend to be a spread-option quarterback. He can now settle in under center and take advantage of play-action passing. Brantley has a good arm, but he made mistakes early in 2010 and it rattled his confidence. He finished the year completing 200 of 329 passes (60.8%) for 2,061 yards – not bad numbers – but he threw 10 interceptions to only 9 touchdowns. Worse yet, practice observers say the new offense is stalling too often. If Brantley can’t get the job done, redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy and true freshman Jeff Driskel will try to salvage the year. Driskel is undoubtedly the quarterback of the future. Another true freshman, Jacoby Brissett, rounds out the top group. He’s unlikely to play in 2011, but Driskel might. There’s a lot of raw talent in this group, and Brantley will be good if he can get his confidence back. But that’s a big “if.”
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC East, 7th overall)
Things got a little tougher for the new staff when Jeff Demps unexpectedly quit football to concentrate on track. But the big issue here is that the projected starter, Chris Rainey, is all of 5’8”, 175 pounds and a poor fit for the pro set. Rainey has put up gaudy per-carry stats in the past, but he won’t have the luxury of option-derived misdirection this year. Weis will have to figure out a way to get Rainey loose, because he’ll get creamed trying to be a traditional tailback. With Demps gone, Mike Gillislee becomes the primary backup, but he, too, is lighter than most SEC tailbacks. So is third-teamer Mack Brown. In fact, Florida doesn’t have a single tailback on the team over 200 pounds. Fullback will be split by last year’s starter at H-back, Trey Burton, and Ben Sams, who is smaller than most SEC tailbacks himself. There is no lack of speed, however, and Burton also gives Florida a throwing and receiving threat.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
Aside from senior Deonte Thompson¸ who was the team’s leading receiver last year (albeit it with just 570 yards), there just isn’t much here in the way of proven difference-makers. Frankie Hammond has starting experience and was a useful spare part in 2010, and he’ll be asked to carry a load this year along with Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose. Omarius Hines and Stephen Alli round out the top end of the depth chart. Each player has potential. Debose was supposed to be the next Percy Harvin when signed; Hines is physical; Alli is 6’6” and a walking mismatch for most SEC cornerbacks. Dunbar might be the most intriguing of them all, however, as practice observers really like what they see from him. Signee Ja’Juan Story could also find himself in the playing rotation. But as promising as the receivers might sound, Florida is in trouble at tight end. Converted quarterback Jordan Reed will start, backed up probably by fullback Trey Burton. A.C. Leonard was one of Florida’s most prized recruits, but he hurt a knee and may miss the first two-thirds of the season. Gerald Christian and Josh Postell will try to hold down the fort in his absence, but Postell needs to add bulk and Christian has been slow to develop.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg, 2nd SEC East, 5th overall)
The right side of the line is in good shape with tackle Xavier Nixon and guard Jon Halapio. The rest of the line is in flux. Four players, Jonotthan Harrison, Nick Alalajian, Dan Wenger and Sam Robey, are in the mix at center. Harrison could also play left guard, or that spot could go to James Wilson, David Young or Ian Silberman. The only new starter with security right now appears to be left tackle Matt Patchan, although it bears noting that Patchan was named in the recent Miami recruiting scandal report. There doesn’t appear to be a challenge to his eligibility at this time, but with anything NCAA-related, that could change. Chaz Green looks set to be Patchan’s backup. Kyle Koehne or Silberman figure to backup Nixon at right tackle. Expect Florida to try multiple combinations to get the best fit, but the Gators aren’t lacking for talent.
Florida is dumping the pure 4-3 defense and going more towards a 3-1-3 Jack split alignment, much like Alabama uses. It’s not surprising given Muschamp’s ties to Alabama’s Nick Saban. The real problem is the lack of experience in the front seven coupled with a pass defense that is thin and susceptible to injury. Florida was surprisingly good last year, finishing the season ranked 9th nationally in total defense, a fact that gets forgotten in light of how disappointing the year turned out to be.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg, 2nd SEC East, 4th overall)
The key here is to fit old 4-3 parts into a new 3-man alignment. The biggest question mark is going to be strongside end, where William Green is projected to start. Curiously, Green was not a candidate for Florida’s Jack position – which it calls “Buck” – even though he would seem to be a good fit for it. Green’s play has been inconsistent since his arrival, and it’s even more critical he have a good 2011, given that Chris Martin, his backup, has left the team. That leaves a trio of freshmen, redshirt Lynden Trail and signees Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook, as the only backups. The other two starting positions should be solid, however. Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard are competing with Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley at tackle. Any of the four could start for any team in the conference. Health will be the primary consideration. Earl Okine and big redshirt freshman Leon Orr add depth.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Fr, 5th SEC East, 8th overall)
Two starters are fairly well set, Jelani Jenkins on the weakside and Jon Bostic in the middle. Both have plenty of experience, but there are questions about each. They both need to be more consistent, particularly Jenkins, who has athletic ability to spare but isn’t the most instinctive player. The other inside linebacker spot is a problem. Gideon Ajagbe appears to be leading the pack, but he’s just a freshman. Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor are also in the mix, but Taylor is a bit small. Dee Finley, a converted safety, figures to back up Jenkins, but like Taylor, size is an issue. Big things are expected of Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Lerentee McCray is his backup.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Fr, 6th SEC East, 10th overall)
A lack of experience at safety is troubling the Gator coaches. Strong safety Matt Elam has good upside, but the free safety position is a cause for concern. Either Josh Evans or Jaylen Watkins will win the job most likely, with Josh Shaw and Tim Clark also in the mix. Evans is the favorite. Jeremy Brown should be OK at one cornerback position, with sixth-year senior Moses Jenkins trying to rebound from a knee injury to win the other. Depth is at a premium there, as Cody Riggs is the only veteran available. Signee De’Ante Saunders might have to play more than the coaches would like. This unit will hinge on Jenkins’ health and the play of Evans at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Ex, 2nd SEC East, 2nd overall)
Florida has had excellent special teams for years and 2011 doesn’t appear to be any different on its face. Caleb Sturgis is a reliable placekicker, while David Lerner and Kyle Christy will continue to battle for the punting job throughout the year. Florida has more weapons in the return game than it knows what to do with. Chris Rainey figures to return punts, with Andre Debose also in the mix somewhere. Florida shone statistically across the board in 2010 and should repeat itself in 2011.
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