Florida’s 2011 season was predictably difficult as the Gators moved from Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense to a pro-style attack. What wasn’t predictable was the meltdown the Gators later suffered on offense, due in no small part to injuries to the only experienced quarterback Florida had on its roster, John Brantley. This year, Florida is tweaking the offense yet again, bringing in offensive coordinator Brent Pease from Boise State, while some of the same challenges remain most notably a dearth of power-running options out of the backfield. The Gator fans, though, expect substantial improvement.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (LT, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, FB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, RDT, WLB, MLB, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (LSU, USC, UGA, MIZ, FSU)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (LSU, USC, UGA, MIZ)
Projected SEC East Record: 3-3 (USC, UGA, MIZ)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Vg
Charlie Weis never fit in with the Florida team or in Gainesville in general, and he moved on to Kansas over the offseason. Enter the aforementioned Pease, who oversaw an exciting, potent offense at Boise State. The Gators will have their hands full with the offensive skill players, who are still more Urban Meyer than Will Muschamp. This is a team that needs a running back it can depend on, better consistency at wideout and no more health problems under center.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Fr; 7th SEC East, 12th overall)
Jeff Driksel is a study in caution regarding recruiting rankings and offseason all-star games. Out of high school, Driskel looked NFL-ready at times when playing in all-star competitions, having the skill set most thought would elevate him quickly through the ranks of SEC signal-callers. These days, he’s not even the best sophomore on the Florida team. Jacoby Brissett is expected to be the starter. He’s more athletic than Driskel and has good tools, although Driskel has probably the better pure arm. What will decide the race for the long run is who makes the best decisions in regards to ball security and choice of targets. What’s scary for Florida is the situation behind these two; if injuries or ineffectiveness forces Florida to go three deep, the list of names there include a rather unheralded true freshman (Skyler Mornhinweg), walk-ons and a little-used scout teamer, Tyler Murphy.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 8th overall)
Hard as it might be to believe, Florida could end up having sent two running backs to the NFL following the 2011 season, yet actually be better. Neither Chris Rainey nor Jeff Demps really fit a pro-style attack, but Mike Gillislee has the chance to do so. Gillislee put on some bulk over the offseason and is now above the 200-pound mark. His backup is sophomore Mack Brown, who has power-back leanings. Rainey and Demps did not lack for toughness, but one can only do so much in the SEC at around 180 pounds. True freshman Matt Jones is bigger than either and should fight for time along with Omarius Hines. Florida will primarily use a twin-tight end formation not unlike Alabama’s, with Trey Burton filling the role of H-back and part-time fullback. A more traditional fullback, Hunter Joyer, is his backup.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 7th overall)
There is potential galore here, but inconsistency has been the name of the game so far. Andre Debose can be a game-changer when he’s on, but he’s not on enough. He almost broke the Alabama game open single-handedly but disappeared for large chunks of the season, too. Veterans Frankie Hammond and Solomon Patton will vie for the other starting job along with Quinton Dunbar. When Florida goes three-wide, look for 6’6” junior Stephen Alli to play and create matchup problems. Freshman Latroy Pittman could be a future star. Along with Burton, the tight end group includes Jordan Reed, who will be asked to play the Y position despite being more of a larger receiver/H-back player. A.C. Leonard will back him up.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 3rd overall)
The Gators will have one of the deepest lines in the conference and their coaches believe one of the best, as well. There is a logjam at center, of all places, with Jonotthan Harrison leading Sam Robey and Kyle Koehne. Koehne will probably back up a guard position, falling in behind Jon Halapio and James Wilson. At tackle, Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan are competing with Chaz Green. Talented true freshman D.J. Humphries provides further depth. Ian Silberman is another name to watch along with freshman Trip Thurman. Even a handful of injuries shouldn’t cause much trouble for this group.
Like Alabama, Florida operates from a 3-4 over/under scheme with a Jack linebacker. In terms of talent to make the system go, Florida has enough and has had it for some time. But in recent years, the front seven didn’t cooperate once the season got rolling. The key for 2012, at least early in the season, will be to replace production in the interior of the defensive line and to replace important injured players. The Gators need to improve overall against the run, and also need to create more turnovers.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 3rd overall)
Florida has speed to burn across the line and has had it for years; it doesn’t always translate to results. The Gators were just 40th against the run in 2011 and need to start reaching potential, especially at the tackle slots. Starters Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter are two of the most experienced veterans on the team. Both can play across all three front-end positions. Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs are their primary backups, and both are huge. Also in the mix are Nick Alajajian and Earl Okine. Okine in particular has the body type that NFL scouts drool over, but he needs to get more consistent. Dominique Easley will start at the end position, with true freshman Dante Fowler his primary backup. Gideon Ajagbe may have a role at end, but he should do most of his damage at linebacker.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 3rd overall)
Things got a little dicier at Jack outside linebacker when Ronald Powell went down with a knee injury in spring drills, but he may very well return before the season is out. Until he does, Gideon Ajagbe and Lerentee McCray will look to pick up the slack. Inside, the situation is rosier, as veterans Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic have drawn raves this offseason. The strongside position is up for grabs, with Darrin Kitchens leading Graham Stewart and Antonio Morrison at the moment. This position will typically sit, however, when the Gators are in nickel, making it the least important of the four. Mike Taylor and Kedric Johnson provide depth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 5th overall)
The Gators could have one of the top groups in the conference if the cornerback positions shake out correctly. Loucheiz Purifoy had a stellar spring and snatched a starting job from Jaylen Watkins. Purifoy’s development is of special importance, as Florida is lacking size across the board in the secondary with only a couple of exceptions. Purifoy is one of those exceptions; he’s 6’1” and has drawn comparisons to Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick. Cody Riggs will start at the other slot – for now – ahead of Marcus Robertson, who is trying to return from a neck injury. The safeties are Matt Elam and Josh Evans, and they have become a feared duo. De’Ante Saunders is the top backup and brings experience and talent off the bench. Freshman Valdez Showers may be the next name to remember.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Vg; 1st SEC East, 5th overall)
Placekicker Caleb Sturgis is about as automatic as they come, and has a canon for a leg. The kick and punt returns should be in good hands with Andre Debose and a handful of other candidates. The only soft spot is punter, where Kyle Christy has immense talent but scatters the ball too much. If Christy improves, few teams will beat Florida in the kicking game.
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