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August 30, 2013

ICYMI: Questions, Questions, Questions

*** Note *** This article ran in the Herald's 2013 College Football Preview

GAINESVILLE -- Remember actor Jim Carrey going insane as The Riddler in Batman Forever?

“There’s too many questions. There’s too many questions. I’ll show you how it works!”

Meet the 2013 Florida Gators.

On the heels of an unexpected BCS bowl berth, Florida reestablished itself among the nation’s elite.

The Louisville debacle notwithstanding, coach Will Muschamp’s team perfectly embodied his personality a year ago: tough, nasty and a little crazy.

The Gators won 11 games pulverizing their opponents into submission with a suffocating defense, a powerful running game and a fantastic turnover margin.

Florida is the consensus preseason No. 10 team in the country, so expectations -- despite significant losses on both sides of the ball -- remain high in 2013.

Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel said the Gators plan to reach Atlanta, Ga. for the SEC Championship game -- something they haven’t done since 2009.

“I think we have a really good team. We’re a close-knit bunch of guys. We were so close last year, we could taste it,” he said. “We really want to get there this year, and I think we have a good chance.”

But this is a new season, a new team and a lot fresh of questions.

Florida, with three top-five recruiting classes in the last four years, is extremely talented but flawed.

Driskel continues to blossom, yet an already pedestrian offense (No. 104 nationally) struggled with continuity during training camp due to so many injuries. Starting tailback Matt Jones, a potential breakout player, may miss games because of a serious viral infection, while the rebuilt starting offensive line has played a total of zero scrimmage snaps together. 

At receiver, electric freshman Demarcus Robinson and improved junior Quinton Dunbar emerged as two viable options in camp, but as a whole, the unit remains a black hole. Ditto for tight end.

Defensively, the Gators must replace several standouts including defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebacker Jon Bostic, although their identity will remain the same.  Muschamp’s team is constructed from the defensive line and secondary first, and UF is ridiculously talent-rich at both spots. Florida’s trio of cornerbacks -- Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins -- are better than most in the country, while linemen Dante Fowler Jr., a future star pass rusher, and Dominique Easley, a run-stuffing tackle, should propel a menacing front-four.

But the known’s stop there.

Florida’s linebackers lack depth, experience and versatility, while its safeties -- albeit very highly regarded -- are green too.

Florida’s success last season was particularly predicated by its top-notch turnover margin (+15, good for No. 4 nationally), rush-defense (No. 4 nationally) and the nation’s top kicker (Caleb Sturgis) -- three key components likely to regress.

The Gators’ grind-it-out attack also meant they forcibly played with little margin for error, even against lesser teams (see: close wins over Bowling Green, Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette). 

“We won 10 games when we won the turnover margin, and we lost two when we didn't,” Muschamp said. “That is something that's obviously very critical for our success.”

With another brutal late-season schedule -- the Gators play four teams ranked in the preseason top 12 including, three away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (UGA, South Carolina and LSU) -- can Florida reach Atlanta with the same ugly, yet effective formula, only with worse luck?

For Muschamp, his team’s confidence is a positive reassurance, but talk is cheap.
“You've got to do it on the field,” he said. “I'm glad that our guys have confidence that that's going to happen, and I feel like we have a deep roster. We've got some depth in some positions, but anytime you want to talk about a run to Atlanta, you've got to have things fall your way.”

With an improved offense and a still-scary defense, Florida could reach the SEC title game.

But with so many questions, it might not be until 2014. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Florida: A Game-by-Game Breakdown

*** Note *** This article ran in the Herald's 2013 College Football Preview

Gators
(media.miamiherald.com)

Aug. 31: Toledo, Noon (SEC Network)

Florida will cruise to its 24th straight season-opening victory. UF 30-9.

Sep. 7: @ Miami, Noon (ESPN)

In 2012, Florida ranked No. 78 nationally in scoring offense, while UM ranked No. 83 in scoring defense. Something’s got to give. UF 24-17.

Sep. 21: Tennessee, TBA (TBA)

The Gators have won six in a row over the Volunteers. The streak continues. UF 24-10.

Sep. 28: @ Kentucky, TBA (TBA)

New Wildcats coach Mark Stoops might have his team pointed in the right direction, but his promising recruiting class won’t be on campus yet. UF 35-0.

Oct. 5: Arkansas, TBA (TBA)

Even the Gators can score against a feeble Hogs defense. UF 33-13.

Oct. 12: @ LSU, TBA (TBA)

Florida isn’t holding LSU under 200 yards of total offense in Death Valley. LSU 23-16.

Oct. 19: @ Missouri, TBA (TBA)

Tigers quarterback James Franklin tossed four interceptions in a close loss (14-7) last season. Repeat performance? UF 20-7.

Nov. 2: Georgia (Jacksonville), 3:30 p.m. (CBS)

Will Muschamp has never won a game in the series -- sporting red and black or orange and blue. UGA 21-20.

Nov. 9: Vanderbilt, TBA (TBA)

This isn’t your daddy’s ‘Dores, but alas, the Gators still have better players. UF 26-17.

Nov. 16: @ South Carolina, TBA (TBA)

All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is still not impressed with Florida’s offense. USC 22-16.

Nov. 23: Georgia Southern, TBA (TBA)

A brief reprieve before another tough rivalry game. UF 38-0.

Nov. 30: Florida State, TBA (TBA)

The Seminoles won’t win in Gainesville twice in a row. UF 28-20. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Grading The Gators

*** Note *** This article ran in the Herald's 2013 College Football Preview

MPj04395130000[1](Courtesy iteach-and-ilearn.blogspot.com)

QUARTERBACKS | C

Jeff Driskel is no longer mired in a quarterback controversy, and the junior appears poised for a breakout season. UF’s starter has a live arm coupled with quick, powerful legs, but can he overcome his confidence and read-progression issues? In Florida’s conservative offense, Driskel threw for more than 175 yards just three times, yet he did do a nice job of mostly avoiding turnovers (12 TD: 5 INT).  As Florida aims for offensive balance, an improved and polished Driskel is a good start. UF lacks quality depth behind Driskel, as his backups -- (RJR) Tyler Murphy, (RFR) Skyler Morhinweg (FR) and Max Staver -- are an unproven and shaky group. Driskel’s health is vital to Florida’s potential success.

RUNNING BACKS | B+

Florida has never had consecutive 1,000-yard rushers in school history. That could change this season. Or maybe not. Matt Jones, a 6-foot-2, 228-pound sophomore, has battled a serious viral infection all August, jeopardizing his role early in the year. Jones was a spring star, and with an elite blend of size, speed and strength, was expected to replicate Miami Dolphins rookie Mike Gillislee’s production (1,152 yards) as Florida’s workhouse tailback. Freshman Kelvin Taylor, the state’s all-time leading high school rusher, and redshirt junior Mack Brown (40 career rushes) must now carry the load. Taylor is the son of Florida legend Fred Taylor and was an early enrollee this spring. Hunter Joyer, a junior, is one of the best fullbacks in the Southeastern Conference.

RECEIVERS | D+

Demarcus Robinson (6-2, 204) has never played a down of college football, but the ballyhooed freshman emerged as the team’s top wideout during camp. Florida’s beleaguered unit includes junior Quinton Dunbar (36 catches, 4 TDs), senior Trey Burton (18 receptions, 1 TD), junior Solomon Patton (8 career receptions) and five freshmen -- only two of whom are ready to contribute: Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood (6-4, 200 pounds). At tight end, Florida cannot replace Jordan Reed’s team-leading 45 receptions but Clay Burton, a reliable blocker, will assume the first-team duties.  

OFFENSIVE LINE | B

Florida’s line was a Jekyll and Hyde unit a season ago. Center Jon Harrison and left guard Jon Halapio propelled a group that mauled opponents on the ground (No. 3 SEC rushing offense) but struggled mightily in pass protection (No. 115 nationally in sacks allowed). Sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries (6-5, 185) should boost the pass blocking immediately, as will transfer linemen Tyler Moore (6-5, 315), Max Garcia (6-4, 307) and Trenton Brown (6-8, 363). Concerns remain though, as Halapio is the leader of group (33 career starts) and has missed all of training camp with a torn pectoral. Although the senior is expected to return to action early in the season, his effectiveness playing with a torn pectoral is unknown.

DEFENSIVE LINE | A-

Replacing defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, will be tough, but the Gators have plenty of firepower to survive. Florida’s nickel “rabbits” package includes four former five-star prospects: Ronald Powell, back after missing all of 2012 with an ACL injury, Dominique Easley, Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. Fowler, a sophomore, is a budding star and is on the fast-track to be one of the nation’s elite pass rushers. Without Floyd and Omar Hunter -- last season’s nose tackle -- UF will not be as dominant against the run (No. 4 nationally), but with Fowler and Bullard, the self-titled “Bash Bros”, its sack numbers should increase big time. Leon Orr (6-5, 310), Darious ‘Bear’ Cummings (6-1, 309) and Damien Jacobs (6-3, 290) will rotate at nose tackle. 

LINEBACKERS | C

Here, Florida’s losses will be felt. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins were two premier run-stopping and coverage linebackers. Antonio Morrison delivered several highlight blows as a freshman, but the sophomore is suspended for the first two games and has worked mostly with the second-unit in camp. Career role players Michael Taylor (6-0, 230) and Neiron Ball (6-3, 235) are two likely starters, while early enrollees Daniel McMillian (6-1, 225) and Alex Anzalone (6-3, 230) should contribute as rotational players.  Depth is a serious concern, especially with so many inexperienced players in the mix.

SECONDARY | A

Welcome to the no fly zone. Florida’s greatest strength is its volume, talent and experience at cornerback. Juniors Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are All-SEC performers, while senior Jaylen Watkins has 19 career starts. Freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, and Brian Poole, a physical sophomore, are expected to play significant roles too. Due to coverage concerns at linebacker, the Gators will regularly play six defensive backs together to get the best players on the field.  Florida’s athletic trio mitigates many of the unresolved questions at safety but some still linger. Matt Elam, a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, and Josh Evans, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ sixth-round selection, were a lethal combination and now the undersized Cody Riggs (5-9, 184) and training camp star Marcus Maye, a redshirt freshman, must take over. 

SPECIAL TEAMS | B

Kyle Christy might be the nation’s top punter. The junior was named a preseason All-American after averaging 45.8 yards per kick in 2012, fifth-best nationally. The kicking situation is a major quagmire with the graduation of All-American Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin is the probable starter. Andre Debose was an electric kick returner but his torn ACL has caused Florida to audition a collection of guys. Roberson will handle punts, and with Purifoy, Ball and others, the coverage units should remain among the nation’s best.

COACHING | A

With the additions of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, formally Kentucky’s head coach (2010-12), and Brad Lawling, South Carolina’s defensive line coach (2006-12), Florida’s strong staff got even better this offseason. Will Muschamp opted for improvement over stability. Muschamp is entering the pivotal “Year Three,” while offensive coordinator Brent Pease is considered a potential future head coach. The up-and-coming D.J. Durkin replaces Dan Quinn, now with the Seattle Seahawks, as defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson is a dynamic recruiter.  Also on staff are several ex-Gators, including former quarterback Chris Leak (2003-06) and linebacker Mike Peterson (1995-98).  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton


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