November 26, 2014

Hargreaves won't shadow Greene; Juniors mull NFL

GAINESVILLE -- All-American defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III is among the nation’s top cornerbacks, but Florida’s secondary star won’t exclusively shadow No. 1 Florida State’s elite wideout Rashad Greene 

Greene -- the Seminoles’ all-time leading receiver -- is quarterback Jameis Winston’s go-to target, registering 83 catches for 1,148 yards and five touchdowns on the season.  The senior has seven 100+ yard performances and ranks 10th nationally in yards per game.

Still, Florida refuses to change its fluid defensive philosophy -- this despite possessing an obvious man-to-man coverage candidate.

“Based on coverage and call and situation, it will be different. They are going to be matched up on each other at times,” UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin explained.

“But there will be times where they won’t be. It won’t be one of those deals where Vernon’s with him the whole game.”

The Gators utilized a similar gameplan against Alabama’s dynamic wideout Amari Cooper, and the results were disastrous.

Cooper torched UF’s bracket zones, and later, won multiple one-on-one matchups against Hargreaves. The receiver finished the blowout with 10 catches for 201 yards and three scores.

“There are other things we want to do [defensively], and we don’t want to sacrifice that,” Durkin said, explaining potential problems elsewhere with Hargreaves solely shadowing Greene.

“Sometimes you do that and all of a sudden you’re putting other guys in spots they haven’t been in before and uncomfortable. I think the main thing is being able to execute. Obviously, he’s a great receiver and he’s the guy they go to. We feel good about Vernon as a cover guy, but we don’t want to sacrifice the whole integrity of what we do defensively to say, ‘That’s the matchup.’”

BULLARD, HUMPHRIES MULL NFL OPTIONS

Florida juniors D.J. Humphries, the team’s starting left tackle, and Jon Bullard, a powerful playmaker at defensive tackle, plan to seek feedback from the NFL Draft advisory board at the end of the year. 

Humphries, a former five-star recruit, has started 17 games in three injury-plagued seasons.

“I’m just trying to finish out the season strong and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

“[I’ll get NFL advice] because of the situation and what’s been going on here. But I just got to stay focused and then try and figure out what’s going to go down.”

Bullard, a former five-star defensive end prospect, has thrived in a transition to tackle in 2014, recording 40 tackles, 11 hurries and 5.5 stops for loss.

Meanwhile, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and offensive guard Tyler Moore have already announced their intentions to declare for the upcoming draft. 

QUOTABLE

"Wow. Ok. I didn't know that. Learn new things every day. That's awesome."

-- sophomore safety Keanu Neal, upon learning that D.J. Durkin will serve as the team's interim head coach. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 25, 2014

Carter, Finney-Smith travel to Bahamas, questionable for tourney opener against Georgetown

GAINESVILLE -- Depth remains an issue for No. 18 Florida, but the shorthanded Gators could return to a pair of starters sometime over the weekend.

Maybe. 

Senior guard Eli Carter and versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith made the trip to the Bahamas for this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, and both starters are questionable for Wednesday’s opener against Georgetown (9:30 p.m., AXS TV).

Carter -- diagnosed with a mid-foot sprain -- has not practiced since sustaining the injury late in a workout last Thursday, but coach Billy Donovan hoped to have a better idea of the swingman’s status sometime Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Finney-Smith -- who sustained multiple hairline fractures in his left hand in Florida’s regular-season opener against William & Mary -- has been cleared for non-contact drills but remains plagued by persistent pain. The redshirt junior, who posted15 points and five rebounds in his lone apperance this season, has missed UF's last two games. 

“Neither of them has practiced,” Donovan said.

“They’re doing some stuff individually. I think Dorian’s hand does feel better. He still has pain. A lot of it’s going to come down to what he can actually tolerate.

“[Dorian's] got two broken bones in his hand, so it’s not a situation where you’re looking at it and saying ‘geez this guy just needs to play through some pain.’ I think it’s very, very difficult right now for him to catch, to dribble. And I think when the ball does come to him, I think that’s a problem. I think going up to rebound is a problem. So where does he get to a point where he feels like the pain is manageable? Because he’s going to be playing with pain for some significant time, that’s definitely going to happen. Now how long it takes for him to be totally pain-free I don’t know.

"But he’s going to have a brace on his hand definitely for a few weeks. I don’t know what or how much we can get out of him. I know right now he’s not really cleared for practice, well he is cleared for practice, but I think the feeling by the trainer and the doctor is if his pain is pretty significant, what ends of happening is the constant hitting of it, catching, rebounding, banging it all that does is create more swelling, creates a longer healing process, and that’s something we’re trying to avoid right now.”

Carter, averaging 14.5 points in two games, is only doing conditioning drills.

With both starters sidelined, the shorthanded Gators, with just six scholarship players available, struggled to topple Louisiana-Monroe 61-56 in overtime Friday night. Florida (2-1) practiced three times last Saturday in an effort to build some cohesiveness with its depleted depth. 

Thus far, Florida’s most reliable contributor to start the season has been walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz, who’s averaging 6.0 points, 9.3 rebounds 2.3 assists in three games.   

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 24, 2014

Going bowling: Birmingham or Shreveport?

GAINESVILLE -- Florida secured bowl eligibility with Saturday’s 52-3 blowout win over Eastern Kentucky.

Now’s the guessing-game. Where will the Gators go bowling?

With 11 SEC teams bowl eligible -- and Tennessee a win away from becoming No. 12 -- Florida (with an interim staff) is likely to be slotted as one of the conference's final picks. An upset win over No. 1 Florida State could change that. 

Here are Monday’s latest projections, per the "experts."

CBS Sports

Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La., Dec. 27) – Florida vs. Miami

ESPN

Birmingham Bowl (Birmingham, Al., Jan. 3) – Florida vs. Memphis; Florida vs. East Carolina

Phil Steele

Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La., Dec. 27) – Florida vs. Virginia Tech

Sporting News

Birmingham Bowl (Birmingham, Al., Jan. 3) – Florida vs. Cincinnati

SB Nation

Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La., Dec. 27) – Florida vs. NC State

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 23, 2014

Gator Grades: Send-off

GAINESVILLE -- On a gloomy, rainy Saturday in The Swamp, Florida sent the seniors and dismissed coach Will Muschamp out in style with a 52-3 rout over Eastern Kentucky.

It was a bittersweet finale, but the Gators managed to have some fun following an emotionally trying week.

OFFENSE – B

Florida’s usual grit-and-grind offense was nowhere to be found. Instead, the Gators turned to an Air Raid attac, passing their way past the Colonels.

UF’s offense was sluggish and slow early, unable to run the football despite a massive size disparity up front. But the Gators hit a couple big throws late in the second quarter, turning a barnburner into a blowout.

Treon Harris was sporadically spectacular (4-of-12 for 162 yards and two touchdowns) before exiting with a leg injury, while much-maligned backup Jeff Driskel was nearly flawless (9-of-11 for 164 yards and four scores) in relief.

Little-used tailback Adam Lane, a fourth-stringer, led the Gators in rushing (60 yards), while UF posted a pair of 100+ yard receivers for the first time in the Muschamp era.   

DEFENSE – A

EKU was limited to just 142 total yards, as UF stifling defense strangled the Colonel’s prolific rushing attack. EKU couldn’t pass either (63 yards), resorting to gimmicks for potential game-changing plays.  

Florida forced a slew of fumbles, recovering only one.

The Gators played a bunch of backups in the second half, but regular rotational guys like Alex McCalister (2 sacks) and linebacker Michael Taylor (team-high 9 tackles) delivered solid performances.

SPECIAL TEAMS – A

A week after collapsing against South Carolina, UF’s third unit was primed for EKU’s bag of tricks.

The Gators stopped a fake punt, fake field and onside kick. Meanwhile, Andre Debose had a 39-yard punt return, while Kyle Christy averaged 49 yards on four punts.

Austin Hardin supplanted Frankie Velez as the team’s first-string kicker, drilling a 48-yard field goal on his lone attempt.

OVERALL – B+

The Gators overcame a slow start to rout an FCS school.

Considering the circumstances and the way UF played against an FCS foe last season (Georgia Southern, anyone?), it was a fitting, feel-good win for a team desperate for some fun.

Florida is now bowl eligible and Muschamp will roam the sidelines one final time Saturday at No. 1 Florida State. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 21, 2014

No. 8 Florida squanders late lead, edges ULM in OT

GAINESVILLE -- No. 8 Florida survived an overtime scare against Louisiana-Monroe, squeaking past the Warhawks 61-56 Friday night in the O’Connell Center.

Led by walk-on forward Jacob “Captain” Kurtz and junior sharpshooter Michael Frazier II, the shorthanded Gators rallied in overtime after squandering an 8-point lead with just over two minutes left in regulation.

ULM drilled back-to-back 3-pointers with under a minute left in regulation, including Nick Coppola’s 28-foot bomb to tie the game at 51-51 with 16 seconds remaining. Coppola finished with 11 points, and forward Tylor Ongwae led ULM with 19 points and eight rebounds. 

Despite the Florida's second straight collapse late, the Gators managed to regroup in overtime, staving off the upset by bleeding the game away at the charity stripe (8-of-12 in OT).

“There’s going to be some really painful moments. It is part of them getting scarred,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.

“They have no concept in what goes into winning. They have to take ownership in what that looks like each and every day.”

Florida won an ugly, sloppy contest, suiting up just six scholarship players and shooting a ghastly 33 percent from the field.

The Gators (2-1) played without forward Dorian Finney-Smith (hand fracture), forward Alex Murphy (ineligible) and guard Eli Carter (foot) -- UF’s leading scorer at 14.5 points a game -- and they struggled to generate consistent shots without their usual scoring punch. 

Frazier, who hurt his ankle late in the second half, led all scorers with 21 points -- 16 after halftime.

“I knew we were going to have struggling scoring tonight,” Donovan said.

“You take our two leading scorers off the floor and we’re going to be in trouble.”

Meanwhile, Kurtz was UF’s superglue guy, as the walk-on dominated the glass (13 rebounds) and chipped in a team-high three assists and six points, too. The 6-foot-6 forward had a key assist to center Jon Horford in overtime (UF's lone field goal) and drilled a pair of free throws. 

“He made a couple great plays. He kept a couple rebounds alive. He gets it,” Donovan said.

“He’s the one guy on the team that really, really gets. He has a clear-cut understanding what goes into winning.”

The Gators trailed 29-27 at halftime, erasing a 12 point deficit with a 10-0 run capped by Chris Chiozza’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. ULM rained 3-pointers (5-of-9) to establish its first-half lead.

But ULM’s wild shots stopped failing after halftime, and Florida grabbed control of the game with a 15-0 run -- spurred by six points from Frazier. 

Thanks to poor shot selection and bad defensive rotations, the Gators coughed up their late lead, but with both teams ice cold from the field (a combined 27 percent after halftime) they were able to survive the meltdown thanks to the free throw line.

THIS & THAT

Finney-Smith (injury, academics) will not travel to Florida's Thanksgiving weekend tournament 'Battle 4 Atlantis.' The Gators open play Wednesday against Georgetown. ... Carter will undergo an MRI on Saturday, determining whether he has a Lisfranc injury or a mild foot sprain. ... Sophomore point guard Kasey Hill had another miserable night (5 turnovers, 2-12 from the field) and is now 3-for-21 the last two games. ... Former McDonald's All-American Chris Walker made his season debut after being suspended Florida's first two games. The sophomore played 26 minutes, finishing with four points and six rebounds. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

November 19, 2014

Fowler Jr: "I'm leaving with (Muschamp)

GAINESVILLE -- Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. -- a future first round NFL pick -- says he’s leaving with fired coach Will Muschamp.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 9.42.05 AM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 9.42.19 AM

Fowler’s decision to enter to NFL Draft comes as no surprise, as the dynamic junior pass rusher was asked Tuesday afternoon if there was any scenario where he’d return to school for his senior season.

Fowler paused for several seconds, before saying, “Um. Just if anything probably to just develop or if (the NFL) says I was too young or something.”

He’s not too young.

The 20-year-old menacing pass-rusher leads the Gators with 4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 15 hurries.

The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder also ranks second on the team in tackles (49) and has a pair of forced fumbles.

Fowler, a former 5-star prospect, is No. 17 on ESPN’s 2015 Big Board, and should be Muschamp’s fourth defensive player selected in round one.

Despite a solid junior season, Fowler didn’t mince words on Florida’s rocky season, saying, “There was just a lot of drama going on, you know, just through Champ there and things like that. I feel like everybody wanting him to leave so bad that it kind of turned into a distraction. As you can see, I mean, we had the game in our hands, whenever you let the game fall out of your hands like that there’s going to be some commotion and things like that, so I understand that.”

Muschamp was fired Sunday, less than 24 hours after UF collapsed in a 23-20 loss to South Carolina -- the team’s third straight defeat at home.

Now, Fowler hopes Muschamp joins him in the NFL.

“I’d love to play for him,” he said. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 16, 2014

The Hot List: Where do Gators go next?

GAINEVILLE -- Will Muschamp -- Florida’s supposed prodigal son -- was fired resigned Sunday, effective at the end of the regular season.

Esteemed athletics director Jeremy Foley will open a search immediately, tacitly pursuing candidates under radio silence.

Florida is a Top 5 job -- rich athletic department, fertile recruiting base, solid roster foundation -- but the program’s systemic issues -- average facilities, substandard support staff, fickle fan base -- are real.

Unless Bob Stoops up and leaves Oklahoma, Foley isn’t hiring a defensive coach.

The Gators will target an experienced, offensive-minded coach, one that hopefully has Southeast ties and a solid recruiting background.

But the search to fill Muschamp’s vacancy won’t be easy. A potential list of who’s who candidates can be crossed off from the start.

Steve Spurrier, Dan Quinn, Charlie Strong, Art Briles, James Franklin, Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Chad Morris will not be Florida’s next head coach.

Pipe-dream hires such as Chip Kelly or Jim Harbaugh are also unlikely, and thus, Foley’s job is extremely difficult.

Intriguing options remain, but few offer a perfect fit for UF.

Florida is sure to gauge the interest of Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State’s Todd Graham, UCLA’s Jim Mora and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy.

Notably absent: Dan Mullen. Mississippi State’s coach is probably the hottest candidate on the market, but the former UF offensive coordinator reportedly has a sour relationship with Foley and may not even receive as much as a phone call.

Long-shots options include Colorado State’s Jim McElwain, Mike Shanahan or TCU’s Gary Patterson.

In the end, plenty of coaches will receive raises thanks to Florida’s interest, but make no mistake, Foley is under immense pressure to hit a home run.

The real question: Is there one out there?

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Dismissed: Muschamp out as Florida's football coach

GAINESVILLE -- The homecoming is over. 

Will Muschamp resigned as Florida’s football coach Sunday, effective at the end of the regular season.

The 43-year-old Gainesville native, who grew up rooting for his childhood team, was just 27-20 in four seasons with the Gators.  

Saturday’s stunning, epic meltdown in the final minutes of a 23-20 overtime loss to South Carolina was the final straw.

“Upon evaluation of our football program, we are not where the program needs to be and should be," UF athletics director Jeremy Foley said in a statement.

"I've always said that our goal at the University of Florida is to compete for championships on a regular basis. Coach Muschamp was dedicated to developing young men both on and off the field. Our student athletes showed tremendous growth socially and academically under his leadership. His players were involved in campus activities, engaged with the local community and represented the University of Florida with pride.

"I will be forever grateful to Will and his staff for their unwavering commitment to the University of Florida and the mission of our athletic program. He will be missed by everyone in our athletic department - from the people that worked in his office to the people that painted the fields. Will knew everyone and they knew him and everyone in the building loved working with him. Will is as fine a man as you will ever meet, and I will always cherish our relationship with him and his family."

Muschamp complied a 17-15 record in SEC play, with Florida losing six of its last eight games in The Swamp. Muschamp never won a division title, was just 5-13 against ranked foes and dropped eight games at home in four seasons.

Gator legends Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer lost 10 home games combined.

“I appreciate the opportunity that has been offered to me and my family by Dr. Machen, Jeremy Foley and the University of Florida,” Muschamp said.

“I was given every opportunity to get it done here and I simply didn’t win enough games -- that is the bottom line. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get it done and it is my responsibility to get it done.”

Muschamp’s comeuppance appeared inevitable following an embarrassing 42-13 shellacking at home by Missouri. But Foley, the embattled coach’s staunchest supporter, said Muschamp would be evaluated as “the season plays out.”

Florida benched beleaguered quarterback Jeff Driskel for freshman Treon Harris, rallying to knock off Georgia and Vanderbilt.

Still, Saturday’s stunner burned a hot-seat already ablaze to ashes.

Players could barely muster words postgame, with senior safety Jabari Gorman meekly pleading, “If you’re a Gator fan, stay a Gator fan. Don’t give up on nobody. We don’t give up on each other. Our fans shouldn’t give up on us.”

Muschamp’s misadventures include a tenure defined by toothless offenses, staffing woes, continuity issues, recruiting failures and inexplicable losses.

Following an 11-2 season in 2012, the Gators stumbled to 4-8 last year -- snapping a 22-game bowl streak and finishing with a losing record for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

But Muschamp survived a loss to FCS-school Georgia Southern and a tidal wave of criticism, blaming an injury-riddled roster and continued offensive ineptitude.

He fired former offensive coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis, and brashly promised to return Florida to dominance.

Instead, the Gators have crawled to a 5-4 record, barely beating conference cellar-dwellers Tennessee and Kentucky.

“I have no bitter feelings, but this is a business and I wish we would have produced better results on the field,” Muschamp said.

“We have a great group of players and a staff that is committed to this University and this football program. They have handled themselves with class and I expect them to continue to do so. As I’ve said many times, life is 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond.”

Foley hired Muschamp in 2010, hand-picking the former defensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at Texas.

He is owed nearly $6 million, with three seasons remaining on a contract that ran until 2017.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Gator Grades: Apocalypse now

GAINESVILLE -- Florida’s meltdown against a mediocre South Carolina team -- losing 23-20 in overtime -- signaled the (un)official end for beleaguered coach Will Muschamp. Eulogizing time is here. Following another inexplicable, excruciating defeat, Muschamp’s tenure as the Gators’ coach seems assuredly over.

OFFENSE – D+

Yes, the Gators’ grit-and-grind offense churned out 250 yards on the ground.

Yes, Treon Harris’ wheels (111 yards on 20 carries) frustrated the Gamecocks’ front.

Yes, a key penalty negated the touchdown that would’ve iced the game.

BUT one-dimensional is as one-dimensional does. With no threat of balance, USC eventually keyed on UF’s odious lack of creativity (3 of 14 on third down). Run, Run, Pass resulted in six failed conversions. The Gators couldn’t gain a single first down when necessary, and inexplicably played for a field goal in OT. It was ugly, unwatchable offense. And UF paid the piper at the end.

DEFENSE – B

Another slow start put Florida in a 10-0 hole, but once the defense realized kickoff wasn’t at 1 p.m., it dominated. The Gamecocks gained 151 yards on their first two possessions. They had 150 yards the rest of the afternoon.

Dante Fowler Jr. was a video game cheat code, as was Vernon Hargreaves III. But The Swamp was ablaze late, and UF’s defense couldn’t put of the fire.

An exhausted unit yielded two touchdowns in USC’s final two possessions.

SPECIAL TEAMS – F+

It’s difficult to describe just how atrocious Florida’s special teams collapse was.

The Gators’ third unit was marginal before its epic failures (Kyle Christy averaged just 36 yards per punt, Andre Debose was invisible in the return game), but then UF’s special teams went full Y2K meltdown late.

Only Saturday was real. Frankie Velez’s kick was low, while the blocked punt appeared to be a bad alignment coupled by a busted assignment by Alex McCalister.

OVERALL – F

Muschamp was four minutes, or 36 seconds or even a single stoke of luck [USC fumbled into the end zone to tie the game] from retaining his job next season.

But Muschamp & Florida can’t have nice things. Not to say 2015 would’ve been any nicer. With all hope extinguished, Foley has no choice now. The “when” not “if” was evident following the embarrassing home loss to Missouri. Now it’s real.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 14, 2014

A start: Florida rips past William & Mary 68-45

GAINESVILLE -- No. 7 Florida smothered William & Mary 68-45 Friday night, as the retooled Gators proved they could play a little defense without last season’s historic quartet of seniors.

Michael Frazier (14 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (15 points) and Jon Horford (11 points) all finished in double-figures. The Gators won their 33rd straight game at home and improved to 19-0 in openers under Billy Donovan.

“We’re a well-balanced team,” Frazier said.

“On any given night it could be anybody.”

UF held the Tribe to a ghastly 31 percent from the field, with sophomore guard Kasey Hill bottling up Marcus Thornton, last season’s CAA player of the year. William & Mary’s senior guard was held to just 11 points, including 0-5 from 3-point range.  

“I was really proud of Kasey Hill. I thought he was phenomenal,” Donovan said. 

“The fact that he had to guard Thornton every minute he was out there, he did a terrific job on him.”

UF dominated from the start, ripping off a 21-4 run to end the first half. The Gators led by as many as 24, but were actually outscored by a point (27-26) in a lackluster second half.

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Frazier -- UF’s lone returning starter from last season -- keyed Florida’s hot start, scoring a team-high 14 points. The junior sharpshooter didn’t score in the second half, but he flashed his some off-the-dribble prowess, penetrating for several layups and hockey assists. He chipped in five rebounds, two assists and a steal, too.

STAT OF INTEREST

9.1 percent. The Tribe was dreadful from downtown, opening the game a paltry 1-for-19 from behind-the-arc. In all, William & Mary made just two 3-pointers on 22 attempts.

QUOTABLE

“You see 2-for-22 from the 3-point line and that number obviously is really, really loud. But I’m not so sure they didn’t get some pretty clean looks that didn’t go down. I’d like to see the percentage of those 22 shots where I sit there and say that we really defended this well. Or how many were wide open?”

-- Donovan

THIS & THAT

Finney-Smith sprained his left wrist in the first half, but the versatile forward led all scorers with 15 points, 11 after halftime. … The Gators shot 56 percent in the first period, compared to just 39 percent after halftime. … UF outrebounded William & Mary 39 to 31. … Freshman point guard Chris Chiozza dished nifty assists, finishing his collegiate debut with three dimes, four points and three steals. … Walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz had a productive night (6 points, 7 rebounds).

NEXT UP 

Florida hosts in-state rival Miami on Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPNU).

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Prove It: Donovan not sold on UF's No. 7 ranking

GAINESVILLE -- Florida men’s basketball team opens its regular season tonight against William & Mary (6 p.m., SEC Network) ranked as the nation’s No. 7 team.

Coach Billy Donovan isn’t impressed.

“I know what those kind of teams look like -- and we’re not one of those teams,” he said, deadpanned.

UF struggled against Barry University, a D-II school in Miami, in last week’s exhibition game, winning just 79-70 in a contest that highlighted UF’s defensive deficiencies and invisible leadership.

The retooled Gators, replacing a historic quartet of seniors, shouldn’t have an issue scoring the basketball, but Donovan is legitimately concerned with the team’s lack of rim protection and consistent defensive awareness.

“We’ve got a long, long, long way to go,” Donovan said. “Whether or not we can get there, time will tell. … This year’s team, there’s a lot of unknowns.”

Despite the team’s lofty rankings, Donovan isn’t particularly concerned with expectations or overconfidence. A year after finishing the season as the nation’s third-best defense (59 points per game), the Gators are allowing 82 points and opponents are shooting 48-percent from 3-point range in three scrimmages this preseason, per Donovan.

The Tribe, led by 6-4 guard Marcus Thornton, run a precision, Princeton-style offense, and could expose Florida’s flaws defensively.   

“You start giving up 82 points a game and our defensive efficiency right now is 1.15. Basically, in 120 minutes of play, we're giving up 1.15 points per possession,” Donovan explained.

“That's like 127th in the country right now. That's a long drop from top 10. That's just reality. That's where we're at. I think our guys, when you talk about the expectations and the rankings and stuff like that, there may have been some of that before we started practice. I think some of that stuff has kind of dissipated, to be honest with you."

DONOVAN PREVIEWS THE TRIBE

“Thornton is a great player. He’s really, really good. He’ll be as good as any guard that we’ll play against this year. He can really score the ball, he’s got really good size, he’s got deep range,  he can play in pick n roll, he can play in transition. He’s a special player. You’re going to be playing against a team that’s going to run the Princeton style. They are really good in terms of passing, cutting, moving. They utilize the 3-point line very well, they get you on back cuts for layups. They’re a  team that stays true to their system, their style of play and what they’re doing. And then on top of that, they’ve got a high major really, really good player inside their system as well.”

CONFERENCE HONORS

Junior sharpshooter Michael Frazier and versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith were named to the All-SEC coaches’ first-team Thursday. Frazier is Florida’s lone returning starter, while Finney-Smith was the league’s sixth man of the year in 2013-14.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 13, 2014

Muschamp's silly, swiveling interception dance

 

GAINESVILLE -- Florida coach Will Muschamp was featured on the SEC Network's Film Room series this week, and former Georgia quarterback David Greene surprised Muschamp, a former UGA safety, with a video from 1992. 

In the clip, Muschamp intercepts Georgia Tech quarterback Tom Luginbill, ESPN's director of recruiting, then celebrates with a hip-swivel dance Deion Sanders would be proud of. 

Muschamp has longed joked about both players' collegiate careers. On National Signing Day this February, he quipped, "Somebody said Tom Luginbill [ESPN’s National Director of Recruiting] was the No. 1 JUCO quarterback when he came out, but I intercepted Tom Luginbill so that will tell you how important those rankings are."

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Q&A: Roderick Johnson Jr.

GAINESVILE -- Florida offensive tackle Roderick Johnson Jr. is a loveable, charismatic goofball.

The 6-6, 310-pound redshirt freshman has developed into a key cog as a rotational player on UF’s offensive line, even starting twice due to injuries. Johnson has an infectious personality, energizing teammates with his fun, hardworking attitude.

Recently, he spoke about this season, his dance moves, a trying redshirt year and more.

On his 2014 season… 

“It’s been great being able to play this year. Really had a redshirt year last year, coming back a way better player, a more technical player, being in coach [Kurt] Roper’s offense, being more involved in his offense and just being coached by the best coach, Coach [Mike] Summers.”

On his personality…

“I ain’t going to lie, I get it from [former UF all-American Dominique] Easley, really. I get it from Dominique Easley, all the dancing and all that stuff like that. I just love football. I just love football. I grew up a big fan of football and it’s just my character. You’ve going to see that for the next three or four years that I’m here.”

On sitting out last season… 

“As a freshman, you know it was kind of hard to adjust and get used to everything. As time went by, I matured and got a certain mindset that OK I’m going to buy into the program and do what all the coaches say, and I’m going to train myself to become a good player.” 

On his competitive playing style…

“I just like to have fun playing the game but at the same time knowing what I’m doing and doing it 100 percent every time.” 

On Treon Harris… 

“I’m impressed with pretty much how he stepped in as a freshman and just took a big role. It’s like you don’t get every freshman that’s going to come into a game and do great, exactly like he did. He has been producing every week since he has been starting. I find that to be great of him.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 12, 2014

Don't call it a comeback: Dunbar overcomes benching, posts career-high performance vs Vandy

Quinton+Dunbar+Vanderbilt+v+Florida+eCEPoexJyv8l WR Quinton Dunbar | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

GAINESVILLE -- Quinton Dunbar was benched against Missouri after three straight weeks with critical drops, but Florida’s senior receiver didn’t sulk and made the most of his opportunties in Saturday’s 34-10 win at Vanderbilt.

With Ahmad Fulwood sidelined with a turf toe injury, Dunbar hurled in four receptions for a career-high 97 yards.

Considering how another fifth-year senior handled similar circumstances, coach Will Muschamp was thrilled with Dunbar’s performance.

“He dealt with [the benching] very well,” Muschamp said.

"We weren’t getting the production we needed and Ahmad had been a guy that had done a nice job getting those opportunities. Quinton went in and did a good job. So you go in and cash in on your opportunities when you have it. Man down, man up and that’s what he did. So I’m very proud of how he handled the situation. … It’s the way you’re supposed to handle it.”

The former Miami Booker T. Washington standout had a 32-game reception streak snapped against LSU, and the following weekend, he failed to start for the first time since 2012.

In 2013, Dunbar registered career-highs in receptions (39) and yards (528), but his senior campaign has been lackluster, to say the least. 

Still, teammates say he never sulked or stopped working hard despite the adversity.

“He came out every day as a professional. He’s a senior, a fifth-year senior that’s just not starting after starting for three years,” junior wideout Latroy Pittman said.

“It’s kind of rough, but he never lets it get to him. He never badmouths anybody or acts out in any kind of way. His attitude has stayed the same. He just works hard and stays focused. 

“He knew what the situation. Obviously we all knew what the situation was. It just worked out that way to where he had to be benched. He came in the game and stepped up when Ahmad got hurt and had a big game.” 

THIS & THAT

Florida will host Eastern Kentucky at noon Nov. 22 on the SEC Network. … Fulwood (turf toe) and freshman defensive tackle Gerald Willis III (ankle) are probable for Saturday’s noon showdown with South Carolina, but sophomore starting safety Keanu Neal (high-ankle) and special teams ace Jeremi Powell (knee sprain) are doubtful to play. … Former All-American safety Matt Elam (2011-13) will serve as Florida’s honorary ‘Mr. Two Bits’ this weekend.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

November 10, 2014

Orr apologizes but Muschamp rules out return

GAINESVILLE -- Florida defensive tackle Leon Orr was dismissed from the football program Saturday after he left the team hours before its 34-10 win over Vanderbilt.

Since the senior’s spat with the coaching staff over the starting lineup, Orr has been apologetic on Twitter, contritely copping to his mistake.  

Still, coach Will Muschamp ruled out a return for Orr on Monday, bluntly saying, “No.”

“Muschamp is Muschamp,” senior center Max Garcia said.

“He’s not going to tolerate (Orr) putting himself about the team. It’s unfortunate what happened. We’re going to miss him because he was a big part of this team.”

Late Sunday evening, Orr posted a series of tweets apologizing for his actions. 

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Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 09, 2014

Gator Grades: Music City Crushing

Treon-harris-ncaa-football-florida-vanderbilt-850x560Gators QB Treon Harris | Mark Humphrey/AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida avenged last season’s embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt, teasing its future aerial attack under freshman quarterback Treon Harris.

The Gators rolled the Commodores 34-10, scoring 24 unanswered points after an early touchdown deficit. UF's slim conference title hopes remain alive … for now.

OFFENSE – B+

Florida completed a forward pass. Multiple in fact. Harris was solid in just his second-career start, finishing the evening 13-of-21 for 215 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

The duel-threat star flashed his complete skill-set, slicing Vandy’s defense with downfield throws (48 and 60-yard completions) and dashing runs (33-yard touchdown rush).

Florida’s grit-and-grind offense stalled in the third quarter, but after both teams traded punts the Gators’ new-look balanced attack eventually put the game away in the final period. UF totaled 429 yards (214 on the ground), mixing personnel (Jeff Driskel’s role was revealed, Brandon Powell, Chris Thompson and Quinton Dunbar all received playing time) all evening. Red zone woes are still an issue, though, and Florida survived (at least Saturday) a litany of offensive line injuries. 

DEFENSE – B+

Aside from a couple secondary busts (eye control, communication issues, no Keanu Neal), the Gators’ defense was excellent. Vandy converted just 4-of-16 third downs, and turned the ball over four times.

Freshman quarterack Johnny McCray was frustrated by UF's consistent presure -- Dante Fowler Jr. was unblockable, although the stat sheet disagrees -- as McCray was just 14-of-35 for 160 yards and two interceptions. 

Freshman defensive backs Jalen Tabor (a ridiculous, SportCenter highlight interception) and Duke Dawson (six tackles) delivered solid performances, as did Jon Bullard and Vernon Hargreaves III. 

SPECIAL TEAMS – B

Senior kicker Frankie Velez has become automatic (2-for-2 Saturday, 11-of-12 on the season, and Kyle Christy averaged 47.6 yards on five punts.

Andre Debose had several returns negated by silly penalties (multiple block in the back flags), while Florida’s coverage units were good aside from Darrius Sims' 33 yard return. 

OVERALL – B+

The Gators avoided a letdown, and Muschamp avoided becoming the first UF coach to lose back-to-back games against the ‘Dores. Effort remains excellent, and slowly the team's execution errors are going away. Saturday's showdown with South Carolina suddenly looms large.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 06, 2014

Morrison flourishing amid newfound maturity

GAINESVILLE -- Away from the gridiron, Antonio Morrison isn’t much of a talker.

But Florida’s junior linebacker has not-so-quietly keyed the team’s defensive resurgence following the Alabama blowout.

Morrison -- who infamously was arrested last season for barking at a police dog -- has overcome multiple legal troubles and a sophomore slump to lead the Gators in tackles (67) this season.

The linebacker ranks third in the conference with nearly 10 stops a game, and Morrison credits his work ethic and natural development for his newfound consistency.

I just matured,” Morrison said.

"I treat every practice, I go as hard as I can. I treat it like a game. I get on guys and try to make the best out of our defense and our team. … I worked hard the whole offseason. I didn’t want to have the same results personally and as a team as we did last year.”

Morrison had a promising freshman season, highlighted by his ear-splitting tackle of former Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel.

The linebacker entered 2013 with lofty expectations, yet the off the field incident, poor conditioning and general inconsistencies (missed tackles, blown coverages) plagued the linebacker all season. 

The former hotshot prospect wasn’t even assured of a starting job this fall, but after reining in his intensity and focusing on his leadership role, Morrison has flourished into a tackling machine.

“I think he’s playing his best football here this year since he’s been here,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said.

“He’s been practicing really well, he’s been consistent with how he performs every day with us, which is great. I think he’s really stepped up as a leader. … He’s been very productive, and he’s been playing within the scheme of the defense. He’s not just out there making plays. He’s been real effective in many ways for us.”

Morrison has racked up double-digit tackles in five of six SEC games, a product of improved physical condition, per Durkin.

“He’s made those steps and those strides because of how he approaches the game,” Durkin said. 
“He’s very serious about football. It’s important to him. He’s a great guy to coach. He does anything and everything you ask him to do on the football field.”

A year ago, Gator players were forced to defend Morrison’s integrity. Now, teammates gush over the linebacker’s football impact.  

“He’s a rock in the run defense,” end Bryan Cox Jr. said.

“He’s the middle linebacker, so he’s like the quarterback of our defense. He’s been working really, really hard every day in practices and it shows up in the game.”

Sophomore cornbacker Vernon Hargreaves III added: “He’s grown up so much. He’s matured. He fell into his leadership role. He takes it very seriously. He’s playing well and I’m happy for him. … In practice, he’s always the guy who’s getting us going. He’s going to call you out if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. And it shows on the field on Saturday.”

The Gators lost to Vanderbilt at home for the first time since World War II last year, and Morrison’s season ended in the embarrassing loss. On Saturday, he wants payback.

“I tore my meniscus and actually played the whole game,” Morrison said. “But I’m ready to play these guys.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 03, 2014

Garcia chokes back tears discussing McNeely

 

GAINESVILLE -- Michael McNeely became a Florida folk hero after racing 21-yards untouched on a fake field goal, sparking a dramatic and inexplicable upset over heated rival Georgia.

McNeely -- a 5-foot-8, 175-pound wideout who earned a scholarship at the end of training camp and is a Publix bagger/cashier every Sunday -- evoked comparisons to “Rudy,” and Monday good friend and teammate Max Garcia emotionally discussed the receiver’s highlight moment.

“Man, I was so happy to see McNeely score,” the senior center said, choking back tears.

“I don’t think there’s anyone on this team more deserving to be the hero. He’s just a great dude. I get emotional talking about him. He’s a hard worker man. He’s just motivation for the team and guys like him are why we are going to be able to be successful because he cares about this program. I love him.”

Garcia, along with dozens of Florida fans, went and visited McNeely at work Sunday afternoon.

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“If we had a whole team full of McNeely’s, we’d be a national championship team,” Garcia said, crying.

“Everything he does on and off the field is championship level.”

Gators coach Will Muschamp, who acknowledged the trick touchdown changed the game’s momentum, praised the former walk-on’s effort on and off the field, saying he uses McNeely as an example for the rest the team.

“Walk-on or scholarship, it doesn’t matter,” Muschamp said. "The guy’s a good football player. He earned his scholarship.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

November 02, 2014

Gator Grades: The Return of Murderball

940xMike McNeely | AP/Stephen B. Morton

JACKSONVILLE -- Two weeks ago, it was eulogizing time for embattled coach Will Muschamp.  

For a little while, anyways, the obits can wait

The Gators inexplicably stunned the No. 9 Bulldogs, steamrolling UGA 38-13 behind a smashmouth two-headed rushing attack. 

OFFENSE - A

The Gators promised to run the ball until “the wheels fall off,” but the tires held up just fine. 

Florida bullied UGA for 418 yards on the ground -- fifth-most all-time in school history. 

Freshman quarterback Treon Harris wasn’t asked to do anything (3-of-6 for 27 yards, just one attempt after halftime). Only he didn’t get in the way, either. 

The Gators’ offense stalled early, but the special teams touchdown seemed to spark the team and Florida never looked back. The Gators, thanks to a terrific effort by the offensive line, dominated the second and third quarters, as both Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones ran wild. 

The Gun, Meet Foot offense disappeared, for a day anyways.  

DEFENSE - B+

Georgia actually out-gained UF (460-445), but Florida’s defense had some monster stops (several three-and-outs, goal line stand) to halt UGA’s comeback attempt. 

Nick Chubb bulldozed the Gators in the first quarter (101 yards) but once the Gators got the lead, the impressive freshman tailback was mostly neutralized. 

Florida forced a key fumble in the second half, too. 

Dante Fowler Jr. was unblockable (2.5 TFLs), while linebacker Antonio Morrison was a tackling machine (15 stops). 

SPECIAL TEAMS - A

What a fake. Mike McNeely’s 21-yard dash to tie the score completely flipped the game’s momentum. It was a perfect, yet gusty call, and also perfectly executed. 

The winds play a key factor Saturday, as the kicking game was shaky for both teams. 

UF’s coverage teams were outstanding, and Andre Debose (who muffed a punt but recovered it) added a 38-yard return. 

OVERALL - A

Ultimately, Florida walked the walk this weekend. The Gators stunned the Bulldogs, but they weren’t surprised by their performance. Muschamp’s job is still on life alert, but the defibrillators can be shelved for the time being. 

Twenty years of frustration are finally over for Coach Boom.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

October 31, 2014

Backyard Brawl: "We want this one"

GAINESVILLE -- The chant echoed outside of Florida’s football facilities: “Beat Georgia! Beat Georgia! Beat Georgia!”

Following nearly two decades of dominance, the Gators -- losers of three straight in the border war -- hope to stem the tide in a series suddenly favoring the No. 9 Bulldogs.

“It’s personal,” said linebacker Jarrad Davis, a Georgia native.

“If we don’t get anything else [the rest of the season], we want this one. We want this one.”

The Florida-Georgia rivalry always heats up the hate and war of words, but with the Gators in dizzying tailspin for the second straight season, the fury has reached a fever pitch.

Florida (3-3, 2-3 SEC) is technically mathematically alive for the Eastern Division title, but Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) is really about pride.

“We’re out to get a ‘W’ at all costs,” Gators left tackle D.J. Humphries said.

“It’s Florida-Georgia. It’s time to hit somebody in the mouth.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton


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