No. 30: Florida
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 4, 2011
The thrill wasn’t quite gone, but the fire was. Urban Meyer could have remained Florida’s coach in perpetuity: that’s what a pair of national titles in three seasons will do for a coach’s job security. So what happened? Quite simply, Meyer couldn’t reconcile his love for the game — his burning desire to win, win, win — with the lack of energy that plagued his final season, an 8-5 finish that saw him as hands-off as he’d ever been in his sterling coaching career. Looking for the fire that drove Meyer to such early heights with the Gators, the program went for a coach with a seemingly limitless reserve of get-up-and-go. There’s a reason Will Muschamp’s coaching philosophy can be summed up in a single onomatopoeia: boom.
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 29
Georgia (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
at S. Carolina
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
Altogether, the Gators will be pretty good: at least 9-3, though I’m tending towards a 10-win finish. Now, the bad news. This is Alabama’s league now. Florida’s reign — Urban Meyer’s reign — lasted three seasons, maybe. As noted before, Spurrier used his 1992 SEC title game game loss to the Crimson Tide as the foundation upon which he built his U.F. legacy. Now, I’m willing to admit the circumstances surrounding each loss was different; Meyer’s loss was devastating, Spurier’s expected. Nevertheless, Spurrier always showed resiliency: one year after being embarrassed by Nebraska, for example, the Gators took the 1996 national title. Meyer was humbled and nearly retired. Will his team have similar resolve in 2010?
In a nutshell It was not a fitting farewell for Meyer, Florida’s two-time national title-winning coach, as the Gators slid to a pedestrian 8-5 thanks to an uncharacteristically poor offensive attack. The architect of last year’s decline, Steve Addazio, took his utterly predictable play-calling north to Temple, which was great, great news for all involved parties. The damage was already done: Florida, home of premier recruits across the board, finished 83rd nationally in total offense, 88th in passing, 44th in rushing and 43rd in scoring — a headfirst nosedive that few could have seen coming, even if U.F. entered the year with some questions about its overall offensive philosophy. And sadly, this is how we’ll remember Meyer. In Gainesville, at least, as here’s betting he pops again sometime soon, and not just on ESPN. The Gators are moving forward with Muschamp, the former Texas defensive coordinator who jumped at the opportunity to take over one of college football’s elite programs. Muschamp may have a hard time taking his glance away from the defense, but his first order of business will be reformatting an offense without direction. And yeah, here comes Charlie Weis.
High point The wacky ending in Jacksonville. Interception? Yep. Touchdown? Not quite: Will Hill stepped out at the four. But the Gators earned a hard-fought 34-31 overtime win over rival Georgia at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, snapping a three-game losing streak and avoiding what would have been a devastating conference loss. The offense struggled against Penn State in the Outback Bowl, but the defense came up with five interceptions in a 37-24 win, Meyer’s last with the program.
Low point Would it be crazy to say the 10-7 home loss to Mississippi State was the low point of the year? You had the ragged offense, a solid defense, a loss in the Swamp and a loss to Dan Mullen, all of which made this one to forget. In terms of pure ugliness, we have a three-way tie: 31-6 at Alabama, 36-14 at home to South Carolina and 31-7 at Florida State. Perhaps the last, which signaled a changing of the guard in the Sunshine State, hurt worst of all.
Tidbit Not to continue to harp on last year’s offense, as it’s a new day in Gainesville. Still, one final item warrants mentioning. From 2005-9, Florida turned the ball over an F.B.S.-low 81 times. The Gators committed 27 turnovers alone last fall, 15 via interceptions and 12 via lost fumbles. In one year, Florida accounted for one-third of its total turnovers over the previous five seasons. And that’s really all you need to know about last year’s offense. At least the defense continued to do its job, forcing 29 turnovers, 22 via interceptions. The Gators had an F.B.S.-best 538 interception return yards last fall.
Tidbit (head coaches edition) With Dan McCarney and Addazio moving up the coaching ladder — or back up the ladder, in McCarney’s case — following last season, Meyer had 10 assistants move on to head coach positions over his decade at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. The full list: Gregg Brandon followed Meyer at Bowling Green in 2003; his offensive coordinator at Utah, Mike Sanford, was hired at U.N.L.V. in 2005; Kyle Whittingham replaced Meyer with the Utes in 2005; former Utah defensive line coach Gary Anderson was hired at Utah State in 2009; former Bowling Green defensive coordinator Tim Beckman was hired at Toledo in 2009; Dan Mullen moved to Mississippi State in 2009; former U.F. associate head coach Doc Holliday was hired by Marshall in 2009; Charlie Strong went to Louisville in 2010; and McCarney and Addazio are entering their first years at North Texas and Temple, respectively.
Former players in the N.F.L.
42 S Ahmad Black (Tampa Bay), DE Alex Brown (New Orleans), WR Andre Caldwell (Cincinnati), OG Cooper Carlisle (Oakland), WR Riley Cooper (Philadelphia), DE Jermaine Cunningham (New England), LB Andra Davis (Buffalo), DE Carlos Dunlap (Cincinnati), WR Jabar Gaffney (Washington), OT Marcus Gilbert (Pittsburgh), RB Earnest Graham (Tampa Bay), QB Rex Grossman (Washington), CB Joe Haden (Cleveland), DE Derrick Harvey (Denver), WR Percy Harvin (Minnesota), TE Aaron Hernandez (New England), LB Brandon Hicks (Buffalo), OG Maurice Hurt (Washington), TE Cornelius Ingram (Philadelphia), OG Carl Johnson (New Orleans), LB A.J. Jones (Denver), DE Duke Lemmens (Arizona), DT Ray McDonald (San Francisco), C Drew Miller (St. Louis), DE Jeremy Mincey (Jacksonville), RB Emmanuel Moody (Buffalo), DE Jarvis Moss (Oakland), WR Louis Murphy (Oakland), S Reggie Nelson (CIncinnati), WR David Nelson (Buffalo), LB Mike Peterson (Atlanta), C Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh), C Mike Pouncey (Miami), DT Terron Sanders (Baltimore), LB Brandon Siler (Kansas City), LB Brandon Spikes (New England), QB Tim Tebow (Denver), DE Marcus Thomas (Denver), DE Justin Trattou (New York Giants), OT Phil Trautwein (Cleveland), OT Jason Watkins (Buffalo), S Major Wright (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Washington Redskins’ quarterback options
1. Any free agent still available.
2. Rex Grossman.
3. John Beck.
4. Kellen Clemens.
5. Ben Chappell.
Will Muschamp (Georgia ’94), entering his first season. Muschamp eschewed the opportunity to be Mack Brown’s eventual successor at Texas for a shot at replacing a legend at Florida, taking on a premier program with mammoth-sized yearly expectations. Muschamp has slight ties to Florida, having attempted to walk on to the football team as a high school senior only to be rebuffed, but has very deep ties to the SEC. This dates to his playing days at Georgia, where he went from walk-on to team captain, and continues with a coaching career that includes stints at L.S.U. (2001-4) and Auburn (2006-7). Muschamp’s a Nick Saban disciple, as his tenure at L.S.U. suggests: he began as Saban’s linebackers coach in 2001, was defensive coordinator from 2002-4 and followed Saban to the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Auburn gave Muschamp the opportunity to return to his roots, and he responded by leading the Tigers to back-to-back outstanding defensive efforts in 2006 and 2007 — seventh in scoring defense in 2006, sixth in 2007, as solid, well-coached and fundamentally sound as any unit in the country. Texas made an offer no coach could refuse a year later, writing a huge check for him to become Brown’s coordinator in 2008 and then, in November of that fall, naming him the head-coach-in-waiting. For three years, it was simply assumed that he would eventually step into Brown’s shoes; the only issue was when, as Brown showed no sign of slowing down while countless premier programs offered enticing job openings. One school, Florida, had everything Muschamp was looking for: talent, prestige, fertile recruiting grounds, history and, perhaps most of all, a return to the SEC. Was he a surprise choice as Meyer’s replacement? Perhaps, but only because it was so widely assumed that Muschamp wasn’t going anywhere. Well, boom: he’s gone, in Gainesville, and Florida’s hit a home run.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Alright, so here’s the much-anticipated new staff. There are three holdovers: linebackers coach and special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin, running backs coach Brian White and strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti — and yeah, Marotti’s done more than enough since arriving with Meyer in 2005 to be considered a vital part of Muschamp’s staff. Charlie Weis will run the offense after doing so with the Kansas City Chiefs; perhaps Weis isn’t made to be a college head coach, but there are few better coordinators in football, college or otherwise. Former Seattle Seahawks assistant Dan Quinn will lead the defense, former Texas Tech coach Tarvaris Robinson will coach the secondary and Bryant Young the defensive line after doing so for San Jose State in 2010. Former Notre Dame assistant Frank Verducci will coach the offensive line, bringing some familiarity with Weis to the table, with former Miami (Fla.) wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill doing the same for the Gators and former Minnesota assistant Derek Lewis coaching the tight ends. A very nice staff.
Players to watch
The official move to a pro-style offense will make John Brantley happy, as he’s found a system well-suited to his abilities and a new best friend in Weis, the quarterback specialist. No player suffered more from last fall’s muddled attack than Brantley, who is simply not a runner but a pure passer. He’ll flourish under Weis, who will rarely — if ever, ever, ever — ask Brantley to run the football but rather stand tall and deliver in the pocket. Whether Brantley has the skills to do so is not in question: whether he can regain his confidence, however, remains to be seen. It was torn to shreds in 2010, when the senior threw for 2,061 yards with more interceptions, 10, than touchdowns, nine. Again, he’ll finally be a round peg in a round hole, and Weis will put together a comfortable passing game tailored to Brantley’s abilities. Look for him to have a very nice final season. Depth is an issue, as the three contenders for the backup role, redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy and true freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, are nothing but green.
The backfield has enough talent to take some of the pressure off of Brantley’s shoulders, though Florida’s depth is tempered somewhat by the lack of a proven, every-down back. That’s not a real issue, not when the Gators have speed to burn in seniors Jeff Demps (551 yards, 3 scores) and Chris Rainey (366, 2 scores) and a few younger options capable of earning tough yards between the tackles. What Florida will do in 2011 is run the ball far more out of the I-formation, which may prevent Demps and Rainey from spending as much time in open space but should allow for a larger role for backs like Mike Gillislee (325 yards, 7 scores) and sophomore Mack Brown. It seems like Weis will use do-everything sophomore Trey Burton (349 yards, 11 scores) as an H-back, taking advantage of the athletic ability he memorably flashed in his six-touchdown performance against Kentucky. One prerequisite for playing running back in a Weis system is an ability to make plays in the passing game; Demps and Rainey have proven they can do so, and Burton looks like a nice intermediate option for Brantley to work with.
Yeah, Florida’s still waiting for a receiver to step up. The quest for a top target — if not three or four — becomes even more vital in the new offense, so it’s about time that senior Deonte Thompson (38 catches for 570 yards) become the presence he was expected to be a year ago. Thompson still led the team in receptions and receiving yards, but the consistency was lacking; he had a nice spring, according to Weis, but U.F. needs a far better showing. He’s the most experienced receiver in a group deep on talent but short on proven commodities. The list of options is a long one: Frankie Hammond (22 for 276), Omarius Hines (20 for 281), Andre Debose (10 for 96), Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Ja’Juan Story, among others. All will play until Weis can form a concrete rotation. This offense also loves the tight end, so look for Jordan Reed (328 yards passing, 252 yards rushing) to play a big role as a sophomore.
I can think of one reason to be excited about the future of this Florida defense: Muschamp. I can think of several others, like the potential of a sophomore-heavy defensive line that may, if the youngsters play up their potential, be one of the most improved groups in the country. Much does depend on these sophomores, especially those along the interior of the line who need to embrace this opportunity on the field and off, displaying the sort of maturity that seemed to be lacking a year ago.
Sophomore tackles Sharrif Floyd (23 tackles, 8 for loss) and Dominique Easley may be the key to the entire defensive puzzle. There’s no doubting this pair’s ability; each entered the program with lofty expectations, thanks to their five-star status and heated recruitment. Floyd, who has lost some weight since the end of the last season, produced enough in batches to be considered an all-SEC candidate heading into the fall. Easley, who has gained some weight since January, never ingratiated himself to the coaching staff as a rookie, flashing more immaturity than promise over his 10 games of reserve play. This duo, along with injury-prone junior Omar Hunter and senior Jaye Howard (29 tackles, 12 for loss), make up your two-deep in the middle. If Easley puts his nose to the grindstone, if Floyd continues to blossom, if Hunter remains healthy and Howard continues to produce, the interior of Florida’s defensive line could dominate. That’s a lot of ifs, but the potential is there.
Another sophomore, Ronald Powell, has slimmed down to 245 pounds in advance of his permanent move to the buck position, a hybrid end-linebacker spot that will play well to Powell’s pass rush talents. Powell, like Easley, simply needs to harness his talent to make an impact: he was part of the mix last fall, making 25 tackles and a sack, but Powell — the nation’s top recruit last February — can do so much more. There’s the opportunity for a former reserve to step into a starting role on the opposite side: William Green’s seniority may give him an early edge, but he’ll have to produce to hold off challengers like Lerentee McCray, Kendrick Johnson, Earl Okine and a handful of true and redshirt freshmen. A lot hinges on Powell’s development.
U.F. will line up in a 3-4 on occasion, with Powell standing up as a rush outside linebacker. The Gators have the meat at tackle to make this move work, so this could be a very interesting alignment if all goes according to plan. But it’ll be the 4-3 more often than not, which is a good thing considering Florida’s lack of proven quantities at linebacker. You know about two of them: sophomore Jelani Jenkins (76 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception) on the weak side and junior Jonathan Bostic (57 tackles, 3 interceptions) in the middle. These guys are good, to put it as simply as possible. Jenkins is better than good; athletic, violent and opportunistic, Jenkins has all-SEC written all over him. But the line of experienced linebackers ends there, which is troubling. Dee Finley, a junior, enters the fall atop the depth chart on the strong side, but don’t be surprised if he gets pushed aside by sophomore Darrin Kitchens or a freshman like Michael Taylor, Clay Burton or Gideon Ajagbe. It’s a work in progress.
Look for Muschamp to be very hands-on with the secondary, and he’ll have his hands full molding a group without three of last season’s key contributors. One, leading tackler Ahmad Black, took the traditional route: four years, N.F.L. paycheck. A second, Will Hill, took an untraditional route: three years, uncalled on draft day. The third, all-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins, took the disappointing route: unable to walk the straight and narrow, Jenkins was dismissed from the team in April. Yeah, Muschamp’s going to need to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Matt Elam’s not going to follow Jenkins to the F.C.S., but he needs to get his act together after committing another violation of team rules a week ago. The sophomore is penciled in as Black’s replacement at strong safety, where he served as the understudy in 2010, making 22 tackles and a sack. Elam, a late recruiting coup for Florida last winter, has the tools to be an impact player; he’s stepping into some large shoes, as Black had an outstanding senior season. The lone returning starter, junior Jeremy Brown (15 tackles, 3 interceptions), will be joined at cornerback by sophomore Cody Riggs, who has earned nothing but praise by the current and last staff. Moses Jenkins isn’t a starter, but he’ll be a fine third cornerback as a senior. That’s if that his would-be role isn’t usurped by youngsters like De’Ante Saunders, Jaylen Watkins — who can also play safety — Marcus Robertson and Valdez Showers.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Four linemen who combined to make 48 starts last fall must be replaced, and there’s reason for worry as you consider Florida’s youth, inexperience and lack of depth. Those are issues, but it’s important to note that last year’s starters were far from world-beaters, and if the Gators can remain healthy along the starting lineup there’s no reason why this line can’t be better than it was a year ago. Easier said than done: Matt Patchan may start the season opener at tackle, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the injury-plagued junior will miss at least a game or two at some point during the season. The Gators need as much as possible from Patchan, not to mention junior tackle Xavier Nixon — him most of all — and sophomore guard Jon Halapio. The never-ending talk about Nixon’s lack of size being a detriment is getting tiresome: Nixon is 290 pounds, not 260, and that’s enough size, along with his athleticism, to be an all-conference left tackle. In short, don’t lose sleep over a 290-pound lineman being too small, especially on the weak side. Instead, lose sleep over the lack of experience elsewhere. Sophomore Jonotthan Harrison, who started the Outback Bowl, should get the nod at center — but recent addition Dan Wenger knows the offense from his time at Notre Dame, and could be a factor along the interior of the line if he’s recovered from his concussion issues. There are several candidates at left guard, including one, senior James Wilson, with past starting experience. He’s certainly in the mix, but he’ll have a hard time unseating sophomores Ian Silberman and Nick Alajajian, two former high-profile recruits battling for the starting role. At worst, Wilson provides some much-needed depth; if Halapio moves outside to tackle, either because Patchan is injured or can’t cut it, Wilson could easily step into the lineup at right guard. There’s a reason Muschamp and Weis have highlighted the offensive line as a position of enormous concern: there just nothing proven outside of Nixon, and the Gators will need a handful of sophomores to seamlessly push into the starting lineup to have this offense run at full capacity.
Game(s) to watch
In order of intrigue: Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida Atlantic. In order of importance, however, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida State stand above the rest. Tennessee and Alabama are there as well, but U.F. should begin with an East title before taking on the SEC at large. As touched on yesterday, the Gators need to reclaim some momentum against the Seminoles.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Florida and Michigan are in roughly the same boat: new coaches, oodles of talent and tweaked philosophies, Florida perhaps less so in the latter category than the Wolverines. What U.F. does have that Michigan doesn’t, however, is an SEC slate unkind to teams undergoing this sort of rebuilding process; not full-scale rebuilding, but enough changes to ensure at least a slight learning curve for the new coach, incumbent starters and new-look freshmen and sophomores dotting the depth chart. The talent remains high enough to guarantee at least seven wins, and the coaching is good enough to guarantee steady improvement throughout the season. But this is still a program in flux, one that has the talent and coaching to be successful yet is far too inexperienced — both in terms of on-field experience and in time spent in the new systems — to see making a one-year jump from the middle of the SEC to the top of the East division. So that’s the bad news: Brantley will be better but has a lot to prove; the wide receiver corps is long on talent but short on consistency; the offensive line is dangerously young and thin; the linebacker corps lacks proven depth; and the secondary breaks in three new starters. Here’s the good news: it’s going to work. Maybe not to a title-level degree in 2011, but this whole thing is going to work out. Muschamp’s going to tear a hole in any player who doesn’t deliver, not just on the field but off. Weis is maligned, and perhaps for good reason, but he has a track record of success as a coordinator. The staff as a whole has on-field acumen and the ability to make waves on the recruiting trail. It’ll work, though not to the tune of more than eight wins during the regular season in 2011. The fan base should know this, embrace the challenge and look forward to happy returns in 2012 and beyond. To draw back to Michigan, and not to get ahead of myself: you could say the same thing about the Wolverines.
Dream season And just like that — boom! — Florida returns to the top of the SEC, taking down Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, with Florida State thrown in as a bonus, in an 11-1 regular season.
Nightmare season The road isn’t smooth for Muschamp and company: 6-6, 3-5 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Florida fans congregate? If you’re interested in U.F. football chatter with a dash of recruiting coverage, look no further than Gator Country, Gator Bait and Fightin’ Gators. For added coverage, check out the Web sites of The Gainesville Sun and The Orlando Sentinel. There are more than a few blogs, like Alligator Army and Every Day Should Be Saturday.
Through 91 teams 279,262.
Who is No. 29? The head coach at tomorrow’s university was once an assistant on the F.C.S. ranks under a coach who went on to post the only double-digit win season in an F.B.S. program’s history.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Andre Debose, Charlies Weis, Chris Rainey, Deonte Thompson, Dominique Easley, Florida, Jeff Demps, Jelani Jenkins, John Brantley, Jordan Reed, Matt Elam, Ronald Powell, SEC, Sharrif Floyd, Will Muschamp, Xavier Nixon
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