Florida Gators: Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For every Florida player who lived through that miserable 4-8 season in 2013 there is a personal tale of turbulence. None was more bumpy than that of Matt Jones.

Then a sophomore running back, Jones was expected to excel in the Gators' pro-style offense. Privately, coaches and teammates expressed optimism that Jones might be one of the SEC's best backs.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel, Matt Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesFlorida running back Matt Jones has learned to embrace last season's setbacks and is hitting the field with renewed vigor.
Then a viral infection cost him all of preseason camp. Not long after he came back, he was out again -- this time for the season -- with torn cartilage in his knee.

"It was just like a roller coaster ride," Jones said. "You go up, you go down and you just never come back up. It was like one of those type of rides. Definitely not a good one.

"I got sick. I was in the hospital for eight days. I played three games. Going out in the LSU game and getting hurt in the first couple of plays. I mean, it was all just bad news last year."

Everyone -- coach Will Muschamp, his assistants and the players -- saw the dismay in Jones after the knee injury. A normally ebullient kid was "way down."

"He really struggled early on with it when it first happened," Muschamp said.

After the knee injury, the first three games that Jones was out -- against Missouri, Georgia and Vanderbilt -- were particularly hard.

With roommate Brian Poole, a junior defensive back, on the road with the team, Jones was alone in their off-campus apartment. He couldn't put pressure on his leg for six weeks, which made it difficult to take care of himself and do the simplest things.

Just getting around the apartment was a grueling ordeal, so Jones crutched over to the kitchen to get all the meals, drinks and snacks he needed to watch the entire football game. Then he had to sit through something just as painful -- loss after loss after loss.

"It was definitely hard just seeing my team play, knowing I couldn't be out there contributing to the team," he said. "I couldn't do anything about it. Absolutely nothing.

"It was hard for me just sitting back on my bed, having to watch the game on TV because I can't crutch out there. It was just bad, man."

It was a dark time for the Gators and a dark time for Jones, who most often chose to deal with the pain, the losses and the helplessness on his own.

"You don't want to call someone out of their way to help you," Jones said, "so I just dealt with it myself."

He did a lot of thinking, a lot of praying, a lot of reflecting on life. He got humble. When he got back on the field, Jones' new attitude was one of appreciation.

"I just learned to go every play hard," He said. "I know that one play could knock your whole career off."

Jones now says he's glad he went through it all, and he knows exactly how his problems in 2013 went from bad to worse. He didn't have his strength back after the infection and gave in to his eagerness to play.

"It happened for a reason, and I look back at it now as motivation," he said. "I definitely learned from it. I learned the hard way that you've got to wait until you're 100 percent to get on the field.

"You've got to come back when you're 110 percent sometimes."

After missing the spring, Jones attacked Florida's preseason camp with renewed vigor. He relished every run, every broken tackle, every hit. Especially the hits. Those made him smile and reflect on how far he's come.

"I feel good right now," he said. "I'm up to 235 [pounds]. I feel fast. I feel stronger.

"I feel 110 percent."

Time to for a comeback.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Consider Dante Fowler Jr., Florida's preseason All-SEC defensive end, an authority on the Gators' offensive tackles.

Fowler emerged as a sophomore in 2013 and rode a wave of offseason momentum into a dominating spring. Much of the credit, he says, goes to left tackle D.J. Humphries and right tackle Chaz Green, whom he calls two of the best linemen in the SEC.

"This spring, me, D.J. and Chaz, we really got each other better," he said. "We went at it. We just competed the whole spring. I feel like I’m a better player. I can feel it because of them helping me, and I know they can feel it the same way."

[+] EnlargeChaz Green
John Korduner/Icon SMIChaz Green, who missed all of last season after having labrum surgery, has stood out as a leader this spring.
Confidence abounds as Florida heads into its preseason camp, which opened on Monday. And while the entire team is bolstered by a general return to good health after injuries devastated the roster last fall, the offensive line might be the unit most likely to rebound.

Three of the Gators' starters -- including both tackles -- missed significant time in 2013, and Fowler says it cost the team dearly.

"Chaz was having a great camp [in 2013]," Fowler said. "He just had that setback, and it was like a freakish accident, too.

"That happened, and then we had D.J. -- he’s kind of like the anchorman who leads everybody -- so when he went down, things kind of went down the drain from there."

Green missed the entire season with a torn labrum suffered in late August, while Humphries missed the final five games with a sprained MCL. Both positions were revolving doors, with Tyler Moore, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown and Kyle Koehne also seeing time at left or right tackle.

Florida tried seven starting combinations on the offensive line last season, and the effects were startling.

Never a great pass-blocking team in recent years, the Gators regressed in their bread-and-butter running game, too. After averaging 188 yards a game on the ground in 2012 to rank 39th in the nation, Florida fell to 87th last season with an average of 145.8 yards rushing.

Head coach Will Muschamp won't change his run-heavy philosophy on offense, so the return of his two best tackles is welcome news. During SEC media days, Muschamp noted that Humphries was maintaining his weight at 295 pounds after playing last season at 285.

With Green standing 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a pair of upperclassmen bookend tackles to rely upon on the field and off. Green, in particular, stood out to Roper as a team leader in the offseason.

"He's every day," Roper said. "He's really impressive to me."

Despite missing all of the 2013 season, Green has shown improvement according to his teammates.

"He’s physical, he’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said. "It doesn’t seem like he had a year off because it doesn’t feel like he missed a step."

Green and Humphries were 100 percent for spring practice and proved to be among Florida's standout performers. Now Florida is hoping the two will carry over their improvement, confidence and good health into the fall.

"That’s a big deal, man," Humphries said. "Me and Chaz being back, that’s good. When we’re on the field together, it works well. We're going to try and keep it up. If both of us stay healthy, we can make some things happen."

Scout's Take: Thomas to Florida 

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
7:51
PM ET
ESPN 300 OLB Adonis Thomas is a versatile athlete that has the potential to be a menace off of the edge for the Florida Gators.

video
The Gators' latest addition, Mike Horton, has the frame, strength and mean streak to dominate defenders in a phone booth.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

video
Defensive end Keisean Lucier-South planned to trim his considerable list of scholarship offers to a final five schools in early August, but just like he is on the field, the nation's No. 28 prospect was quick off the line, announcing his top five on Monday.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SEC lunchtime links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
12:00
PM ET
Seven SEC coaches, including Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and LSU’s Les Miles, will go through ESPN’s “Car Wash” on Monday, appearing on "Sportscenter," "College Football Live," "First Take" and more. Stay tuned throughout the day.

In the meantime, be sure to read Monday’s lunch links to get your SEC fix.
HOOVER, Ala. -- Welcome to SEC media days!

It didn't seem as if we'd ever get here, but in a couple of hours, the inside of the Wynfrey Hotel will be transformed into a circus. The arrival of SEC media days brings us ever closer to the start of the 2014 season. Remember, this is the first season in which we'll be seeing an actual playoff end the season. That right there might be too much to digest.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of the season, we're turning our attention to SEC media days. It's where you can have 1,000 media members all together -- along with a lobby jam-packed with ravenous fans (usually Alabama ones) -- crowding around kids and coaches.

It really is a beautiful thing, and here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week in Hoover:

1. Life without Marshall: Monday was supposed to be a chance for Auburn to truly introduce quarterback Nick Marshall to the world. Sure, we've all seen what he can do with a football in his hand, but this was where we were supposed to hear Auburn's quarterback talk about all he does with a football. After all, Marshall could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall. But after Marshall was cited for possession of a small amount of marijuana Friday, he's out for media days. Tight end C.J. Uzomah will take his place. Marshall should be here to own up to his mistake. He should be here to take responsibility, but he isn't. Now his coach and teammates have to do that.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama may be picked for the fourth time in five years to win the SEC.
2. Bama talk: For the first time since the 2011 SEC media days, Alabama did not arrive as the defending national champs. The Crimson Tide didn't even make it to the SEC title game. But that won't matter. Alabama still will steal the show. Everyone is here to see coach Nick Saban and ask questions about why Alabama couldn't get it done last season. We'll hear questions about the present and future for Alabama. And with so much talent returning, Alabama will likely be picked to win the SEC for the fourth time in five years.

3. Mason's debut: Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is headed to the big leagues, but his first official stop as the man in charge of the Commodores is in Hoover. This ain't Stanford, and it definitely isn't the Pac-12. He'll meet a throng of media members inside a gigantic ballroom. He'll be bombarded with questions about replacing James Franklin, and we'll all wonder if he has what it takes to keep Vandy relevant. Will he wow us during his introductory news conference? Or will he take the businesslike approach and just try to get through such a long day?

4. Muschamp's hot seat: After a 4-8 season that saw an anemic offense and a loss to FCS foe Georgia Southern, Florida coach Will Muschamp is feeling the heat under his seat. While he has been very collected about the pressure he should be feeling, he knows that this is the most important season of his tenure. To be fair, Florida dealt with an unfair amount of important injuries, but that means nothing now. Muschamp has yet to take Florida back to the SEC title and is 0-3 against archrival Georgia. Muschamp knows he has to win, and he and his players will be grilled about it all day today.

5. Sumlin dealing with distractions: Johnny Manziel might be gone, but Texas A&M is still dealing with distractions away from the football. Before Kevin Sumlin could even get to media days, he had to dismiss two of his best defensive players in linebacker Darian Claiborne and defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, who were arrested on charges of aggravated robbery earlier this year. One of his quarterbacks -- Kenny Hill -- also was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. Once again, Sumlin will have to talk about more than just football this week.

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonMissouri's Maty Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in place of the injured James Franklin.
6. Quarterback composure: A lot of talented quarterbacks left this league after last season, but we'll get our fill this week. Marshall might be absent, but we'll hear from Jeff Driskel, Dak Prescott, Dylan Thompson, Bo Wallace and Maty Mauk. All these guys could have big seasons and will be crucial to their respective teams' success. Can Florida's Driskel rebound after his early, season-ending injury? Is Thompson ready to replace Connor Shaw at South Carolina? Can Wallace of Ole Miss finally find some consistency? And can Prescott (Mississippi State) and Mauk (Missouri) prove their 2013 success wasn't just a flash in the pan?

7. Mauk's composure: Speaking of Missouri's quarterback, he's an incredibly interesting character to watch. He went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured James Franklin last season, and has the right attitude and moxie that you want in a quarterback. Is he ready to be the guy full time? Is he ready to lead without a stud like Dorial Green-Beckham to throw to or Franklin to help him? A lot of veteran leadership is gone, so all eyes are on Mauk. He's also a very confident person who isn't afraid to speak his mind. Let's hope he's on his game.

8. Players and the playoff: This is the first season of the College Football Playoff, and we've received just about everyone's opinion on the matter. Well, almost. We haven't heard much from the people who might be playing in it. What do players think about it? Are there too many games now? Not enough? Do they care about the bowl experience? Do they even care about the playoff?

9. What do players think about getting paid? With the Power Five a real thing and autonomy becoming more of a reality, what do the players think about it all? What are their thoughts on the prospect of getting some sort of compensation from their schools? Are they getting enough now? How much is enough?

10. What will Spurrier say? Need I say more? We all want to know what Steve Spurrier will say. Will he take shots at Georgia or Saban? Will Dabo Swinney come up? Will another coach be a target? Who knows, and who cares? We just want him to deliver some patented Spurrier gold!

Most important game: Florida

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
3:30
PM ET
We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Florida.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs. Georgia

Key players: Georgia tailback Todd Gurley was the big difference-maker in last year's contest, a 23-20 win that was the Bulldogs' third in a row in this contentious border war. Gurley had 187 total yards and two touchdowns, doing most of his damage in a 17-0 first quarter before Florida's defense regained its composure. There were lots of scuffles and penalties in that game, so the Gators will need leaders such as quarterback Jeff Driskel, wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, linebacker Michael Taylor and safety Jabari Gorman to keep their focus between the white lines.

Off the field, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt -- two newcomers to this game -- will engage in a fascinating chess match. Roper's new no-huddle spread offense won't be so new and mysterious by the eighth game of the season, so the Gators will likely have to beat Pruitt's attacking 3-4 defense in the trenches. If the UF offensive line can stay healthy, Roper will have a number of running backs with which to pound away. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor, who got his first career start in last year's Florida-Georgia game and ran for 76 yards, is the likely starter. Mack Brown and Matt Jones, whom the coaching staff expects to be back at full strength after he tore cartilage in his knee last season, are capable backups.

The quarterback matchup also poses an interesting contrast. Driskel is a dual-threat athlete, while Georgia senior Hutson Mason is more of a pocket passer. In his 15 career starts, Driskel has not shown much command of the passing game with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-10. But Roper expects Driskel to be more efficient in his offense. And against Georgia, Driskel will be facing a secondary that has lost three starters in the offseason. Mason, on the other hand, gets to tangle with a Florida secondary that features stud sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III. But Mason has plenty of confidence going into his fifth season in Mark Richt's offense. He threw for 619 yards in starting Georgia's final two games last season after Aaron Murray was injured.

Why it matters: Speculating on head coach Will Muschamp’s future has become a cottage industry for Gator fans ever since Florida went 4-8 last season. Muschamp has never tasted victory in seven Florida-Georgia games -- four as a safety at Georgia from 1991-94 and the last three seasons as UF's head coach. Georgia's three-game winning streak has reignited a rivalry that Florida had dominated in recent years with 18 wins in 21 games since 1990. The Gators might play bigger, more significant games than this one in 2014, but no opponent has been circled by more Florida fans than Georgia. The same fans who are trying to guess how many wins Muschamp needs to keep his job are pinpointing Nov. 1 as one game day that will carry more weight than any other. Simply put, if Muschamp is ever going to win back Florida fans, he absolutely cannot allow UGA to stretch its streak to four. Oh, and did we mention that this game always seems to play a major role in determining the SEC East champion? That will hardly matter to UF in this game. The division race will be a distant subplot, as Florida is likely to be fueled by hatred for the Bulldogs and determination to prove that last season was an aberration.
video
While recruiting remains a marathon and not a sprint, recent trends have shown that it is never too early to look ahead. With the release of the ESPN Junior 300 it is a perfect time to see which programs are having early success. With roughly 10 percent of the prospects in the ESPN Junior 300 committed well over a year and a half before national signing day for the Class of 2016, plenty is still to be determined. Here are five programs, in alphabetical order, standing out early for the 2016 class:


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SEC's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
12:00
PM ET
After two days of soccer showing up on the lunch links, I think it’s time to get back to some American football. But before I get to Thursday’s links, I wanted to post this photo from Philip Lutzenkirchen’s memorial service Wednesday night. Both Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and football coach Gus Malzahn were on hand and spoke at the gathering.



Now to the links. Enjoy your 4th of July weekend.
The Opening has become a breeding ground for future SEC players over the years. It started in 2011 as a football camp for the nation’s top recruits and has grown every year since. For those who haven’t heard of it or know little about it, here’s a fan’s guide to the event.

This year is no different in terms of SEC participation as 37 of the 162 invitees have already committed to SEC schools.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMILandon Collins starred at The Opening before becoming a star for Alabama at safety.
SEC commitments by school

Alabama: 10
Texas A&M: 7
Georgia: 5
Florida: 4
LSU: 3
Mississippi State: 2
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 2
Kentucky: 1
Missouri: 1

The event will be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and gives you a chance to see the future of your school. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the past participants to come through who are now making noise on Saturdays in the SEC.

Vadal Alexander (2011): If there were any doubts about Alexander before The Opening, he answered them with his performance. He rarely got beat in the one-on-one drills and used his strength to overpower opposing defensive linemen. It was that same strength that helped him early at LSU, and he’s expected to start up front for the third straight season. He and left tackle La'El Collins form a menacing tandem on the left side for the Tigers.

Landon Collins (2011): Collins stole the show at the inaugural camp. He won the SPARQ national championship with a high score of 143.76 and was a beast all week in the 7-on-7 competition. He didn’t make the type of impact he was hoping for as a freshman at Alabama, but he emerged last season with 69 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles forced. He’s one of the top safeties in the country and projected to be a first-round draft pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III (2012): The week didn’t last long for Hargreaves, who injured his ankle on the first day, but he did run a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 4.1 shuttle before bowing out. That speed and athleticism was evident this past season, as the Florida freshman emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. He finished with 38 tackles, three interceptions, and was among the league leaders in passes defended with 14.

O.J. Howard (2012): Tight ends don’t typically stand out at The Opening, but Howard isn’t your typical tight end. He measured in at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and dominated 7-on-7 play with his combination of size and speed. Unlike teammate and fellow Opening alum Derrick Henry, Howard endured a slow start to his Alabama career, but the expectations are high heading into this season.

Laquon Treadwell (2012): Treadwell might not have tested as well as some of his peers, but once he got on the field, he caught everything thrown his way. He showed the ability to make a catch under duress in traffic, and if the ball was in his vicinity, he was coming down with it. That held true at Ole Miss, where he led all SEC freshman with 72 receptions and finished with 608 yards and five touchdowns.

SEC's lunch links

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
12:00
PM ET
The World Cup run by the USMNT is over, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. His 16 saves were a World Cup record, and there’s now talk that he could be the greatest goalie in history. Personally, I think he would’ve made a great safety, but clearly he made the right choice with soccer.



No, thank you Tim Howard. Now on to Wednesday’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
12:00
PM ET
Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to see the impact he had on people based on the response on Twitter and elsewhere. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
12:00
PM ET
Sunday was a sad day in the SEC. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen died in a car accident at just 23 years old, and though I never had the privilege of covering him, it was easy to the impact he had on people based on the Twitter response. Read more tributes to Lutzenkirchen in today’s lunch links.
Can you believe it? We're already into the final month of the SEC regular season.

If you're just now jumping on board our little road trip, we at the SEC Blog have been getting you ready for the coming season by plotting out our top destinations for each week of the season. So far we've been to some of the usual spots (Athens, Auburn, College Station, Tuscaloosa), and a few outside of the SEC footprint in locales such as Houston and Oklahoma.

We've knocked out nine weeks of trips in all, which means we've got only five more to go. The conference title game in Atlanta is right around the corner.

So without further pause, let's take a look at the best options for Week 10:

Nov. 1
Arkansas at Mississippi State
Auburn at Ole Miss
Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
Kentucky at Missouri
Tennessee at South Carolina
Louisiana-Monroe at Texas A&M
Old Dominion at Vanderbilt

Alex Scarborough's pick: Georgia vs. Florida

Man, it sure was tough passing up those high-profile nonconference games featuring Old Dominion and Louisiana-Monroe.

(Pardon me while I try not refer to the Warhawks as being from La-Monroe. Apparently they don't care for the abbreviation.)

Yes, we're steadily seeing better out-of-conference scheduling. Georgia's agreement to play Notre Dame is a huge step in the right direction. Even though Mississippi State-Arizona won't happen until the polar ice caps finally melt, it's a welcomed sight. But the league's athletic directors and head coaches are nothing if not calculated, which means that the late cupcake nonconference games we'll see this November aren't going away. Teams will risk tough games early in the season, but never late. It's all about protecting your standing in the College Football Playoff.

Oh well.

I'll step off my soapbox at some point and hopefully find myself in Jacksonville on Nov. 1 for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Or whatever they want to call it these days.

If you care about SEC football, this is a game you have to get to at least once in your life. Most neutral site games lack that certain festive college atmosphere, but this one is different. Huge crowds show up and there's plenty of tailgating. The pregame atmosphere definitely lives up to the series nickname.

Then there's the game itself -- and it's seemingly mandatory instances of trash talk, cheap shots and excessive celebration. Who can forget Mark Richt sending his entire team on the field to celebrate Georgia's first touchdown in 2007? Brandon Spikes' attempted eye-gouge in 2009? What about Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler getting into it last year? These two teams just don't seem to care for each other.

It all makes for appointment viewing.

Greg Ostendorf's pick: Auburn at Ole Miss

Before you say anything, I know. The ultimate SEC road trip saw both Auburn and Ole Miss last week and though it would be nice to check out some different teams and venues, how do you pass up a game like this? Two teams jockeying for position in the West, two offenses engineered to go fast and put up points, and a tailgating atmosphere that will rival even the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. What's not to love?

For Ole Miss, it's not a stretch to say that this is the most important game on the schedule. We're at the point in the season where we'll already know whether the Rebels are legitimate contenders or not, but either way, this is the type of signature win they need if they want to take that next step as a program.

Auburn has already taken that step -- as evidenced by last year's run to the BCS title game-- but this game is just as important for the Tigers if they want to get back to the top. It's sandwiched in between home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M, and waiting for them on the other side are road trips to Georgia and Alabama. Let's just say they can't afford to lose this one.

For those still questioning my pick, consider seeing stars such as Nick Marshall, Laquon Treadwell and Sammie Coates running up and down the field and making plays. And don't forget about sophomores Robert Nkemdiche and Carl Lawson (if healthy), the nation's top two recruits in 2013.

The rivalry pales in comparison to Florida-Georgia, but the game should be just as good if not better, and the party on the Grove will do more than hold its own.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Questions answered after week 1
Florida, Arkansas and Missouri's week 1 match-ups will answer looming questions from the off season
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

SEC SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 8/28
Saturday, 8/30
Sunday, 8/31