Florida Gators: SEC

SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
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The tax man cometh ...
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody does optimism quite like a football team in springtime. Especially one with a lot to prove.

As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.

"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."

Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.

Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp was satisfied with the progress the Gators made in spring practice.
OK, so we started off with a softball. It wasn't much of a reach to say the Gators would change the "woe-is-me" tune that permeated through an awful 2013 season. Nevertheless, a new attitude was extremely important in setting the tone of spring practice, building team chemistry and creating an environment for learning and development.

Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.

The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.

Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense

This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.

The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.

In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.

The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.

Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense

This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Michael Taylor aims to lead by example for the Florida defense.
The names might have been slightly off, but the final outcome was as expected. Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jabari Gorman, Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis are the players to whom teammates look for tone-setting and guidance.

Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.

There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.

Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs

This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.

Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.

It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.

"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."

Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge

Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.

There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.

Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.

Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.

The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.

There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with tradition, Florida concluded a month of practices with a feel-good scrimmage in front of thousands of fans and called the spring a success.

Coming off of a terrible 2013 season, the Gators desperately needed changes and positive feelings. They got that and more.

Florida satisfied head coach Will Muschamp's top priorities by installing a new offense, developing confidence, discovering some new players and rehabilitating some old ones.

Here's what else happened this spring:

[+] EnlargeWill Grier
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFreshman Will Grier showed a quick release in Florida's spring game.
Quarterbacks in command: From the opening of the first practice, it was obvious the QBs had studied hard and grasped the no-huddle spread offense. They led the installation process and made enough progress with fundamentals and basic principles to add wrinkles throughout the spring. Junior Jeff Driskel clearly separated himself as the starter in camp and had the strongest arm. He got into a good rhythm in the spring game and showed what the offense can do (against much of Florida's first-team defense). The battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot was a draw. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg improved as a passer throughout the spring and split reps with true freshman Will Grier. The much-anticipated prospect didn't disappoint, as Grier showed he has an extremely quick release and a bright future.

Deeper at receiver: The Gators have been painfully short of playmakers on offense in recent years, but the numbers are tilting in their favor. Florida will lean heavily on senior starter Quinton Dunbar and three talented sophomores who gained valuable experience last season in Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. The three combined for 13 receptions in Saturday's spring game. Robinson led the way with five catches for 53 yards, including a 31-yard, highlight-reel touchdown. The biggest proof of concept for the offense was that it did what everyone promised it would -- get the ball to players in space.

Still some concerns: After years of departures to the NFL, Florida has a very young secondary. There's plenty of talent, but it appears likely that at least one of the true freshman cornerbacks -- Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson -- will start either at corner or nickel. There will also be two new starters at safety, with an open spot still up for grabs opposite senior Jabari Gorman. ... The issue Muschamp harped on the most throughout the spring was a "huge" drop-off in ability from his first team to the second team on the offensive and defensive lines. Mental and physical stamina is part of the problem. ... Florida still isn't getting much offense from its tight ends and fullbacks. "We’re still looking for that consistent playmaker at the B-position," Muschamp said Saturday. He did single out true freshman DeAndre Goolsby for praise. ... Though there weren't any major injuries this spring, the bug still looms. Florida on Saturday held out two key starters on defense in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There was no reason to expose them to risk, and can you blame a team that lost one of its best players in Ronald Powell to a torn ACL in the spring game two years ago?

Kick in the pants: Muschamp said he's talked to a lot of mental conditioning coaches to try to help place-kicker Austin Hardin iron out his mechanics. Hardin, who struggled mightily in his first season as UF's kicker, made all four of his field-goal attempts in the spring game and won his coach's praise for achieving some consistency. Hardin will still have to fight off a few walk-ons who will try to take his job.

Position changes: Senior offensive tackle Trenton Brown moved inside to guard, performed well as a starter in the spring game and will stay there. At 6-foot-8 and 361 pounds, the Gators love his ability to be a people-mover in the running game. ... Florida gave junior Trip Thurman a long look at guard throughout the spring before giving him second-team snaps at center in Saturday's game. ... Redshirt freshman Antonio Riles moved from defensive line to offensive guard midway through spring. Florida coaches like his athleticism and said he looked natural on the O-line, but the real reason for the move might have more to do with three highly touted defensive line signees who are coming this summer: Thomas Holley, Gerald Willis III and Khairi Clark. ... Redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins wasn't making much of an impact at wide receiver early in the spring so he was moved to safety, where he played some in high school. Florida felt good about its numbers at receiver and needed more help in the secondary.

What's next: The Gators are on their own as far as workouts, as veteran players typically organize drills throughout the summer to stay sharp. Driskel said he plans to throw a lot and work on timing with his receivers. Muschamp said it best in outlining the next phase for his players: "Still got a way to go, 112 days until we report. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in this league."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A typical spring football game in the South is like throwing red meat to hungry animals. For the Gators and their football-starved fans, Saturday's scrimmage went down easy.

Positive feelings were in abundance inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, as Florida's Team Orange finished in a 23-23 tie with Team Blue. The crowd was estimated at 35,834, and you'd be hard pressed to find any fans who weren't there to glimpse a brand-new offense.

"I'm extremely pleased with the day offensively with 15 practices and how far we've come," head coach Will Muschamp said. "I think you can attribute all that to [new coordinator] Kurt Roper and the offensive staff and the job they've done.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsJeff Driskel, who broke his leg last season, completed 18 of 32 passes in Florida's spring game.
"Our kids have been very receptive and have confidence in what we're doing. I think it's a good fit moving forward."

It was a sharp contrast to the way Florida ended its 2013 season with a seven-game losing streak and a 4-8 record, the program's first losing season in 34 years.

Saturday's spring game was successful in many ways. The Gators pleased their fans with a no-huddle offense that was both efficient and coherent. They avoided the injury bug that plagued the team last year. Even the kickers looked good, as sophomore Austin Hardin connected on all four of his field goal attempts.

"It was a great day and great crowd," Muschamp said. "Probably the best crowd we’ve had since I’ve been here. It says a lot about our fanbase and the loyal support we have from all the Gators fans out there."

It was a game tailor made to check off the list of priorities set by Muschamp at the start of spring practice 24 days ago.

By halftime, Florida's first-team and second-team offenses combined for 69 plays, more than 400 yards of total offense and 36 points, which is more than the Gators scored in any game last season.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of 2013 with a broken leg, showed that he's healthy and has the best grasp of the offense among UF's quarterbacks. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown.

The word Driskel used to describe the Gators this spring was "re-energized."

"We did have a great spring," he said. "We felt like it's a new start, and there's something about [the offense] where you can get rolling. ...

"When you start getting completion after completion, it kind of builds your confidence and gets you in a rhythm that sometimes is tough for the defense to break."

Twenty receivers caught passes, including eight on Driskel's Team Blue, which was largely comprised of starters.

"That's going to help us out a lot," said sophomore Chris Thompson, who had three catches. "It’s going to keep our receivers fresh, and we're going to be keep making plays throughout the whole game."

Confidence on offense was one of Muschamp's top priorities. It was everywhere on Saturday.

"It felt like we were really efficient," Driskel said. "We moved the ball really well. We only turned it over one time and we only had one penalty on offense. I think when you’re not beating yourself up, you can really, really gain momentum and gain confidence."

There were several big plays, most notably Driskel's 31-yard touchdown pass in which sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson made several defenders miss with his speed and cut-back ability.

Open receivers and highlight-reel plays were in short supply in 2013. And while spring games are designed to generate optimism, it was still a welcome change for Gators fans.

The biggest contrast between this spring and last year? No major injuries. When that was pointed out to Muschamp, he heaved a great sigh of relief.

"We've still got to get them out of the locker room," he said with a laugh.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Progress. It's what Florida fans expect to see this fall. It's what they hope to see in Saturday's spring game.

Everyone is under much more scrutiny after the Gators' 4-8 record last season, but mostly the microscope will be on a brand-new offense that has been installed in just 14 spring practices. It's just one of several aspects of the scrimmage that fans and the media will be analyzing.

[+] EnlargeRoper
Jeff Barlis/ESPNAll eyes on Saturday at Florida's spring game will be on new coordinator Kurt Roper's offense.
The game, at 1:30 p.m ET at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, will be divided into four, 12-minute quarters with a running clock. Teams were drafted by honorary alumni captains on Thursday night, but fans will get to see a lot of first-team offense against first-team defense in the mix.

Here's what to watch for:

New and improved quarterback: All eyes will be on Jeff Driskel, the junior who hasn't exactly lived up to his status as the top QB prospect in 2011. He's coming off surgery and six months of rehab for a broken bone in his lower right leg. The injury, which cost him most of the 2013 season, ensures that he'll be a non-contact participant (as will all of the QBs). Driskel has had an excellent spring. He's clearly the starter and is a respected leader. His teammates have been raving about how good and comfortable he looks in an offense that is much closer to what made him a star in high school. Driskel said he just wants to show the fans that he is confident and having fun. But nothing pleases a crowd like putting points on the board. He can create a lot of goodwill if he finds receivers in stride and generally commands a smooth-looking offense.

Mr. Roper's offense: Some success by Driskel and backup quarterbacks Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg would go a long way in showing off the new scheme that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought from Duke. The No. 1 thing that fans want to see is a very different-looking offense. Roper has the potential to deliver with his no-huddle, shotgun spread attack. At the very least, the tempo will be much faster than in any of Florida's last three seasons of taking a clock-chewing, run-heavy, pro-style approach.

Young secondary: The Gators have Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Jabari Gorman at safety and little certainty throughout the rest of the defensive backfield. Yes, there is a ton of talent, but it's young and inexperienced. There are three starting jobs open because UF operates so often in a nickel formation. Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson have had their expected ups and downs in competing with junior Brian Poole for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves. Poole is also in the mix at nickel corner, along with Marcus Maye. Keanu Neal might have the edge for the other starting safety spot, but keep an eye on Nick Washington and Marcell Harris. Don't be surprised if the DBs struggle on Saturday as Florida's offense looks to win fans and influence coaches.

O-line vs. D-line: This one is a toss-up. The Gators' offensive line has not been good in pass protection, but the defensive line isn't exactly loaded with pass-rushing demons. The uptempo offense should help Florida's O-line, as there is a new emphasis on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand in three seconds. The marquee matchup to watch is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. against left tackle D.J. Humphries. They're two of the Gators' most talented players, and they've been going at each other throughout spring practice. The rest of Florida's starters are veterans, but fans might want to cover their eyes when the second units come on. Coach Will Muschamp has not been pleased with the development of his young linemen on either side of the ball.

The B-position: Tight ends and fullbacks have been largely overlooked in recent years, as blocking has been the top priority. That's changed under Roper, who said on Thursday: "It's going to be an important position and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them." Roper said he's seen growth out of veterans such as Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Hunter Joyer. He also said early enrollee freshman DeAndre Goolsby is more comfortable in a pass-catching role based on his experience in high school.

Playmakers at WR: It bears repeating that this spring has been all about the new offense. Fans were screaming for dramatic changes by the end of last season, and no position needs it more than wide receiver, where the Gators haven't had anyone crack the 600-yard mark in a season since 2009. As the spring wore on, playmakers began to emerge. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the unquestioned leader of the group and a certain starter. Sophomores Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson appear to be developing as reliable targets. Slot receivers Valdez Showers and Latroy Pittman have had solid spring camps as well. If the offense clicks, it will be a treat for fans to finally see these athletes make catches in space and show what they can do with the ball in their hands.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jeff Driskel will be on a mission in Florida's spring game on Saturday.

His goal? Win over a skeptical fanbase.

"I want to show them that I'm confident," the junior quarterback said on Wednesday, "that I didn't let the Miami game or the injury take away from my confidence."

The Miami game in Week 2 still haunts Driskel, whose two red-zone interceptions and sack-fumble practically handed the Hurricanes a 21-16 win.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/Phil SandlinJeff Driskel's 2013 season didn't last very long, as the junior broken his leg in the third game of the season.
The injury, which came one week later against Tennessee, was a broken leg that required surgery and six months of rehab. On the play he got hurt, Driskel threw a pick-six.

By the time he limped off the field, more than a few fans were ready for a new quarterback. They had watched Driskel commit 13 turnovers (seven interceptions and six fumbles lost) in his previous eight games.

"I caught a lot of criticism, which was deserved," he said. "But I do think that over the course of the year, I would have been able to redeem myself. But if you make costly mistakes like that, what do you expect?"

What Driskel expects on Saturday is to look good in Florida's new offense. It's a spread-option attack, very similar to the offense he ran in high school, when he was recruited to be the next star quarterback in then-coach Urban Meyer's offense.

"I feel like it fits not just me but all of our players," Driskel said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays in space, and this offense creates space. We’ve made some big plays against our defense, which is exciting."

There hasn't been much excitement from Florida's offense since Will Muschamp replaced Meyer.

After a disastrous season in 2013, Muschamp hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper away from Duke to revive the offense ... and Driskel.

"He's talented, folks," Roper said. "I mean, we're sitting here talking about a guy that's really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It's not his first rodeo."

Roper watched Driskel in high school, knowing it was highly unlikely he could get the nation's top QB prospect to Duke.

"Now I get the luck of the draw here," Roper said. "That's a big, powerful, fast-twitch, natural throwing motion."

Driskel's arm has been on full display throughout Florida's spring practice, as has his experience in adapting to his third offense in just over three years.

"Jeff’s been through change before," Muschamp said, "so I think the more times you go through that stuff you kind of can handle it and move forward. The maturity takes over."

Nothing has shown Driskel's maturity this spring better than the way he has moved past the injuries and struggles that have hindered his Florida career.

He entered last season firmly believing he had reached a turning point. Then Miami happened, then he felt a pop, then his season was over.

"I thought I was going to have a really good year," he said. "I was throwing the ball well. Had a couple mistakes, costly mistakes, especially in that Miami game. But I felt like I was throwing the ball well. To have it all taken away was tough. ...

"I didn't really feel helpless. Discouraged, I would say, but not helpless. It was tough. It was tough. You know, you work in the whole offseason for the season and then you're excited for it, you think you're going to play well, and the next thing you know it's gone."

Gone, but not forgotten.

Muschamp has stood by Driskel and still believes in his talent. If there was one good thing that came from Driskel's short and turbulent 2013 season, it was Muschamp's faith in the heart and leadership that Driskel showed.

"To walk off the field after what happened to him?" the coach said. "Those doctors told me that's amazing. He's got great respect from his teammates because of the toughness he has."

Driskel's teammate and roommate, offensive lineman Trip Thurman, has seen it all up close -- the struggles, the rehab and now, the bounce-back on the spring practice fields.

"He just looks confident out there," Thurman said. "He knows this is his year. I know he doesn't like ending [last] season the way he did."

It's been a long road back, but Driskel says he is 100 percent. He might as well be talking about his confidence as much as his mended right leg.

All that's left to do this spring is get back on Florida Field in front of thousands of fans.

"I want to show everyone that I'm having fun out there playing the game," Driskel said.

A fun offense at Florida? Now that's a sure way to win back some fans.

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Twelve seconds.

That's how long it took for a bad snap on the first play of Super Bowl XLVIII to turn into a safety and set the tone for Seattle's blowout win against Denver.

Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper watched that game and said the challenge of snapping the ball is something he is cognizant of as he teaches his shotgun offense to a bunch of Gators who have three years of experience in pro-style offenses.

[+] EnlargeMax Garcia
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMax Garcia is trying to adjust to Florida's new offense playing center.
"It doesn't matter what level you're at, you still try to focus on that as much as you possibly can," he said. "And it's a skill. There's a lot going on for that guy up front other than just snapping that football. So you just try to keep getting better at it. That's why right now you don't see us alternating back and forth -- gun and under -- because we're trying to focus in on that. …

"Right now that five-yard snap, it's not easy. There's 300-pounders right over him on the snap of the ball coming off."

Any time a team loses a longtime starter at center, some bumps in the road can be expected.

Florida is experiencing just that this spring after the graduation of Jonotthan Harrison, who manned the position for three seasons.

Senior Max Garcia moved to the center position as the heir apparent. The former Maryland transfer played well in his first season for Florida -- mostly at guard -- and was the only offensive lineman who started every game.

Florida coaches have repeatedly praised Garcia as one of their better linemen, but he's still learning how to snap the ball. In an offense that will operate almost entirely out of the shotgun, that could be a bit of a problem.

Look no further than the comments of head coach Will Muschamp throughout spring practice to see the progression of this concern:

March 11 (before spring practice began): "We're going to look at Max Garcia at center, move him inside. [Cameron] Dillard has been a guy that's come along. Trip Thurman will play both center and guard. We'll move him around. Trip's had a really good offseason."

March 25: "Max has done a nice job making the calls up front. We’ve got to be a little more consistent with snapping the ball, which will come. That’s part of the transition there and we knew it was going to happen."

April 4: "I'm extremely concerned about some snapping issues that continue to occur. I think the first couple of practices and some newness in there, I can kind of get that. After a while we've got to move past that."

April 8 (after UF's second scrimmage): "We still had a couple [bad snaps]. Disappointed. … If we continue to have those we need to look in a different direction. We can't afford to have that anymore."

As the veteran of the group and the only contender with starting experience, Garcia still has an overwhelming edge to win the job. He also has Roper's confidence.

"I mean you always want to get better," Roper said. "I don't want the ball off-center or rolling on the ground. All that has to do with timing in the run game and exchanges and all that.

"But am I happy with the way Max is working and trying? Yeah. And do I think he can do it and be really good at it? I do. I think he's talented."

Thurman, a fourth-year junior, has spent most of the spring at left guard with the starting unit. He emerged as a candidate after the struggles of Garcia and Dillard, a redshirt freshman.

"I've taken snaps at center before we start practice, so I'm getting used to that," Thurman said. "Shotgun snaps are a whole lot different than having someone under center. You've got to have the same snap, every snap whether you're going right or left. So it's difficult, but it's something that we need to get used to with this uptempo offense."

Though it's a growing concern, Muschamp said on Tuesday he's optimistic it can be fixed.

"We feel like we've remedied the issue," he said. "As a snapper you can't break your wrist. That's when you create high snaps, when you start breaking your wrist. A couple of situations we were going on silent count, going off the center’s head and when the center’s head comes up he’s got to snap it. He can’t elevate his pads in those situations.

"You create a limp snap to the quarterback, which is a low snap and hard to deal with, which takes a quarterback’s eyes further off the downfield reads and things he’s got to do, it creates an issue for the entire offense. Improved, but not where it needs to be. One bad snap is one too many."

Just ask the Denver Broncos.

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kelvin Taylor arrived at Florida last year with all the fanfare one would expect of an elite recruit who also happened to be the son of a school legend.

He didn't really factor into Florida's running game, however, until an injury ended the season of starter Matt Jones in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesKelvin Taylor finished the 2013 season with 508 yards on 111 carries for the Gators.
It must have felt like an eternity for Taylor, who had been his team's focal point since he was an eighth-grader.

"I wasn't really discouraged," he said. "I was just like, 'Wow, Mack Brown and Matt Jones are out there.' I was just cheering those guys on and learning, trying to get better every day in practice, just trying to do something to impress the coach to put me out there. ...

"I just sat back and watched film, did things like that, took coaching and tried to get better every day."

When he got his chance, Taylor lived up to the hype. He showed that he was ready and was indeed as talented as his famous father, Fred Taylor.

Kelvin Taylor started four of the last five games, finished the season with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

Florida coach Will Muschamp knew he had a special talent in Taylor, but the freshman's behavior when he wasn't playing made an ever bigger impression.

"Very humble, just a hard-working guy," Muschamp said. "He never said a whole lot. Kelvin’s a team guy. He’s been raised right. He’s a really good young man. He’s all about the team. He’s all about the University of Florida. He knew there were some things in protection he needed to clean up moving forward. There was nothing that he wasn’t willing to work at and didn’t recognize.

"With good players, that’s normally the deal. They realize there’s things they need to work on, there’s things they need to improve on and that’s why he is a good player. He’s talented, but he realizes the things he needs to do."

With Jones still recovering from a torn meniscus, Taylor has been the lead dog in a stable of running backs.

"We've got a lot of great running backs in there," he said. "Me, Mack Brown, Mark [Herndon], Matt Jones, [Adam] Lane, all those guys, Brandon Powell, the freshman that just came in. I think all those guys will help us."

Taylor has worked hard to take the starting job and hold off his competition. A year after enrolling early and participating in his first spring practices, he has the look of a confident sophomore poised to take the next step.

"I feel like I got stronger and a whole lot faster working with Coach [Jeff] Dillman," he said. "All those guys pushing me everyday, working me harder. My lower body got a lot more powerful. ... Now I got a year underneath my belt, so I'm practicing well, playing faster, more used to the speed of the game."

Taylor's teammates, especially his backfield mates, say they can tell. They're expecting big things this fall.

"He's not really worrying or thinking too much," senior fullback Hunter Joyer said. "He's just going out, playing full speed."

It's helped that the entire offense has made a smooth transition to a new no-huddle, spread scheme that operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation.

"This offense is a little different for these guys in how they're getting the ball," Muschamp said. "We still run the counter. We still run the power. We still run the inside run. We still run the stretch. But their angles to the line of scrimmage are a little different, and I think they've all adjusted very well."

Even with just a couple of weeks of hands-on experience, Taylor and the rest of Florida's playmakers are loving the new offense. They're getting used to a much faster tempo and are thrilled to get the ball in open space.

That kind of success has bred confidence and even led to a bold prediction or two.

"This year we're going to bounce back," Taylor said. "We're going to have a great season. We're just ready. We can't wait till the first game of the season just to show the nation what we're working with this year."

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
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There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.

Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.

"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."

The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.

It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators believe Dante Fowler Jr. could be a special player when it comes to rushing the passer.
Since Muschamp's first season with the Gators in 2011, when a sophomore named Ronald Powell led the team with six sacks, the pass rush has been anemic. Dominique Easley led the team with four sacks in 2012. Powell led UF last season with four as well.

In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.

Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.

He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.

"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him. …

"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."

Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.

"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."

Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.

"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.

"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."

Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?

Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.

"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. … He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."

The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.

"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."

Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.

"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."

Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.

"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."

Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael Taylor is like any student about to embark on his final year of college. Time has flown fast, and there's a sobering finality about being a senior.

The Florida linebacker is more serious. He has his priorities lined up.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Taylor hopes to lead by example to help get the Gators back to their winning ways.
For his last season in orange and blue, Taylor isn't worried about being first team or second team. He's just focused on the whole team and getting the Gators back to their winning ways.

"Mike in our mind is a starter for us," Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Thursday. "Yeah, he does reps with the ones, the twos and all over the place. He's one of our most experienced guys obviously. Mike knows the defense really well.

"Talking about a leader and a valuable guy, you can't say enough about Mike Taylor for us."

It all stems from Florida's 4-8 record last fall and the soul searching that naturally occurs as a result. Looking back, some of the Gators have said there was no leadership last season.

"Wrong kind of leadership," Taylor said. "More vocal, rather than action. You know, we need action rather than just people saying what they're going to do or just telling people what to do.

"Guys will try to be vocal leaders and try say every word in the dictionary, but you can do it all you want if you're not setting the right example."

At this point in a spring full of burgeoning optimism, there's less of a need for speeches. To a man, the Gators say they're more focused on closeness and leading by example.

Taylor has grown into the role of mentor. Last year, he took then-freshman linebacker Jarrad Davis under his wing. This year it's sophomore LB Daniel McMillian.

"When I came in, I was kind of lost in the system," Davis said. "He reached out to me and he pulled me along. Once I got on my feet, he was a guy that I could always still lean on and definitely go to if I'm not seeing things right.

"If I need somebody just to talk to about anything, Mike Taylor is that guy for me. I really love him and appreciate him for that."

By the end of his freshman season, Davis made a splash and even got into the starting lineup. A few months later, Taylor speaks with a sense of pride when he tells people to look for Davis to make an even bigger impact this fall.

The same thing is happening with McMillian, whom Durkin calls one of the most improved players on the team this spring.

"[Taylor] has been great for D-Mac and some of the younger guys, because Mike is that type of guy," Durkin said. "He takes time to bring another guy along. He has spent time with Daniel off the field, too."

With so much of Taylor's time and effort going to help younger teammates, one might think he was preparing to take a back seat. But Taylor is coming off of his best season after leading the Gators in tackles.

This spring in another story, however. It's as if being a senior has inspired Taylor.

On a team so badly in need of respected voices, the mantle of leadership has fallen squarely on his shoulders.

"Mike really did step it up," Davis said. "He always takes the game seriously and he always takes everything we do seriously. But this year, something feels different. Something feels different being around him, practicing with him, everything. I don’t know what it is. It’s too early to tell."

Perhaps it was the gut-punch of a 4-8 record that sharpened Taylor's approach. Perhaps it's just the natural way of things -- a senior knowing he has only so much time left on campus.

"I've been talking to coaches," Taylor said. "They say this is the best time of your life, so I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy this time ... and yeah, have fun."

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
PM ET
It's not exactly like the fall, but at least we'll have some football (spring) games this weekend. Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and see what's happening as the final spring scrimmages approach at some of the league's schools.

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