Florida Gators: Alex Anzalone

Florida's two-deep: Linebacker

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
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Editor’s note: We’re breaking down the Gators’ two-deep depth chart every day for the next two weeks. We’ll cover every position and offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

LINEBACKER

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSenior middle linebacker Michael Taylor is the leader of the defense.
The starters: Senior strongside linebacker Neiron Ball, junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and sophomore weakside linebacker Jarrad Davis

The backups: Sophomore strongside linebacker Alex Anzalone, senior middle linebacker Michael Taylor and sophomore weakside linebacker Daniel McMillian

The rest: Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin and sophomore Jeremi Powell

The lowdown: The complexity of Florida's multiple-front defense is most evident at the linebacker positions. The strongside or SAM linebacker is often disguised in rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, but it's the mirror-image middle (MIKE) linebackers and weakside (WILL) linebackers who typically play all three downs. Naturally, the Gators are strongest at the MIKE and WILL positions, where Morrison, Davis and Taylor give them three reliable options. Taylor is the veteran leader of the linebackers and he doesn't mind coming off the bench because he knows he'll play a lot of snaps. Davis pushed his way into the starting lineup by the end of his freshman season and carried that momentum into the spring, consistently earning praise for how quickly and how well he responded to coaching. Morrison is a bit of a question mark. Outstanding as a true freshman, he struggled in his sophomore season with two summertime arrests and a decline in production on the field. Florida has high hopes for its backups, three of whom came from a highly touted Class of 2013. Anzalone and Rolin were ticketed for significant playing time as true freshmen, but injuries hampered both. McMillian played mostly on special teams but started to show a better grasp of the defense this spring.

The future: With two seniors set to depart after the 2014 season, Florida doesn't have overwhelming numbers at its three linebacker positions, but coach Will Muschamp does not appear concerned as his defense has evolved into one that plays more nickel packages to combat the proliferation of spread offenses in the SEC. Davis has the look of a rising star. Further down the depth chart are talented players who must overcome injuries. Anzalone had surgery last spring on a torn labrum in his shoulder and dislocated the shoulder late in the 2013 season. Rolin had surgery on a torn ACL twice in his first year. Powell, a special teams ace, tore his ACL midway through last season. All three missed spring practice and are expected to be at full strength by fall camp. On the horizon, Florida needs to sign two or three linebackers in its 2015 class. The top names on UF's list are ESPN 300 prospects Jeffery Holland, Roquan Smith and Te'Von Coney. Another ESPN 300 athlete, Adonis Thomas, is being recruited as a buck linebacker, which is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position. But like Florida 2014 signee Justus Reed, Thomas has the athleticism to play strongside linebacker if he doesn't add the bulk to play on the line.

Replacing the Gators: Defense

May, 13, 2014
May 13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is over, so it's time to talk about the next wave of Gators.

Florida only had four players selected last weekend, but three were from the defensive side of the ball.

Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on defense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

DT Dominique Easley
First-round pick, New England Patriots
Florida already has experience in dealing with the loss of Easley, who tore his ACL in practice after Week 3 and left a huge void in the defense for the rest of the season. Easley was a heart-and-soul leader with a relentless motor and a lightning-quick first step, attributes that are in rare supply in college football. Leadership and passion aside, finding a defensive tackle who can disrupt the running and passing game is a huge task. Florida will turn to Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, two seniors who are solid starters but have yet to make a consistent impact. Much of Orr's production in 2013 came after Easley's injury, and he does have good tools to work with at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds. Cummings looked quicker, more confident and more disruptive in spring practice. However, the Gators ultimately might need one of their talented freshmen to emerge and bump one of those seniors to a backup role.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrian Poole has played cornerback, nickel corner and safety for Florida.
DB Jaylen Watkins
Fourth-round pick, Philadelphia Eagles
Another Gator who will be hard to replace, Watkins was a steady performer at cornerback, nickel corner and safety in his last couple of seasons. Florida is counting on some of its young defensive backs to give them that same kind of versatility. Heading into his junior season, Brian Poole has played all three of those positions but didn't grab a hold of the starting cornerback job that was available in spring practice. He could end up back at nickelback, where he made the first six starts of his career last season. At safety, Florida has steady senior Jabari Gorman and a host of talented youngsters. Sophomore Marcus Maye could get first crack based on the experience he gained last year in 12 games and two starts. Coaches are also very high on sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.

LB Ronald Powell
Fifth-round pick, New Orleans Saints
Powell, who played a mix of buck linebacker and strongside linebacker in his final season, brought some pass rush off the edge and flashed the ability to play in space. Dante Fowler Jr. took over at the buck position last season and eventually pushed Powell to outside linebacker. Fowler has the pass-rushing potential to give the Gators a big upgrade. At the SAM linebacker spot, Florida has senior Neiron Ball, who at 6-3, 235 has a similar build to Powell. Ball is more fluid in coverage but needs to be more consistent in stopping the run and rushing the passer.

CB Marcus Roberson
Undrafted free agent, St. Louis Rams
The Gators employ more man coverage than most college defenses, and as a result they attract some terrific prospects. Roberson was one such player, who used his instincts to thrive in one-on-one battles. With two junior cornerbacks forgoing their senior seasons at UF, the numbers are now thin, but coaches can rely on star sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III to lead the secondary. There is also plenty of enthusiasm for Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, two freshmen who enrolled in January. They competed throughout spring practice, showing plenty of skill and the ability to learn on the fly. At 6-1, 188, Tabor is effective in using his long arms to blanket receivers. Dawson, at 5-11, 190, is just as good in coverage but plays a more physical style.

CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
One of the best athletes on Florida's recent rosters, Purifoy made an impact at cornerback, as an elite-level gunner on special teams and even in limited time at wide receiver. Aside from Tabor and Dawson, Florida coaches are also very high on true freshman J.C. Jackson, who will enroll in June. Jackson is an explosive offensive talent, but his future could very well be at cornerback where he'll start his college career. Jackson could also make an impact right away as a kick returner.

LB Darrin Kitchens
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Kitchens was a valuable reserve linebacker, who was fundamentally sound and solid against the run. Florida appears set on its first unit with Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Senior Michael Taylor will also get plenty of playing time. Behind those three, Florida is hoping its young talent will emerge in 2014. Sophomore Daniel McMillian showed improvement throughout spring practice. The Gators also could get a lift from two bigger linebackers in Alex Anzalone (6-3, 239) and Matt Rolin (6-4, 227), each of whom missed the spring with injuries but are expected to push for playing time this fall.

DT Damien Jacobs
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Another solid backup, Jacobs stepped up after Easley's injury and was a solid run-stuffer. Florida has three young linemen it is counting on in 2014 to become a part of the rotation at tackle -- sophomore Joey Ivie and redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick. Coaches are confident in all three when it comes to ability but are looking for more maturity and consistent effort. Three more exciting freshmen prospects -- Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark -- arrive in the summer, and Florida won't hesitate to burn a redshirt if any of them prove he is ready to contribute right away.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Injuries hit hard and hit often last season, and as the Gators prepare to open spring practice next week, they'll still be feeling some lingering effects.

Florida coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday announced the Gators will open spring practice March 19 with nine players out of action because of injury, including three starters.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesRunning back Matt Jones, who injured his knee last season, won't be cleared to play until after spring practice concludes.
Here's who is out or limited as well as the spring impact:

  • Junior running back Matt Jones is progressing after a second surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The former starter is on track to be fully cleared on May 1. The Gators will need a healthy Jones this fall, but in the meantime there will be plenty of spring reps for a talented backfield that has good depth.
  • Senior starting defensive tackle Leon Orr fractured his wrist late last season and won't be cleared until May 1, but Florida has lots of competition at defensive tackle. "He would probably have been limited reps anyway with as many young guys as we need up front to help us," Muschamp said.
  • Senior wide receiver/kick returner Andre Debose, who had been a starter before missing all of last season with a torn ACL, is expected to be medically cleared on March 28 but will wear a noncontact jersey for the last two weeks of spring practice. A healthy Debose will bring speed and experience to a deep but largely unproven group of wide receivers.
  • Three linebackers still rehabbing after surgery for injuries suffered last fall -- sophomores Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL) and redshirt freshman Matt Rolin (torn ACL) -- won't be medically cleared until after spring practice. All three could play reserve roles and special teams in the fall.
  • Sophomore tight end Colin Thompson has a chronic foot injury that dates back to his high school days. It appears to be threatening his career. "The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely and we'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring," Muschamp said. Although Thompson was just a blocker, Florida needs every available body for its tight end competition.
  • Freshman early enrollee running back Brandon Powell has a small fracture in his foot from high school ball. Once on UF's campus, he had surgery to insert a pin and will miss most of the spring. "To that point in January, [Powell] had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills," Muschamp said. "Great change of direction and speed. He's one of the guys we're really excited about."
  • Freshman early enrollee Nolan Kelleher, an interior lineman, came to Florida in January with a back issue and has not been cleared for practice. Muschamp said a second opinion would be sought this week. The entire offensive line will be evaluated under new coach Mike Summers, so the competition for roles should be fierce.

Fortunately for Florida, most of the injuries are at positions of depth. Muschamp said that so far this spring, it is nothing like last year, when he was forced to turn the annual Orange & Blue Debut game into a series of drills with a limited scrimmage.

"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that," he said. "I want to have a spring game. ... I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

This weeklong series continues with a look at the linebackers. We'll skip the hybrid buck position because no one is likely to challenge budding star Dante Fowler Jr.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison hopes to rebound after a long season.
Returning starters: Some very talented youngsters are starting to come on strong, so this is a big spring for Florida's veteran linebackers. Junior Antonio Morrison looks to bounce back from what was clearly a terrible 2013. On the verge of becoming a team leader, he was arrested twice last summer and then didn't play his best before missing the final three games of the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Senior Michael Taylor started all but two games and led the Gators in tackles. Senior Neiron Ball started seven games at strong-side linebacker.

Departures: Florida graduated senior Darrin Kitchens, a solid reserve who made three starts in 2013. Fourth-year junior Ronald Powell declared for the NFL draft. He bounced between buck linebacker and strong-side linebacker last season, never truly settling in as the dominant force he was projected to be coming out of high school.

Returning reserves: With his athleticism and ability to soak up coaching, Jarrad Davis made a big impression as a freshman. The three-star prospect came in as the least-heralded member of Florida's fine four-man class of linebackers in 2013 and became the only one to start a game last season. Two of those highly touted freshmen, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, played on special teams and saw the field sparingly. Anzalone will miss the spring with a shoulder injury. Also sitting out will be third-year sophomore Jeremi Powell, who made a splash in 2013 as a freshman special-teams ace before tearing his ACL midway through the season.

Newcomers: Florida didn't sign any linebackers in its 2014 class and there's only one LB on the roster whom fans have not seen in action yet. They'll have to wait some more, as redshirt freshman Matt Rolin won’t be ready to play until fall practice. The No. 5 OLB prospect in 2013 tore his ACL in camp last fall and missed the season. It was the same ACL he tore in high school, so the Gators are taking it slow with his rehab. Before getting hurt, Rolin made a strong impression on the Florida coaching staff, which was prepared to use him as a situational pass-rusher, backup strong-side linebacker and on special teams.

What to watch: In Anzalone, Rolin and Powell, Florida has three talented underclassmen out for the spring. Head coach Will Muschamp said he's not overly concerned about the number of bodies, however, because the Gators play so much nickel and dime defense. Still, Florida will ask a lot of its linebackers this spring. Morrison had a dynamite freshman year and then slumped badly as a sophomore. He'll look to bounce back and convince his teammates he is worthy of a leadership role. Morrison and Taylor will continue to battle for the starting inside linebacker job. Whoever shifts to weak-side linebacker will have to deal with the hard-charging Davis, who is looking to seize the starting job. On the other side, Ball has the size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and experience (36 career games) to lock up the starting job, but McMillian has a lot to prove as well. He was one of the top prospects in the nation before starting slowly with UF as a freshman. His talent is undeniable, though, and his learning curve could be steep.

Will Muschamp: They call him Flipper

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
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They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there under, under the sea!

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It may be a 1960s TV show, but try getting the theme song for "Flipper" out of your head once it's stuck there. It's about as easy as getting Florida coach Will Muschamp to stop recruiting a prospect he wants.

In three years as chief recruiter for the Gators, Muschamp has clearly displayed a penchant for getting committed recruits to change their minds.

Dante Fowler
Courtesy Fowler FamilyDante Fowler, right, flipped from Florida State to Florida in 2012.
He's done it so often, some Florida fans call him Flipper.

The first big splash came in 2012 when defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., a prized recruit in Florida State's No. 2-ranked class, made a dramatic switch to Florida on signing day after being committed to the Noles for more than a year.

Muschamp's persistence over that time period and insistence that Fowler would get on the field earlier with UF paid off.

"It was real difficult,” Fowler said on signing day. "Being committed for a year and growing up a Florida State fan all my life -- I always hated Florida, and I always told myself I would never go to Florida, and now I’m about to be playing for them. It’s kind of crazy."

That was just the start of the craziness.

Last year Muschamp upped the ante with six more flips, four just before they signed as early enrollees in January 2013. In fact, three of Florida's four linebackers in that class -- Matt Rolin (from South Carolina), Alex Anzalone (Notre Dame) and Jarrad Davis (Auburn) -- flipped from other schools.

The key to flipping recruits, Muschamp said, is not a secret. It's a simple approach.

"You stay on guys," he said, "and try to make valid points you’ve made throughout the entire recruiting process all the way through."

He's done it again this year, getting three of his nine early enrollees to flip.

Each of the three -- cornerback Jalen Tabor (Arizona), athlete Brandon Powell (Miami) and offensive tackle Kavaris Harkless (Louisville) -- changed their minds as late as the first week of the spring semester.

None was more last minute than Harkless, who was on campus at Louisville the day before his first class when he changed his mind and flew back to Florida. Harkless was swayed by the departure of coach Charlie Strong, who left Louisville for Texas.

When the coaching change news broke that weekend, so did Harkless' commitment to Louisville.

One of Harkless' coaches at Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian, Gerard Ross, saw firsthand how UF coaches laid the foundation for Harkless' change of heart. Ross says it's a matter of the Gator coaches continuing to build relationships even after their targets have committed elsewhere.

"They do a good job of staying in contact with those guys that they really want who are committed to other places," he said. "That way if something ever changes that kid's mind, then that whole time they've been there with that kid. The [recruit] has something to fall back on."

It used to be taboo in recruiting to go after a committed prospect. Now, the taboo is a relic of a bygone era. It's open season on all commits until the ink has dried on the official letter of intent.

"These days in recruiting it's a little different than when I came out," said Ross, who played cornerback for FSU from 2002-05. "These days you almost can't blame the kids for trying to find a school pretty early and finding themselves a spot, because you can't oversign anymore. At the same time, the coaches almost have to stay on those kids who do commit early. There's a window when that kid might flip.

"Back in the day when a kid committed, that was pretty much it. That's where he was going. But nowadays, college football is becoming a business."

A business in which coaches move frequently for new jobs, often shaking up recruiting classes in the process.

It's something Florida has experienced on both sides -- from losing recruits when former coach Urban Meyer retired (twice) to cherry-picking players like Harkless, who found himself far from home and without a coach.

"That's recruiting, you know?" Harkless said from Louisville in early January, just before he left for Florida. "I still have respect for Coach Strong, because he has to go where it's best for his family. I'm just doing the same."

After announcing Harkless among his nine early enrollees in January, Muschamp talked about the increase in drama and decommitments on the recruiting trail. This rockier road, he said, is here to stay.

"The earlier and earlier recruiting goes, you’re going to continue to see this. That’s not stopping," Muschamp said. "I think the earlier it is, young men are making decisions before maybe they have the information or they’re sure of what they want to do or how they’re going to do it. I think you’re going to continue to probably see this."

Translation: Beware the Flipper.

Like a song stuck in your head, Muschamp isn't going to stop anytime soon.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp likes to say that his program sells itself to recruits, but it still doesn't make that part of his job terribly easy.

Sure, UF is the flagship university in the state, plays in the top conference in America and has facilities to rival any elite athletic program. But the Gators constantly have to contend with the likes of Florida State, Miami, Georgia, Alabama, LSU and any number of national programs that come to this talent-rich state for recruits.

Muschamp has demonstrated a gift for recruiting, as his classes have ranked 12th in the nation in 2011, fourth in 2012 and second overall last year. This year's class is ranked No. 7 with a little more than a week until signing day on Feb. 5.

Here are some notable recruiting battles won by the Gators under Muschamp. On Tuesday, we'll look at the other side of the equation.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. provided a much-needed presence on the defensive line.
DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr.
Chose Florida over Florida State
One of the biggest recruiting coups in recent years was getting Fowler to flip on signing day after being committed to the archrival Seminoles for more than a year. Fowler, who grew up an FSU fan, played a cat-and-mouse game of flirting with Florida before ultimately deciding he had a better chance to play early for the Gators. A much-needed presence on the defensive line, he played as a true freshman in 2012 and then broke through last season as a key playmaker in UF's front seven.

WR Demarcus Robinson
Chose Florida over Clemson
Robinson's recruitment was a roller coaster right up to the moment he enrolled early at Florida in January 2013. He first committed to Clemson in July 2012 before decommitting and flipping to Florida in December. The pledge to the Gators, however, lasted less than a week before he flipped back to Clemson. Robinson's first year in college was no less confusing, as he made a strong impression and garnered early playing time before missing three games due to suspension.

LB Alex Anzalone
Chose Florida over Notre Dame
Anzalone had a solid connection to UF from the start -- his father graduated from Florida's medical school. But the athletic linebacker from Wyomissing, Penn., seemed determined to play college football in the Midwest. He committed to Ohio State and then Notre Dame, both times over Florida. But after being committed to the Irish for more than six months, Anzalone had one final change of heart before enrolling early. He flipped to Florida the day before enrolling last January. Anzalone struggled with injuries as a true freshman but did play in 10 games.

DT Jay-nard Bostwick
Chose Florida over Miami and Alabama
The Florida coaching staff had to wait until the eve of signing day in 2013 to get the good news that their persistence with Bostwick had payed off. With Sharrif Floyd leaving early for the NFL, Florida had a more appealing depth chart than the Crimson Tide and offered a chance to play in the SEC while staying in-state. Bostwick ended up redshirting last season, but he has a good chance of cracking the rotation at defensive tackle this year.

S Marcell Harris
Chose Florida over Texas
It isn't easy to generate suspense on the recruiting trail when you're a highly touted and coveted Gator legacy. Harris' father, Mike, played safety for the Steve Spurrier-coached Gators in the mid-90s, but following in those footsteps was no sure thing. Marcell gave serious consideration to the Longhorns before committing and signing with UF. He redshirted in 2013.

LB Matt Rolin
Chose Florida over South Carolina
Rolin's flip to Florida on Dec. 9, 2012 was a genuine shocker considering both of his parents graduated from South Carolina, he had family in Columbia, S.C., and had been committed to the Gamecocks since May 2012. He made the announcement on Twitter while still going by the handle @USC_9 and predictably drew the ire of South Carolina fans. He enrolled early at UF last January and redshirted while rehabbing a twice-torn ACL.

DE Jonathan Bullard
Chose Florida over Clemson
The Gators held off a late charge by Clemson, which offered Bullard a chance to stay closer to his home in Shelby, N.C. At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January 2012, a smiling Bullard made his announcement by pulling on an orange and blue baseball cap. He quickly found playing time and has missed just one game in his first two seasons, making 10 starts along the defensive line.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.

As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.

On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.

LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.

His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.

LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.

DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.

Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.

A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.

The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the obvious silver linings of a subpar season is having the opportunity to get young players on the field. Florida burned 11 redshirts last season. That's a lot of precious experience for players who will be counted on to step up even further in 2014.

Here are the five Gators who impressed the most:

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves didn't waste much time making an impact at Florida, as the five-star cornerback became the first Gators freshman to make first-team all-SEC since Emmitt Smith.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III: This coach's son stood out from the moment he stepped on campus last summer and started the final 10 games of the season. Hargreaves led Florida with 11 pass breakups (tying the school record for a freshman set by Janoris Jenkins) and three interceptions. He showed very refined technique in coverage for someone so young. Hargreaves was rewarded with first-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches and the Associated Press, becoming the first UF freshman to earn such distinctions since running back Emmitt Smith in 1987.

RB Kelvin Taylor: The son of Gator great Fred Taylor seemingly was around the program for years before he signed last January. When Kelvin Taylor hit the field, he immediately reminded fans of his father, thrilling a sold-out crowd on opening day when he broke off a long run in mop-up duty. But he really spread his wings after starting running back Matt Jones was lost for the season due to injury. Taylor started four of the last five games of the season and finished second on the team with 111 carries for 508 yards rushing (4.6 yards per carry). He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

LB Jarrad Davis: A three-star recruit and one of the least-heralded members of Florida's 2013 class, Davis was also deemed the least likely of the Gators' four linebacker signees to get playing time as a freshman. But he did just that and was the only one to earn a start. Davis was a special-teams standout throughout the season and saw his playing time at outside linebacker increase as the season progressed, as all but one of his 24 tackles came in the final six games. Davis showed good closing speed in recording two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble to boot.

P Johnny Townsend: After flipping his commitment from Ohio State to Florida on signing day last February, Townsend didn't take long to make a surprising impact on the field. He took the punting job from record-setting sophomore Kyle Christy midway through the season and didn't look back. Townsend led Florida with a 42.0-yard average on 29 punts, including five over 50 yards and six inside the 20-yard line. He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

WR Ahmad Fulwood: One of three freshmen receivers who avoided a redshirt, Fulwood was the most consistent and the most involved in weekly game plans. He finished the season with 17 catches for 127 yards and one touchdown, modest stats on an offense that struggled mightily. But Fulwood flashed promise and has the kind of size (6-foot-5, 196 pounds) that creates mismatches all over the field. The Florida coaching staff is very eager to see what Fulwood can do with a complete offseason of strength and conditioning.

The rest: Six other true freshmen played for UF last season, gaining invaluable experience. They were wide receivers Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie and safety Keanu Neal.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- By now the benefits of enrolling early are well known both to players and the football programs that typically put such valuable freshmen right to work.

Not only do these select prospects get a significant head start in terms of strength, conditioning, learning the playbook and participating in the all-important spring practice session, they also have extra time to settle into college life.

This year, the Gators are expecting nine mid-year enrollees. That makes it a perfect time to look back at how last year's bumper crop performed.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesOf all the players who were early enrollees at Florida last year, RB Kelvin Taylor was the one to make the biggest impact.
The headliner

Kelvin Taylor came to Florida with all the hype of the nation's No. 1-rated running back. He also had huge cleats to fill as the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. It's fair to say he lived up to the expectations, showing good vision and a blend of power and quickness right away. Taylor started at No. 3 on the depth chart because he needed to learn the plays and improve his pass-blocking. But he was ready when called upon. He played in all but two games and started four of the last five after starter Matt Jones was injured. Taylor finished with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), four touchdowns and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

The starters

Tyler Moore, a sophomore transfer from Nebraska made six starts on the offensive line -- five at right tackle and one at left tackle -- before a freak injury ended his season. It sort of epitomized Florida's season. Moore struggled some in adapting to SEC defensive ends at right tackle. Just when he played one of his best games (at left tackle, no less), he fell off his scooter and broke his elbow. Florida's offensive line was never the same.

Darious Cummings, a junior transfer from East Mississippi CC, stepped up when Florida needed him after Dominique Easley's season-ending injury. The 6-foot-1, 309-pound defensive tackle they call "Bear" played in 11 games and started the last six. He finished with 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, two QB hurries and a pass breakup.

The linebackers

Alex Anzalone joined the Gators' group of early enrollees in dramatic fashion after decommitting from Notre Dame just two days before he was to report to South Bend, Ind. Slated to be Florida's backup middle linebacker, he injured the labrum in his right shoulder early in spring practice and needed surgery. Anzalone returned in the fall to play mostly on special teams, where he had one tackle. He was pressed into his most significant duty after starting middle linebacker Michael Taylor was injured in the Gators' disastrous loss to Georgia Southern. Anzalone came into the game and made one unassisted tackle and then followed Taylor with an injury of his own soon after, suffering a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery.

Daniel McMillian came to UF as the nation's No. 3 prospect at outside linebacker. The 6-2, 225-pound freshman earned praise and raised expectations after a standout spring practice. Florida head coach Will Muschamp even said he thought McMillian would start several games at some point in 2013. Capable of playing all three linebacker positions, McMillian opened the season as the primary backup to Ronald Powell at strong-side linebacker, but that was about as close as he got to making an impact. He never saw much playing time on defense, seeing action mostly on special teams in nine games and recording two tackles.

Matt Rolin missed spring practice rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in high school. Early in fall camp, Muschamp was full of praise for Rolin and said the freshman strong-side linebacker was expected to play as a reserve and on special teams, calling him physical, tough and smart. But Muschamp said all of this while announcing that Rolin had suffered another tear of the same ACL. Rolin went right back to rehabbing and was the only early entrant who redshirted.

Wait and see

Injuries on the defensive line created an opportunity, and Joey Ivie was rewarded for his strong efforts in practice with playing time. He came to Gainesville a little-known three-star recruit who was expected to redshirt, but Ivie ended up playing in three of the final five games of the season and recorded three tackles.

The highest ceiling

So much was expected of wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, so little was delivered. After UF beat out Clemson to win his turbulent recruitment, Robinson became the latest in a string of recent spring standouts at wide receiver who gave fans hope only to disappear when the games counted. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease tried to get Robinson involved early in the season, but nothing clicked as the offense struggled overall. Later, Pease expressed frustration with Robinson's "ups and downs in practice." He played in just seven games and finished with a disappointing five catches for 23 yards. By the end of the season, while Robinson sat out the final three games, he was passed on the depth chart by fellow freshmen Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like the little black lovebugs that swarm these parts twice a year only to splatter across windshields like a plague, the Florida Gators' injury bug in 2013 was a nuisance. Then it reached epic proportions. Here's a complete breakdown:

August

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel's season ended in the third game, when he broke his leg vs. Tennessee.
Injuries: Junior QB Jeff Driskel (appendectomy), sophomore RB Matt Jones (viral infection), senior WR Andre Debose (torn ACL), freshman LB Matt Rolin (torn ACL), junior OT Chaz Green (torn labrum)
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.

September

Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."

October

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesMatt Jones was Florida's leading rusher when he was lost for the season in the LSU game.
Injuries: Jones (torn meniscus), Murphy (sprained shoulder), senior DT Damien Jacobs (concussion), junior LB Ronald Powell (ankle), senior LB Darrin Kitchens (shoulder), redshirt freshman LB Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), sophomore LT D.J. Humphries (sprained MCL)
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.

November

Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.

Conclusions

It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.

The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.

"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."

Real painful.

One year changes everything for FSU, UF

November, 26, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Every year the most storied rivalries in college football add another chapter. On Saturday in the Swamp the steamroller squares off against the spoiler.

This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWill Muschamp hasn't had much to be happy about this season, as the Gators have clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979.
"Our guys understand the importance of this game," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "We'll work hard and we'll have a great crowd just like we did this past Saturday to support our guys. [It's] one of the great rivalries in all of college football. Florida State's got a good football team. They're having a great year. It would help us a lot to go get a win."

What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.

It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.

While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.

Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.

One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.

"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."

Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.

"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."

Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.

"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."

Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.

Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.

"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."

The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.

“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.

"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”

Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.

"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."

The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.

"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here's what we learned about the Gators after their 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern on Saturday:

1. Florida needs Tyler Murphy back: All week the Florida coaching staff expressed its confidence in third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg by saying he was ready to use more of the playbook in his next start. And sure enough he threw a pass on the third play of the game, which was a sharp contrast from the previous week, when Mornhinweg threw just two passes in the first half. But any hopes for an expanded offense went out the window at the end of the Gators' first possession after Mornhinweg threw two bad passes into the end zone that should have been intercepted. Mornhinweg was 4-of-10 passing for 6 yards in the first half and 6-of-13 for 14 yards after three quarters. Perhaps a bright spot was his fourth-quarter performance, when he completed 8-of-12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. After the game, UF coach Will Muschamp said he would not rule out Murphy for next week's game against No. 2 FSU.

2. Clutch defense has disappeared: During its 11-1 season in 2012, Florida displayed a knack for making halftime adjustments and shutting down its opponents. That certainly hasn't happened this season, as the Gators have bent and broken lately when the team needs its defense the most. After Saturday's loss, Muschamp seemed to indicate that the offense's inability to score is at least partially to blame. Florida gave up 429 yards on the ground but was unable to score enough points to force Georgia Southern out of its basic scheme. "We got gapped out in some situations. But you've also got to change the scoreboard offensively," he said. "You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively. It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed."

3. The injury bug: None of the UF players or coaches want to use the rash of injuries this season as an excuse. It's just something they all mention every time they're asked about what's gone wrong this fall. Saturday was another example of just how snakebitten the Gators have been with injuries. Already missing starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (out for the season after knee surgery), the Gators lost backup Michael Taylor to a knee injury in the second quarter. Taylor had been playing well, too, snagging his team-leading third fumble recovery of the season. But then it got ridiculous, as Taylor's backup, true freshman Alex Anzalone, dislocated his shoulder. Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens also missed time with a shoulder injury. And at one point, the Gators were using a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster in David Campbell to help defend a triple-option offense that was hitting on all cylinders. Talk about ouch.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.

The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.

And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.

Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?

A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.

"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsGators coach Will Muschamp was at a loss to explain the latest in a long string of disappointments.
As usual, the primary culprit was an inept offense that came into the game ranked No. 111 out of 123 FBS teams in total offense and generated 279 yards (4.5 yards per play).

"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...

"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”

On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.

Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).

Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.

"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."

It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.

Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.

But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.

"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."

The same cannot be said of Florida.

The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.

"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."

Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.

"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."

Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.

Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.

"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.

"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."

Muschamp: Bigger is better at UF

August, 16, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida fans better get a good look at senior wide receiver Solomon Patton this season because guys like him are going to be hard to find around here from now on.

Small guys.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.

[+] EnlargeJon Halapio
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGuard Jon Halapio, at 6 feet 3 and 321 pounds, meets Will Muschamp's size criteria to compete in the SEC.
Size does matter at Florida now. Muschamp believes it’s the best way to have success in the Southeastern Conference.

"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.

"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."

Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.

This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.

Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).

Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).

It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.

And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.

"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.

"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."

Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:

Offensive line

Ideal number: 15-17

Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.

Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.

Defensive tackle

Ideal number: 8-10

Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.

Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.

Defensive ends

Ideal number: 6-8

Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.

Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.

Bucks

Ideal number: 4-6

Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.

Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.

Linebackers

Ideal number: 9-12

Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.

Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.

Tight ends

Ideal number: 3-5

Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.

Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.

Gator Breakdown: Michael Taylor 

July, 5, 2013
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During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 51 Michael Taylor
Redshirt junior linebacker

Expectations for 2013: The 6-foot, 231-pound Taylor enters August practices battling with senior Darrin Kitchens for the starting spot at weakside linebacker. Taylor has played mostly middle linebacker at UF, but those positions are pretty similar in the Gators’ defense so this isn’t a complicated switch. Taylor is the Gators’ most experienced linebacker (68 career tackles) and is being counted on to be the group’s leader, especially with sophomore Antonio Morrison taking over in the middle. Taylor is a solid run-stopping linebacker but has trouble in coverage so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play on first and second downs and have Kitchens or an extra defensive back on the field in third down.

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SEC SCOREBOARD

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