Florida Gators: E.J. Manuel

It’s Rankings Week at GatorNation. Every day we’ll rank some aspect of the Florida football program heading into the 2013 season. Today we’re ranking the Football Bowl Subdivision teams on the Gators’ schedule. On Tuesday we’ll rank the top 10 offensive players Florida will face in the fall.

Ranking the schedule

1. Georgia (Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Fla.): Sure, the Bulldogs lost nine starters on defense, but Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley are coming back, and that makes them one of the SEC’s best teams. Georgia scored a school-record 529 points last season behind those three, and the offense figures to be explosive again in 2013. It’ll need to be to carry a rebuilt defense.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The surprising loss of linebacker Jelani Jenkins to the NFL draft leaves an interesting situation for the Gators at the position in 2013.

Florida is going to have to piece together a starting unit from a group of players that’s loaded with potential but doesn’t have a lot of experience. The Gators might even end up starting a true freshman.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Courtesy of UF CommunicationsAntonio Morrison will be one of the few linebackers with experience returning for the 2013 Gators.
There is one certainty: Antonio Morrison is going to be one of the starters. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound sophomore-to-be is UF’s most physical linebacker despite his size. He made several big plays in 2012, most notably causing Florida State QB E.J. Manuel to fumble early in the fourth quarter of the Gators’ victory.

But does Morrison start at weakside linebacker, which is where he played as Jenkins’ replacement when Jenkins was out with his finger, foot and hamstring injuries? Or can he beef up and play in the middle as a replacement for Jon Bostic, who graduates? He’s a better fit at outside linebacker because he’s athletic enough to cover tight ends and backs.

Does 6-foot, 226-pound redshirt junior Mike Taylor start in the middle? He’s solid against the run but he’s not very good in coverage and the Gators subbed him out for Morrison on obvious passing downs when he was in the game.

The Gators don’t have a lot of options at inside linebacker. James Hearns (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) is the only inside linebacker commitment the Gators have.

The other outside spot could go to a variety of players: redshirt junior Neiron Ball, senior Darrin Kitchens, redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell (whom the coaches have raved about on the scout team), and freshman Daniel McMillian, who is scheduled to enroll this week.

While the linebackers appear to be a talented group, there isn’t much production. Taylor has 68 tackles and one sack in 25 career games, although that sack was a big one: It knocked Texas A&M out of field goal position just before halftime. Morrison has 34 tackles and a sack in 13 games, and Kitchens has 37 tackles in 35 games.

After that, there’s very little experience. D.J. Durkin has established himself as a heck of a recruiter and a very good special-teams coordinator. Now he’s going to have to piece together a unit that doesn’t have a consistent playmaker.
Three keys for Florida in tonight’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup against Louisville:

1. Get the running game going: Senior RB Mike Gillislee is the first Florida player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. The offense feeds off of his success, and he’s coming off perhaps his best performance of the season: 140 yards and two touchdowns against Florida State and the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense. Louisville’s rush defense is allowing 151.1 yards per game and has really struggled in the second half of the season. The Cardinals held Rutgers to 54 yards rushing, but four of their previous five opponents rushed for at least 197 yards. Louisville gave up 255 yards to Temple and 278 yards to Syracuse in back-to-back games.

2. A wide receiver needs to step up: Florida’s passing offense has been anemic this season, partly because of protection problems and a young quarterback, but mainly because the wide receivers have been ineffective for the third season in a row. TE Jordan Reed is the No. 1 option (team-high 44 catches) and no wide receiver has caught more than 31 passes. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said freshmen WRs Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, who have combined for just four catches, have improved during the bowl practices in Gainesville. The coaching staff is hoping they can do something similar to what CB Loucheiz Purifoy did last December. He was impressive during the bowl practices, played well in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, and became a starter and key part of this year’s defense. There is no other position on the team that needs someone to emerge more than receiver.

3. Be disciplined in the pass rush: Louisville quarterback QB Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t have big rushing numbers (43 yards, one touchdown) but he’s a mobile threat who is pretty good at avoiding pressure and scrambling out of trouble. However, the Gators have had good success against mobile quarterbacks this season. They’ve limited South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, and they also shut down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the second half. The key will be a disciplined pass rush to keep Bridgewater in the pocket. That’s still rolling the dice a bit, though, because he’s eighth nationally in passing efficiency rating (161.62)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 3 Florida plays No. 21 Louisville on Wednesday in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. It’s just the third meeting between the schools (the Gators have won the previous meetings in 1980 and 1992).

Here are five storylines for the game:

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesContaining Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater will be key for Florida.
1. Contain Teddy Bridgewater: The Louisville quarterback doesn’t have big rushing numbers (43 yards, one touchdown), but he’s a mobile threat who is pretty good at avoiding pressure and scrambling out of trouble. Bridgewater has been successful in and out of the pocket. However, the Gators have had good success against mobile quarterbacks this season. They’ve limited South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, Florida State’s EJ Manuel, and they also shut down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the second half. They key will be a disciplined pass rush to keep Bridgewater in the pocket. That’s still rolling the dice a bit, though, because he’s fifth nationally in completion percentage (69.0 percent) and passer efficiency rating (161.22).

2. Get Mike Gillislee going: The Gators’ senior running back is the first UF player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. The offense feeds off of his success, and he’s coming off perhaps his best performance of the season: 140 yards and two touchdowns against Florida State and the nation’s top-ranked rushing defense. Louisville’s rush defense is allowing 151.1 yards per game. The Cardinals held Rutgers to 54 yards rushing, but four of their previous five opponents rushed for at least 197 yards. Louisville gave up 255 yards to Temple and 278 yards to Syracuse in back-to-back games.

3. Win the turnover battle: Turnovers are one of the main reasons the Gators went from 7-6 last season to 11-1 in 2012. UF was minus-12 last season and is plus-14 this season. UF forced only 14 turnovers in 2011 but has forced 26 this season, including 19 interceptions. The only game in which the Gators had a negative turnover margin was the only game they lost. They were minus-3 against Georgia. Louisville has done a very good job of not turning the ball over (five fumbles, seven interceptions) and never turned the ball over more than twice in any game. Both quarterbacks have done a good job of protecting the ball, too. Bridgewater has thrown seven interceptions, while UF’s Jeff Driskel has thrown just three.

4. Keep emotions in check: There are numerous Gators players who were on the team in Louisville coach Charlie Strong’s last season as Florida's defensive coordinator (2009). He was one a very popular coach and someone the players could talk to about anything. Even the offensive players gravitated toward Strong. They don’t keep in regular contact with Strong, but there are still some fond feelings about their time with him. In addition to the seniors, there are several other players who also could be playing their final game with the Gators: S Matt Elam, DT Sharrif Floyd, DE Dominique Easley and TE Jordan Reed. How will they handle themselves? Sometimes players in that situation play tentatively or too conservatively, because they’re afraid of getting hurt.

5. Get something from a young player on offense: Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said WRs Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, who have combined for just four catches, have improved during the bowl practices in Gainesville. The coaching staff is hoping they can do something similar to what CB Loucheiz Purifoy did last December. He was impressive during the bowl practices, played well in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl and became a starter and key part of this year’s defense. There is no other position on the team that needs someone to emerge more than receiver. If Pittman or Andrades can come up with a couple plays, that will be a boost for the offense against Louisville -- and also deliver some momentum for the offense heading into the offseason.
Antonio MorrisonCourtesy of UF Communications
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Florida’s Allstate Sugar Bowl date with Louisville, GatorNation will review the season for a key Gators player and attempt to project what’s next. Today we’ll look at LB Antonio Morrison.

LB Antonio Morrison
Freshman
31 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, 1 forced fumble

Role in 2012: Morrison enrolled in January and was impressive enough to earn time on special teams and be the primary backup for WLB Jelani Jenkins. He made two starts because of injuries.

The good: Morrison isn’t that big (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) but he is a hitter. UF coach Will Muschamp called him a "violent, physical football player," and there’s no better evidence than what Morrison did to Florida State QB EJ Manuel. He hammered the 6-5, 240-pound Manuel and caused a fumble, a play that proved to be the turning point in the Gators’ victory and one of the key plays of the entire season. Morrison has pretty good football IQ, too, or the staff wouldn’t have trusted him to make those two starts as well as start against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

The bad: While it’s a good story that Morrison is such a big hitter despite his size, he’s got to get bigger and stronger. He won’t be able to last an entire season in the SEC at linebacker if he doesn’t add some bulk. Another offseason with strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman will help, but if he’s one of those guys who just can’t gain weight, he could eventually end up moving to safety.

Crystal ball: Morrison will be starting somewhere next season. It looks like Jenkins will return for his senior season, so Morrison might move to strongside linebacker or possibly even middle linebacker, although he would certainly be undersized there unless he puts on about 20 pounds. Regardless of where he plays, the bottom line is that he has to be on the field somewhere. He’s too talented to be on the sideline, playing as a reserve or mainly on special teams.

Top 5 moments: Jarred loose

December, 12, 2012
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Editor’s note: GatorNation is counting down the top five moments of Florida’s 2012 season this week. They could be plays, drives, quarters or decisions, but regardless of what they are, they are the significant moments that shaped the season.

We continue with No. 3: Jarred loose

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All it took was one hit to erase a disastrous third quarter and send Florida to a huge victory over rival Florida State. And it only happened because starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins was out of the game with a foot injury.

"Man down, man up," UF coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators’ 37-26 victory in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 24. "It happened for us again. A guy goes in and makes a play. Regardless of the situation or the circumstances, we tell our guys it really doesn’t matter. We don’t use excuses. We did enough of that last year. So when a guy gets hurt and the next guy comes in, he needs to play well."

The guy on this particular Saturday was freshman LB Antonio Morrison. He was the one who hammered FSU QB EJ Manuel and knocked the ball loose at the Seminoles’ 42-yard line with about 11 minutes remaining in the game. DE Dominique Easley recovered the fumble and returned it to the FSU 37.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDominique Easley's fumble recovery helped turn the tide and give Florida its first victory over Florida State since 2009.
One play later, RB Mike Gillislee scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the Gators tacked on two others to snap a two-game losing streak in the series.

That erased a third quarter in which FSU scored 17 points to take a 20-13 lead. Caleb Sturgis’ 32-yard field goal with 13:31 to play had cut the Seminoles’ lead to 20-16 before Morrison made one of the season’s most critical plays.

The freshman from Bolingbrook, Ill., is undersized for an SEC linebacker -- he’s 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds -- but he hits like a 250-pounder. He drove his left shoulder into Manuel’s right shoulder while LB Lerentee McCray was dragging Manuel to the ground and jarred the ball loose.

The 6-5, 240-pound Manuel went down hard and went to the sidelines woozy. The Seminoles soon followed.

"He is physical," NT Omar Hunter said of Morrison, who has 31 tackles and played in every game this season. "I don’t know if he knows anything else, but he is physical."

That play is essentially the reason the Gators are playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. UF’s victory over FSU ensured the Gators a spot in the top four in the BCS standings, which results in an automatic berth in a BCS bowl.

Film study: Gators vs. Florida State 

November, 26, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here’s an analysis of three key plays in Florida’s 37-26 victory over Florida State on Saturday.

Manuel to O’Leary

FSU cuts into UF's lead

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida snapped a two-game losing streak to Florida State by ripping right through the nation’s top-ranked overall and rush defense.

Here are the good and bad from the 37-26 victory at Doak Campbell Stadium:

THREE UP

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Jeff Driskel, Garrison SmithAP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel will start for Florida on Saturday at Florida State, but his ankle is a question mark.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 4 Florida plays at No. 10 Florida State on Saturday, with a BCS bowl (and possibly a shot at the national championship) on the line. If the Gators beat the Seminoles they’re likely headed to the Sugar Bowl. If they beat the Seminoles and No. 1 Notre Dame loses to Southern California, the Gators could end up in the national title game.

Here's five storylines for the game:

1. How effective will Jeff Driskel be? Driskel will start against Florida State and UF coach Will Muschamp said the sophomore looked fine during practices, but that could be a little gamesmanship. Driskel’s sprained right ankle might not be 100 percent and that would have a huge impact on how effective he can be against the Seminoles. His mobility is a key part of the offense, and not just because of the designed quarterback runs or the read option. The pass protection has been inconsistent and Driskel has been able to keep plays alive by scrambling, either to run or to pass. If he’s got limited mobility, that pretty much paints a target on his back for FSU’s pass rushers -- and makes it almost impossible for the Gators to win the game.

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Breaking down UF-FSU matchups 

November, 19, 2012
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GatorNation's Michael DiRocco and NoleNation's David Hale break down Saturday's Florida-Florida State game in Tallahassee, Fla.:


UF offense vs. FSU defense

Florida: The Gators have really struggled to move the ball during the second half of the season, especially through the air. Teams are stacking the box and concentrating on stopping RB Mike Gillislee (964 yards, 8 TDs). The pass protection has been inconsistent and the receivers, other than TE Jordan Reed, have trouble separating. UF isn’t able to mount more than one or two sustained drives against good defenses.

Florida State: The numbers speak volumes for Florida State's defense, which ranks among the nation's best for the second straight season. It starts with defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, the most prolific pass-rush duo in the country. But from the powerful interior line to a strong secondary, there are few weaknesses. The Seminoles rank first nationally in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, first against the run and fifth against the pass.

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ESPN’s GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. For 30 weekdays we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- GatorNation is previewing each of Florida’s 2012 opponents. Today is Florida State (Nov. 24 in Tallahassee, Fla.).

FLORIDA STATE

2011 record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC), beat Notre Dame 18-14 in Champs Sports Bowl.

Bjoern Werner
Phil Sears/US PresswireDefensive end Bjoern Werner is one of the Florida State Seminoles' top pass-rushers.
Coach: Jimbo Fisher, third season (19-8).

Series record: Florida leads 33-21-2.

Top returners: QB E.J. Manuel (203-311-8, 2,666 yards, 18 TDs); RB Devonta Freeman (579 yards, 8 TDs); DE Bjoern Werner (37 tackles, 7 sacks); CB Greg Reid (32 tackles, 2 INTs).

Did you know? FSU has not had a running back surpass 1,000 yards since Warrick Dunn in 1996. Only three backs since then have rushed for 900 yards.

(Read full post)

Turning point: Florida State cornerback Mike Harris picked off John Brantley inside the FSU 5-yard line and returned the ball 89 yards to the Florida 4. Three plays later, FSU’s Devonta Freeman scored on a 1-yard run to give the Seminoles a 14-0 lead. Brantley was trying to hit Chris Rainey out of the backfield but he threw across the field where four FSU defensive backs had a chance to intercept the ball.

Stat of the half: Florida has out-gained Florida State by 101 yards (140-39) yet trails by 14 points because of three Brantley interceptions. The Seminoles have minus-1 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Best player in the half: Freeman ran for only 38 yards on 13 carries, but he did score both Florida State touchdowns. He also was the only Seminoles ball carrier with positive yardage. E.J. Manuel was at minus-27 and Rashad Greene was at minus-12.

Best call: Florida used a fake punt to gain a first down inside the Florida State 30 in the second quarter. The Gators faced a fourth-and-1 at the FSU 27 and lined up for a field goal. Trey Burton lined up at holder instead of John Crofoot, and the Gators quickly snapped the ball before the Seminoles noticed. Burton gained 3 yards. The Gators would end up turning the ball over on downs four plays later when Burton went for minus-14 yards on fourth-and-1.

What Florida needs to do: With Brantley’s status uncertain for the second half -- he got sandwiched between Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Jenkins and Jenkins’ helmet smacked into Brantley’s facemask -- the Gators are going to have to come up with something offensively that backup Jacoby Brissett feels comfortable with. The Gators have to throw the ball or FSU will continue to put nine in the box, and the game’s over.

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