Florida Gators: Joey Ivie
Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.
Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.
Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.
"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."
"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."
Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.
Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.
Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.
"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."
D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.
Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.
Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.
Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.
"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."
Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.
Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.
"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."
Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.
Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.
This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.
Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.
So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.
"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."
The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.
"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."
Stout defense has been the identity of the Florida Gators under coach Will Muschamp. It has carried the team and its dysfunctional offense for years. But something was off in 2013.
Florida fielded its usual dominant pass defense, allowing just nine TDs through the air (second-fewest in the country). But the run defense slipped from a No. 4 ranking in 2012 to No. 33 last season (allowing 47.5 more rushing yards per game), including an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern in which Florida gave up 429 yards -- all on the ground.
But after a week of picking on the offense in identifying the five position groups that have room to improve, the final installment of this series has to focus on the defense.
Because everything starts up front, we'll look at the defensive line. It had plenty to do with the run defense getting worse in 2013, and it had its worst season in years in terms of applying pressure to quarterbacks.
Florida had 19 sacks in 12 games last season, down from 30 in 13 games the year before and continuing a downward trend since recording 39 sacks in 14 games in 2009.
Battling for No. 1: Florida has solid bookends in buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and strong-side end Jonathan Bullard. Their talent is undeniable, but the production just does not match it. One or two splashy games a season isn't good enough. But UF's ends also need more help from their interior linemen. When Florida lost senior DT Dominique Easley to injury, the threat of a push up the middle was gone. The starters at defensive tackle this fall are likely to be seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, but unless they show dramatic improvement in disrupting opponents, Florida is going to need contributions from some newcomers.
Strength in numbers: Muschamp said the Gators are excited about three defensive tackles who redshirted last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles -- saying each has "the athleticism and the girth to play the position." Florida could also get a contribution from Joey Ivie. He was the only D-lineman who didn't redshirt in 2013 and can play inside or outside. At defensive end, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister stepped forward as backups last season. It's important for either of those two, or redshirt freshman end Jordan Sherit, to take the next step and improve Florida's pass rush this fall.
New on the scene: The Gators signed a terrific defensive lineman class in 2014. Gerald Willis III, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound prospect ranked No. 42 overall in the nation, can play end or tackle and could make an immediate impact. Tackles Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark are highly touted but raw talents who could redshirt but have the bodies to play immediately. Early enrollee defensive end Taven Bryan has already drawn raves from Muschamp, who said, "he's explosive. He's got really good flexibility in his lower body. He's got a great motor, a great work ethic. We are extremely pleased." Florida also signed buck linebacker prospect Justus Reed, an ESPN 300 talent with potential who is likely to redshirt while he adds bulk and strength to his 6-3, 215-pound frame.
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.
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.
Here are the five Gators who impressed the most:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
1. First start for Tyler Murphy: The junior made his Florida debut last week in relief of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first quarter. Murphy excelled when pressed into duty, completing 8-of-14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 84 yards and a score in a 31-17 victory over Tennessee. His performance got high praise from head coach Will Muschamp, and now Murphy gets his first career start on the road against the Wildcats. If he continues to play like he did last week, it'll be a nice boost for the Gators.
2. The streak continues? Florida has not lost a game to the Wildcats in 26 meetings, the longest current winning streak for one team against another in an uninterrupted series. The last time Kentucky beat Florida? 1986.
3. The Joker's return: Florida receivers coach Joker Phillips will be standing on the sideline opposite the one he patrolled in Commonwealth Stadium from 2010-2012 as Kentucky's head coach before being fired after the 2012 season. He was a receiver for the Wildcats in the early 1980s, so he has plenty of history there. The Gators don't make position coaches available to the media, so Phillips hasn't been able to publicly discuss his feelings on his return, but you have to imagine there's at least a little extra pep in his step for this one.
4. Replacing Easley: The loss of Dominique Easley (season-ending knee injury) is a tough one for the Gators' defense, but now the team will get a chance to see how others step up. Some of the candidates to take that spot are freshmen, like Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox Jr and Joey Ivie, or sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard potentially could earn playing time.
5. Kentucky QB situation: Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith left the Wildcats' last game against Louisville with a shoulder injury and spent the off week rehabilitating. Head coach Mark Stoops said they will "keep an eye on how many throws he's making, just to let him ease back into it." Sophomore Jalen Whitlow replaced Smith against Louisville and will be standing by if needed.
First, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken fibula during the win over Tennessee last Saturday. Then on Tuesday, star defensive tackle Dominique Easley tore the ACL in his right knee, ending what was looking like a very promising season. Two of Florida's top players are gone before the Gators even get into the meat of the SEC schedule.
Florida is turning to unproven, longtime backup Tyler Murphy to replace Driskel and hoping that a committee of players can help replace Easley up front.
Neither task will be easy, but there's a reason you recruit, and there's a reason we call this a violent sport. There's nothing the Gators can do now but move on and try to salvage a season that looks to be slowly slipping through their fingers because of injuries.
A step in the right direction could begin Saturday, when the 20th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., to take on a Wildcats team that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 consecutive tries. In a sport with parity like college football, you'd think the Wildcats could have sneaked a win in there somewhere in the last 26 years.
With a wounded Florida team limping into Lexington, maybe this is Kentucky's shot. But you have to think that with so many questions still remaining on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats, Florida's talent will be too much. Murphy played admirably in place of Driskel in Florida's 31-17 win over Tennessee. Granted, Tennessee's defense is surrendering more than 400 yards a game and 6 yards per play, but to come in and direct the offense to 31 points after not attempting a single college pass before the day began is pretty impressive.
As for Florida's defense, the Gators shouldn't miss Easley as much this weekend because the Wildcats are still struggling to find a quarterback and playmakers at receiver. Saturday will serve as an opportunity to get players in the interior of Florida's line more reps and experience before SEC play really starts to heat up. Guys such as Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have played well, but need more quality snaps. Reserves Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. need to get their feet as wet as possible.
It's also a chance for outside players such as Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. to get used to life without Easley. The big man in the middle absorbed a lot of double-teams that created ideal one-on-one situations for his teammates, so Florida needs to learn how to generate a pass rush without him.
Things went from bad to worse for Florida on Wednesday, as coach Will Muschamp announced that starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley will miss the remainder of the 2013 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during Tuesday's practice.
“As I said earlier today on the SEC Conference Call, Dominique injured his right knee in practice late Tuesday night in a non-contact situation," Muschamp said in a statement. "Test results have revealed that he suffered a tear of both his ACL and medial meniscus, which will require season-ending surgery.
This is a major loss for the Gators. Already without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the remainder of the season because of a broken right fibula, Florida will now go the remainder of the season without arguably its best player. One of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC this season, Easley was viewed as possible first-round draft pick.
He didn't have monster stats, but his explosion off the line, constant motor and ability to garner double-teams provided his teammates with one-on-one opportunities up front. He created more plays for those around him than he did for himself, yet he was still able to put constant pressure on quarterbacks and running backs.
“Watching any of your players go through this is one of the hardest things about being a coach," Muschamp added. "Obviously, it is hardest on Dominique. We are disappointed for him, but we will be there for him every step of the way through his surgery and rehab process.”
Florida's SEC East title chances took a hit after Driskel went down -- making longtime backup Tyler Murphy the starter -- but they might be out the window with the loss of Easley. The Gators enter Saturday's game against Kentucky with the SEC's top defense and second-ranked defense nationally (212.3 yards allowed per game). Without Easley, the Gators will have to rely more on their outside pass-rush to create pressure on opposing backfields.
While Florida certainly has depth, and will rely heavily on interior players like Leon Orr, Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings, it will be very hard to replace a player like Easley. Expect freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. to get more work in the rotation going forward.
The good news is that Florida has bodies to work with. There are enough players up front to create a solid rotation going forward, but players like Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. have to step up to be even more consistent playmakers. The double-teams that Easley commanded will have to go somewhere else in order to create mismatches up front.
This defense isn't sunk, but the pressure for it to carry this team just got a lot bigger with the loss of Easley.
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.
"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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No. 44 Leon Orr
Redshirt junior defensive tackle
Expectations for 2013: Florida needs a wide body to take over for Omar Hunter as a run-stuffing nose tackle, and the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Orr is competing with 6-3, 286-pound Damien Jacobs for the starting job. Even if he doesn’t beat out Jacobs, Orr is going to get a lot of work because the Gators regularly rotate their tackles to keep them fresh. Orr, who had 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack last season, is in the best shape of his career and is finally ready to step into a key role.
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No. 4 Damien Jacobs
Senior nose tackle
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No. 2 Dominique Easley
Senior defensive tackle
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Freshmen with the best chance of making an impact
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Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
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