Florida Gators: Jon Bostic
Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.
Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.
"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."
Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.
The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.
"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...
"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."
As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.
"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.
"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."
This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.
"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.
"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."
Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.
Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.
"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.
"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."
Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.
"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.
"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."
With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.
"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."
Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.
"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."
Roughly about two hours, in fact. That’s how long the Gators’ first full-pads practice lasted in August.
“It was very clear walking off the field after that first day of pads: That guy can help us.”
And Morrison did, starting three games at weakside linebacker in place of injured starter Jelani Jenkins and making one of the biggest plays of the season when he caused Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel to fumble and help put away the game. Now he’ll be the Gators’ starting middle linebacker.
With the graduation of starter Jon Bostic and Jenkins’ surprising decision to leave early for the NFL draft, the Gators never hesitated in naming Morrison the starter, despite the fact that he’s not exactly built like a typical middle linebacker. At 6-foot-1 and 229 pounds he is solidly built but smaller than the last three starters: Bostic (6-1, 246), Brandon Spikes (6-3, 240) and Brandon Siler (6-2, 235).
Yet the coaching staff has no concerns about Morrison being able to handle the pounding that comes with playing middle linebacker in the SEC, and neither does he.
“I’m pretty sure I can,” Morrison said. “I started [three] games last year and nothing really was too overwhelming for me.”
What's new: Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left to become the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Will Muschamp then promoted D.J. Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator. Brad Lawing was hired away from South Carolina to help coach Florida's defensive line and was given the title of assistant head coach. Interim wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan was replaced by former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.
On the mend: Redshirt junior offensive lineman Chaz Green will miss all of spring after undergoing ankle surgery following Florida's bowl game. Redshirt junior defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell will also miss the spring while he continues to rehab his ACL injury that he suffered last spring. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman is out for the spring, as he recovers from shoulder surgery that he had before the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Matt Rolin is also out, recovering from ACL surgery. Senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio (knee scope), senior wide receiver Solomon Patton (broken arm), redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball (ankle) and punter Kyle Christy (shoulder) will all be limited this spring.
On the move: Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will start the first seven practices at the "Z" receiver spot. Redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Sophomore Antonio Morrison moved from Will to Mike linebacker, while redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor has moved from Mike to Will. Redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter moved from safety to fullback. Redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe also moved from linebacker to fullback. Redshirt junior Cody Riggs has moved from cornerback to safety, where he's listed as a starter.
Question marks: Heading into the spring, the biggest questions remain on offense, where the Gators were incredibly inconsistent last year. Workhorse running back Mike Gillislee is gone, and while the Gators should feature a stable of running backs this fall, throwing the ball has to improve or this offense will go in reverse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel says he's more confident and offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects to open things up more in the passing game, but the Gators also have to get better protection up front and develop some more reliable receivers and replace top target, tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's defense has a lot of experienced youngsters, but it won't be easy to replace the production that guys like Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jon Bostic had last year. Florida is also looking for someone to replace kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips will compete for that spot.
New faces: Rolin, running back Kelvin Taylor, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson all enrolled early as true freshmen. Florida also welcomed Nebraska offensive lineman transfer Tyler Moore (sophomore) and junior college transfer Darius Cummings (DT). Offensive lineman Max Garica also transferred from Maryland and sat out last season.
Key battle: Florida has to find a reliable receiving target at either tight end or receiver. The athletic Kent Taylor figures to be the favorite at tight end, but he'll have to compete with Colin Thompson, Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. At receiver, it's a free-for-all, and there isn't a ton of experience. Purifoy will certainly get his shot, but vets Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose have to make significant strides. So does rising sophomore Latroy Pittman, who fell off last year after a successful spring. Sophomore Raphael Andrades will be back and forth between football and baseball, while Patton will be limited. Keep an eye on Robinson, who was the top receiver in the Gators' 2013 class and is a downfield threat and someone who can be elusive through the middle of the field.
Breaking out: Florida needs to replace Gillislee, and sophomore Matt Jones has already had a solid offseason, according to coaches. He progressed as last season went on and has both speed and strength to work with. The plan is for him to be a 20-plus-carry player this fall. Morrison's role now expands, and after having a very solid freshman year, even more is expected from him now that he's at the Mike. If he improves his coverage ability, he could be a big-time player for the Gators. Also, keep an eye on junior safety Jabari Gorman. He covers a lot of ground and isn't afraid to play in the box.
Don't forget about: Ball and Riggs have dealt with injuries in the past, but as they get healthy, Florida's coaches are excited about what they could do in 2013. Ball will play some Buck and provides Florida with another solid third-down pass-rusher and should help the Gators put more pressure on opposing backfields this fall. Riggs played in just two games last year before fracturing his foot, but he's a very physical defensive back. With his speed, moving to safety should provide him a chance to make more plays in Florida's secondary. He was also the starter at safety when Elam went to nickel last year.
Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.
The heart of the Gators’ 2012 defense will participate in the combine today. DT Sharrif Floyd, whose stock is rising rapidly as he is projected to be taken as high as No. 3, had a fantastic season and anchored UF’s front. He dominated Florida State’s front, and his mixture of size, strength and quickness has scouts drooling. ILB Jon Bostic started every game the past two seasons and was UF’s leader on defense. Nobody was more dependable than Bostic. OLB Jelani Jenkins was limited in 2012 because of a broken finger, a strained hamstring and a broken foot, but when healthy he’s a solid player. OLB Lerentee McCray was forced into action at the buck position (hybrid end/linebacker) because of the injury to Ronald Powell. He didn’t produce big numbers but was a high-effort, high-motor guy.
Eight became starters, seven turned into busts and two others are role players -- including one who has driven two separate coaching staffs crazy. Seven of those starters have done so for multiple seasons.
That’s not a bad ratio. Most coaches would be ecstatic if 50 percent of every signing class developed into starters, even if it also meant half weren’t going to make much impact, if any, on the program.
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Key holes to fill
The Gators lost key personnel along the offensive line, wide receiver, linebacker, running back and secondary and are hoping to replenish their talent with junior college transfers and incoming freshmen.
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The unit was one of the nation’s best, ranking in the top five nationally in rushing, pass efficiency, and scoring, and it kept the Gators in games while the offense struggled.
Heading into the 2013 season, however, the defense has become as big an uncertainty as the offense in the wake of the departure of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, the inexperience of replacement D.J. Durkin, and the loss of seven starters.
There were already significant questions about the unit because of the loss of those starters, which include All-American S Matt Elam, potential first-round NFL draft pick DT Sharrif Floyd, and a pair of players who played the best football of their careers during 2012 (NT Omar Hunter and S Josh Evans). Also gone is MLB Jon Bostic, who started 32 games in his career, including every game in 2011 and 2012.
But Quinn’s departure on Thursday to become the defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks muddies things even more. Quinn’s defenses ranked among the top 10 nationally in his two seasons at Florida. The Gators were fifth nationally in scoring (15.4 ppg), second in pass efficiency defense, and fourth in rush defense (94.9 ypg), and gave up only seven passing touchdowns, which was second only to Boise State (four), in 2012. In 2011, the Gators ranked eighth nationally in total defense, seventh nationally in passing defense, and second nationally in third-down defense.
His replacement, Durkin, has been UF’s linebackers coach and special teams coordinator since 2010. He has never been a coordinator before. Quinn had only been one for one year (Hofstra in 2000), but he had spent the previous 10 seasons in the NFL before joining Muschamp’s inaugural staff. However, Durkin has done a good job coordinating UF’s special teams (the Gators rank 11th or better in three statistical categories) and after watching him for two seasons, Muschamp quickly promoted him to succeed Quinn.
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.
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.
GatorNation told you after every game. Now that the season’s over, here are the final rankings of the players who are responsible for the Gators’ 11-2 record:
1. RB Mike Gillislee: The Gators needed him to stay healthy and be a feature back capable of handling 20-plus carries per game. He delivered. Though he got banged up -- he hurt his groin against Texas A&M on a TD run but stayed in the game -- he played in every game and ran for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs. He averaged 18.7 carries and 4.7 yards per game.
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LB Michael Taylor
29 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 QB hurry, 1 pass breakup
The good: Taylor is another physical player who is a bit undersized (6-foot, 226 pounds), but he gets the job done. He’s best against the run. He’s able to weave his way through blockers to get to the ball carrier and also does a solid job of getting off blocks. Taylor capably filled in for Jenkins and made a season-high five tackles against LSU.
The bad: Taylor struggles in pass coverage. He’s not fast enough to run with most tight ends down the field and has trouble staying with tight ends and backs on short routes over the middle or in the flat. The coaching staff took him out on obvious passing situations and subbed in Antonio Morrison. Not being an every-down linebacker will hurt him as he tries to crack the starting lineup with Bostic graduating.
Crystal ball: Taylor is able to play all three linebacker spots, but not being good in coverage limits his effectiveness. It’s likely that he’ll remain a backup and spot starter in 2013, especially if Morrison is able to add enough bulk to play in the middle. If that’s the case, then Taylor will likely end up at strongside linebacker and be the one who goes off the field when the Gators are in nickel.
LB Jon Bostic
62 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 2 INTs, 4 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
The good: UF coach Will Muschamp challenged the linebackers to make big plays this season and Bostic responded. After having no interceptions or fumble recoveries last season, Bostic had two interceptions and one fumble recovery this season. Bostic isn’t a flashy player, but he is a consistent factor in the middle of the field. He has done a much better job of getting off blocks and doesn’t miss many tackles.
The bad: Even though he made more big plays this season, he still needs to get better in that area. He doesn’t appear to be one of those players who has a knack for making a big play when his team needs it the most or making a big play to set the tone, like former UF LB Brandon Spikes did. He had just half a tackle for loss and no sacks in the last six games. He was better at shedding blocks than before, but he still needs work there.
Crystal ball: Bostic is likely a middle-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft. If there was any doubt about whether he’s fast enough to play at the next level, he seemed to answer that question when he ran down Jacksonville State receiver Kevyn Cooper on the sideline. Bostic is a run-stuffing linebacker who isn’t good in coverage, so he needs to end up with a team that will utilize him correctly, the way the Patriots do with Spikes.
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, New Orleans (ESPN)
Louisville take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: The Cardinals were the overwhelming preseason choice to win the Big East because they returned just about everybody off a team that won a share of the league title last season. The star among the bunch lived up to his top billing, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knocked just about everybody’s socks off with his performance in 2012. He is the biggest reason why Louisville is headed to the BCS and not a second-tier bowl game.
But this team had major adversity to overcome. Louisville survived one close call after another en route to a school-record 9-0 start. Then came loss No. 1 on the season, a stunning 45-26 blowout on the road to Syracuse in which the Orange outplayed the Cardinals in every single phase of the game. Then came loss No. 2, an inexplicable triple-overtime home defeat to UConn -- a team with one of the worst offenses in the nation. In that game, Bridgewater broke his wrist and sprained his ankle, yet nearly led a comeback win.
Louisville went into its regular-season finale at Rutgers without many people giving the Cards much of a shot to win. Rutgers jumped out to a 14-3 lead. But Bridgewater refused to be denied. Playing through his injuries, he led Louisville to a 20-17 comeback win to clinch the BCS spot. Bridgewater ended up throwing for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season and was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the entire nation. He may have been an unknown outside the Big East before the season began; that is no longer the case.
Bridgewater allowed his team to survive the loss of leading rusher Senorise Perry, who tore his ACL against Syracuse and is out for the season. He allowed his team to win games it struggled in for a large chunk of time. And he allowed his team to survive some pretty shaky play on defense. It’s safe to say that many expected Louisville to be better than it was defensively this season, particularly up front. But for a majority of the season, the Cardinals had a hard time consistently stopping the run or consistently getting a pass rush going.
And yet, Louisville found a way to win 10 games and get back to a BCS game. In Teddy, Louisville trusts.
Florida take from GatorNation's Michael DiRocco: The Gators were one of the nation’s biggest surprises this season.
They followed up a 7-6 mark in coach Will Muschamp’s debut season with an 11-1 record in 2012, highlighted by victories over Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU and Florida State. And if USC had upset Notre Dame, Florida could possibly be playing for the national title.
Florida’s turnaround was led by a smothering defense, which isn’t surprising considering Muschamp’s background. The Gators rank in the top six nationally in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense and have allowed opponents to throw just five touchdown passes. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jon Bostic have had career years.
But the biggest change is how good the Gators have been at forcing turnovers this season. UF forced just 14 in 2011, which was the lowest single-season total in school history since the school began compiling fumble stats in 1950. This year, UF has forced 29, which includes 19 interceptions (four by Elam), and the Gators have a plus-17 turnover margin.
UF’s offense hasn’t been pretty, but coordinator Brent Pease did a good job of compensating for a lack of playmakers at receiver and injuries along the offensive line. Running back Mike Gillislee finally got his chance to be the feature back, and he responded with 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF player to surpass 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
After finally settling on Jeff Driskel as the starter, Pease put together game plans that took advantage of Driskel’s mobility and didn’t ask the sophomore to do too much. Manage the game and stay away from mistakes were the goals, and Driskel did that this season with one exception (Georgia). He ended up throwing for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs -- many of those yards to tight end Jordan Reed (44 catches for 552 yards) -- with only three interceptions while running for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gators could play conservatively on offense because of their outstanding defense, but also because of punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Christy, a Ray Guy Award finalist, was a field-position weapon with a 46.1-yard average (fifth nationally) and 25 punts of 50 or more yards. Sturgis, a Lou Groza Award finalist, made 23 of 27 field goal attempts and is the school’s all-time leader in field goals (69) and field goals of 50 or more yards (eight).
GatorNation will tell you every week. It’s not just a list of MVP candidates, but a compilation of the players who are making the biggest difference each week.
Here’s this week’s top 10 (last week’s rankings in parentheses):
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Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin