Florida Gators: Jonotthan Harrison
Florida had four players selected last weekend with just one from the offensive side of the ball.
On Tuesday we looked at the defensive replacements. Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on offense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.
OG Jon Halapio
Sixth-round pick, New England Patriots
A three-year starter, Halapio battled through some injuries and was a rock at right guard. He was better as a run blocker than in pass protection, but the same could be said for most of Florida's offensive linemen. By the end of spring practice, Florida's starting guards were junior Tyler Moore and senior Trenton Brown, each of whom spent time last season at tackle. Brown is a behemoth at 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds who forced his way into the starting lineup by improving his footwork, pad level and consistency throughout the spring. Moore, no slouch at 6-5, 320, is still dealing with the linger effects of a broken elbow but seems better suited as an interior lineman. Both guards have the potential to upgrade Florida's line in run and pass blocking.
Undrafted free agent, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a quiet first three years at UF, Patton became an indispensable contributor as a slot receiver, deep threat and kick returner. Patton's elite speed is something the Gators will be sorely lacking, but there are some emerging players on the horizon. Sophomore Demarcus Robinson was the Gators' best playmaker in the passing game throughout spring practice. He's not nearly as fast at Patton, but he's got some magic after the catch. Another sophomore, Chris Thompson, has the speed to be a deep threat and will be counted on to stretch the field. In the slot, the Gators' expectations are a bit lower as they look to juniors Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers to be solid route-runners and reliable targets.
H-back Trey Burton
Undrafted free agent, Philadelphia Eagles
In his unique career at Florida, Burton played every offensive skill position and finished his senior season as a wide receiver. In the pros he'll get a shot to be an H-back, which is where the Gators would have loved to have had him back. Under new coordinator Kurt Roper, UF's offense is perfectly suited for tight ends, tweeners and oversized wide receivers to play in the slot or release off the line. Florida's returning tight ends -- seniors Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton (Trey's brother) -- combined for four catches in 2013. While Westbrook, Burton and senior fullbacks Hunter Joyer and Gideon Ajagbe showed flashes of pass-catching ability in spring ball, the Gators won't have to rely on any of the four veterans to do more than he is capable of. That's because former Virginia tight end Jake McGee transferred to Florida after graduating from UVA last month. His experience as the Cavaliers' leading receiver in 2013 could be a game-changer for Florida's offense, which was severely lacking in proven playmakers.
C Jonotthan Harrison
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
Another three-year starter, Harrison anchored Florida's O-line and was a respected leader on and off the field. His replacement is a very similar player in senior Max Garcia, who was Florida's best and most consistent lineman last season. Garcia played much of 2013 at left guard but also has on his résumé a full season as a starter at left tackle for Maryland in 2011. Just like Harrison once did, Garcia is having some issues learning how to master the shotgun snap, but his coaches aren't worried and routinely praised him in spring practice despite some errant snaps. If he can fix that and also get comfortable calling out protections for his teammates on the line, Garcia could upgrade the position by being a little stronger as a run blocker.
OL Kyle Koehne
Tryout contract, Atlanta Falcons
Koehne became a key reserve on UF's line, as he backed up several positions and was able to step in as a starter for half the season with little drop-off. The Gators' starting O-line is set with all five players having starting experience. Where things get dicey is on the second unit. Florida's OL coach, Mike Summers, has his hands full trying to develop the next Koehne. His top reserve after spring practice was Trip Thurman, a junior who got a long look on the first unit and has played just about every position. Thurman will likely be Florida's top backup at all three interior spots. At guard, the Gators also have junior college transfer Drew Sarvary, who started 10 of 11 games as a freshman at Florida A&M in 2012 and has the requisite size at 6-6, 318. Options are even more limited with reserve tackles, where Florida has freshman early enrollee Kavaris Harkless, injured redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson, and soon-to-enroll freshman David Sharpe.
UF has been one of the most consistent talent pipelines in the past two decades, as evidenced by 23 first-round picks since 1995. The Gators have had at least one first-rounder in all but one (2012) of the past seven years. But the 2014 draft could very well be another exception.
Friday night's second and third rounds could be slim pickings as well for Florida. But Saturday? Hold on tight, because as many as seven former Gators could be selected in Rounds 4-7.
Here's a breakdown of each of this year's prospects and a prediction for where he'll end up.
6-foot-1¾, 288 pounds
No. 5-ranked defensive tackle
One of the best pass-rushing tackles available, Easley's stock has been hurt by torn ACLs in both knees. He's just over six months removed from surgery to repair his right knee and suffered the left knee injury less than two years prior. Still, there's no questioning Easley's game tape and the way he played after recovering from his first knee injury. Easley uses a lightning-quick first step to shoot gaps and disrupt the pass and run games. His camp is hearing some draft buzz about climbing into the first round. Prediction: Second round
Marcus Roberson, 6-0¼, 191
No. 11-ranked cornerback
Like Easley, Roberson has some skills and attributes in high demand but has to deal with teams' concerns about his history of injuries. Roberson is the perfect size for today's cornerback -- long and rangy. Throughout his three years at Florida, he consistently displayed good instincts, especially in the man coverage that UF plays so much. But Roberson missed three games in his freshman season when he fractured a vertebra in his neck. He missed five games last fall with knee and ankle injuries. Running a 4.61 40-time didn't help, either. Prediction: Third round
Jaylen Watkins, 5-11½, 194
No. 15-ranked cornerback
The brother of Sammy Watkins, the draft's top wide receiver prospect, Jaylen is less well-known to casual observers. But a rock-solid career for the Gators and the versatility to play corner and safety has made this Watkins a draft sleeper. Jaylen improved each season and became a quiet leader at Florida. Head coach Will Muschamp also called him "a core special teams guy." Watkins really boosted his draft stock when he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, just a hair faster than his already famous brother. Prediction: Fourth round
Ronald Powell, 6-3[, 237
No. 18-ranked outside linebacker
Once the No. 1 overall high school recruit in the nation, Powell's career at Florida never matched that lofty status and was largely derailed by a torn ACL that required two surgeries and more than a year off. Before the injury, he spent a lot of time at defensive end but didn't turn into the pass-rusher everyone envisioned. Afterward, he began to transition to linebacker and showed promise. Powell's measurables are the biggest reason he'll get drafted. His 4.65 time in the 40 was fourth-fastest among linebackers at the combine. Prediction: Sixth round
Loucheiz Purifoy, 5-11½, 190
No. 26-ranked cornerback
How far will he fall? All the way out of the draft? Those are the questions after Purifoy's disastrous offseason. Once a projected first-round pick, Purifoy's stock started dropping when game tape revealed a lack of coverage instincts. Then his official combine time of 4.61 in the 40 dropped him further. Finally, a Gainesville drug arrest that was quashed raised serious concerns about Purifoy's off-the-field behavior. Despite all of that, he's an elite athlete who could develop and still has a good chance of being picked. Prediction: Sixth round
Jonotthan Harrison, 6-3½, 304
No. 8-ranked center
A three-year starter at a demanding position, Harrison has good height, weight and speed for a center and has worked hard to improve his technique in run- and pass-blocking. He did a good job making pass protection calls for the offensive line and became a respected leader for the Gators. Prediction: Sixth round
Jon Halapio, 6-3½, 323
No. 15-ranked guard
One of the toughest players at Florida in the past four seasons, Halapio regularly played through injuries and started 43 of 51 games across a solid career. He's better as a run blocker than he is in pass protection, but Halapio has the size, strength and intelligence teams are looking for. Prediction: Sixth round
Solomon Patton, 5-8½, 178
No. 42-ranked wide receiver
After a quiet three years, Patton had a standout senior season in which he combined great speed and playmaking ability to be the Gators' best receiver. Also a special-teams ace with return skills, Patton hopes to be drafted by a team that needs all of those things. Prediction: Seventh round
Trey Burton, 6-2[, 224
No. 13-ranked tight end
Burton played every skill position on offense in his four years at UF. He ran well (4.62) as a tight end at the NFL draft combine, but at his size he's just not going to be considered for that position. Versatility and competitiveness are Burton's calling cards, which could earn him a look as an H-back. Prediction: Seventh round
As a college football prospect at Groveland (Fla.) South Lake, he'd watch for hours with friends and think, "One day."
He arrived at the University of Florida as an interior offensive lineman in 2009 and kept watching every year, getting closer to making that dream a reality.
Once his career at UF ended, along with his streak of 39 consecutive starts -- all but two at center -- the NFL draft started to feel a whole lot closer.
"He reached out to me at the end of the season and flew down to Gainesville," Harrison said. "We met for about two hours and we clicked right away as soon as he walked in the door. ... That's when I really realized this is getting real.
"He's actually been a great mentor to me, helped me find an agent. I honestly feel like I couldn't be in a better situation."
Beginning in December, Harrison trained for a month and a half. Not seeing his family during the holidays was a strong reminder that football was now a job. But the work with Bentley paid immediate dividends.
"When I went out to the NFLPA Bowl Game, I felt like an entirely different animal," he said. "I was a lot stronger, firing off the ball, a lot more sound and stable. I saw the fruits of my labor showing."
Harrison did well at the NFL scouting combine in late February, measuring 6-foot-3½ and 304 pounds. He has long arms, big hands and a good 40-yard dash time of 5.15 seconds.
He followed that up with a solid performance in a rainy-day workout in front of scouts and personnel officials from all 32 NFL teams at Florida's pro day in mid-March.
Being back on campus at UF brought his journey full circle and gave Harrison pause to reflect.
"Time has been flying by," he said. "There's just a lot of blood, sweat, tears, skin cells -- whatever you want to name, that's all over this field. There's some great memories."
As the draft approaches, Harrison has received a lot of advice from agent Blake Baratz about managing expectations.
"My agent is very confident in the fact that I'll get drafted somewhere," Harrison said. "But he's just saying if you keep your expectations low and very, very realistic -- because anything can happen in the draft -- then I won't be disappointed.
"He said, 'Trust me, this weekend for you is going to be a very exciting weekend.' If I go in the seventh round or I'm an undrafted free agent, whatever it is, it's not necessarily an insult to me. It's just how everything worked out in the draft."
Baratz said he has received a lot of positive feedback on Harrison.
"Based on all of the feedback that I've gotten from all the teams, the majority of the teams have him in those middle rounds -- fourth, fifth," he said. "But I've seen enough things with the draft not to promise or guarantee anyone anything."
Regardless of when he is picked or if he is picked, Harrison is ready to buckle up for an NFL draft ride unlike any he's watched before.
He'll be at home in Mascotte, Fla., with his parents and some close friends. He'll be glued to the TV. After all these years, he couldn't imagine it any other way.
"I'm definitely going to watch it," he said. "I'd be too anxious not to. Every text message I get, I'd be checking my phone, 'What's going on? What's going on?'
"Yeah, I'm going to watch Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I know I'm not going Thursday. It's unlikely I'm going Friday, but you never know what's going to happen. My day is most likely Saturday. But I will be watching all the days because I do have former teammates and people I'm training with that could possibly go Thursday or Friday."
Whatever happens, Harrison said he'll be grateful. He expects the three-day event to be entertaining.
"Anywhere in the draft is great," he said. "It's such a great accomplishment. Only a small percentage of college athletes make it to the professional level. ...
"It's interesting to see where everyone goes. There's a lot of shockers usually. I know a lot of people who expected to go first round that don't go first round. A lot of people who expected to go fourth, fifth that jump up to the second. So it's that crazy of a situation. That's why I don't want to get too strung up on it."
This draft will be different. It's his time.
That's how long it took for a bad snap on the first play of Super Bowl XLVIII to turn into a safety and set the tone for Seattle's blowout win against Denver.
Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper watched that game and said the challenge of snapping the ball is something he is cognizant of as he teaches his shotgun offense to a bunch of Gators who have three years of experience in pro-style offenses.
"Right now that five-yard snap, it's not easy. There's 300-pounders right over him on the snap of the ball coming off."
Any time a team loses a longtime starter at center, some bumps in the road can be expected.
Florida is experiencing just that this spring after the graduation of Jonotthan Harrison, who manned the position for three seasons.
Senior Max Garcia moved to the center position as the heir apparent. The former Maryland transfer played well in his first season for Florida -- mostly at guard -- and was the only offensive lineman who started every game.
Florida coaches have repeatedly praised Garcia as one of their better linemen, but he's still learning how to snap the ball. In an offense that will operate almost entirely out of the shotgun, that could be a bit of a problem.
Look no further than the comments of head coach Will Muschamp throughout spring practice to see the progression of this concern:
March 11 (before spring practice began): "We're going to look at Max Garcia at center, move him inside. [Cameron] Dillard has been a guy that's come along. Trip Thurman will play both center and guard. We'll move him around. Trip's had a really good offseason."
March 25: "Max has done a nice job making the calls up front. We’ve got to be a little more consistent with snapping the ball, which will come. That’s part of the transition there and we knew it was going to happen."
April 4: "I'm extremely concerned about some snapping issues that continue to occur. I think the first couple of practices and some newness in there, I can kind of get that. After a while we've got to move past that."
April 8 (after UF's second scrimmage): "We still had a couple [bad snaps]. Disappointed. If we continue to have those we need to look in a different direction. We can't afford to have that anymore."
As the veteran of the group and the only contender with starting experience, Garcia still has an overwhelming edge to win the job. He also has Roper's confidence.
"I mean you always want to get better," Roper said. "I don't want the ball off-center or rolling on the ground. All that has to do with timing in the run game and exchanges and all that.
"But am I happy with the way Max is working and trying? Yeah. And do I think he can do it and be really good at it? I do. I think he's talented."
Thurman, a fourth-year junior, has spent most of the spring at left guard with the starting unit. He emerged as a candidate after the struggles of Garcia and Dillard, a redshirt freshman.
"I've taken snaps at center before we start practice, so I'm getting used to that," Thurman said. "Shotgun snaps are a whole lot different than having someone under center. You've got to have the same snap, every snap whether you're going right or left. So it's difficult, but it's something that we need to get used to with this uptempo offense."
Though it's a growing concern, Muschamp said on Tuesday he's optimistic it can be fixed.
"We feel like we've remedied the issue," he said. "As a snapper you can't break your wrist. That's when you create high snaps, when you start breaking your wrist. A couple of situations we were going on silent count, going off the center’s head and when the center’s head comes up he’s got to snap it. He can’t elevate his pads in those situations.
"You create a limp snap to the quarterback, which is a low snap and hard to deal with, which takes a quarterback’s eyes further off the downfield reads and things he’s got to do, it creates an issue for the entire offense. Improved, but not where it needs to be. One bad snap is one too many."
Just ask the Denver Broncos.
So what else would you expect but heavy rainfall throughout Monday's pro day with more than 50 representatives from all 32 NFL teams in attendance?
After lifting in the weight room, the event shifted to the track inside the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The three cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- drew a lot of attention.
Roberson and Purifoy, two of UF's top prospects, each posted disappointing 40-yard dash times of 4.61 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. They were able to show slight improvement Monday with unofficial times of 4.59 and 4.53 seconds, respectively. Watkins, who is still recovering from a sprained Achilles tendon, did not run the 40-yard dash (he posted a 4.41 at the NFL combine) but did participate in drills.
"I think all three will translate very well to the next level,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Jaylen's a guy that can play multiple positions. He can play safety, he can play nickel, he can play dime, he can play corner. He's a core special-teams guy for us over the years. So, a guy that can do a lot of things for you. Marcus is a guy that's got really good instincts in coverage, especially in man coverage. He can get his hands on people, which in the NFL the rules are a little different. But you've got to win on the line of scrimmage, and he can do that. He's a guy that's got really good ball skills down the field. Loucheiz is a guy that can give you some special teams, a really good kickoff coverage guy, a guy that's got some return skills, but another guy that can win on the line of scrimmage and has got great, long speed down the field. So I think each player gives you a little something different of what you're looking for."
Another Florida prospect who could be selected in the early rounds, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, was on hand but did not participate as he continues to rehabilitate a torn ACL he suffered early last fall.
"He's going to work out [at UF] on April 18," Muschamp said. "Now we've not set that date. He and I talked this morning and didn't feel like he was ready. I told him, 'If you're not ready, don't work. You wait until you're ready to go cut it loose and give them a good day's work.' So I want to say April 18, but that's not been totally decided yet."
DE/LB Ronald Powell, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, TE Trey Burton, DL Damien Jacobs, OL Kyle Koehne and LB Darrin Kitchens also took part in the drills.
Halapio, who missed the first two games of his senior season with a torn pectoral muscle, said he is healthy and proved it in front of scouts by benching 225 pounds 32 times, which would have ranked among the top 10 for offensive linemen at the combine.
"People really underestimate what he did this past year," Muschamp said. "There's a lot of young men that would have probably taken a redshirt and had surgery. We gave him several options and he just said, 'I'm going to tape it up and play.'”
Patton is a prospect who might be slightly off of the radar of some teams, as he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. Monday at UF, he ran an unofficial best of 4.31 in the 40 and performed well in drills, catching most passes in the rain away from his body.
Muschamp believes Patton will make an NFL roster.
"There's no question he's going to find a role," Muschamp said. "[He's] a guy that can play in the slot and has return skill, big-time kickoff return and great special-teams guy -- one of the better kickoff cover guys I've been around."
Overall, the soggy conditions did not put too much of a damper on Florida's pro day.
"We play football in the rain," Muschamp said with a grin. "I think those guys got a lot of comments from coaches and scouts about how our guys going out and competing. They didn't bellyache about it. They go out there and compete, and that's what you want to see."
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.
Our weeklong series moves to the offensive line, a group of players who are critically important to Florida's plans for a rebirth on that side of the ball.
Departures: Florida lost three seniors in center Jonotthan Harrison (12 starts), right guard Jon Halapio (10 starts) and guard/tackle Kyle Koehne (six starts). They were the heart and core leadership of the line. The Gators also saw key reserve Ian Silberman, who started the final four games at guard last year, transfer to Boston College after graduating in December. Two other transfers, Quinteze Williams and Trevon Young, never saw action for Florida.
Returning reserves: Rising junior Trip Thurman played in all 12 games as a backup. While he's not expected to unseat any of Florida's incumbent starters, Thurman will have an important role as the Gators' only returning reserve. The former three-star prospect has good size at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds and can play guard or tackle.
Newcomers: Last season, Florida redshirted tackle Roderick Johnson, center Cameron Dillard and guard Octavius Jackson, whose playing career is over because of a chronic shoulder injury. The Gators have three midseason enrollees who will participate in spring practice -- juco transfer Drew Sarvary and true freshmen Nolan Kelleher and Kavaris Harkless. This summer will see the arrival of three more linemen from UF's Class of 2014 -- tackles David Sharpe and Andrew Mike and guard Travaris Dorsey.
What to watch: No unit could use a clean slate more than Florida's offensive line. It struggled with injuries in 2013, but that wasn't the only major problem. The Gators have had trouble with pass protection for several years now, and it's proven to be one of the most crippling issues for an offense that hasn't been able to get out of its own way. Improving the pass blocking and developing depth are the two most important tasks this spring, and Florida will look to new line coach Mike Summers to lead the way. Summers comes to UF with 34 years of experience and a reputation as a fine teacher. Those skills will be put to the test, as the Gators have just five linemen with starting experience and only two others who have ever played in a college game. It's not necessary to settle on five starters this spring, but Summers needs to quickly figure out his players' strengths and best positions. Finding a replacement for Harrison, a three-year starter at center, is key. It's expected that a veteran like Moore or Garcia will make the shift to center, but Florida must continue to develop Dillard as a quality reserve who can eventually push for the starting job. Last year, Florida was unable to play a true spring game because of injuries to its offensive linemen, so staying healthy is another modest goal this spring. There are holes all over the two-deep roster and plenty of opportunities to win jobs. Fresh faces like Sarvary, Johnson and Kelleher will have their chances to carve out roles and perhaps even make it a competition with one of the five veterans. With a new OL coach and that much-needed clean slate, anything is possible.
Florida's offensive line has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. It's been beaten up by marauding defensive linemen, battered by injuries and called soft by head coach Will Muschamp. The O-line became an easy scapegoat on an offense that has struggled not only to throw forward passes but to keep quarterbacks healthy and clean.
Muschamp is fond of calling the SEC a line-of-scrimmage league, but his Gators have missed on a few high-profile offensive linemen in recent years.
Last year it was Laremy Tunsil, the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the nation, who lived 45 miles up the road from Gainesville in Lake City. He had significant interest in Florida during his junior year of high school, but it waned throughout his senior year before he signed with Ole Miss. Tunsil lived up to his billing this fall, starting all but four games at left tackle for the Rebels as a freshman.
The Class of 2012 was a strong year for offensive linemen in the state of Florida. But Jacksonville's John Theus signed with Georgia and Palm Beach Gardens' Avery Young chose Auburn. Both are solid starters in the SEC.
UF wound up signing just one of the 2012 Floridian offensive linemen in Jessamen Dunker, who redshirted and was expected to compete for a starting job last spring. But he was arrested, suspended and transferred not long after his first year was complete.
Dunker's departure reduced Florida's already-tiny 2012 OL class to just D.J. Humphries, who started seven games at left tackle this season before a knee injury sidelined him for the final five games.
To bolster depth and stabilize the line, the Gators dipped into the transfer pool. They signed former Maryland left tackle Max Garcia, who stared all 12 games this past season; former Nebraska tackle Tyler Moore, who made eight starts before breaking his elbow; and juco transfer Trenton Brown (five starts).
The roster numbers are dwindling. UF loses three seniors in Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison and Kyle Koehne. The school also announced Thursday that junior guard Ian Silberman is departing, and freshmen Quinteze Williams and Trevon Young will transfer.
That means the Gators will have just two seniors next season in Garcia and Brown among nine returning offensive linemen. Starting right tackle Chaz Green would have been a part of that senior class, but he was injured in preseason camp and missed the 2013 season. With a medical hardship waiver, he can return as a fifth-year junior.
With six linemen leaving, the pressure is on Florida to sign at least the four pledges it currently has in Sharpe, Travaris Dorsey, Nolan Kelleher and Dontae Angus.
Another key to balancing the classes will be the progress of Florida's redshirt freshmen. While the Gators missed on some touted high school prospects, they instead stocked up on projects and players with projectable frames in their Class of 2013.
Florida was able to redshirt the three true freshman offensive linemen it signed. Guard Octavius Jackson drew the most praise in practice and came the closest to playing. Cam Dillard is being groomed to be UF's center of the future. Roderick Johnson has the size (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) to compete for playing time in the spring.
Of course, they'll all have to contend with Sharpe, who plans to see the field in 2014 as well.
He sighs deeply, painfully.
"What's the gist of the story about?" he asks warily and listens as the reporter says he wants some perspective on what Muschamp is going through now that Florida's season has gone south and fans are calling for his head.
He coughs a staccato burst of a laugh. "Heh, I don't know if you can call it an experience," he says and counts the number of times in the last week he's been asked this very same question.
He pauses to collect himself, then he answers.
"Let Will do his job," he says.
That's Zook's message nine years after he was fired by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, and he says it with a measure of exasperation, as though he has been given one more chance to speak directly to the fans who compose the proud Gator Nation.
Zook never got much of a chance to do his job. There was too much "noise in the system" as he called it. Many of those outspoken fans turned on him, just as they turned on Muschamp this season. Only for Zook, the honeymoon lasted a matter of hours.
Muschamp was given a mulligan in his first season after being handed a program that Urban Meyer admitted was "broke a little bit." What's followed has been more like a roller-coaster ride with the sugar-rush high of Muschamp's superlative second season followed by the sudden crash of 2013.
There are enough similarities between these two coaches that it's understandable how often they are compared. Both were defensive coordinators and recruiting whizzes with no head coaching experience who followed national championship-winning coaches at UF.
Zook went 23-14 with a 16-8 record in the SEC from 2002 to 2004. Muschamp has steered the Gators to a 22-16 record, 13-11 in the SEC over the last three seasons.
But the lows of 2013 are unlike anything Zook ever experienced: Florida's first losing season since 1979, the first loss to Vanderbilt since 1988 (first at home since 1945), the program's first loss to an FCS team, and the end of a 22-year bowl streak that dated back to 1991 when Steve Spurrier led the program out of the darkness of probation into an era of unprecedented heights.
"Obviously there's a lot of negativism going around right now," Zook said. "That's college football. That's part of it. That's one of the things that makes Florida a great place. It's is also one of the things that makes it tough. They want to win, and they want to win now."
Off the field, both coaches had some low moments in wrestling with the realities of their fans' expectations.
After losing this season to Georgia -- his alma mater -- for the third straight year, Muschamp got into a shouting match with a Florida fan as he walked off the field. A week later he acknowledged his emotions got the best of him.
"I made a real mistake over a very passionate, passionate Florida fan telling me his opinion of me," he said. "You know what, that’s fine, that’s fine. They pay their ticket, they can boo all they want."
A couple of weeks later, Muschamp boiled over again, saying, "there's a lot of negativity out there. Some of our fans need to get a grip."
In contrast, Zook took more heat from fans from the moment he was hired. He famously inspired a Florida fan to launch the website FireRonZook.com one day after he got the job. But nothing was worse than apologizing for his role in a late-night verbal altercation with an antagonistic fraternity on campus. Less than two weeks later, Zook was fired.
By the time Muschamp finished his third season, something Zook was unable to do, the pressure had risen to a feverish level. But let the record show that FireWillMuschamp.com is merely another placeholder website for sale.
With the benefit of hindsight, comparing Muschamp and Zook is on the minds of many irate fans. But is it fair?
Foley says it is not, and his opinion is the only one that matters.
"Zooker and I are friends, but it’s just not apples-to-apples," he said last Saturday before Florida finished its season with an expected blowout loss to unbeaten archrival Florida State. "It’s my job to evaluate and see where the program is headed. At that point in time, I didn’t think it was headed where we wanted it to be. This time, I think it’s headed where we want it to be. The proof is going to be in the pudding, but I don’t think it’s apples-to-apples.
"I'm like anybody else, I want to be successful for the University of Florida. The only thing that we want to do is to take care of the Gators. I've been doing that for 38 years. I've been doing it for 22 as athletic director. [It's not a matter of being] patient or impatient or wiser or older. I want to be successful. I'm very confident we're going to be successful moving in the direction we're moving in. That's where it's at."
"I strongly disagree with that," he said. "I'll go to battle with that coach any day, his whole coaching staff. I see the grind in his eyes every day. I see what he does every day, the passion he has for this team, and I'll go to war with him any day. He has our backs and I have his back, win or lose."
Senior center Jonotthan Harrison elaborated on why Muschamp won his enduring loyalty, why the players still believe in their coach.
"Because he is down to earth, as down to earth as it comes. He's as real as it comes," he said. "There's no sugar-coating anything. There's no BS. He's as black and white as it comes. He's going to tell you exactly how it is. He's going to treat you like you deserve to be treated. So if you're a hard worker -- no matter if you're a scholarship athlete, a third-string, no matter what your position is on the team, as long as you're a hard worker -- you have all of his respect. But if you go out there and you're a scumbag and you really don't want to work hard or whatever, then you're not going to have his support. That's just how it is. He's black and white. He's down to earth. He's a real guy."
The passion with which Muschamp's player support him is obvious. It's something Zook has seen and appreciated from afar.
"I think the fact that the players have circled the wagons for him, now they've got to come out and play for him," said Zook, who is two years removed from being fired as head coach at Illinois and is now a business development officer at Gateway Bank, back in Gator country, just 45 minutes south of Gainesville in Ocala. "I can tell ya he's on the right track. People say they've quit on him, but I do know that all of the negativism just zaps the energy out of your football team.
"Hopefully Will will get it turned around. I think he will."
In other words, let the man do his job.
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
It was another rough outing for the Gator O-line, which gave up five sacks and a total of nine tackles for loss for a whopping 67 yards. Losing at home to the Commodores was just the latest insult upon a season of injury.
"I've never seen or heard of anything like this, but this is the game we play," Halapio said of the injury bug that Florida just can't shake. "We've just got to move forward."
The senior guard, who tore his left pectoral muscle just before training camp and missed two games, has embodied the season-long struggles of his offensive line, as injuries and ineffectiveness have eroded any cohesion and consistency the UF offense has been able to muster.
Just when Florida made some personnel adjustments that seemed to click in the Nov. 2 loss to Georgia, another devastating injury struck.
That was sophomore tackle Tyler Moore, who is out for the season after falling off his scooter and suffering a compound fracture of his elbow last week. Offensive tackle was already a particularly sore spot. The Gators lost junior starter Chaz Green (torn labrum) for the season in fall camp, and sophomore starter D.J. Humphries (sprained knee) missed his second consecutive game on Saturday.
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators used their sixth different offensive line alignment of the season. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison is the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.
Despite how often they have to talk about injuries, Halapio, his teammates and their coaches bristle at the thought of using them as an excuse.
"[Moore's injury] shook things up, but we practiced [last] week," Halapio said. "We prepared for Vanderbilt like they prepared for us. There's no excuses about the injuries."
But losing three starting tackles clearly has had a musical-chairs effect on the line. Against the Bulldogs, Moore replaced Humphries by moving from right tackle to left. Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, got his first start, and the line had its best game in the last month.
“Well, we felt very good about a combination of Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown at tackles. We lost Tyler on Tuesday night. It hurt us in the [Vanderbilt] game," head coach Will Muschamp said on Saturday. "So you move Max [Garcia] from left guard, where he's been playing all year, to left tackle. Then you have a new left guard coming in in Ian [Silberman], who was really -- going in the Georgia game, until he had another injury -- was going to play tight end for us. It's hard.”
Hard to keep up with, too.
The results this season are about what one might expect of such a banged-up unit. Florida has allowed 26 sacks, tied for 105th among 123 FBS schools. The tackles for loss statistics are even worse, as the Gators have given up 67 in nine games, which ranks 110th.
And there are few answers on a roster so depleted. It's no wonder Halapio feels the answers can only come from within.
"We've just got to look ourselves in the mirror individually, especially through this time," he said. "I've never been through this really like this, adversity like this. So we've just got to correct this and move forward with the guys that want to win."
At least the ones who are still standing.
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. 76 Max Garcia
Redshirt junior offensive lineman
Expectations for 2013: The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Garcia sat out last season after transferring from Maryland. He steps into the starting spot at left guard next to sophomore tackle D.J. Humphries. He’s a bruising run blocker but also has the agility to play outside as well. He started 12 games at left tackle for the Terps in 2011. That versatility gives the Gators some extra insurance in case of injuries.
No. 72 Jonotthan Harrison
Redshirt senior center
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
No. 67 Jon Halapio
Redshirt senior offensive lineman
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
No. 64 Kyle Koehne
Redshirt senior offensive lineman
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Florida AD Jeremy Foley joins Finebaum
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State