Florida Gators: Josh Evans
The starters: Senior Jabari Gorman and sophomore Marcus Maye
The backups: Sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshman Nick Washington
The lowdown: Four starting safeties have departed in the last two seasons -- Matt Elam, Josh Evans and Jaylen Watkins left for the NFL, and Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame. Most programs could not withstand that kind of exodus, but the Gators are not expecting much of a drop-off in 2014. With 37 games under his belt, Gorman is the veteran of this unit. He started five games last season and was sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He gives a young and inexperienced group a vocal leader to rely upon. Maye and Neal played in all of Florida's 12 games last season, mostly on special teams. Maye started the first two games of the season, but a couple of key mistakes kept him out of the starting lineup for the rest of the season. Still, his experience could give Maye an edge this fall. He'll have to hold off Neal, a physical presence, and two other talented redshirt freshmen. Washington and Harris missed last season with injuries, but both made solid impressions in spring practice. Harris, at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, has good range for his size. Washington is better in coverage and spent some time at cornerback and nickel during the spring.
The future: The Gators don't have overwhelming numbers at safety, but with their preference for bigger cornerbacks, it's possible that some position movement will occur down the road. Class of 2014 signee Quincy Wilson is one who comes to mind. He has the speed and athleticism to start his career at cornerback, but at 6-1 and 197 pounds, he could end up at safety. The same could be said of Florida's two 2015 cornerback commits, Marcus Lewis and Jalen Julius. UF coaches have the luxury of trying them at corner and moving them if they aren't earning playing time. The Gators are still looking for more in their next class. Deontai Williams, a hard-hitting ESPN 300 prospect, was the first pledge in the class. Florida's top remaining target is ESPN 300 athlete Jaquan Johnson.
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."
One player, however, was spared his coach's ire -- Jabari Gorman -- and it's no coincidence he's the only senior in Florida's secondary.
“He has done a nice job," Muschamp said. "The others, I can’t say that. But he has done a nice job. He understands the importance of communication on the back end. We've just got to do a better job at understanding that a mistake there is normally not good for the Gators. That’s where we’ve got to tie some things up."
Understandably, Muschamp can be tough on his safeties. He holds them to a high standard, one that has been achieved in recent years.
Florida's starters two seasons ago, Matt Elam and Josh Evans, are playing in the NFL. Jaylen Watkins, one of UF's starling safeties last season, expects to follow their footsteps in the NFL draft this May.
The Gators lost their other starting safety from 2013, Cody Riggs, who is transferring to Notre Dame after he graduates this spring. That's a clean sweep of starting safeties from Florida's secondary in back-to-back season.
To Gorman, it's an opportunity. His time has come.
"Especially at the safety position, you've got to grow up," Gorman said. "You've got to be able to be vocal. In that position you have to develop into a leader because so much is needed from you. You're the quarterback of the defense.
"What I do, I try to let these kids know that it's never personal with Coach. It's always for the better, to make you a better player, make you faster and more instinctive."
Getting better is what Gorman has done in three years at UF. He had a breakout season last year with 48 tackles (sixth most on the team), seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.
"Jabari’s very smart, he’s a guy that gets it," Muschamp said. "He understands and learns well. He’s seen the game. It’s slowed down tremendously for him over the years. He’s played a lot of football for us, played well for us last year. I’ve been very pleased with his spring to his point through four days and the offseason program."
After playing right away on special teams and as a reserve in 2011, Gorman's time at Florida has grown short.
"Yeah man, I say it's the blink of an eye," he said. "I still remember the first day I came to campus. What I want to do is help my team to go out with a bang, be the best we can be."
Gorman easily lists the names of his classmates, fellow seniors who want badly to erase the blemish of last year's 4-8 record.
"We've got a lot of seniors that have been here, gone through a process," he said. "We went through struggles at times, went through the good times, and we just want to leave on a good note. I think it's more important to us than anybody to go out and win."
It was still an impressive showing. Eight UF players were drafted, the most since nine were taken in the 2010 draft. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were taken in the first round, giving the Gators multiple first-round picks for the first time since 2010.
Florida’s eight selections was one shy of LSU and Alabama, which led the Southeastern Conference with nine. Georgia also had eight players picked.
Here’s a breakdown of the Gators who were drafted:
DT Sharrif Floyd
First round: No. 23 overall by Minnesota
DT Kevin Williams and NT Letroy Guion are the Vikings’ starters, but Floyd should figure prominently in the rotation. He said he’s eager to learn all he can from Williams, a 10-year vet with 434 tackles and 56.5 sacks. The knock on Floyd is that he doesn’t have long arms, but he does have a quick first step and good speed for a 300-pounder.
S Matt Elam
First round: No. 32 overall by Baltimore
Elam couldn’t step into a better situation. The Ravens lost both starting safeties from their Super Bowl championship team. They released Bernard Pollard (he later signed with Tennessee) and Ed Reed signed a free-agent contract with Houston. Despite not having ideal size (5-foot-10, 208 pounds), Elam is more similar to Pollard than Reed. Elam is physical enough to play the run but also is good enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man.
LB Jonathan Bostic
The Gators might have another first-round pick in today’s group and two other players who might not get drafted. S Matt Elam has been projected to go late in the first round -- most often to New England with the 29th pick -- after a junior season in which he was named an All-American. S Josh Evans and K Caleb Sturgis might very well not get drafted in April. Sturgis is one of the nation’s top kickers, but some teams are reluctant to draft kickers even in the later rounds if they have other needs. Then again, there are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted a punter in the third round.
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.
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.
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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CB Jaylen Watkins
35 tackles, 3 INTs, 8 pass breakups
Role in 2012: Watkins was in a competition with Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Cody Riggs to win a starting cornerback job. Watkins ended up starting 10 games and was second on the team in pass breakups.
The good: Watkins is one of the Gators’ most improved players. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, which he said was because he had a better understanding of the defense in his second season. The best example is his interception against Kentucky when he jumped the route. He admitted he wouldn’t have made the play last year. Watkins doesn’t have the size of UF’s other corners (6-foot, 187 pounds), but he’s able to hold his own against bigger receivers.
The bad: Sometimes his size is a disadvantage, especially when it comes to jump balls. He compensates by relying on technique, but sometimes he can get overpowered by bigger receivers despite being in the proper position. He’s also not as physical in run support as Purifoy, although he is a better tackler than Roberson.
Crystal ball: Watkins will again have to battle Roberson and Purifoy for a starting spot in 2013, but even if he loses out to those two he’ll be on the field as a nickel back. Watkins also has spent some time at safety, and he could find a home there if youngsters Jabari Gorman, Brian Poole and Valdez Showers aren’t up to replacing Josh Evans and Matt Elam (provided he leaves early for the NFL as expected).
S Josh Evans
79 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 3 pass breakups
Role in 2012: Evans started every game in 2012 alongside Matt Elam and ended up leading the team in tackles. He was solid in run support and was better in coverage than he was last season.
The good: Evans was one of the Gators’ most improved players this season. He really blossomed in the second year of coordinator Dan Quinn’s defensive system, especially in terms of communication and understanding coverage responsibilities. Evans’ solid play allowed the Gators to move Elam around and take advantage of his play-making abilities. Had Evans not improved as much as he did, thanks partly to Will Muschamp working with the safeties, the Gators would have had to have been more conservative with Elam.
The bad: Evans’ tackling fundamentals need work. He’s one of those guys who ducks his head and goes low instead of keeping his head up and wrapping up. As a result, he sometimes misses tackles he should make. The best example is getting plowed over by Texas A&M RB Ben Malena. Evans also sometimes takes bad angles to the ball carrier and he doesn’t have the blazing speed needed to make up for that.
Crystal ball: Evans’ final game will come against a Louisville team that likes to throw the ball down the field with QB Teddy Bridgewater. The Cardinals average 298.6 yards per game passing so the UF secondary will be pretty busy. After the Allstate Sugar Bowl, however, is where Evans’ future gets murky. He isn’t going to be a high draft pick, but there is a good chance he will get drafted. That wasn’t something anyone would write after the 2011 season. But can he stick with an NFL team?
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).
UF offense vs. FSU defenseFlorida: The Gators have really struggled to move the ball during the second half of the season, especially through the air. Teams are stacking the box and concentrating on stopping RB Mike Gillislee (964 yards, 8 TDs). The pass protection has been inconsistent and the receivers, other than TE Jordan Reed, have trouble separating. UF isn’t able to mount more than one or two sustained drives against good defenses.
Florida State: The numbers speak volumes for Florida State's defense, which ranks among the nation's best for the second straight season. It starts with defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, the most prolific pass-rush duo in the country. But from the powerful interior line to a strong secondary, there are few weaknesses. The Seminoles rank first nationally in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, first against the run and fifth against the pass.
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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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12:00 PM ET Eastern Kentucky Florida 12:00 PM ET Charleston Southern 10 Georgia 12:00 PM ET South Alabama South Carolina 3:30 PM ET 8 Ole Miss Arkansas 4:00 PM ET Western Carolina 1 Alabama 7:00 PM ET Samford 14 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 20 Missouri Tennessee 7:30 PM ET Vanderbilt 4 Mississippi State