Florida Gators: Leon Orr

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators have completed seven of their 14 practices, and the spring game is less than two weeks away.

Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.

Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.

Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.

"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp's future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement.
Head coach Will Muschamp, whose future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement, has noticed the difference and says he's very pleased.

"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."

Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.

Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.

Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.

"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."

D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.

Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.

Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.

Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.

"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."

Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.

Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.

"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."

Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.

Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.

This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.

Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.

So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.

"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."

The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.

"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 18, 2014
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Schedule: The Gators' first spring practice is Wednesday. It's open to the public and free, along with seven other practice sessions. Spring football concludes Saturday, April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut, which starts at 1:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida pushed back the start of spring practice to ensure that previously injured players such as Jeff Driskel could participate.
On the mend: Florida pushed back the start of spring football by about 7-10 days in order to insure the full participation of several players who were injured last fall. Most notable among them are QB Jeff Driskel (broken leg), LBs Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), and O-linemen Tyler Moore (broken elbow) and Chaz Green (torn labrum). Still, the Gators will be without nine players this spring, including two former starters -- RB Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and DT Leon Orr (broken wrist).

On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.

New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.

Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.

Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.

Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.

Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.

Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.

All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With so much perfect weather in Florida, fans are expected to flock to the Gators' eight open practices, starting on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel's ability to adapt to new offensive coordinator Jeff Roper's simplified passing game will be key this spring.
Leading up to the start of camp, we've looked at the top position groups with room to improve, five players to watch as well as the most important position battles this spring. We wrap it all up with one final prediction blog -- who will be the stars of Florida's spring practice session.

Jeff Driskel and Will Grier: Quarterbacks get all the attention, and Florida's QBs will be no different. Driskel has inspired some love/hate feelings among Florida fans in his up-and-down career. This spring is his chance to reinvent himself as a take-charge veteran leader. More than any other player, Driskel can be the key to a successful spring if he commands Kurt Roper's offense, makes it look cohesive and helps his teammates do the same. Grier is that shiny, new toy that every kid wants to immediately take out of the box and play with. No one expects Grier to even challenge Driskel for the No. 1 job, but fans can't wait to see Grier's arm and how well he operates as Driskel's understudy.

Predictions: Roper's offense, with its simplified passing game, will suit Driskel and Grier perfectly. By the end of spring, fans will be treated to something they haven't seen much of in recent years -- well-timed passes on intermediate routes. Driskel, still recovering from a broken leg, won't run much at all, but Grier will show off his legs and athleticism whenever the pocket collapses.

Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane: You could say that Taylor is already a standout after starting several games in the second half of the 2013 season, but this spring is a chance for him to solidify his claim as the alpha dog of the backfield (especially with his top competition, junior Matt Jones, out for the spring due to a knee injury). Lane, a redshirt freshman with speed and a bowling ball-shaped body, reminds people of Maurice Jones-Drew. With Jones out and senior Mack Brown set as a backup, Lane will have an opportunity to burst onto the scene.

Predictions: Taylor will excite Gators fans by looking more like his father, UF great Fred Taylor. He'll improve his decision-making and blocking, show off his hands and become a weapon on swing passes. Lane will be effective as a change-of-pace back and have great success hiding behind Florida's big offensive linemen. He'll prove to be hard to tackle as well.

Alvin Bailey: Another spring, another reason for hope when it comes to the Gators' beleaguered wide receivers. Florida knows what it has in senior starter Quinton Dunbar, and the highest expectations are for the development of talented sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson. But Florida's Class of 2013 featured five WR recruits, and even though he redshirted, Bailey has the talent to explode in Roper's uptempo spread offense.

Prediction: Bailey's high school experience playing multiple positions will allow him to grasp Roper's offense better than most. He'll make headlines with his hands and shiftiness after the catch.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNJalen Tabor could find an immediate role in Florida's secondary.
The secondary: There's a lot of pressure on true freshman early enrollee Jalen Tabor, who has been touted as an elite recruit who can play immediately, much like Vernon Hargreaves III in 2013. The Gators have lost a lot of reliable players in the defensive backfield in the last two years, so young players will have to step up. Junior Brian Poole could battle with Tabor for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves, remain at nickel, or shift to safety. There's a lot of work to do here, as several players have to settle into their best position.

Predictions: Tabor will be effective with his quickness and long reach, but Poole's experience will give him the edge to take over as a starting cornerback. Spring will be just the beginning, as the battle will continue in the fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington will be a fit at nickel cornerback, and sophomore Marcus Maye will stand out as a ballhawking free safety.

The big fellas: A lot of time is spent in the spring with skill-position players working on reading blocks, running routes and refining coverages. It's hard for linemen to stand out, but more than most programs, Florida likes to put on the pads and run its first-team offense against its first-team defense. When that happens -- and fans should get to see it in the spring game on April 12 -- the best battle will be left tackle D.J. Humphries against buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. Fans can also look for one of Florida's redshirt freshmen defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, to emerge. It will be fascinating to see how they perform against 6-foot-8, 361-pound offensive tackle Trenton Brown, who will also spend some time this spring at guard. If Brown can improve his knee-bend and pad level, he could become a people-mover on the Gators offensive line.

Predictions: After some struggles in 2013, Humphries will resurface this spring. He'll show off solid technique in pass protection as well as good punch in the running game. He and the rest of the O-line will spend a lot of time with new coach Mike Summers teaching his approach. Fowler will take the next step in his development as a pocket disruptor and start finishing more plays. With senior starting DT Leon Orr out for the spring, Bostwick will emerge as gap-penetrator.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Injuries hit hard and hit often last season, and as the Gators prepare to open spring practice next week, they'll still be feeling some lingering effects.

Florida coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday announced the Gators will open spring practice March 19 with nine players out of action because of injury, including three starters.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesRunning back Matt Jones, who injured his knee last season, won't be cleared to play until after spring practice concludes.
Here's who is out or limited as well as the spring impact:

  • Junior running back Matt Jones is progressing after a second surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The former starter is on track to be fully cleared on May 1. The Gators will need a healthy Jones this fall, but in the meantime there will be plenty of spring reps for a talented backfield that has good depth.
  • Senior starting defensive tackle Leon Orr fractured his wrist late last season and won't be cleared until May 1, but Florida has lots of competition at defensive tackle. "He would probably have been limited reps anyway with as many young guys as we need up front to help us," Muschamp said.
  • Senior wide receiver/kick returner Andre Debose, who had been a starter before missing all of last season with a torn ACL, is expected to be medically cleared on March 28 but will wear a noncontact jersey for the last two weeks of spring practice. A healthy Debose will bring speed and experience to a deep but largely unproven group of wide receivers.
  • Three linebackers still rehabbing after surgery for injuries suffered last fall -- sophomores Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL) and redshirt freshman Matt Rolin (torn ACL) -- won't be medically cleared until after spring practice. All three could play reserve roles and special teams in the fall.
  • Sophomore tight end Colin Thompson has a chronic foot injury that dates back to his high school days. It appears to be threatening his career. "The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely and we'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring," Muschamp said. Although Thompson was just a blocker, Florida needs every available body for its tight end competition.
  • Freshman early enrollee running back Brandon Powell has a small fracture in his foot from high school ball. Once on UF's campus, he had surgery to insert a pin and will miss most of the spring. "To that point in January, [Powell] had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills," Muschamp said. "Great change of direction and speed. He's one of the guys we're really excited about."
  • Freshman early enrollee Nolan Kelleher, an interior lineman, came to Florida in January with a back issue and has not been cleared for practice. Muschamp said a second opinion would be sought this week. The entire offensive line will be evaluated under new coach Mike Summers, so the competition for roles should be fierce.

Fortunately for Florida, most of the injuries are at positions of depth. Muschamp said that so far this spring, it is nothing like last year, when he was forced to turn the annual Orange & Blue Debut game into a series of drills with a limited scrimmage.

"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that," he said. "I want to have a spring game. ... I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Urban Meyer's last complete recruiting cycle at Florida, the Class of 2010, was astounding on paper.

On the field, it hasn't quite lived up to such lofty billing.

The Gators signed 27 recruits in 2010, a class that ranked No. 1 in the nation. Seventeen players were among the top 150 prospects in the nation, 14 in the top 81.

[+] EnlargeSharrif Floyd
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSharrif Floyd was one of too few gems to come out of Florida's top-ranked 2010 recruiting class.
Much was expected of such an impressive array of top-rated players, but instead of playing for championships, this class became better known for falling short of those goals.

Still, the class produced a few obvious stars and a sizable group of starters and role players. It clocks in at No. 4 in our weeklong series looking at Florida's most impactful recruiting classes in the last decade.

The stars: Defensive linemen Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were rated among the top 25 prospects in the nation and lived up to the hype at Florida. Floyd and Easley quickly proved to be dominant forces at defensive tackle, and Elam showed elite instincts as a playmaker in center field. Floyd and Elam were first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Easley has suffered some setbacks with two torn ACLs and chose to forgo a fifth season of eligibility at Florida to enter the NFL draft this May.

The contributors: Ten players rode out the transition from Meyer to Will Muschamp to make their mark as starters. Several others found useful roles. Defensive back Jaylen Watkins and wide receivers Solomon Patton and Trey Burton all avoided redshirts, grew into starting roles and made significant contributions on and off the field. WR Quinton Dunbar, OL Chaz Green, DT Leon Orr and LBs Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball return as likely starters in 2014.

The letdowns: One could argue that Ronald Powell belongs in this group because he was the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2010 and was expected to be a star. In four years he overcame two ACL surgeries on the same knee, had a fantastic attitude and was productive when he was on the field. It's easier to look for letdowns among the 11 players in this class who transferred. Safety Jonathan Dowling, the No. 10 overall recruit in the nation, transferred after he was dismissed for violating team rules. Josh Shaw, the No. 3-ranked cornerback prospect, started out well at UF but transferred closer to home in the Los Angeles area and has played well for USC. Gerald Christian (No. 2 TE prospect in 2010) and Chris Dunkley (No. 7 WR) were two other high-profile transfers. QB Tyler Murphy, CB Cody Riggs and OL Ian Silberman recently transferred after spending their first four years at Florida.

The results: When crowning Florida's 2010 recruiting class as No. 1 in the nation, ESPN called it one of the best classes ever. Everything clicked in 2012, when the Gators went 11-1 in the regular season and played in the Sugar Bowl. But sandwiched around that were 7-5, 6-6 and 4-8 regular-season records in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The class produced two high draft picks in Floyd and Elam. Easley is likely to be a second-rounder this spring, and Watkins could go anywhere from the second through fourth rounds. But after those four, there aren't any sure bets in the NFL. That's surprising for a class that was so highly touted.

Gators need more from their D-linemen

February, 14, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's hard to find fault with a defense that ranked No. 5 in the nation last season.

Stout defense has been the identity of the Florida Gators under coach Will Muschamp. It has carried the team and its dysfunctional offense for years. But something was off in 2013.

Florida fielded its usual dominant pass defense, allowing just nine TDs through the air (second-fewest in the country). But the run defense slipped from a No. 4 ranking in 2012 to No. 33 last season (allowing 47.5 more rushing yards per game), including an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern in which Florida gave up 429 yards -- all on the ground.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFormer ESPN 300 defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who had 3.5 sacks in 2013, needs to be more consistent.
Those numbers, however, still indicate some blame for the Florida offense. Opponents in 2013 typically kept the Gators off the scoreboard, built up a lead and then ran out the clock. So UF's defensive stats are skewed.

But after a week of picking on the offense in identifying the five position groups that have room to improve, the final installment of this series has to focus on the defense.

Because everything starts up front, we'll look at the defensive line. It had plenty to do with the run defense getting worse in 2013, and it had its worst season in years in terms of applying pressure to quarterbacks.

Florida had 19 sacks in 12 games last season, down from 30 in 13 games the year before and continuing a downward trend since recording 39 sacks in 14 games in 2009.

Battling for No. 1: Florida has solid bookends in buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and strong-side end Jonathan Bullard. Their talent is undeniable, but the production just does not match it. One or two splashy games a season isn't good enough. But UF's ends also need more help from their interior linemen. When Florida lost senior DT Dominique Easley to injury, the threat of a push up the middle was gone. The starters at defensive tackle this fall are likely to be seniors Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, but unless they show dramatic improvement in disrupting opponents, Florida is going to need contributions from some newcomers.

Strength in numbers: Muschamp said the Gators are excited about three defensive tackles who redshirted last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles -- saying each has "the athleticism and the girth to play the position." Florida could also get a contribution from Joey Ivie. He was the only D-lineman who didn't redshirt in 2013 and can play inside or outside. At defensive end, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister stepped forward as backups last season. It's important for either of those two, or redshirt freshman end Jordan Sherit, to take the next step and improve Florida's pass rush this fall.

New on the scene: The Gators signed a terrific defensive lineman class in 2014. Gerald Willis III, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound prospect ranked No. 42 overall in the nation, can play end or tackle and could make an immediate impact. Tackles Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark are highly touted but raw talents who could redshirt but have the bodies to play immediately. Early enrollee defensive end Taven Bryan has already drawn raves from Muschamp, who said, "he's explosive. He's got really good flexibility in his lower body. He's got a great motor, a great work ethic. We are extremely pleased." Florida also signed buck linebacker prospect Justus Reed, an ESPN 300 talent with potential who is likely to redshirt while he adds bulk and strength to his 6-3, 215-pound frame.

Reviewing Florida's Class of 2010

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Every year on signing day, Florida coach Will Muschamp takes a moment to throw a jab at the media.

The circus surrounding college football recruiting has grown to epic proportions, and he clearly bristles at the thought of ranking classes or players before they don cleats.

"You judge a recruiting class after it’s been on your campus for two or three years," he's said. "Everybody wants to judge it in February and rank them and say this class is great. That’s ridiculous to be able to rank a class in February when these guys haven’t even stepped on campus yet and been through a spring practice and been in fall camp.

"I’ve been around a lot of guys who were two-stars who ended up playing in the NFL for a really long time. They were really good players. And I’ve been around some five-stars who couldn’t play."

With that sentiment and the passage of four years, we review Florida's 2010 class.

It ranked No. 1 in the nation with four five-star players, 15 four-star recruits and 17 players from the ESPN 150 (including 11 of the top 50). ESPN called it "simply one of the best classes ever."

The stars

[+] EnlargeSharrif Floyd
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSharrif Floyd became everything the Gators hoped he would when they signed him in 2010 and was Minnesota's first-round pick in 2013.
Sharrif Floyd (No. 3 DT prospect in the nation): He just about embodied the blueprint for how you'd like a top prospect to go through school. Floyd grew into a dominant force in the middle for Florida, was a leader and became a first-round NFL draft pick after his third season.

Matt Elam (No. 2 ATH): Like Floyd, Elam played right away and became a team leader at safety for the Gators, starting every game of his final two seasons. And like Floyd, Elam was a first-round pick after three years in college.

Dominique Easley (No. 1 DT): Easley's flame burned bright on and off the field. His magnetic personality made him a team focal point right away, and his ability to torment offensive linemen made him a standout on the field. If it weren't for two surgeries on torn ACLs in each knee, Easley would be a lock for the first round of the NFL draft this May.

The contributors

Ronald Powell (No. 1 ATH): The No. 1 overall player in the country, Powell was the headliner for Florida's vaunted class. But he never truly lived up to the hype, compiling modest stats and suffering two torn ACLs in the same knee. After a healthy season as a fourth-year junior, Powell hopes to be picked in the middle rounds of the upcoming NFL draft.

Mack Brown (No. 4 RB): He was supposed to be the first premier running back then-coach Urban Meyer had ever recruited, but it took Brown time to adjust to the college game. He finally contributed as a junior and will be a key reserve in 2014.

Chaz Green (No. 4 OT): Started nine games as a redshirt freshman and 10 games as a sophomore before missing last season to injury. He's expected to be a key member of UF's O-line in 2014.

Jaylen Watkins (No. 5 CB): He never got the hype of some teammates, but Watkins quietly had a solid career at UF. He started 28 of 48 games played in four seasons at cornerback and safety.

Cody Riggs (No. 7 CB): Like Watkins, Riggs has proven to be a versatile member of the Gators secondary. After redshirting the 2012 season due to injury, he'll be back as a senior this fall.

Leon Orr (No. 8 DT): Returns for his senior season after finally breaking through as a starter last season.

Michael Taylor (No. 12 OLB): Became a starter in 2013 after two seasons as a backup. He'll return for his final year.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxIt took time for him to develop but WR Solomon Patton made an impact in his senior season.
Solomon Patton (No. 17 WR): Had a standout senior season after toiling in anonymity the previous three.

Gideon Ajagbe (No. 23 OLB): Never a factor at linebacker, he finally saw action last season after switching to fullback.

Neiron Ball (No. 28 OLB): A quiet contributor, he made seven of his nine career starts in 2013 and will be counted on this fall.

Trey Burton (No. 30 ATH): Played every skill position on offense during his four seasons and was a consummate leader.

Quinton Dunbar (No. 42 WR): Has been a solid starter for most of the last two seasons and looks to do the same as a senior.

Darrin Kitchens (unranked LB): Was a valuable reserve for the last four years.

The transfers

Jonathan Dowling (No. 1 S): Was kicked off the team and transferred to Western Kentucky, where he became a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection. He's skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft.

Josh Shaw (No. 3 CB): Played in 10 games with one start as a redshirt freshman before transferring to USC. He emerged last season, finishing third on the Trojans with 67 tackles and four interceptions.

Gerald Christian (No. 2 TE): Played eight games for UF after redshirting, then transferred to Louisville and caught 26 passes for 401 yards and four TDs last fall.

Chris Dunkley (No. 7 WR): Redshirted, then transferred to USF. He finally got playing time in four games last fall after being plagued by suspensions.

Ian Silberman (No. 3 OT): Never rose above the level of reserve in three seasons at UF. He graduated in four years and transferred to Boston College.

Chris Martin (No. 10 DE): After an arrest for marijuana possession, he transferred to two junior colleges, then transferred to Kansas and was dismissed after an arrest for an alleged robbery.

Jordan Haden (No. 44 S): Enrolled early but transferred before his first season. Haden has played the last two seasons for Toledo.

Robert Clark (No. 48 CB): Played two seasons before transferring to Louisville, where he caught 23 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown in 2013.

Tyler Murphy (No. 54 ATH): Started six games at QB as a junior in 2013, graduated, then transferred to Boston College for his final season.

Lynden Trail (No. 63 DE): Redshirted and saw no action in 2011 before transferring to Norfolk State.

Michael McFarland (unranked TE): Redshirted, then transferred to USF, where he's worked his way up the depth chart. Was second on the team with 23 catches for 288 yards and two TDs in 2013.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.

As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.

On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.

LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.

His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.

LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.

DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.

Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.

A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.

The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.

SEC shoes to fill in 2014

January, 21, 2014
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Earlier, we took a look at some of the underclassmen leaving the SEC and who could replace them at their respective schools. Now it's time to look at 14 pairs of the biggest shoes to fill in the SEC in 2014.

These are either graduates or guys who decided to take their talents to the NFL early. It's never easy to replace top players, but the SEC has a tendency to just reload. Let's see if SEC teams can replace these 14 studs:

ALABAMA

AJ McCarron, QB: He won two national championships and went 36-4 as a starter for Alabama. He was also the first Crimson Tide quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards and was an excellent leader. Alabama must now turn to junior Blake Sims and a host of youngsters to fill his spot as Alabama's starter.

ARKANSAS

Zach Hocker, K: A kicker? You bet. Hocker finished his career as the SEC's active career leader in extra points made, extra points attempted, field goals made, field goals attempted points. Hocker ranked in the top-five nationally among active players in field goals made, points, extra points made, extra points attempted and field goals attempted. He was also excellent on kickoffs and has no true heir in 2014.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI Tre Mason's productivity won't be easy to replace for Auburn.
AUBURN

Tre Mason, RB: Replacing the guy who set the single-season school record for rushing yards (1,816) and total offense (2,374) won't be easy at all. Mason carried Auburn's offense for most of the season and led the SEC in rushing and rushing touchdowns (23). The Tigers now turn to Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who both rushed for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Racean Thomas.

FLORIDA

Dominique Easley, DT: Though his season was cut short by an ACL injury, Easley was so dominant when he was on the field. He was the type of player who didn't have flashy stats but created so many plays for other people. Losing someone as disruptive as Easley really showed as the season continued, as the Gators failed to get consistent pressure on opposing backfields. Leon Orr and Darious Cummings get first crack at trying to replace Easley.

GEORGIA

Aaron Murray, QB: He won a handful of games, went to two SEC championship games and broke a ton of SEC records. Now, Murray is gone, and Hutson Mason has been given the duty of replacing one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever play in the SEC. Mason got his feet wet early when Murray went down late with an ACL injury, but now this is his team and it's his turn to be a leader.

KENTUCKY

Avery Williamson, LB: In his last two seasons in Lexington, Williamson totaled 237 tackles, including 116 solo stops. A leader of the defense, Williamson was all over the field, and it might take a committee to fill his shoes both in games and in the locker room. Kentucky was able to do more when Williamson was on the field, and now the Wildcats will need to find a new spark at linebacker.

LSU

Zach Mettenberger, QB: We got to really see what Mettenberger was capable of once he got comfortable running Cam Cameron's offense. He was third in the SEC with 3,082 passing yards and threw 22 touchdowns. His big-league arm and awareness will truly be missed, as the Tigers turn to a band of inexperienced quarterbacks, starting with Anthony Jennings.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Gabe Jackson, OG: Quietly, he was one of the country's best guards in 2013. He was the anchor of the Bulldogs' line and was arguably the team's best overall player in 2013. Mississippi State has Justin Malone returning from a season-ending foot injury, while former walk-on Ben Beckwith, who replaced Malone, and Jamaal Clayborn should compete for one of the guard spots.

MISSOURI

E.J. Gaines, CB: If not for Gaines' play, Missouri's secondary would have been in a lot of trouble last season. That means the loss of arguably the SEC's best cover corner will hurt that much more in 2014. What will make things even tougher for the Tigers is that two other seniors from the secondary will also be gone, but replacing Gaines is easily the toughest job of all.

OLE MISS

Donte Moncrief, WR: He might not have had the same sort of season as he did in 2012, but Moncrief was yet again Ole Miss' top offensive weapon in 2013. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's such a tough player to cover with his size and strength. He could hit the big play deep or make the tough catches in traffic. The loss of Moncrief now puts the pressure on sophomore-to-be Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDylan Thompson will get the first crack at replacing Connor Shaw as South Carolina's QB.
SOUTH CAROLINA

Connor Shaw, QB: With all due respect to future top-five pick Jadeveon Clowney, Shaw's play, toughness and leadership will be tougher to replace in Columbia. He was the heart of this team and played through all sorts of pain to help lead the Gamecocks to their third straight 11-win season. Dylan Thompson backed him up for the past two seasons and now has to job of following Shaw's impressive career.

TENNESSEE

Antonio Richardson, OT: One of the best offensive linemen in the league, Richardson will be very tough for the Vols to replace in 2014, especially with young quarterbacks littering the backfield. Making matters worse is that the rest of the entire starting offensive line will be gone too. But not having that anchor at left tackle hurts the most.

TEXAS A&M

Johnny Manziel, QB: Yeah, like replacing all the on-field theatrics from someone who won the Heisman Trophy and produced 9,989 career yards of offense and 93 touchdowns will be easy. Manziel could hurt a defense with his arm and legs and was only contained a few times during his two seasons as the Aggies' starter. No one will be able to produce the entertainment Manziel provided.

VANDERBILT

Jordan Matthews, WR: One of the SEC's best all-time receivers is leaving the league. More importantly, he's leaving a Vanderbilt team that now has to find a consistent go-to receiver for its new quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Jordan Cunningham could be the next in line.

Week 10 helmet stickers

November, 3, 2013
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The Gators suffered their third-straight loss on the season and to Georgia on Saturday, but there were some decent performances by those in the orange-and-blue:

Kelvin Taylor, RB: In his first-career start, Taylor rushed for 76 yards on 20 carries. He only had a long run of 10 yards, but he showed some solid moves in space.

Mack Brown, RB: While he only carried the ball nine times, Brown rushed for 41 yards and a 5-yard touchdown that got the Gators right back into the game with six minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Leon Orr, DL: He might have finished the day with just two tackles, but he started Florida's second-half comeback in the third quarter when he picked up a dropped pass by Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch that was ruled a backward pass. Orr rumbled 10 yards down to the Bulldogs' 14-yard line. Two plays later, Brown scored the Gators' first touchdown.

Planning for success: Florida

September, 26, 2013
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It's been a long six days for Florida's football team.

First, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken fibula during the win over Tennessee last Saturday. Then on Tuesday, star defensive tackle Dominique Easley tore the ACL in his right knee, ending what was looking like a very promising season. Two of Florida's top players are gone before the Gators even get into the meat of the SEC schedule.

Florida is turning to unproven, longtime backup Tyler Murphy to replace Driskel and hoping that a committee of players can help replace Easley up front.

Neither task will be easy, but there's a reason you recruit, and there's a reason we call this a violent sport. There's nothing the Gators can do now but move on and try to salvage a season that looks to be slowly slipping through their fingers because of injuries.

A step in the right direction could begin Saturday, when the 20th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) travel to Lexington, Ky., to take on a Wildcats team that hasn't beaten Florida in 26 consecutive tries. In a sport with parity like college football, you'd think the Wildcats could have sneaked a win in there somewhere in the last 26 years.

With a wounded Florida team limping into Lexington, maybe this is Kentucky's shot. But you have to think that with so many questions still remaining on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats, Florida's talent will be too much. Murphy played admirably in place of Driskel in Florida's 31-17 win over Tennessee. Granted, Tennessee's defense is surrendering more than 400 yards a game and 6 yards per play, but to come in and direct the offense to 31 points after not attempting a single college pass before the day began is pretty impressive.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDominique Easley's knee injury is another tough blow for the Gators to absorb.
How high is Murphy's ceiling? That's to be determined, but there's a reason he was the third-string quarterback last year and No. 2 this year. Expect offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who was Kentucky's offensive coordinator from 2001-02, to make things as simple as possible for Murphy during his first start. Murphy clearly knows the offense, and he's probably a more slippery runner than Driskel, but the goal is keep him safe. Another injury to a quarterback would run the Gators' season straight into the ground. This is a chance to get running backs Mack Brown and Matt Jones the bulk of the touches and wear down a pretty good Kentucky defensive front.

As for Florida's defense, the Gators shouldn't miss Easley as much this weekend because the Wildcats are still struggling to find a quarterback and playmakers at receiver. Saturday will serve as an opportunity to get players in the interior of Florida's line more reps and experience before SEC play really starts to heat up. Guys such as Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have played well, but need more quality snaps. Reserves Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. need to get their feet as wet as possible.

It's also a chance for outside players such as Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. to get used to life without Easley. The big man in the middle absorbed a lot of double-teams that created ideal one-on-one situations for his teammates, so Florida needs to learn how to generate a pass rush without him.


Things went from bad to worse for Florida on Wednesday, as coach Will Muschamp announced that starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley will miss the remainder of the 2013 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee during Tuesday's practice.

“As I said earlier today on the SEC Conference Call, Dominique injured his right knee in practice late Tuesday night in a non-contact situation," Muschamp said in a statement. "Test results have revealed that he suffered a tear of both his ACL and medial meniscus, which will require season-ending surgery.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger, Dominique Easley
Jake Roth/US PresswireDominique Easley, one of the SEC's most disruptive linemen, might just be Florida's best player and replacing him will be no easy task.
“I talked to Dominique and the team this afternoon and we will continue to look for his leadership and experience throughout the season."

This is a major loss for the Gators. Already without starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the remainder of the season because of a broken right fibula, Florida will now go the remainder of the season without arguably its best player. One of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the SEC this season, Easley was viewed as possible first-round draft pick.

He didn't have monster stats, but his explosion off the line, constant motor and ability to garner double-teams provided his teammates with one-on-one opportunities up front. He created more plays for those around him than he did for himself, yet he was still able to put constant pressure on quarterbacks and running backs.

“Watching any of your players go through this is one of the hardest things about being a coach," Muschamp added. "Obviously, it is hardest on Dominique. We are disappointed for him, but we will be there for him every step of the way through his surgery and rehab process.”

Florida's SEC East title chances took a hit after Driskel went down -- making longtime backup Tyler Murphy the starter -- but they might be out the window with the loss of Easley. The Gators enter Saturday's game against Kentucky with the SEC's top defense and second-ranked defense nationally (212.3 yards allowed per game). Without Easley, the Gators will have to rely more on their outside pass-rush to create pressure on opposing backfields.

While Florida certainly has depth, and will rely heavily on interior players like Leon Orr, Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings, it will be very hard to replace a player like Easley. Expect freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. to get more work in the rotation going forward.

The good news is that Florida has bodies to work with. There are enough players up front to create a solid rotation going forward, but players like Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. have to step up to be even more consistent playmakers. The double-teams that Easley commanded will have to go somewhere else in order to create mismatches up front.

This defense isn't sunk, but the pressure for it to carry this team just got a lot bigger with the loss of Easley.

Muschamp: Bigger is better at UF

August, 16, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida fans better get a good look at senior wide receiver Solomon Patton this season because guys like him are going to be hard to find around here from now on.

Small guys.

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.

[+] EnlargeJon Halapio
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGuard Jon Halapio, at 6 feet 3 and 321 pounds, meets Will Muschamp's size criteria to compete in the SEC.
Size does matter at Florida now. Muschamp believes it’s the best way to have success in the Southeastern Conference.

"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:

Offensive line

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.

Defensive tackle

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.

Defensive ends

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.

Bucks

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.

Linebackers

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.

Tight ends

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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- D.J. Durkin enjoys being able to roam.

During his first three seasons at Florida, Durkin coached the Gators’ linebackers. All day. Every day. Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Antonio Morrison. The same faces every day in meetings and on the field.

He was happy doing it, though. Loved it, in fact.

But now that he’s Florida’s defensive coordinator, he’s finding out that he likes moving around the practice field and spending some time with each position group just as much.

"It has been an adjustment," Durkin said. "As a position coach you’re always so locked into your position. Sometimes you have blinders on because you have your concerns about what you need to get corrected and work on in practice.

"I’m really enjoying it. It’s great."

[+] EnlargeD.J. Durkin
Kim Klement/US PresswireNew defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is enjoying his expanded responsibilities.
Durkin is making his debut as a defensive coordinator after being promoted in January when Dan Quinn left for the Seattle Seahawks. Being able to wander the practice field and spend time with defensive linemen and defensive backs is way for the other players to get to know him better, but also for him to become familiar with the players, too.

It’s also allowing Durkin to get a better feel for the defense. As the linebackers coach, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his players. He knew what they could do, how to motivate them, and the roles they could play. Now he’s finding that out about guys such as cornerback Marcus Roberson, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and defensive tackle Leon Orr.

"We’ll do individual drills and we’ll be broken up and I can move a little bit and see some different things," Durkin said. "I’ll see it on tape later but it’s always good to see it on the field and coach guys while we’re out there."

Durkin has been handed a defense that lost five key players in Bostic, Jenkins, safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd from a unit that finished fifth nationally in scoring and total defense and fourth in rushing defense. Add in a first-year defensive coordinator and there’s certainly some doubt if the Gators will be able to have similar success in 2013.

"Our biggest thing, our focus, is you start camp right now and you’re a new team," Durkin said. "It’s not about what we did last year or how we did it. It’s what are we going to do and how are we going to do it? I feel really good about the guys we have that are replacing those spots. Although those might be starting positions that are gone, we have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football here. We’re not an inexperienced unit.

"We have guys that played a lot of football that we believe in and I feel really good about how we’ve recruited here the past couple years. Some guys get their chance now."

UF does have one of the country’s better secondaries -- led by projected first-round NFL draft picks Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy -- and should have an improved pass rush thanks to the return of buck Ronald Powell from a torn ACL. Powell was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2010.

That’s a good base upon which to build. But it comes back on the linebackers -- the position that Durkin coaches -- to make significant improvements or the defense could struggle. The Gators won’t have Morrison (suspension) for the first two games UF has only three other true linebackers who have appeared in a game: Ball, Michael Taylor and Kitchens. Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. are hybrid ends/linebackers and will line up at strongside linebacker.

But the group isn’t hurt by Durkin taking the time to roam the field to work with the rest of the defense. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate also works with the outside linebackers and former Gators and NFL linebacker Mike Peterson is working as an undergraduate student assistant.

"Jeff Choate, who is a great addition for us as a special teams coordinator, also is a great addition for us defensively," Durkin said. "He has a great knowledge of defense and coaching linebackers so at times we can break off the linebackers and he can work with them and that allows me to do other things. That’s been huge for me personally and for our defense I think it’ll make us better."

Gator Breakdown: Leon Orr 

July, 2, 2013
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During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 44 Leon Orr

Redshirt junior defensive tackle

Expectations for 2013: Florida needs a wide body to take over for Omar Hunter as a run-stuffing nose tackle, and the 6-foot-5, 310-pound Orr is competing with 6-3, 286-pound Damien Jacobs for the starting job. Even if he doesn’t beat out Jacobs, Orr is going to get a lot of work because the Gators regularly rotate their tackles to keep them fresh. Orr, who had 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack last season, is in the best shape of his career and is finally ready to step into a key role.


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