Florida Gators: Marcus Roberson
But after losing 37-7 to No. 2 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) in the Swamp on Saturday, Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC) can take solace that its season of misery is mercifully over.
Not even an inspirational pregame speech by Gators great Tim Tebow could do more than delay the inevitable.
"What he said to us was, 'Any man that goes down, he has the ability to get back up. But the difference is how that man gets back up, because a man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back up and is changed and is different from being down, that's who we are. That's who the Gators are. That's how we need to play and that's who we need to be,' " Florida left tackle Max Garcia recounted.
"So, I'm going to stick with that for the rest of my life. It really penetrated my soul."
With Tebow watching on the sidelines, the Gators were bouncing around and showing more emotion than they had in weeks. In front of a nearly full stadium, its fans at full throat, Florida's defense harassed Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston into one of his worst quarters (4-of-6 for 35 yards) of the season.
Winston threw his first interception in three weeks -- an excuse-me catch by Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who broke up the pass with his back to the ball but was able to find and reel in the deflection. It was the Gators' first interception since the second quarter of the Missouri game on Oct. 19.
The crowd roared its approval, and there was more energy in the Swamp than at any point in the season.
Florida outgained FSU 81 yards to 33 in the first quarter, but 50 of those yards came on one Wildcat keeper up the middle by senior Trey Burton. Two plays later, Burton injured his shoulder on another keeper and did not return to the field.
With Burton went half of the offense the Gators were planning to run.
"We were probably going to have 30-35 plays with Trey [at Wildcat quarterback]," Muschamp said. "Some of the misdirection runs now go out of the game plan, so you've got to make adjustments and you've got to change.
"I hurt for Trey because he’s a senior, his last game in the Swamp, so [it's] very difficult for him. He’s a great young man. It just kinda sums up what’s happened this year. Very frustrating."
With Burton's injury, Florida was missing 16 scholarship contributors in this game. And with cornerback Marcus Roberson dealing with an ankle injury in the first half, UF was missing 10 of its original 22 projected starters on offense and defense.
Winston and the Seminoles still led 3-0 after the first quarter, as FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo converted the same 49-yard field goal that his Florida counterpart, Austin Hardin, missed.
A 12-play, 96-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin might have put the game out of reach, but more importantly, it quelled the enthusiasm of the Florida defense and the crowd.
FSU had weathered the early storm of defensive pressure and taken a 17-0 lead into halftime. It tied the lowest first-half scoring output of the season for the Noles, which happened previously against Nevada in Week 2.
A game that looked on paper like a colossal mismatch inevitably turned out that way. The Florida defense couldn't get off the field, thanks to FSU going 9-of-15 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Florida went 1-for-11 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play on the day.
"You got to maintain the ball against an offense like that," Muschamp said. "You got to take time off the clock. ... We weren’t able to do that. Give them credit. They made plays on third down, and we didn’t. I think we were 1-of-10 or -11 on third down. You got to convert those, and we’ve struggled to make explosives, make third-down conversions. You name it, we haven’t done it.”
In a season of making all the wrong history, the only drama Florida could muster against Florida State was whether the Noles would shut out the Gators for the first time in the 58-game series.
The answer was no, but it was close. And now the Gators boast the nation's second-longest streak of scoring in consecutive games (322, second to Michigan's 374 games in a row).
With one score in the fourth quarter, Florida finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns. It's the fewest since 1989, the season before Steve Spurrier was hired as coach. On the other sideline, sitting out the Noles' final series to let his backup play, Winston had already broken Florida State's single-season record for passing TDs, with three more on Saturday giving him a total of 35.
"It’s been a tough year, difficult to deal with, but it is what it is," a somber Muschamp said when it was over. "Those guys have persevered through some tough times and certainly this season being the iceberg of it all."
Now that it's in the history books, however, Florida's 2013 season might be remembered less as an iceberg and more as the ship that sunk when it struck one.
That's both a good thing and a bad thing for No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC). The good news is that the defense has been stellar thus far, ranking first in the SEC and third nationally in total defense (235.3 yards per game). Even after losing wealth of talent to last spring's NFL draft -- and potential All-American defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending ACL injury -- the Gators' defense has been clicking each week.
Florida's defense is also first in the SEC in rushing defense (83.3 yards per game), passing (152 ypg) and second in scoring (13 points per game). After losing to LSU 17-6 this past weekend, the Gators have gone 13 straight SEC games without allowing 20 or more points. The Gators have an all-star cast in their secondary, headlined by corners Vernon Hargreaves III (a true freshman) and potential first-round draft picks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. The defensive line is headlined by Buck end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., while Antonio Morrison leads a talented linebacker corps.
While Florida has given up more than 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games, no one produced more than 66 rushing yards through the first four games of the season.
Then there's the offense. Like last year, it's a major issue again. Florida lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken fibula against Tennessee in Week 4 and have had to throw longtime backup Tyler Murphy into the fire. After three solid outings, Murphy crumbled under the pressure forced by LSU's defense last week. What didn't help was the lack of a consistent running game. In losses to Miami and LSU, Florida averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.
The weird thing is that Florida is one of three SEC teams to have three players with more than 300 receiving yards, but if the Gators are going to make any sort of push toward Atlanta for the SEC championship, the offense has to get going. The problem is that with running back Matt Jones out for the season, the Gators are still looking for that hammer-type running back like Mike Gillislee was last year.
Offensive MVP: Solomon Patton, WR, Sr.: After spending three years as more of a jet-sweep guy, Patton leads the Gators with 380 yards and four touchdowns on 22 catches. He has become a deep threat, an underneath threat and a threat out of the backfield.
Defensive MVP: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Soph.: After a slow start, Fowler has been one of the Gators' best players, registering a team-high seven tackles for loss and three sacks. He also has three quarterback hurries, 22 total tackles and has forced two fumbles.
Greg Ostendorf: It starts with the defense. Florida is ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217 yards per game. In a season that has been dominated by the offenses in the SEC, the Gators are winning with defense. If anybody can stop or slow down LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season, it’s Florida. They have two NFL-caliber cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and maybe the conference’s best freshman, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. On offense, the Gators need to establish the run early and often. LSU ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. That could mean a big day for running back Matt Jones.
Kevin Paul (@KevinJPaul) writes: Does LSU have the best offense in the conference?
Greg Ostendorf: As good as Florida’s defense has been this season, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop this LSU offense. Sure, Georgia outscored LSU when they met in Athens. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been the most explosive player in the SEC. But how can you argue against the Tigers’ offense? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has turned the page and is looking like a first-round draft pick. They have the top wide receiver tandem in the conference. And if you try to shut down the passing game, they can just hand the ball off to Jeremy Hill. There’s not a more balanced offense in the league. LSU is averaging 291 yards per game through the air, and since the return of Hill they’re rushed for more than 200 yards in three of the last four games.
Jerrod Piker (@d1nonlyhogfan) writes: With or without Clowney, does South Carolina struggle in Fayetteville this weekend? Could this be Bielema’s signature win in season No. 1?
Greg Ostendorf: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to pay for South Carolina this weekend, per his defensive coordinator. However, even with the star defensive end on the field, I think the Gamecocks will get all they can handle from Arkansas. Freshman running back Alex Collins is leading the SEC in rushing with 651 yards through the first half of the season, and he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, South Carolina has struggled in recent weeks against the likes of Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. There's no doubt this would be a signature win for Brett Bielema and put them one step closer to making a bowl game.
Adam Hathcock (@adam_hath) writes: Does Tennessee's bye week help or hurt them?
Greg Ostendorf: It all depends on how the Volunteers respond after a gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. You could argue the bye week would be helpful because the team is still devastated after Saturday’s game and might have come out flat this weekend. However, the overtime loss to the Dawgs seemed to re-energize the program and the fans. Butch Jones & Co. could use the game as a springboard for the rest of the season. Ultimately, I think the off week will be helpful. It gives the players a chance to rest up and get healthy, and they will have extra time to prepare for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come to Neyland Stadium a week from Saturday.
Daniel Badger (@badger_daniel) writes: Is Dan Mullen on the hot seat? If so, who are some possible candidates to replace him after the season?
Greg Ostendorf: It’s hard to argue with what Mullen has done for the Mississippi State program. He has taken the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, which is no easy task. But they have seemed to hit a ceiling of sorts and are in danger of missing the postseason this year. I think it’s too early to fire Mullen, but in this day and age in college football, nothing is out of the question. If he were let go, Mississippi State might look at Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was born in in Mississippi and coached in Starkville once before. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bobby Petrino’s name came up as well.
3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.
5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?
6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.
7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.
8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.
9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.
10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Whether it's counting interceptions, tackles, tipped passes or trash talk, Florida's secondary seems to always be playing its own game. Sure, they understand that every move could affect a play -- both positively or negatively -- but their never-ending competition makes them closer. And it makes them that much more dangerous to test.
"At the end of the day, that helps us get better," senior cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins said.
With possible first-rounders for next year's NFL draft in cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, the Gators own the SEC's top corner duo, but it doesn't stop there. Add freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who might be the most talented pure corner on the team, and cross-training fourth-year safeties in Watkins and Cody Riggs, and this is quite a formidable starting defensive backfield. Florida can rotate eight quality guys in the secondary in each game.
Just check out some of these numbers for Florida's secondary:
- Florida ranks first in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 157 yards a game;
- Through three games, the Gators have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 44.3 percent of their passes and QBs average only 4.9 yards per attempt. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 82.95, lowest in the nation, when facing Florida;
- Florida has had an interception in six consecutive games, dating to last season;
- Florida had seven pass breakups in last week's 31-17 victory over Tennessee, which matched the team’s total for the year entering the game and the most in a game since recording seven against South Carolina last year.
"We feel we are the best secondary in the country," Watkins said.
Five of Florida's six interceptions this season have come from the secondary, with Hargreaves leading the team with two picks. Watkins, who is second on the team with 12 tackles and has defended three passes this year, said he knew from the first day Hargreaves stepped on the practice field that he would be special. Watkins said his vertical jump blew everyone away, but it was the way he picked up the technique that had his veteran teammates turning their heads.
It took guys like Watkins weeks to get the positioning and technique down. Watkins said it only took Hargreaves "a few days."
"Once he got it, he looked like me, Marcus and Loucheiz at corner. There was no drop-off," Watkins said. "With Vernon coming in, that's just amazing because he allows me to go to safety and do a lot of different things. He's come in and stepped in and done everything the coaches have asked him. He's going to be a great player."
Now, this secondary isn't perfect. There was the 52-yard touchdown pass in the loss to Miami, and a thin secondary surrendered a late, 79-yard touchdown drive to Tennessee that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass because of a blown assignment.
But as Watkins points out, with how aggressively this unit plays, those things can happen. It isn't always positioning or picking up men that hurts this secondary, Watkins said, it's eye control. And when you're aggressive, that can hurt you.
Watkins said coach Will Muschamp, who was a defensive back at Georgia, harps on eye control and the little things. He calls out minute details that his defensive backs miss. He'll even stop guys in the hall to tell him the exact mistake he made on the exact play.
It sounds like it could get annoying, but Watkins said Muschamp's hands-on approach with the secondary is a good learning tool.
"He takes pride in coaching the little things with us," Watkins said. "It's the really small things that can lead to something big. Eye control might not catch us one time, but it can also lead to a big play."
So far, the secondary has bounced back from big plays and each week brings more development. Playing at such a high level is made easier when the guys running the show are comfortable with all the working parts.
"We all trust each other at a higher level," Watkins said. "We all have good chemistry, no matter who's on the field."
Tyler Murphy has to stay healthy: With Jeff Driskel going down with a broken leg that will end his 2013 season, the Gators now turn to fourth-year junior Tyler Murphy. He entered the game with no official passes on his résumé and left with fans chanting his name. He passed for 134 yards, rushed for another 84 and had two total touchdowns. But it's very important that Murphy stay upright going forward. If you thought Florida's quarterback depth was bad when Driskel was playing, it's even worse now. Neither Skyler Mornhinweg nor Max Staver have any college experience. Murphy played well, but he has to stay healthy or the Gators' offense could truly be sunk. That means the scrambling quarterback will have to get used to sliding when he takes off.
There's a battle at running back: Matt Jones entered the season as the Gators' starting running back, but coach Will Muschamp said after Saturday's game that he plans to play the hot hand at running back going forward. Right now, junior Mack Brown has the hot hand. He carried the ball a game-high 24 times for 86 yards and had a touchdown. He was more effective in between the tackles and was able to break free from tackles more often than Brown, who rushed for just 49 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
Florida's secondary is full of depth: Injuries and an ejection didn't stop the Gators' secondary from having another solid outing. Starting cornerback Marcus Roberson was out with a knee injury, while fellow starter Loucheiz Purifoy left the game early with a leg injury. Brian Poole was ejected in the fourth quarter after being called for targeting. Still, the Gators held Tennessee's two quarterbacks to just 154 yards and a touchdown on 14 of 34 passing. Florida also recorded four interceptions. Coaches were able to move guys all around the secondary, too. Freshman corner Vernon Hargeaves III had another impressive outing, registering three pass breakups. Florida gave up a touchdown pass late on a blown assignment, but the secondary really showed it's quality depth inside the Swamp Saturday.
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."
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."
Today we're looking at Florida as the Gators try to follow up a surprising 11-2 season in 2012.
Coach: Will Muschamp (18-8)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, S Matt Elam, K Caleb Sturgis
Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Matt Jones, DT Dominique Easley, buck Dante Fowler, DE Jonathan Bullard, buck Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Newcomer to watch: LB Daniel McMillian
Biggest games in 2013: at Miami (Sept. 7), at LSU (Oct. 12), vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. (Nov. 2), at South Carolina (Nov. 16), vs. Florida State (Nov. 30)
Forecast: Florida is coming off a surprising 11-2 season that was made possible by elite defense and special teams. That will have to be the formula again in 2013 because there are still too many questions about the offense -- and not just at receiver.
Even though they lost three elite players up the middle of the defense in Floyd, Bostic and Elam, the Gators have the potential to be just as good on defense this season as they were in 2012 (fifth nationally in total and scoring defense; fourth in rushing; 17th in passing). An improved pass rush and a secondary that is one of the nation’s best are the top two reasons.
Sophomores Bullard and Fowler played well as freshmen and now have a full season in the weight program behind them. The return of Powell from a torn ACL gives the Gators probably their best pass-rusher back (he led UF with 6.0 sacks in 2011).
But can the defense again carry an offense that lost the two best players from a unit that finished 114th nationally in passing and 103rd overall? The lack of playmakers at receiver has been an issue for the past three seasons and the Gators will need help from several freshmen in 2013. The offensive line is significantly better, especially on the left side with the addition of guard Max Garcia and tackle D.J. Humphries.
The biggest key will be how much Driskel has improved in his second season as a starter and how quickly Jones can recover from a viral infection.
The Gators are struggling to replace Sturgis, the school’s third all-time leading scorer. Not having the luxury of a reliable kicker on a team that struggles to move the ball consistently is an overlooked issue that may cost the Gators games.
Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:
1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.
3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.
4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.
6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.
9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.
10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.
11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.
12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.
13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.
14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
No. 31 Cody Riggs
Redshirt junior defensive back
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No. 24 Brian Poole
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No. 15 Loucheiz Purifoy
Junior cornerback/wide receiver
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No. 5 Marcus Roberson
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Ranking UF’s needs for 2014
1. Offensive line
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2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (2nd Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RB/WR Trey Burton, DE/DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, S Jaylen Watkins, P Kyle Christy
RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards)
Passing: Jeff Driskel* (1,646 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Reed (559 yards)
Tackles: Josh Evans (83)
Sacks: Dominique Easley* (4.0)
Interceptions: Matt Elam (4)
1. Back in business: Sophomore Matt Jones running back had a fantastic spring and the coaching staff is convinced he’ll be a more than capable replacement for Gillislee. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Will Muschamp’s power-run offense. He’s a straight-ahead, downhill runner, who runs through contact and gets tough yards. The offense will be built around him, especially with the questions surrounding the passing game. Redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor, give the Gators solid depth at the position.
2. Lined up: UF’s offensive line made strides in 2012 and it will be even better in 2013. The addition of transfers -- Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) -- gives the Gators a pair of former starters to add to an already solid base with Harrison and Halapio. Plus, sophomore D.J. Humphries is an immediate upgrade from Xavier Nixon at left tackle. Garcia will start at left guard and pair with Humphries to give Driskel better blind-side protection than he had a year ago.
3. The middle is settled: With the loss of Bostic and Jenkins, the Gators needed a middle linebacker. The staff moved sophomore Antonio Morrison from weakside linebacker, and Morrison showed pretty quickly he was up to the task. He’s not the biggest middle linebacker the Gators have had (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), but he is certainly one of the most physical. Morrison hits like he weighs 260 pounds -- just ask 245-pound former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Morrison leveled last season. Morrison proved he could handle making the defensive calls and he should easily step into the role Bostic held for the past two seasons.
1. Receiver issues ... again: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will again struggle. That’s been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. He has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage. Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.
2. Safety dance: There’s some concern about the Gators’ safeties because some of the younger and less experienced players haven’t developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF’s two starting safeties. They have both played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman. Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Roberson, Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.
3. Just for kicks: Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis was, but it’s the first part that’s more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don’t get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball. Sturgis was able to bail the Gators out because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark may have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.