Florida Gators: Neiron Ball
"As a competitor, you want to get on the field the next day," Muschamp sad. "You don't want to stew over this for two weeks."
But with no game Saturday, the Gators won’t soon get their chance to regroup on the field. It isn't ideal for Muschamp and Co., but moving on from the loss is priority No. 1 for the Gators.
Muschamp said he tried to get his players in the right mindset almost immediately after the Gators returned to Gainesville after the Miami game.
"I told the team on Sunday, I said, 'I didn't question your effort or your want to,'" Muschamp said. "When you start having those questions, then you have a problem. We had put ourselves in positions to win the game, but we didn't get it done.
"Close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. They don't count in football."
The Gators found that out the hard way.
Florida out-played Miami on both sides of the ball for most of Saturday's loss, but egregious mistakes, like turning the ball over five times and going 2-for-6 in the red zone (with two Jeff Driskel interceptions and a Trey Burton fumble), cost the Gators.
Miami's defense, especially its defensive line, deserve some credit. The Canes were very disruptive and created a lot of issues for Florida's offense, but the Gators dominated the yards column (413-212), and averaged 6.1 yards per play inside the first 80 yards of the field. Inside the red zone, they averaged just 1.2 yards per play. Add the failed fourth-and-1 attempt and the turnovers, and you have a recipe for disaster in a game that was very winnable for Florida.
"We had some good things, but we just didn't capitalize on some situations that we should have," Muschamp said.
Linebacker Neiron Ball said a week of physical practices have helped shake the sting from last weekend. The loss hasn't completely disappeared, but Ball said players understand that this team's goal of reaching the SEC championship is still in sight.
"Just move on and worry about Florida," Ball said. "We can't worry about any other teams. We have to get back on track, obviously, but we'll be alright.
"We still have confidence. We haven't even played an SEC game yet, so we have so much more to look forward to."
And Ball's right.
The offense is taking a lot of heat, but the Gators have moved the ball considerably better through two games than they did for most of last season and the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards allowed per game (208.5). Right now, no team in the SEC’s Eastern Division is close to being perfect. There are too many flaws to crown anyone, even division-leading Georgia.
"We just need to worry about us," Muschamp said. "We just need to take care of Florida right now, and that's true for the rest of the season. We need more attention to detail as far as ball security is concerned, getting alignment, getting your eyes in the right spots, executing your assignments -- all the things good teams do."
So far, Ball said he's seen more upbeat practices and an attitude shift since Saturday's loss.
"I feel a whole different vibe," he said. "Our coaches are trying to emphasize urgency. I feel a big sense of urgency out of the whole team."
With the SEC opener against Tennessee fast approaching, we’ll see if the Gators were stewing this week or if that urgency carries over to next week.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Throughout the offseason, Florida knew its program depth would be tested.
The Gators lost seven starters from last year's defense and knew Week 1 would mean a match up against a veteran Toledo offense that averaged more than 445 yards of total offense in 2012.
In fall camp Florida lost three starters on offense to injury. And Saturday saw five players suspended, including two starters on defense.
Throw in a head coach who believes in playing his best freshmen, and there were so many new faces on Florida Field it's a wonder there were any game programs left unsold.
"We're taught by our coaches, especially [head coach Will] Muschamp, when there's a man down to man up," linebacker Neiron Ball said. "If there's a man down, the next player's got to be ready."
Muschamp, who expects this year's defense to be just as good as last year despite all the new starters, is standing by the motto. He expects injuries and he doles out discipline knowing he can weather a suspension to an important player.
"We're not going to make excuses at Florida, regardless of injury, sickness, whatever the situation may be," he said. "We're just going to move forward. That's why you have a deep roster and that's why you recruit guys who don't ask you about the depth chart 400 times. You recruit guys who want to come in here and compete.
"A lot of young guys, they were a little big-eyed walking out of the locker room. But [it was good] for them to get that experience. I think we played 15 freshmen, eight or nine true and then seven redshirt guys. So that's good to get those young guys playing. The way it is in college football now, you've got a bunch of guys coming out early, you might as well play the [young] guys."
Leading the way, however, was running back Mack Brown. Not a new face, but maybe an anonymous one. Brown has toiled in orange and blue for more than three years, amassing just 40 career carries, despite once having four-star recruiting status. Still, Muschamp said he wasn't at all surprised at Brown's performance.
The redshirt junior was Florida's workhorse on Saturday, rushing for 25 times for 112 mostly tough yards and two first-half touchdowns. He drew the starting assignment because sophomore Matt Jones is still recovering from a viral infection.
Brown's reaction to possibly losing the starting nod next week against the in-state rival Miami Hurricanes?
"You know what, we need [Jones] back, man," Brown said. "We've got about four to five backs. You need a lot of backs in a season. Can't wait to see Matt Jones back. Really can't wait to see him."
Sharing the starting backfield duties with Brown on Saturday was fullback Gideon Ajagbe, another forgotten redshirt junior who credits an offseason switch from linebacker with providing his first chance at playing time. He cashed in with his first career touchdown, a wide-open 4-yard pass from Jeff Driskel.
To hear Ajagbe tell it, he was simply the next man up, as Florida limited the playing time of incumbent starter Hunter Joyer, who is dealing with a pulled hamstring.
"It was fun. It was cool," Ajagbe said of the pregame locker-room scene where so many new players were slated for more prominent roles. "I know everybody was jacked up for it."
When the players line up to come out of the tunnel during Florida's pregame introductions, the starters get to lead the way. Of all the new faces at the front of the line, Brown might have been the most emotional.
"You lose a lot of confidence over the years, not playing," he said. "The last time I started was my senior year of high school.
"I had tears in my eyes. I felt like I was useless the last couple of years."
Not Saturday. With a man down, Jones and other Gators manned up.
The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.
"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.
"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."
Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.
This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.
Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).
Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).
It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.
And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.
"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.
"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."
Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:
Ideal number: 15-17
Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.
Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.
Ideal number: 8-10
Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.
Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.
Ideal number: 6-8
Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.
Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.
Ideal number: 4-6
Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.
Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.
Ideal number: 9-12
Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.
Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.
Ideal number: 3-5
Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.
Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.
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."
No. 28 Jeremi Powell
Redshirt freshman linebacker
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No. 11 Neiron Ball
Redshirt junior linebacker
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Here’s the breakdown:
LT: D.J. Humphries (6-5, 285, So.)/Trenton Brown (6-8, 363, Jr.)
LG: Max Garcia (6-4, 307, RJr.)/Ian Silberman (6-5, 290, RJr.)
C: Jonotthan Harrison (6-3, 303, RSr.) /Kyle Koehne (6-5, 314, RSr.)
RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 317, RSr.)/Trip Thurman (6-5, 313, RSo.)
RT: Tyler Moore (6-5, 315, RSo.) OR Chaz Green (6-5, 305, RJr.)
TE: Clay Burton (6-4, 247, Jr.)/Tevin Westbrook (6-5, 258, Jr.) OR Colin Thompson (6-4, 250, RFr.) OR Kent Taylor (6-5, 223, So.)
RB: Matt Jones (6-2, 228, So.)/Mack Brown (5-11, 215, RJr.)
"It’s a freak deal," Muschamp said. "It was in a tackling drill. He just got hit on it the wrong way. Disappointed for him but he’s going to be a really good player, so we’re going to be fine."
Anzalone enrolled in January and was backing up starter Antonio Morrison at middle linebacker. Morrison played outside linebacker last season as a freshman but moved inside this spring after Jonathan Bostic graduated.
Anzalone is one of three freshman linebackers to enroll early. Only one of them is healthy now. Matt Rolin (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods) is sitting out spring as he continues to recover from offseason ACL surgery. Daniel McMillian (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast) is the backup to starter Michael Taylor at weakside linebacker.
Senior Darrin Kitchens, redshirt junior Neiron Ball and redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell are working at strongside linebacker.
What's new: Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left to become the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Will Muschamp then promoted D.J. Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator. Brad Lawing was hired away from South Carolina to help coach Florida's defensive line and was given the title of assistant head coach. Interim wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan was replaced by former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.
On the mend: Redshirt junior offensive lineman Chaz Green will miss all of spring after undergoing ankle surgery following Florida's bowl game. Redshirt junior defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell will also miss the spring while he continues to rehab his ACL injury that he suffered last spring. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman is out for the spring, as he recovers from shoulder surgery that he had before the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Matt Rolin is also out, recovering from ACL surgery. Senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio (knee scope), senior wide receiver Solomon Patton (broken arm), redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball (ankle) and punter Kyle Christy (shoulder) will all be limited this spring.
On the move: Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will start the first seven practices at the "Z" receiver spot. Redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Sophomore Antonio Morrison moved from Will to Mike linebacker, while redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor has moved from Mike to Will. Redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter moved from safety to fullback. Redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe also moved from linebacker to fullback. Redshirt junior Cody Riggs has moved from cornerback to safety, where he's listed as a starter.
Question marks: Heading into the spring, the biggest questions remain on offense, where the Gators were incredibly inconsistent last year. Workhorse running back Mike Gillislee is gone, and while the Gators should feature a stable of running backs this fall, throwing the ball has to improve or this offense will go in reverse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel says he's more confident and offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects to open things up more in the passing game, but the Gators also have to get better protection up front and develop some more reliable receivers and replace top target, tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's defense has a lot of experienced youngsters, but it won't be easy to replace the production that guys like Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jon Bostic had last year. Florida is also looking for someone to replace kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips will compete for that spot.
New faces: Rolin, running back Kelvin Taylor, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson all enrolled early as true freshmen. Florida also welcomed Nebraska offensive lineman transfer Tyler Moore (sophomore) and junior college transfer Darius Cummings (DT). Offensive lineman Max Garica also transferred from Maryland and sat out last season.
Key battle: Florida has to find a reliable receiving target at either tight end or receiver. The athletic Kent Taylor figures to be the favorite at tight end, but he'll have to compete with Colin Thompson, Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. At receiver, it's a free-for-all, and there isn't a ton of experience. Purifoy will certainly get his shot, but vets Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose have to make significant strides. So does rising sophomore Latroy Pittman, who fell off last year after a successful spring. Sophomore Raphael Andrades will be back and forth between football and baseball, while Patton will be limited. Keep an eye on Robinson, who was the top receiver in the Gators' 2013 class and is a downfield threat and someone who can be elusive through the middle of the field.
Breaking out: Florida needs to replace Gillislee, and sophomore Matt Jones has already had a solid offseason, according to coaches. He progressed as last season went on and has both speed and strength to work with. The plan is for him to be a 20-plus-carry player this fall. Morrison's role now expands, and after having a very solid freshman year, even more is expected from him now that he's at the Mike. If he improves his coverage ability, he could be a big-time player for the Gators. Also, keep an eye on junior safety Jabari Gorman. He covers a lot of ground and isn't afraid to play in the box.
Don't forget about: Ball and Riggs have dealt with injuries in the past, but as they get healthy, Florida's coaches are excited about what they could do in 2013. Ball will play some Buck and provides Florida with another solid third-down pass-rusher and should help the Gators put more pressure on opposing backfields this fall. Riggs played in just two games last year before fracturing his foot, but he's a very physical defensive back. With his speed, moving to safety should provide him a chance to make more plays in Florida's secondary. He was also the starter at safety when Elam went to nickel last year.
The Gators have cleared additional space on the roster with the impending spring graduations of DE Kedric Johnson and WR Stephen Alli and a potential medical exemption for OL Tommy Jordan.
Muschamp said Alli is going to attend graduate school and could remain with the program in the operations or with the strength program. Muschamp said Johnson, a redshirt junior with one season of eligibility remaining, might transfer to another school and try to play another season under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.
Jordan, who would have been a redshirt sophomore in 2013, has chronic shoulder problems. He would remain on scholarship but would not be eligible to play at Florida if his hardship is granted, as expected.
Those three moves leave the Gators able to sign 33 players next month. Eight players already have enrolled and would count toward last season.
In addition, four players had minor surgeries this month: OL Jon Halapio (knee), OL Chaz Green (ankle), LB Neiron Ball (ankle) and P Kyle Christy (shoulder).
"All those guys will be able to take part in spring [practice]," Muschamp said. "I just don’t know how much at this point."
Muschamp also said WR Solomon Patton is progressing well in his recovery from a broken arm. He said he didn’t believe Patton would be cleared for contact in the spring.
Florida is going to have to piece together a starting unit from a group of players that’s loaded with potential but doesn’t have a lot of experience. The Gators might even end up starting a true freshman.
But does Morrison start at weakside linebacker, which is where he played as Jenkins’ replacement when Jenkins was out with his finger, foot and hamstring injuries? Or can he beef up and play in the middle as a replacement for Jon Bostic, who graduates? He’s a better fit at outside linebacker because he’s athletic enough to cover tight ends and backs.
Does 6-foot, 226-pound redshirt junior Mike Taylor start in the middle? He’s solid against the run but he’s not very good in coverage and the Gators subbed him out for Morrison on obvious passing downs when he was in the game.
The Gators don’t have a lot of options at inside linebacker. James Hearns (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) is the only inside linebacker commitment the Gators have.
The other outside spot could go to a variety of players: redshirt junior Neiron Ball, senior Darrin Kitchens, redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell (whom the coaches have raved about on the scout team), and freshman Daniel McMillian, who is scheduled to enroll this week.
While the linebackers appear to be a talented group, there isn’t much production. Taylor has 68 tackles and one sack in 25 career games, although that sack was a big one: It knocked Texas A&M out of field goal position just before halftime. Morrison has 34 tackles and a sack in 13 games, and Kitchens has 37 tackles in 35 games.
After that, there’s very little experience. D.J. Durkin has established himself as a heck of a recruiter and a very good special-teams coordinator. Now he’s going to have to piece together a unit that doesn’t have a consistent playmaker.
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Saturday, noon ET
Florida Field, Gainesville, Fla.
Gators to watch
QB Jeff Driskel: How does Driskel respond after committing four of the Gators’ six turnovers in their 17-9 loss to Georgia last week? He admitted he held the ball too long and didn’t make quick decisions, and those are issues that are certainly correctable in one week. Driskel probably put too much pressure on himself to make plays against Georgia. He needs to just run the offense and not force things.
RB Omarius Hines: Somebody has to take over for the injured Solomon Patton (broken left arm) and run the jet sweep, and Hines is one of two candidates. The other is WR Andre Debose, but the coaching staff has more trust in Hines than Debose. Hines isn’t as fast as Patton, but he’s bigger, more physical and pretty good with the ball in his hands.
Tigers to watch
QB James Franklin: Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said that Franklin would start against the Gators. Franklin has been hampered by shoulder and knee injuries all season and that has kept him from being the dynamic player he was last season (3,847 all-purpose yards). But he’s still dangerous, especially if he’s healthy. He came on in the second half of last week’s game against Kentucky and looked pretty good in turning a close game into a rout.
DT Sheldon Richardson: Richardson leads the Tigers in tackles (57) and sacks (4.0), which is highly unusual for an interior defensive lineman. What it says is that Richardson is talented enough to make tackles down the field and anywhere along the line of scrimmage, plus quick and strong enough to get to the quarterback.
Here are the good and the bad from the loss at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.:
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GatorNation will tell you every week. It’s not just a list of MVP candidates, but a compilation of the players who are making the biggest difference each week.
Here’s this week’s top 10 (last week’s rankings in parentheses):
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