- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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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
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.