Florida Gators: D.J. Humphries
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.
Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.
Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.
It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.
The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.
"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."
It was another rough outing for the Gator O-line, which gave up five sacks and a total of nine tackles for loss for a whopping 67 yards. Losing at home to the Commodores was just the latest insult upon a season of injury.
"I've never seen or heard of anything like this, but this is the game we play," Halapio said of the injury bug that Florida just can't shake. "We've just got to move forward."
The senior guard, who tore his left pectoral muscle just before training camp and missed two games, has embodied the season-long struggles of his offensive line, as injuries and ineffectiveness have eroded any cohesion and consistency the UF offense has been able to muster.
Just when Florida made some personnel adjustments that seemed to click in the Nov. 2 loss to Georgia, another devastating injury struck.
That was sophomore tackle Tyler Moore, who is out for the season after falling off his scooter and suffering a compound fracture of his elbow last week. Offensive tackle was already a particularly sore spot. The Gators lost junior starter Chaz Green (torn labrum) for the season in fall camp, and sophomore starter D.J. Humphries (sprained knee) missed his second consecutive game on Saturday.
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators used their sixth different offensive line alignment of the season. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison is the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.
Despite how often they have to talk about injuries, Halapio, his teammates and their coaches bristle at the thought of using them as an excuse.
"[Moore's injury] shook things up, but we practiced [last] week," Halapio said. "We prepared for Vanderbilt like they prepared for us. There's no excuses about the injuries."
But losing three starting tackles clearly has had a musical-chairs effect on the line. Against the Bulldogs, Moore replaced Humphries by moving from right tackle to left. Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, got his first start, and the line had its best game in the last month.
“Well, we felt very good about a combination of Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown at tackles. We lost Tyler on Tuesday night. It hurt us in the [Vanderbilt] game," head coach Will Muschamp said on Saturday. "So you move Max [Garcia] from left guard, where he's been playing all year, to left tackle. Then you have a new left guard coming in in Ian [Silberman], who was really -- going in the Georgia game, until he had another injury -- was going to play tight end for us. It's hard.”
Hard to keep up with, too.
The results this season are about what one might expect of such a banged-up unit. Florida has allowed 26 sacks, tied for 105th among 123 FBS schools. The tackles for loss statistics are even worse, as the Gators have given up 67 in nine games, which ranks 110th.
And there are few answers on a roster so depleted. It's no wonder Halapio feels the answers can only come from within.
"We've just got to look ourselves in the mirror individually, especially through this time," he said. "I've never been through this really like this, adversity like this. So we've just got to correct this and move forward with the guys that want to win."
At least the ones who are still standing.
Florida's running game vs. Georgia's front seven: This is perhaps the most important matchup on this side of the ball. Florida's offensive identity is built around pounding the run and controlling the clock, and it made hay in that department with Mike Gillislee toting the rock an SEC-high 244 times for 1,152 yards last season. The results have been highly uneven this year with quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Matt Jones sidelined by season-ending injuries. Georgia native Mack Brown (99-359, 3 TDs) is Florida's leading rusher, but he is not the Gators' scariest ball carrier. That honor goes to freshman Kelvin Taylor (28-172, TD), the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. Kelvin has played more recently. The problem is that, like most freshman, he is a liability in pass protection. Until he becomes a more consistent blocker, defenses know what Florida likely intends to do when he lines up in the backfield.
Georgia pass rushers vs. depleted Florida line: The Bulldogs' defense hasn't had much to brag about this season, but they have actually applied fairly consistent pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Georgia is tied for third in the SEC with 19 sacks -- many of which have come from the revitalized defensive line. Defensive end Ray Drew leads the team and is tied for fourth in the SEC with five sacks. Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four) and Jordan Jenkins (three) are just behind him. Florida has struggled with its pass protection this season, and it could be an even bigger issue on Saturday now that left tackle D.J. Humphries is out of the picture for the next few games. The Gators have allowed 17 sacks this season -- only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (19 apiece) have allowed more among SEC teams -- so their injury-depleted line needs to raise its level of play or Florida's offense might have difficulty moving the ball on Saturday. Jarvis Jones, who wreaked havoc against Florida in each of the last two meetings, is no longer on the roster, but Drew, Jenkins and Floyd are good enough to give the Gators problems.
Tyler Murphy on the edge: Driskel's replacement under center, Murphy, started out well enough, leading the Gators to wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas in his first three games. But Murphy took a pounding in the last two games, both losses, and Florida's offense was barely able to generate any scoring punch. He is most effective as a run-pass threat -- Murphy ran 10 times for 84 yards after taking over against Tennessee -- but his Total QBR numbers have fallen off a cliff since his strong start. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Murphy posted an outstanding Total QBR of 93.8 in the first three games, completing 72 percent of his passes, but he averaged an 8.9 QBR against LSU and Missouri -- including a 3.0 against Missouri, the lowest QBR by a Florida starter in the last decade. He'll have to make some things happen with his legs for Florida's offense to be effective Saturday, as he leaves a lot to be desired as a pure drop-back passer.
Containing Florida's receivers: The Gators have pretty much stunk in the passing game over the past few seasons, and 2013 has been no different (12th in the SEC in passing at 175.4 ypg). The speedy Solomon Patton (28-426, 4 TDs) -- whom Georgia safety Shawn Williams bulldog tackled just before he reached the first-down marker on a run last season, knocking Patton out of the game -- has been one of the Gators' only consistent receiving weapons. Otherwise, Florida's receiving corps has been a train wreck this season. Andre Debose is out for the year with an injury. Trey Burton (29-336, TD) has the most catches on the team, but hasn't been particularly consistent. Quinton Dunbar (22-301) is the only other Gator with more than 46 receiving yards. Georgia's secondary has been subpar this season -- the Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in pass defense (253.4 ypg) -- so the matchup between its defensive backs and Florida's mediocre wideouts pits two weaknesses against one another.
Burton as wild card: Think back to Florida's 2010 win in Jacksonville. Florida utility man Burton might have been the most effective quarterback on the field that day. Operating out of Florida's Wildcat package, Burton ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns, led the team with five receptions and completed two passes for 26 yards. He still operates out of the Wildcat at times, so keep an eye on the versatile senior, who is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways.
On Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference, Florida coach Will Muschamp announced that left tackle D.J Humphries will miss two-to-four-weeks after spraining the MCL in his left knee during Monday's practice.
Humphries left the Gators' opener against Toledo with the same injury and had started six games this season before getting benched for left guard Max Garcia in the Missouri game on Oct. 19.
While Humphries hasn't been spectacular this season and struggled mightily in the loss to LSU, losing him is another blow to a team already coping with a handful of injuries, including eight season-ending ones. The offensive line has stayed healthier than most units, but it has also played pretty poorly during the Gators' two-game losing steak.
During that span, Florida has averaged just 3.1 yards per play and totaled just 391 yards of offense. Quarterback Tyler Murphy has been sacked 10 times and the Gators' offense has mustered just 16 points in the past two games.
Protection issues have been a major part of Florida's offensive woes, and losing anyone right now creates an issue. You always need depth up front, and Florida's just took a hit.
It’s the reason Tyler Moore and Max Garcia left their respective schools a year ago and transferred to Florida. The addition of those two versatile players gives the Gators their toughest, most physical and best offensive line in coach Will Muschamp’s three seasons.
Now everybody’s happy.
"Oh, man, it’s the greatest decision of my life," Garcia said.
Garcia was one of several Maryland players who transferred after the 2011 season, which was coach Randy Edsall’s first in College Park. Though he started all 12 games at left tackle as a sophomore, Garcia said he had personal, academic and athletic issues during his freshman season.
When it was over, he decided he needed a change.
"I think you come to college just to be happy personally and athletically and academically, just find the right fit for you," Garcia said. "It’s all about being happy. As a player you don’t really get much more than being happy."
"I met Coach Muschamp and [offensive line] Coach [Tim] Davis and I met the offensive line here and I just felt at home coming down here to Florida," said Garcia, who is a 6-foot-4, 307-pound redshirt junior. "Aside from football, this is where I found Christ. He came into my life here so since I’ve been here last August my life has just changed forever and it’s for the better."
Moore’s situation was a bit different. He started the first four games and played in nine as a freshman tackle at Nebraska in 2011, but he was unhappy with the amount of playing time he got and he also believed he wasn’t being treated fairly.
He was so disgruntled that when he left school just before practice began in August 2012 he thought he was done with football.
"Little things that I had to deal with at Nebraska made me slowly hate the game after so much time being there," said Moore, whose father, great uncle and cousin played at Nebraska. "Of course everyone wants more playing time, but I believe I should have gotten more playing time throughout the year. I was busting my butt all year practicing and trying to get some playing time and still only got a few plays here and there. It’s just what the coaches want to do."
The 6-5, 315-pound Moore returned to St. Petersburg, Fla., and spent the 2012 academic year at St. Petersburg College. But as time passed, he realized he missed playing football and he considered Florida State before choosing UF.
They took different paths, but Moore and Garcia have one thing in common: Both can play multiple spots on the line. That makes them among the Gators’ most valued players.
Moore, a redshirt sophomore, was expected to battle with redshirt senior Chaz Green for the starting right tackle spot but instead has spent the entire camp working at right guard in place of injured starter Jon Halapio (torn pec). He can play all five positions, although he hasn’t snapped at UF yet.
"He’s very intelligent. He gets it," Muschamp said. "We’ve been able to plug him in across the board. He could play center if he had to. You can’t ever not emphasize enough the intelligence, and [he’s] a guy that can go in and play different spots, different angles, different assignments and different techniques from playing inside as opposed to playing outside.
"He can do a lot of things for us. He’s going to be a huge member of our football team."
Garcia is the starter at left guard and pairs with left tackle D.J. Humphries to instantly upgrade the left side. The staff moved him to left tackle for a practice and Muschamp said he performed well despite not having taken a snap there since he arrived in Gainesville.
"We got rave reviews from some of the assistant coaches there at Maryland about the type young man he was," Muschamp said. "So he was highly endorsed as a football player but more than anything as a person."
Moore and Garcia aren’t the only offensive linemen who can play multiple spots on the roster. Redshirt senior Kyle Koehne, Green and redshirt sophomore Trip Thurman can as well, and Muschamp said that will be a staple of his linemen going forward.
"We always try to recruit guys who can play multiple positions," Muschamp said. "That means they’re smart and they can do some different things for us. You’d like to be two-deep at every position and two guys that can rotate other than that. You better have a bunch [of versatile offensive linemen] and you’ve got to prepare for injuries."
He did find it weird, though, that the coaches brought him over to meet Brown’s father.
Then he realized that was Trenton Brown -- all 6-foot-8 and 363 pounds of him.
"Tallest dude I’ve ever seen in person. I was looking up at him the whole time I was talking to him."
Halapio isn’t exactly tiny, either, but he’s 5 inches shorter and 48 pounds lighter than Brown. But then again, Brown dwarfs everybody else on the roster, too. The Gators’ second-biggest player is freshman offensive lineman Rod Johnson, who is nearly as tall at 6-6 -- but he’s 47 pounds lighter.
Brown, who played the past two seasons at Georgia Military College, might be the biggest player in UF history. He’s certainly the biggest since Max Starks, a 6-8, 345-pound offensive lineman from 2000-03. And everybody, it seems, has a "whoa, this dude is big" moment to share.
"It took us all back," said Tyler Moore, a 6-6, 312-pound offensive tackle. "We all felt like we were in third grade again looking up at a high schooler.
"I’m not used to looking up at guys. I’m used to looking at guys or looking down. I haven’t looked up at somebody in a while."
Said 6-3, 263-pound sophomore buck Dante Fowler: "Trenton Brown is the biggest person I ever saw in my life."
Fowler has spent a lot of time lining up against Brown during practice. He said he has been able to get past Brown with a speed rush – although he said Brown is quicker than most people would think -- but hasn’t had any success with a bull rush.
"Since he’s so big, people kind of [think he’ll have bad] footwork," Fowler said. "He can get off the ball as quick as we can get off the ball. When you see that big body around you, you don’t know what to do. Next thing you know you run into him, and that’s not a good thing to do."
That could lead to one of the worst things Fowler could imagine on the football field.
"I never want Trenton to fall on me," Fowler said. "If he does, I’m pretty sure my body will be imprinted in the grass. I don’t want that to happen."
Brown -- whom a school spokesman said is not allowed to talk to the media until after he plays in a game -- is working exclusively at right tackle. Moore or Chaz Green will be the starter at right tackle, and whichever one doesn’t start will back up D.J. Humphries at left tackle.
Brown is behind the other linemen in terms of fundamentals because he has only been playing football for four years. UF coach Will Muschamp said Brown was a basketball player at Albany (Georgia) Westover and didn’t play football until his junior season.
"He thought he was going to be a basketball player until he started weighing 360 pounds," Muschamp said. "He found out very quickly he might be an offensive lineman."
Muschamp said Brown will play in the Gators’ jumbo package, which uses extra offensive linemen as tight ends, and possibly on the field goal and field goal block teams. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease said Brown will be a formidable blocker once he has an understanding of the offense.
"He’s got a lot of ability," Pease said. "He’s done a good job. The whole thing’s not thrown at him yet. The recognition of repetition of the same things over and over and over is not totally there. He’s kind of in that same sense a lot of the kids were last year [in the first year of the offense]: ‘Oh, gosh, there’s a new call. This one’s a new call.’
"But he’s getting it, you know, within the lineman’s world. He’s understanding it. When he’s in a one-on-one situation, he’s very talented. He’s big, he’s strong and he can move, so he’s going to be a real good football player."
Maybe even a big-time one.
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.
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.
For the season opener against Toledo, anyway.
But UF coach Will Muschamp is concerned about October and November, which is why he’s giving several other players a chance to prove they should be a starter at either safety spot. Developing depth at a position that has struggled to replace Matt Elam and Josh Evans means he can’t go with the solution.
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No. 94 Bryan Cox Jr.
Redshirt freshman defensive end
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No. 76 Max Garcia
Redshirt junior offensive lineman
Expectations for 2013: The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Garcia sat out last season after transferring from Maryland. He steps into the starting spot at left guard next to sophomore tackle D.J. Humphries. He’s a bruising run blocker but also has the agility to play outside as well. He started 12 games at left tackle for the Terps in 2011. That versatility gives the Gators some extra insurance in case of injuries.
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So many names to consider, especially at positions like linebacker, defensive line, and receiver. But that’s to be expected after 106 years of Gators football.
It’ll be even tougher in another decade, as the school produces more All-Americans and great players. Some might be on the current roster -- and our task today is to project which four current Gators will be players that would get selected if we did a similar draft in 2023.
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No. 70 D.J. Humphries
Sophomore offensive tackle
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Florida signed 23 players in 2012 and several made an immediate impact: offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., and linebacker Antonio Morrison were Freshmen All-SEC. Others, however, didn’t get a single snap of playing time.
Here’s how we see the rest of the class shaping up:
Top of the class
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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.