Florida Gators: De'Ante Saunders

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the last decade, more than any other time in its history, Florida's status as a recruiting juggernaut has been proven.

Once head coach Steve Spurrier established his alma mater among college football's elite, blue-chip talent started flocking to UF. The Gators also recruited well under Spurrier's replacement, Ron Zook. Then Florida won two national championships with coach Urban Meyer.

The fact that Florida has thrived on the recruiting trail despite Meyer's soap-opera departure and some sub-par seasons on the field is a testament to the strength of the brand.

This week we count down the five most impactful UF recruiting classes in the last decade, not including Florida's most recent class, which isn't even fully assembled on campus yet.

No. 5 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, head coach Will Muschamp's first class, which was ranked No. 12 by ESPN.

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
AP Photo/John RaouxLoucheiz Purifoy's big-play ability at cornerback allowed him to stand out in three seasons at Florida and should get him selected high in this year's NFL draft.
The stars: This is easy. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy became lockdown cornerbacks and were the only three-and-done players from this 19-man class. Roberson made an instant impact, starting his first 10 games as a true freshman, and Purifoy first emerged as a special-teams terror. By the end of their college careers, the two clearly established NFL pedigree -- Roberson for his advanced technique, Purifoy for his supreme athleticism. They are expected to be picked no lower than the second round this May.

The contributors: Several players stand out in this class, including a few starters. Among them, starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is the one who could still push his way into the star category if he improves during his final two seasons of eligibility. Other starters have carved out significant roles for themselves, including fullback Hunter Joyer, safety Jabari Gorman and tight ends Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. Valdez Showers successfully converted from safety to running back last season. And Kyle Christy was a record-setting punter who stumbled in 2013 and will fight to take his job back this year.

The letdowns: Some of the top talents in this class never panned out at UF, as eight of the 19 players transferred and one quit football after injuries derailed his career. The biggest name to transfer was QB Jacoby Brissett, who started four games at Florida but left for NC State after losing the competition for the starting job to Driskel. WR Ja'Juan Story, TE A.C. Leonard, RB Mike Blakely and S De'Ante Saunders were four of the Gators' five highest-rated recruits in the class. Transfers Story, Blakely and WR Javares McRoy were recruited by Meyer for his spread-option offense and never quite fit Muschamp's pro-style scheme. Leonard and Saunders made strong impressions on the field, but both ran afoul of the law and transferred to Tennessee State.

The results: There have been high points, such as an 11-win season in 2012 in which Florida was just one Notre Dame loss away from playing for the national championship. But there have been more low points, such as a 7-6 season in 2011 and a numbing 4-8 season in 2013. The results on the field have been uneven, but there's still time for this class to distinguish itself.

Muschamp to players: Go away

December, 17, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp told his players to take a hike.

For a week, anyway.

Muschamp said Monday that he wanted his players to take time away from football to relax after a grueling season that concluded with eight consecutive games, so he told them to stay away from the football facility the week after the Gators' 37-26 victory over Florida State.

"They need to get away," Muschamp said. "I told them the first week, they didn't [have to] come in the building. We got them back the next week and wanted to get them lifting a little bit and had exams this past week. I think it's really important for them to get away and decompress a little bit from football."

That way the Gators (11-1) would be fresh when they returned to practice on Dec. 7 and 8. After taking almost a week off for exams, UF has been practicing the past four days. It has been more of a fall camp practice, however. The Gators have worked on fundamentals and issues they need to clear up. Game-planning and practicing for Louisville (11-1) won't begin until Tuesday, Muschamp said.

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Top moments: Elam's strip

December, 14, 2012
Editor’s note: GatorNation is counting down the top five moments of Florida’s 2012 season this week. They could be plays, drives, quarters or decisions, but regardless of what they are, they are the significant moments that shaped the season.

We finish with No. 1: Elam’s strip

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Kim Klement/US PresswireMatt Elam's forced fumble off Odell Beckham Jr. was the turning point for more than just UF's win over LSU.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All S Matt Elam wanted to do was make a tackle.

He wasn’t thinking about momentum or last October or the rest of the season. He just wanted to get LSU WR Odell Beckham on the ground and save a touchdown.

Instead, he made what turned out to be the biggest play of Florida’s season.

Elam ran down Beckham and ripped the ball loose after a 56-yard gain. Florida’s De’Ante Saunders recovered, and the Gators went on to score a clinching touchdown to upset No. 4 LSU 14-6 on Oct. 6 at Florida Field.

"I felt like I had to make a play," Elam said. "My plan was to stop him from getting into the end zone. More came out of it, so thank God for that."

It was a lot more than just a forced fumble. It was the turning point in the season.

Florida had just taken a 7-6 lead late in the third quarter, but LSU squashed any momentum the Gators had generated when QB Zach Mettenberger hit a wide-open Beckham down the right sideline to convert a third-and-7. At the very worst, the big gain was going to set up the Tigers for a go-ahead field goal.

Nothing, apparently, had changed from October 2011. The Gators went 0-4 in the month, starting with a loss to LSU. It looked like this October was going to start the same way. Score a go-ahead TD and then almost immediately give up a big play? Same old, same old.

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3 Up, 3 Down: Florida 23, JSU 0 

November, 18, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida got all of its points from seniors on senior day to finish 7-0 record at Florida Field. The Gators got their second shutout of the season -- only the second time that’s happened since 1988 (2006) -- and head into Saturday’s game at rival Florida State 10-1.

Here are the good and bad from the 23-0 victory over Jacksonville State:


Film study: What loss shows about UF 

October, 29, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here’s an analysis of three key plays in Florida’s 17-9 loss to Georgia on Saturday.

Costly interception

Rob Foldy/US Presswire

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3 Up, 3 Down: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 17 

October, 14, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the second consecutive week, Florida didn't throw the football very well. But -- again for the second consecutive week -- the Gators didn't really need to because the running game carried the offense. Here are the good and bad from the Gators' victory at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday night.


1. Next man up

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Five storylines: Gators vs. Vanderbilt 

October, 11, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No. 4 Florida plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday, the classic "trap" game before the Gators play host to No. 3 South Carolina on Oct. 20. The Gators (5-0, 4-0 SEC) have won 21 in a row in the series and haven’t lost to the Commodores since 1982.

Here's five storylines for the game:

1. Avoid an emotional letdown: Florida had a huge victory over then-No. 4 LSU last Saturday and is now squarely in the national championship race. With a showdown against South Carolina looming, it’s natural that the Gators wouldn’t be as ready emotionally for this game considering the fact that none of UF’s players were alive the last time the school lost to the Commodores. However, the Gators can’t get caught looking ahead because this Vanderbilt team is essentially the same one that came into Gainesville last season and nearly won.

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GAINESVILE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp took to the SEC's weekly teleconference on Wednesday morning to talk about the Gators’ game at Vanderbilt on Saturday. He touched on the situation at punt returner, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin and why the team is better than it was in 2011.

1. Many unhappy returns

Florida has struggled returning punts, and Muschamp said on Monday the Gators would be taking a look at the players returning punts (Andre Debose, De’Ante Saunders and Marcus Roberson) during practice this week.

“I have a lot of confidence in Andre. Andre got banged up a little last week. We’ve just got to make some better decisions as far as fielding the ball. We’ve put Pop back there. We’ve put Marcus back there. Andre’s been back there, and Frankie Hammond’s a guy that can get some looks. Trey Burton. So we’re still repping a bunch of guys and I’ve got confidence in Andre. We’ve got to do a better job of holding up on blocking for him, but a couple situations we could have certainly fielded the ball and not lost some yardage there.”

2. Commodores aren't a pushover

Vanderbilt nearly upset Florida in Gainesville last season. The Commodores scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and the Gators only sealed the victory when Jordan Reed recovered an onside kick with 1:16 remaining. Franklin has brought a different attitude to the program in less than two seasons and Muschamp said the Commodores are taking on the personality of their coach.

“I think he did a fantastic job last year. One thing, you turn the tape on you see guys playing hard and fast and physical. Multiple offensively. Bob Shoop does a a great job defensively attacking. What they do special teams, there’s no question that that’s James’ personality written all over it.”

3. Gators make strides

Florida is a better team than it was a season ago. Why? Muschamp says because the Gators are older, stronger and healthier.

“The No. 1 thing is we’re a year older. We’re more mature. We’re a stronger group from the weight room than we were a year ago because what I said, we’re a year older. We had a very young team last year, a talented team but a young team. We’ve been able to stay for the most part injury free at some key positions. I think that they’ve seen that the type of mentality I want on this football team and in this organization and the type of players we’re going to recruit. So I certainly have seen a little bit of it but we have a ways to go.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Geno Smith. Collin Klein. De’Anthony Thomas. Braxton Miller.

Mike Gillislee?

Absolutely, say Gillislee’s Florida teammates. The senior running back deserves to be on the list of Heisman Trophy candidates after what he did against one of the nation’s top defenses Saturday afternoon at Florida Field.

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3 Up, 3 Down: Florida 14, LSU 6 

October, 7, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida beat LSU the way the Tigers regularly beat their opponents: using a great defense and a physical running game. Mike Gillislee ran for 146 yards and two second-half touchdowns to give the Gators a 14-6 victory at Florida Field on Saturday afternoon.

Here are the good and the bad from the Gators’ first victory over the Tigers since 2009.


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The Florida 10: Week 4 

September, 24, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Which Florida players are making the biggest contributions on the field?

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 parenthesis):

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Turnovers finally coming for Gators

September, 22, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s coaching staff has been harping on creating turnovers pretty much since the 2011 season ended. Looks like the message has gotten through.

The Gators intercepted three passes in their 38-0 victory over Kentucky on Saturday, marking the most turnovers forced in a single game since UF forced four in its victory over Kentucky last season. It matters not to the players that it came against a backup quarterback who said he didn’t know for sure he was going to start until pre-game warmups.

[+] EnlargeJaylen Watkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireFlorida cornerback Jaylen Watkins intercepts the ball and runs it back for a touchdown in the second quarter against Kentucky.
“The turnovers were big for us,” said LB Michael Taylor, who intercepted a pass in the second quarter. “Turnovers equal points, and points equal wins.”

The Gators, however, were only able to get seven points out of the three turnovers. That came on CB Jaylen Watkins’ 26-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter. UF ended Kentucky’s previous possession with an interception, too, when S De’Ante Saunders grabbed a Newton pass and returned it 29 yards to the UK 23-yard line.

However, UF QB Jeff Driskel returned the favor when he was picked off in the end zone by Martavius Neloms.

Taylor’s interception came with 16 seconds remaining in the first half. UF was only able to run one play before time expired.

Gators cope with injuries after A&M

September, 10, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida Gators are a wounded bunch heading into the Tennessee game -- but things aren’t as bad as they appeared Saturday night.

UF won’t have linebacker Jelani Jenkins (thumb) or cornerback/safety Cody Riggs (foot) for four weeks, and coach Will Muschamp said end/linebacker Ronald Powell suffered a setback during his rehab from a torn ACL and likely will miss the rest of the season.

But, good news for the No. 18-ranked Gators: Muschamp said running back Mike Gillislee (groin) and safety Josh Evans (shoulder) will practice on Monday and will be able to play against the No. 23 Volunteers. Plus, UF is getting safety De’Ante Saunders (hamstring) back after he missed the first two games.

And even better news: UF has more depth this season than in 2011 and is much better equipped to handle a rash of injuries like this.

“Our depth is still not where it needs to be, but certainly much better than it was a year ago,” Muschamp said. “We’re not having to switch guys from position to position in order to finish a game or prepare guys for a game.”

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Depth charts for all 14 SEC teams are out, so let's take a look at them.

I'll handle the Eastern Division, while Chris takes a look at the West later today.

I've added some notes of my own for each team:


Depth chart
  • The first thing you notice is that "Or" comes up a few times. The quarterback spot is still up for grabs, as sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will play by quarters against Bowling Green Saturday. The "X" receiver spot has three names by it with Frankie Hammond, Latroy Pittman and Andre Debose competing for that spot. Everyone is still waiting for Debose to be more of a complete player.
  • Both corner spots might appear to be up for grabs, but it would be a shocker if sophomores Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy didn't start. Roberson has the talent to be an All-SEC player at some point, while the staff thinks Purifoy is an extremely athletic player. Also, seeing Antonio Morrison behind Jelani Jenkins is impressive. He's been solid since arriving this spring.
  • You don't see De'Ante Saunders on there at free safety. Will Muschamp said he's battling a hamstring injury and will be out two weeks. Corner Jeremy Brown is also battling a wrist injury and isn't on the two-deep, either.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel has been cleared medically to play in Saturday’s season opener against Bowling Green, but it’s still unclear when the sophomore will get on the field.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Rob Foldy/Icon SMIIt has not been decided if Jeff Driskel (above) or Jacoby Brissett will start against Bowling Green on Saturday.
Coach Will Muschamp has come up with at least the beginning of a plan for rotating Driskel and Jacoby Brissett. He said Monday that each sophomore quarterback would play a quarter before the staff determines the plan for the second half.

Muschamp said he and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have not yet decided which quarterback would start and whether one or both would play in the second half.

"We’ll evaluate it at halftime," Muschamp said.

Muschamp said Friday morning that neither player was able to distance himself from the other throughout preseason practices and both would play against the Falcons.

Muschamp said he knew following the Gators’ second scrimmage (Aug. 17) that he would likely play both quarterbacks in the season opener. Both sophomores handled themselves well in the situational work, such as one-minute drill, third-down conversions, and goal line work, Muschamp said, and picking one as the starter wouldn’t be fair.

Both players struggled last season in place of injured starter John Brantley. Driskel completed 47.1 percent of his passes for 148 yards and two interceptions. Brissett completed 46.2 percent of his passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions.

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Booger McFarland talks Florida football
Paul Finebaum and Booger McFarland look at Florida's upcoming football season.