Florida Gators: Gideon Ajagbe
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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida begins August camp on Friday. Here’s a primer to get you ready:
Three questions the Gators must answer in camp
Can the receivers contribute? It must sound like a broken record, but the development of the receivers is the key to the season. They haven’t been very good for the past three seasons, and that really hurt the Gators in 2012 because of quarterback Jeff Driskel’s inexperience. H-back/wildcat QB Trey Burton, with 69 career catches, will line up at receiver. That will help, but he’s not a downfield threat or someone that scares a secondary. Redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar and sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman must become consistent with their routes, adjustments and blitz reads. At least two of the five freshmen -- including early enrollee Demarcus Robinson -- have to become significant parts of the rotation, too. New receivers coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience and two former pupils in the NFL (Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson), should make a difference. But remember, a chef is only as good as his ingredients.
Can the linebackers hold up their end? The Gators are loaded in the secondary and with pass rushers, and the defensive line should be fine. The question mark on defense is at linebacker, especially with starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison suspended for the first two games. There’s little doubt that Morrison is going to be a big-time player, but there are questions at every other spot. Buck/strongside linebacker Ronald Powell is coming back from a torn ACL and the top two candidates at weakside linebacker (Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor) have been role players throughout their careers. Taylor will likely start in the middle while Morrison is out. That’s a steep drop-off from Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and the Gators need to find playmakers. Don’t be surprised if freshman Daniel McMillian takes over as the starter on the weak side by the middle of the season.
Will either kicker turn out to be reliable? It’s unfair to expect Austin Hardin or Brad Phillips to have the same kind of impact as Caleb Sturgis. He was the best kicker in school history and was accurate from long range. But it isn’t unreasonable to ask either of those guys to be consistent in the 40-yard range, and neither was during spring practice. It’s a battle that will continue throughout camp -- and possibly into the season. Sturgis consistently bailed out the offense in 2012, and the Gators won’t have that luxury if the offense struggles again (see receivers above).
Three position battles to watch
Tight end: Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor are competing for playing time. The group struggled during the spring and Burton has a slim lead. Thompson was more of a blocker in high school, but his size makes him an intriguing option in the middle of the field and the red zone. He’s a better blocker than any of the other tight ends and could win the job if he can show some consistency and prove he’s a reliable receiver. Westbrook is more of a blocker and Taylor is a flex tight end with potential, but the coaching staff isn’t happy with his toughness. There’s not a lot of experience here -- they’ve combined for four catches for 17 yards in their careers -- and it’s unlikely any can be the weapon in the passing game that Jordan Reed was the past two seasons (73 catches, 866 yards, 5 TDs).
Safety: If the season started today, cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs would be the starters. That’s not a bad thing because both are solid players who understand the defense and won’t give up big plays. But what is a concern is that none of the other safeties showed enough consistency in the spring to earn one of the spots. Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman and Valdez Showers have four weeks to prove they can get the job done.
Three players you might not have thought to watch in camp, but really should
Bryan Cox: A redshirt freshman defensive end, he showed flashes of potential in the spring and made a few plays during the final scrimmage. He’s playing behind Jonathan Bullard, so he gets overlooked, but he’s got good size (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and athleticism and could be a breakout player on defense.
Gideon Ajagbe: Hunter Joyer was the only fullback on the roster until the staff moved Ajagbe and redshirt freshman safety Rhaheim Ledbetter there in the spring because the staff was worried about overworking Joyer during the season. Ajagbe adjusted well and should give Joyer some valuable rest and therefore reduce his risk of injury.
Chris Wilkes: It was obvious that the staff wasn’t happy with backup quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, which was one of the reasons UF added Wilkes. He was an Ole Miss signee in 2008 but instead chose to sign a baseball contract with the San Diego Padres. Wilkes enrolled in May and missed spring practice and hasn’t played football in five years, but he’s a former pro athlete and should at least push Mornhinweg and Murphy a bit.
No. 41 Hunter Joyer
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No. 29 Rhaheim Ledbetter
Redshirt freshman fullback
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No. 25 Gideon Ajagbe
Redshirt junior fullback
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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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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.)
Miss anything from the past week? Here's your chance to catch up:
Some position battles got a little clearer (running back) while some got murkier (safety) during Florida's 15 spring practices. Here's where things stand heading into August practices in terms of the depth chart on offense and defense.
One of the positions that is settled is fullback, where Hunter Joyer remains the starter. But he has some help behind him in Gideon Ajagbe and Rhaheim Ledbetter, both of whom were moved over from defense. Finding fullback recruits in the future isn't going to be easy for UF coach Will Muschamp, so he may have to do more moving around.
Florida also has a new special teams coordinator with the hiring of Jeff Choate.
SEC blogger Edward Aschoff spent some time on campus this week. He wrote about buck Ronald Powell's humility after his knee surgeries and shot video interviews with Powell, Jonotthan Harrison, Matt Jones and Jeff Driskel.
On the recruiting trail ...
With tight end Jordan Reed, the Gators’ leading receiver last season, headed for the NFL, Driskel has to find someone else upon whom he can rely for a sure completion and positive yardage.
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease wants him to start looking at the guys lined up beside and behind him.
Pease said the Gators’ running backs were not used enough in the passing game last season. Not counting Trey Burton and Omarius Hines -- who were utility players who lined up in the backfield as well as at tight end and receiver -- UF’s backs last season combined to catch just 26 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown.
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.
"I think up to this point what he's done has been very specific," offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “Get him over for a few plays, here's what you’re doing and there's no adjustments. You can't adjust to anything and play off anything that defense is doing. Now you're getting into a set position and you're seeing how teams play against you. You play maybe a couple different spots in there and we can move you around."
The starters: DE/LB Lerentee McCray (RSr.), DT Dominique Easley (Jr.), DT Omar Hunter (RSr.), DE Sharrif Floyd (Jr.)
The backups: DE/LB Dante Fowler, Jr. (Fr.), DE/LB Gideon Ajagbe (RSo.), DE/LB Kedric Johnson (RJr.), DE/LB Alex McCalister (Fr.), DE/LB Bryan Cox, Jr. (Fr.), DT Leon Orr (RSo.), DT Damien Jacobs (Jr.), DT Dante Phillips (Fr.), NT Nick Alajajian (Sr.), DT Quinteze Williams (Fr.), DT Jafar Mann (Fr.), DE Jonathan Bullard (Fr.)
Comment: The line would be much better with DE/LB Ronald Powell, who is out for at least part of the season with a torn ACL. There is a lot of depth, which is in contrast to last season. Easley and Floyd have All-SEC potential, and the hope is some of the freshmen will develop enough to allow the Gators to slide Floyd inside to tackle, which is his more natural position. McCray was having a solid season last year until a shoulder injury caused him to miss four of the final five games. Fowler and Cox could see a lot of time at DE/LB (which UF calls the buck) early in practice to see if they can handle the spot.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida is one of only five SEC programs to make the top 25 in ESPN’s team recruiting rankings in each of the past five seasons.
In fact, the Gators finished in the top five in four of those five years. But somehow that hasn’t translated to consistent on-field success.
Florida lost just two games combined in 2008 and 2009, but very few of the members of those signing classes contributed significantly -- which shows how good UF’s roster was in those two seasons. Since then, however, the Gators are a combined 15-11, and while some of those highly touted signees have turned into very good players, UF has slipped from its spot among the national elite.
But things are looking brighter entering 2012. The core of this year’s team is comprised of members of the 2009 and 2010 classes, and several members of the 2011 class appear to be ready to become significant contributors or are on the verge of being elite players.
Here’s a look at those signing classes (see chart below):
Florida coach Will Muschamp said Powell suffered a sprain and seemed to indicate that the injury was not particularly serious. However, Powell was on crutches during the second half of the Blue’s 21-20 victory over the Orange at Florida Field.
Powell (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) had been UF’s best defensive player throughout the spring. He was named the defensive player of the day during both of UF’s scrimmages and appeared to be on the verge of becoming the elite pass-rusher many predicted he would become when UF signed him as the nation’s top recruit in 2010.
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QBs get rolling: It took nearly the entire first half, but quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett eventually got things going. The pair are competing to win the starting job.
Brissett took the first snap with the first-team offense but went 0-for-2 on his first drive. One of the passes, however, was dropped by Trey Burton.
After Tyler Murphy got a series, Driskel came on and completed all five of his passes on his first drive for 34 yards.
Driskel had the better day overall, completing 12-of-14 passes for 147 yards and rushing for 19 yards and one touchdown on four carries. He led one touchdown drive, which was capped by Mack Brown's touchdown run.
Brissett completed 9-of-16 passes for 233 yards. Most of his passing yards came on two plays, a 43-yard hookup with Latroy Pittman and a 52-yard strike to Michael McNeely.
Flashers: Some players who caught my eye:
Cornerback Jaylen Watkins broke up a fade pass to tight end Jordan Reed in the end zone.
Linebacker Gideon Ajagbe blew by freshman offensive lineman D.J. Humphries to stuff running back Omarius Hines.
LB Antonio Morrison showed off his athleticism by making a tackle on a back in the flat and then showed of his toughness by combining with defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, making a tackle in the hole on a third-down play.
Jacobs started the game, but that might be because the Gators are banged up along the defensive line. He hasn't been consistent in practices throughout spring, but he's got the big body the Gators want (6-foot-3, 310 pounds) in a run-stopping tackle.
Pittman, whom UF coach Will Muschamp has praised throughout the spring, got behind the defense for a 43-yard pass play. Pittman doesn't have blazing speed -- he was timed at 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash at one combine -- but he was able to get a step and hauled in a perfect pass from Brissett. Pittman also was able to get behind the coverage again in the fourth quarter, but Brissett overthrew him slightly. Pittman has been steadily rising up the depth chart and has a good chance to win a starting job alongside Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar.
What's that call? Offensive coordinator Brent Pease had one questionable call, an end-around to Dunbar on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Dunbar fumbled the handoff from Brissett and ended up losing 9 yards on the play.