Florida Gators: Jaylen Watkins
The starters: Senior Jabari Gorman and sophomore Marcus Maye
The backups: Sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshman Nick Washington
The lowdown: Four starting safeties have departed in the last two seasons -- Matt Elam, Josh Evans and Jaylen Watkins left for the NFL, and Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame. Most programs could not withstand that kind of exodus, but the Gators are not expecting much of a drop-off in 2014. With 37 games under his belt, Gorman is the veteran of this unit. He started five games last season and was sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He gives a young and inexperienced group a vocal leader to rely upon. Maye and Neal played in all of Florida's 12 games last season, mostly on special teams. Maye started the first two games of the season, but a couple of key mistakes kept him out of the starting lineup for the rest of the season. Still, his experience could give Maye an edge this fall. He'll have to hold off Neal, a physical presence, and two other talented redshirt freshmen. Washington and Harris missed last season with injuries, but both made solid impressions in spring practice. Harris, at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, has good range for his size. Washington is better in coverage and spent some time at cornerback and nickel during the spring.
The future: The Gators don't have overwhelming numbers at safety, but with their preference for bigger cornerbacks, it's possible that some position movement will occur down the road. Class of 2014 signee Quincy Wilson is one who comes to mind. He has the speed and athleticism to start his career at cornerback, but at 6-1 and 197 pounds, he could end up at safety. The same could be said of Florida's two 2015 cornerback commits, Marcus Lewis and Jalen Julius. UF coaches have the luxury of trying them at corner and moving them if they aren't earning playing time. The Gators are still looking for more in their next class. Deontai Williams, a hard-hitting ESPN 300 prospect, was the first pledge in the class. Florida's top remaining target is ESPN 300 athlete Jaquan Johnson.
Florida only had four players selected last weekend, but three were from the defensive side of the ball.
Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on defense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.
DT Dominique Easley
First-round pick, New England Patriots
Florida already has experience in dealing with the loss of Easley, who tore his ACL in practice after Week 3 and left a huge void in the defense for the rest of the season. Easley was a heart-and-soul leader with a relentless motor and a lightning-quick first step, attributes that are in rare supply in college football. Leadership and passion aside, finding a defensive tackle who can disrupt the running and passing game is a huge task. Florida will turn to Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, two seniors who are solid starters but have yet to make a consistent impact. Much of Orr's production in 2013 came after Easley's injury, and he does have good tools to work with at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds. Cummings looked quicker, more confident and more disruptive in spring practice. However, the Gators ultimately might need one of their talented freshmen to emerge and bump one of those seniors to a backup role.
Fourth-round pick, Philadelphia Eagles
Another Gator who will be hard to replace, Watkins was a steady performer at cornerback, nickel corner and safety in his last couple of seasons. Florida is counting on some of its young defensive backs to give them that same kind of versatility. Heading into his junior season, Brian Poole has played all three of those positions but didn't grab a hold of the starting cornerback job that was available in spring practice. He could end up back at nickelback, where he made the first six starts of his career last season. At safety, Florida has steady senior Jabari Gorman and a host of talented youngsters. Sophomore Marcus Maye could get first crack based on the experience he gained last year in 12 games and two starts. Coaches are also very high on sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.
LB Ronald Powell
Fifth-round pick, New Orleans Saints
Powell, who played a mix of buck linebacker and strongside linebacker in his final season, brought some pass rush off the edge and flashed the ability to play in space. Dante Fowler Jr. took over at the buck position last season and eventually pushed Powell to outside linebacker. Fowler has the pass-rushing potential to give the Gators a big upgrade. At the SAM linebacker spot, Florida has senior Neiron Ball, who at 6-3, 235 has a similar build to Powell. Ball is more fluid in coverage but needs to be more consistent in stopping the run and rushing the passer.
CB Marcus Roberson
Undrafted free agent, St. Louis Rams
The Gators employ more man coverage than most college defenses, and as a result they attract some terrific prospects. Roberson was one such player, who used his instincts to thrive in one-on-one battles. With two junior cornerbacks forgoing their senior seasons at UF, the numbers are now thin, but coaches can rely on star sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III to lead the secondary. There is also plenty of enthusiasm for Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, two freshmen who enrolled in January. They competed throughout spring practice, showing plenty of skill and the ability to learn on the fly. At 6-1, 188, Tabor is effective in using his long arms to blanket receivers. Dawson, at 5-11, 190, is just as good in coverage but plays a more physical style.
CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
One of the best athletes on Florida's recent rosters, Purifoy made an impact at cornerback, as an elite-level gunner on special teams and even in limited time at wide receiver. Aside from Tabor and Dawson, Florida coaches are also very high on true freshman J.C. Jackson, who will enroll in June. Jackson is an explosive offensive talent, but his future could very well be at cornerback where he'll start his college career. Jackson could also make an impact right away as a kick returner.
LB Darrin Kitchens
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Kitchens was a valuable reserve linebacker, who was fundamentally sound and solid against the run. Florida appears set on its first unit with Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Senior Michael Taylor will also get plenty of playing time. Behind those three, Florida is hoping its young talent will emerge in 2014. Sophomore Daniel McMillian showed improvement throughout spring practice. The Gators also could get a lift from two bigger linebackers in Alex Anzalone (6-3, 239) and Matt Rolin (6-4, 227), each of whom missed the spring with injuries but are expected to push for playing time this fall.
DT Damien Jacobs
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Another solid backup, Jacobs stepped up after Easley's injury and was a solid run-stuffer. Florida has three young linemen it is counting on in 2014 to become a part of the rotation at tackle -- sophomore Joey Ivie and redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick. Coaches are confident in all three when it comes to ability but are looking for more maturity and consistent effort. Three more exciting freshmen prospects -- Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark -- arrive in the summer, and Florida won't hesitate to burn a redshirt if any of them prove he is ready to contribute right away.
UF has been one of the most consistent talent pipelines in the past two decades, as evidenced by 23 first-round picks since 1995. The Gators have had at least one first-rounder in all but one (2012) of the past seven years. But the 2014 draft could very well be another exception.
Friday night's second and third rounds could be slim pickings as well for Florida. But Saturday? Hold on tight, because as many as seven former Gators could be selected in Rounds 4-7.
Here's a breakdown of each of this year's prospects and a prediction for where he'll end up.
6-foot-1¾, 288 pounds
No. 5-ranked defensive tackle
One of the best pass-rushing tackles available, Easley's stock has been hurt by torn ACLs in both knees. He's just over six months removed from surgery to repair his right knee and suffered the left knee injury less than two years prior. Still, there's no questioning Easley's game tape and the way he played after recovering from his first knee injury. Easley uses a lightning-quick first step to shoot gaps and disrupt the pass and run games. His camp is hearing some draft buzz about climbing into the first round. Prediction: Second round
Marcus Roberson, 6-0¼, 191
No. 11-ranked cornerback
Like Easley, Roberson has some skills and attributes in high demand but has to deal with teams' concerns about his history of injuries. Roberson is the perfect size for today's cornerback -- long and rangy. Throughout his three years at Florida, he consistently displayed good instincts, especially in the man coverage that UF plays so much. But Roberson missed three games in his freshman season when he fractured a vertebra in his neck. He missed five games last fall with knee and ankle injuries. Running a 4.61 40-time didn't help, either. Prediction: Third round
Jaylen Watkins, 5-11½, 194
No. 15-ranked cornerback
The brother of Sammy Watkins, the draft's top wide receiver prospect, Jaylen is less well-known to casual observers. But a rock-solid career for the Gators and the versatility to play corner and safety has made this Watkins a draft sleeper. Jaylen improved each season and became a quiet leader at Florida. Head coach Will Muschamp also called him "a core special teams guy." Watkins really boosted his draft stock when he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, just a hair faster than his already famous brother. Prediction: Fourth round
Ronald Powell, 6-3[, 237
No. 18-ranked outside linebacker
Once the No. 1 overall high school recruit in the nation, Powell's career at Florida never matched that lofty status and was largely derailed by a torn ACL that required two surgeries and more than a year off. Before the injury, he spent a lot of time at defensive end but didn't turn into the pass-rusher everyone envisioned. Afterward, he began to transition to linebacker and showed promise. Powell's measurables are the biggest reason he'll get drafted. His 4.65 time in the 40 was fourth-fastest among linebackers at the combine. Prediction: Sixth round
Loucheiz Purifoy, 5-11½, 190
No. 26-ranked cornerback
How far will he fall? All the way out of the draft? Those are the questions after Purifoy's disastrous offseason. Once a projected first-round pick, Purifoy's stock started dropping when game tape revealed a lack of coverage instincts. Then his official combine time of 4.61 in the 40 dropped him further. Finally, a Gainesville drug arrest that was quashed raised serious concerns about Purifoy's off-the-field behavior. Despite all of that, he's an elite athlete who could develop and still has a good chance of being picked. Prediction: Sixth round
Jonotthan Harrison, 6-3½, 304
No. 8-ranked center
A three-year starter at a demanding position, Harrison has good height, weight and speed for a center and has worked hard to improve his technique in run- and pass-blocking. He did a good job making pass protection calls for the offensive line and became a respected leader for the Gators. Prediction: Sixth round
Jon Halapio, 6-3½, 323
No. 15-ranked guard
One of the toughest players at Florida in the past four seasons, Halapio regularly played through injuries and started 43 of 51 games across a solid career. He's better as a run blocker than he is in pass protection, but Halapio has the size, strength and intelligence teams are looking for. Prediction: Sixth round
Solomon Patton, 5-8½, 178
No. 42-ranked wide receiver
After a quiet three years, Patton had a standout senior season in which he combined great speed and playmaking ability to be the Gators' best receiver. Also a special-teams ace with return skills, Patton hopes to be drafted by a team that needs all of those things. Prediction: Seventh round
Trey Burton, 6-2[, 224
No. 13-ranked tight end
Burton played every skill position on offense in his four years at UF. He ran well (4.62) as a tight end at the NFL draft combine, but at his size he's just not going to be considered for that position. Versatility and competitiveness are Burton's calling cards, which could earn him a look as an H-back. Prediction: Seventh round
One player, however, was spared his coach's ire -- Jabari Gorman -- and it's no coincidence he's the only senior in Florida's secondary.
“He has done a nice job," Muschamp said. "The others, I can’t say that. But he has done a nice job. He understands the importance of communication on the back end. We've just got to do a better job at understanding that a mistake there is normally not good for the Gators. That’s where we’ve got to tie some things up."
Understandably, Muschamp can be tough on his safeties. He holds them to a high standard, one that has been achieved in recent years.
Florida's starters two seasons ago, Matt Elam and Josh Evans, are playing in the NFL. Jaylen Watkins, one of UF's starling safeties last season, expects to follow their footsteps in the NFL draft this May.
The Gators lost their other starting safety from 2013, Cody Riggs, who is transferring to Notre Dame after he graduates this spring. That's a clean sweep of starting safeties from Florida's secondary in back-to-back season.
To Gorman, it's an opportunity. His time has come.
"Especially at the safety position, you've got to grow up," Gorman said. "You've got to be able to be vocal. In that position you have to develop into a leader because so much is needed from you. You're the quarterback of the defense.
"What I do, I try to let these kids know that it's never personal with Coach. It's always for the better, to make you a better player, make you faster and more instinctive."
Getting better is what Gorman has done in three years at UF. He had a breakout season last year with 48 tackles (sixth most on the team), seven pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.
"Jabari’s very smart, he’s a guy that gets it," Muschamp said. "He understands and learns well. He’s seen the game. It’s slowed down tremendously for him over the years. He’s played a lot of football for us, played well for us last year. I’ve been very pleased with his spring to his point through four days and the offseason program."
After playing right away on special teams and as a reserve in 2011, Gorman's time at Florida has grown short.
"Yeah man, I say it's the blink of an eye," he said. "I still remember the first day I came to campus. What I want to do is help my team to go out with a bang, be the best we can be."
Gorman easily lists the names of his classmates, fellow seniors who want badly to erase the blemish of last year's 4-8 record.
"We've got a lot of seniors that have been here, gone through a process," he said. "We went through struggles at times, went through the good times, and we just want to leave on a good note. I think it's more important to us than anybody to go out and win."
So what else would you expect but heavy rainfall throughout Monday's pro day with more than 50 representatives from all 32 NFL teams in attendance?
After lifting in the weight room, the event shifted to the track inside the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The three cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- drew a lot of attention.
Roberson and Purifoy, two of UF's top prospects, each posted disappointing 40-yard dash times of 4.61 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. They were able to show slight improvement Monday with unofficial times of 4.59 and 4.53 seconds, respectively. Watkins, who is still recovering from a sprained Achilles tendon, did not run the 40-yard dash (he posted a 4.41 at the NFL combine) but did participate in drills.
"I think all three will translate very well to the next level,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Jaylen's a guy that can play multiple positions. He can play safety, he can play nickel, he can play dime, he can play corner. He's a core special-teams guy for us over the years. So, a guy that can do a lot of things for you. Marcus is a guy that's got really good instincts in coverage, especially in man coverage. He can get his hands on people, which in the NFL the rules are a little different. But you've got to win on the line of scrimmage, and he can do that. He's a guy that's got really good ball skills down the field. Loucheiz is a guy that can give you some special teams, a really good kickoff coverage guy, a guy that's got some return skills, but another guy that can win on the line of scrimmage and has got great, long speed down the field. So I think each player gives you a little something different of what you're looking for."
Another Florida prospect who could be selected in the early rounds, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, was on hand but did not participate as he continues to rehabilitate a torn ACL he suffered early last fall.
"He's going to work out [at UF] on April 18," Muschamp said. "Now we've not set that date. He and I talked this morning and didn't feel like he was ready. I told him, 'If you're not ready, don't work. You wait until you're ready to go cut it loose and give them a good day's work.' So I want to say April 18, but that's not been totally decided yet."
DE/LB Ronald Powell, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, TE Trey Burton, DL Damien Jacobs, OL Kyle Koehne and LB Darrin Kitchens also took part in the drills.
Halapio, who missed the first two games of his senior season with a torn pectoral muscle, said he is healthy and proved it in front of scouts by benching 225 pounds 32 times, which would have ranked among the top 10 for offensive linemen at the combine.
"People really underestimate what he did this past year," Muschamp said. "There's a lot of young men that would have probably taken a redshirt and had surgery. We gave him several options and he just said, 'I'm going to tape it up and play.'”
Patton is a prospect who might be slightly off of the radar of some teams, as he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. Monday at UF, he ran an unofficial best of 4.31 in the 40 and performed well in drills, catching most passes in the rain away from his body.
Muschamp believes Patton will make an NFL roster.
"There's no question he's going to find a role," Muschamp said. "[He's] a guy that can play in the slot and has return skill, big-time kickoff return and great special-teams guy -- one of the better kickoff cover guys I've been around."
Overall, the soggy conditions did not put too much of a damper on Florida's pro day.
"We play football in the rain," Muschamp said with a grin. "I think those guys got a lot of comments from coaches and scouts about how our guys going out and competing. They didn't bellyache about it. They go out there and compete, and that's what you want to see."
We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
The weeklong series wraps up with a talented but inexperienced group of safeties.
Returning starters: None.
Returning reserves: With 37 career games and five starts last season, rising senior Jabari Gorman is now the graybeard of this group. He's a solid tackler who finished sixth on the team in 2013 with 48 tackles. He also showed improvement in coverage, breaking up seven passes and intercepting one. Marcus Maye had a solid debut last year as a redshirt freshman and has the all-around tools to make plays in coverage and near the line of scrimmage. He played in all 12 games, made two starts, and recorded 16 tackles and an interception. Backup Keanu Neal got on the field immediately as a true freshman, playing in all 12 games. He was a hit on special teams, tying for the team lead with five tackles.
Newcomers: Marcell Harris arrived at Florida last summer as the No. 7-ranked safety prospect in the Class of 2013, but he redshirted in order to rehab a knee injury suffered late in his senior year of high school. Harris looks a bit like an undersized linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, but he moves well and could become a force at safety. Another freshman who redshirted last season, Nick Washington, will get a look at cornerback but has the size (6-0, 191) to make a seamless transition to safety. Freshman early enrollee Duke Dawson, like Washington, can play corner or safety. Another similar true freshman, corner/safety Quincy Wilson, arrives this summer.
What to watch: Florida always seems to get solid if not spectacular play from its safeties. Perhaps it's because head coach Will Muschamp played and coaches the position. But the competition will be wide open this spring since the Gators have lost four starters in the last two seasons. The two most experienced safeties remaining, Gorman and Maye, will likely get the first crack at starting jobs. But keep an eye on Neal, an underrated talent who got some good experience as a true freshman last season. Ditto for Harris, who will be champing at the bit to make a splash after sitting out his first year. Washington, Dawson and junior Brian Poole will have their chances at cornerback, but any of the three could ultimately prove to be better suited for the safety position and eventually win a spot there on the two-deep roster. Spring is just the beginning of what will be an extended competition.
We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
Returning starters: Vernon Hargreaves III arrived with tremendous fanfare last summer and immediately became an alpha in the fall. He was easily Florida's best cornerback in coverage and was recognized as a first-team All-SEC selection. Hargreaves continued a recent string of true freshmen success stories, following in the footsteps of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Roberson.
Departures: Roberson and another junior starter, Loucheiz Purifoy, left early to enter the NFL draft where they are expected to be picked somewhere in the first three rounds. Roberson was terrific in coverage, while Purifoy relied on his elite athleticism to make plays all over the field. The Gators also graduated Jaylen Watkins, a cornerback who played out of position at safety during his senior season. Watkins, one of UF's most polished defensive backs in coverage, was a four-year player who made 28 career starts and grew into a strong leadership role. Another important departure was fourth-year junior Cody Riggs, who played at safety in 2013 but, like Watkins, was originally a cornerback. Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame, where he expects to be eligible this fall after graduating from Florida in the spring.
Returning reserves: There's only one, but he's certain to play a significant role in 2014. Rising junior Brian Poole came to UF with the pedigree of a top-10 cornerback prospect and has missed just two games in his first two seasons. He made six starts last fall as Florida's nickel cornerback, which is an important position considering how often the Gators employ five DBs. Poole is versatile, having seen time at safety as well, so there are plenty of options. He's a strong contender for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves, but Poole could also remain at nickel or shift to safety.
Newcomers: The spotlight will shine immediately on Jalen Tabor, the No. 5 cornerback prospect in the Class of 2014 who was also ranked No. 15 in the ESPN 300. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Tabor is on campus and has already commanded the attention of Florida coaches who are enamored with his range and athleticism. Similarly gifted is redshirt freshman Nick Washington, who missed his first season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Washington was a key four-star ESPN 300 recruit in Florida's 2013 class, and expectations are that his athleticism will translate into playing time this fall. Duke Dawson is another freshman already enrolled. He's a bit overshadowed by Tabor, but Dawson might fit better as a safety anyhow with his 5-11, 197-pound frame. Still, Dawson could get a long look at cornerback this spring because of his quick feet, fluid hips and natural feel for coverage techniques.
What to watch: Losing four starters -- including three juniors -- all of whom could play cornerback would likely be a staggering blow to most college teams. But at Florida, cornerback has become a glamour position and there's plenty of talent for the Gators to move forward without skipping a beat. Like Hargreaves the year before, Tabor is an elite prospect who exemplifies the current pipeline of cornerback talent that Florida is able to attract. Now if the coaching staff can coax another star performance out of a true freshman, the Gators suddenly won't look so thin at cornerback. There's plenty of talent, but not all of these players are ideally suited to be corners. One big injury could change the outlook for this position profoundly, so it is important that the Gators have a productive spring session. The top goals are to develop Tabor, see if Poole is ready for a full-time role and get reserves like Washington and Dawson ready for action. When fall camp rolls around, this group will be bolstered by three more true freshmen. J.C. Jackson, the No. 79 overall prospect in the nation, has the talent to be a natural cornerback who can compete for playing time right away. Quincy Wilson can play some cornerback but could ultimately wind up at safety. And Deiondre Porter was a high school quarterback who will get a first look at either corner or safety but seems likely to redshirt. There will undoubtedly be pressure on this group to continue the success of their predecessors, but cornerbacks at Florida play more man coverage than most. Pressure comes with the territory.
Watkins ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash and also did 22 reps on the bench press. He played both cornerback and safety for the Gators and also worked some as their nickelback. He doesn't have ideal size to play safety in the NFL (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) but certainly helped himself with his impressive 40 time. When you take into account that he's moved around and played different positions in the secondary, his draft stock coming out of the combine is probably a lot better than anybody would have expected.
On the flip side, his two more heralded cornerback colleagues at Florida -- Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson -- didn't fare as well at the combine. They both ran surprisingly slow 4.61 times in the 40-yard dash. The 5-11, 190-pound Purifoy only did six reps on the bench press, although he did have a vertical jump of 35.5 inches. At one point, Purifoy was thought to be a potential first-round selection. But with a shaky combine performance, he will likely slip into the middle rounds.
Roberson's stock took a hit as well. He did just eight reps on the bench and posted a 37.5-inch vertical leap. The other big question with Roberson is injuries. He missed four games last season.
We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This weeklong series continues with a look at an early enrollee expected to compete for a starting job at cornerback.
CB Jalen Tabor
6-foot-1, 188 pounds
How he fits: Florida desperately needed to sign an elite prospect at cornerback after two junior starters -- Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy -- decided to leave for the NFL. Two more veteran upperclassmen with experience at the position, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, are also gone. The Gators got their man in Tabor, and early impressions have calmed UF coaches. "That's what they're supposed to look like," Muschamp said on signing day. "He's got really good movement skills, and ... watching him move around has been exciting."
Who he's competing with: With so many players departing, the competition at cornerback will be wide open and intense. Starter Vernon Hargreaves III became a star as a true freshman last season, so the bar has been set high (perhaps unrealistically so) for Tabor to follow suit. And while Hargreaves might prove to be a generational talent, the rest of the competition for Tabor could be a bit easier to surpass. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington returns from a shoulder injury and joins Tabor and fellow true freshman early enrollee Duke Dawson in the cornerback battle this spring. Rising junior Brian Poole took over as Florida's starting nickel back last season and could either stay there or contend for the open cornerback job. Washington, Dawson and Poole could also see time at safety. In fall practice the Gators will add three more signees, J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter.
What needs to happen this spring: Tabor has already inspired confidence in offseason drills, but he'll need to show off his natural instincts at cornerback in spring practice in order to truly put those coaches at ease. With so many openings on UF's two-deep roster in the defensive backfield, it is essential that Tabor prove to be a quick study. It seems certain he'll play this fall, maybe even a lot if he nails down that starting job.
On the field, it hasn't quite lived up to such lofty billing.
The Gators signed 27 recruits in 2010, a class that ranked No. 1 in the nation. Seventeen players were among the top 150 prospects in the nation, 14 in the top 81.
Still, the class produced a few obvious stars and a sizable group of starters and role players. It clocks in at No. 4 in our weeklong series looking at Florida's most impactful recruiting classes in the last decade.
The stars: Defensive linemen Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were rated among the top 25 prospects in the nation and lived up to the hype at Florida. Floyd and Easley quickly proved to be dominant forces at defensive tackle, and Elam showed elite instincts as a playmaker in center field. Floyd and Elam were first-round picks in the 2013 NFL draft. Easley has suffered some setbacks with two torn ACLs and chose to forgo a fifth season of eligibility at Florida to enter the NFL draft this May.
The contributors: Ten players rode out the transition from Meyer to Will Muschamp to make their mark as starters. Several others found useful roles. Defensive back Jaylen Watkins and wide receivers Solomon Patton and Trey Burton all avoided redshirts, grew into starting roles and made significant contributions on and off the field. WR Quinton Dunbar, OL Chaz Green, DT Leon Orr and LBs Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball return as likely starters in 2014.
The letdowns: One could argue that Ronald Powell belongs in this group because he was the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2010 and was expected to be a star. In four years he overcame two ACL surgeries on the same knee, had a fantastic attitude and was productive when he was on the field. It's easier to look for letdowns among the 11 players in this class who transferred. Safety Jonathan Dowling, the No. 10 overall recruit in the nation, transferred after he was dismissed for violating team rules. Josh Shaw, the No. 3-ranked cornerback prospect, started out well at UF but transferred closer to home in the Los Angeles area and has played well for USC. Gerald Christian (No. 2 TE prospect in 2010) and Chris Dunkley (No. 7 WR) were two other high-profile transfers. QB Tyler Murphy, CB Cody Riggs and OL Ian Silberman recently transferred after spending their first four years at Florida.
The results: When crowning Florida's 2010 recruiting class as No. 1 in the nation, ESPN called it one of the best classes ever. Everything clicked in 2012, when the Gators went 11-1 in the regular season and played in the Sugar Bowl. But sandwiched around that were 7-5, 6-6 and 4-8 regular-season records in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The class produced two high draft picks in Floyd and Elam. Easley is likely to be a second-rounder this spring, and Watkins could go anywhere from the second through fourth rounds. But after those four, there aren't any sure bets in the NFL. That's surprising for a class that was so highly touted.
The circus surrounding college football recruiting has grown to epic proportions, and he clearly bristles at the thought of ranking classes or players before they don cleats.
"You judge a recruiting class after it’s been on your campus for two or three years," he's said. "Everybody wants to judge it in February and rank them and say this class is great. That’s ridiculous to be able to rank a class in February when these guys haven’t even stepped on campus yet and been through a spring practice and been in fall camp.
"I’ve been around a lot of guys who were two-stars who ended up playing in the NFL for a really long time. They were really good players. And I’ve been around some five-stars who couldn’t play."
With that sentiment and the passage of four years, we review Florida's 2010 class.
It ranked No. 1 in the nation with four five-star players, 15 four-star recruits and 17 players from the ESPN 150 (including 11 of the top 50). ESPN called it "simply one of the best classes ever."
Matt Elam (No. 2 ATH): Like Floyd, Elam played right away and became a team leader at safety for the Gators, starting every game of his final two seasons. And like Floyd, Elam was a first-round pick after three years in college.
Dominique Easley (No. 1 DT): Easley's flame burned bright on and off the field. His magnetic personality made him a team focal point right away, and his ability to torment offensive linemen made him a standout on the field. If it weren't for two surgeries on torn ACLs in each knee, Easley would be a lock for the first round of the NFL draft this May.
Ronald Powell (No. 1 ATH): The No. 1 overall player in the country, Powell was the headliner for Florida's vaunted class. But he never truly lived up to the hype, compiling modest stats and suffering two torn ACLs in the same knee. After a healthy season as a fourth-year junior, Powell hopes to be picked in the middle rounds of the upcoming NFL draft.
Mack Brown (No. 4 RB): He was supposed to be the first premier running back then-coach Urban Meyer had ever recruited, but it took Brown time to adjust to the college game. He finally contributed as a junior and will be a key reserve in 2014.
Chaz Green (No. 4 OT): Started nine games as a redshirt freshman and 10 games as a sophomore before missing last season to injury. He's expected to be a key member of UF's O-line in 2014.
Jaylen Watkins (No. 5 CB): He never got the hype of some teammates, but Watkins quietly had a solid career at UF. He started 28 of 48 games played in four seasons at cornerback and safety.
Cody Riggs (No. 7 CB): Like Watkins, Riggs has proven to be a versatile member of the Gators secondary. After redshirting the 2012 season due to injury, he'll be back as a senior this fall.
Leon Orr (No. 8 DT): Returns for his senior season after finally breaking through as a starter last season.
Michael Taylor (No. 12 OLB): Became a starter in 2013 after two seasons as a backup. He'll return for his final year.
Gideon Ajagbe (No. 23 OLB): Never a factor at linebacker, he finally saw action last season after switching to fullback.
Neiron Ball (No. 28 OLB): A quiet contributor, he made seven of his nine career starts in 2013 and will be counted on this fall.
Trey Burton (No. 30 ATH): Played every skill position on offense during his four seasons and was a consummate leader.
Quinton Dunbar (No. 42 WR): Has been a solid starter for most of the last two seasons and looks to do the same as a senior.
Darrin Kitchens (unranked LB): Was a valuable reserve for the last four years.
Jonathan Dowling (No. 1 S): Was kicked off the team and transferred to Western Kentucky, where he became a two-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection. He's skipping his senior year to enter the NFL draft.
Josh Shaw (No. 3 CB): Played in 10 games with one start as a redshirt freshman before transferring to USC. He emerged last season, finishing third on the Trojans with 67 tackles and four interceptions.
Gerald Christian (No. 2 TE): Played eight games for UF after redshirting, then transferred to Louisville and caught 26 passes for 401 yards and four TDs last fall.
Chris Dunkley (No. 7 WR): Redshirted, then transferred to USF. He finally got playing time in four games last fall after being plagued by suspensions.
Ian Silberman (No. 3 OT): Never rose above the level of reserve in three seasons at UF. He graduated in four years and transferred to Boston College.
Chris Martin (No. 10 DE): After an arrest for marijuana possession, he transferred to two junior colleges, then transferred to Kansas and was dismissed after an arrest for an alleged robbery.
Jordan Haden (No. 44 S): Enrolled early but transferred before his first season. Haden has played the last two seasons for Toledo.
Robert Clark (No. 48 CB): Played two seasons before transferring to Louisville, where he caught 23 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown in 2013.
Tyler Murphy (No. 54 ATH): Started six games at QB as a junior in 2013, graduated, then transferred to Boston College for his final season.
Lynden Trail (No. 63 DE): Redshirted and saw no action in 2011 before transferring to Norfolk State.
Michael McFarland (unranked TE): Redshirted, then transferred to USF, where he's worked his way up the depth chart. Was second on the team with 23 catches for 288 yards and two TDs in 2013.
Among the other SEC players who turned heads with their play last week and potentially helped their NFL stock, according to Scouts Inc., were Alabama outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins. LSU safety Craig Loston and Auburn cornerback Chris Davis also had interceptions in the game. Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood had a 24-yard touchdown catch.
Two SEC players who didn't necessarily help their stock last week, according to the Scouts Inc. staff, were Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews. Sam had a sack in the game, but relied too much on his speed rush. There are also concerns as to whether or not he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Matthews had a nice 33-yard catch in the game, but the knock on him during the week was that he dropped too many passes and struggled to make contested catches.
Eight recruits are enrolling early, as classes began this week. Seven have already arrived in Gainesville, while surprise commit Jalen Tabor will enroll by Monday.
The Gators have 25 scholarships to fill in their Class of 2014. That includes 15 seniors, three early departures for the NFL and seven transfers. All of the transfers came from the offense -- two quarterbacks, three offensive linemen, a tight end and a fullback. So Florida can restock most of those positions with a QB, three OL and a TE among the early entrants.
Here's a scouting report and projection for each new Gator.
CB Jalen Tabor
Scouting report: When he flipped to Florida on Thursday morning, Tabor instantly became the top recruit in the Gators' top-10 class. The nation's No. 15 overall prospect has got great size for a cornerback (6-foot-1, 188 pounds), and the speed and athleticism to match up with receivers of all shapes and sizes. Tabor is ultra-competitive and ultra-confident. His coverage skills are a perfect match for Florida, which plays more man-to-man than most schools.
Impact in 2014: When the Gators lost cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins, a huge void was created in the secondary. Armed with immediate playing time, head coach Will Muschamp went hunting for a starter and bagged Tabor. Florida doesn't exactly need a true freshman to start opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, but an elite prospect who can do so sure gives them comfort. Having Tabor enroll early is an ideal situation for both parties.
QB Will Grier
Scouting report: At 6-3 and 181 pounds, Grier is considered a dual-threat quarterback. His foot speed and quickness are probably underrated, but that's because of his strong arm and the monster numbers he posted through the air in high school. In the pocketm he shows good vision, decision-making and the ability to put touch on the ball or throw with zip. The No. 2-rated QB in the nation, Grier has the mental makeup to handle high expectations at Florida.
Impact in 2014: Grier has a very good chance to leap over rising sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and assume backup duties. But before he gets that chance in spring football, Grier has a lot of work to do in the weight room and in studying with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. There isn't another recruit who is more likely to take important reps in practice.
DB Duke Dawson
Scouting report: A true defensive back, Dawson has the athleticism to play corner and the size (5-11, 197) to play safety. He can handle bigger receivers as well as play in the slot. He shows advanced coverage technique and instincts, thanks in part to working with former Gator standout Keiwan Ratliff.
Impact in 2014: Florida clearly has a big need at cornerback with three upperclassmen departing so Dawson could get a look there. But if he ends up at safety, it might be harder to see early playing time. Still, he has the size and speed to make an impact on special teams right away.
DE Taven Bryan
Scouting report: It's not often the Gators go to Wyoming to pull a recruit, but Bryan made a strong impression during a summer camp, and he is the No. 1-ranked prospect from his state. Coaches were impressed by his explosiveness and motor, but it remains to be seen which side of the ball Bryan will end up on.
Impact in 2014: At 6-4, 250, Bryan has some growing to do if he's going to play in SEC trenches. There's a good chance he'll redshirt, but first he'll have the benefit of spring football to determine if he can stick at DE or move to OT.
OL Nolan Kelleher
Scouting report: He already looks the part of an SEC offensive lineman at 6-5, 310 pounds, and Kelleher has the nasty attitude to be a road-grader. With his long wingspan and solid footwork, however, he could eventually play tackle with some coaching.
Impact in 2014: Enrolling early should benefit Kelleher tremendously, as he has the size and run-blocking chops to make Florida's thin two-deep roster. There are needs all over the OL so he'll have a chance to chip in as a freshman.
OL Kavaris Harkless
Scouting report: He played wide receiver and tight end as a freshman in high school before gaining enough weight to play offensive tackle. The athleticism is there. So is the toughness and mean streak necessary to survive in the SEC. Harkless is smart and very coachable. His 6-5, 285-pound frame projects well to handle another 20-30 pounds.
Impact in 2014: He could use a redshirt year to bulk up, but everything else is in place for him to eventually contribute as a Gator. His technique and attitude make him less of a developmental project than some think.
TE DeAndre Goolsby
Scouting report: The Kansas product displays above-average hands and can make plays with intermediate routes. He has decent speed for the tight end position, but will need to add some upper-body strength and work on his technique as an inline blocker if he's going to play right away.
Impact in 2014: Coming in early should give Goolsby a chance to get into the tight end rotation as a freshman. Florida has a dearth of pass-catchers at the position so it's not out of the question that Goolsby can avoid a redshirt and find a role catching passes over the middle.
OL Drew Sarvary
Scouting report: Not an elite prospect, but solid and experienced. Sarvary comes to UF via Tyler Junior College in Texas, where he was named All-Southwest Junior Football Conference first team last season. He's physically ready at 6-5, 318 and has enough mobility to be an effective pulling guard.
Impact in 2014: Florida has just five offensive linemen with starting experience and needs all the help it can get to completely rebuild its rotation. Sarvary, a juco transfer who started 10 of 11 games for Florida A&M as a freshman, will be expected to join UF's core group and could even challenge for a starting job before his two years of eligibility are through.
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
McElwain discusses new Florida football
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