Florida Gators: Jon Halapio

Replacing the Gators: Offense

May, 14, 2014
May 14
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is over, so it's time to talk about the next wave of Gators.

Florida had four players selected last weekend with just one from the offensive side of the ball.

On Tuesday we looked at the defensive replacements. Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on offense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

OG Jon Halapio
Sixth-round pick, New England Patriots
A three-year starter, Halapio battled through some injuries and was a rock at right guard. He was better as a run blocker than in pass protection, but the same could be said for most of Florida's offensive linemen. By the end of spring practice, Florida's starting guards were junior Tyler Moore and senior Trenton Brown, each of whom spent time last season at tackle. Brown is a behemoth at 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds who forced his way into the starting lineup by improving his footwork, pad level and consistency throughout the spring. Moore, no slouch at 6-5, 320, is still dealing with the linger effects of a broken elbow but seems better suited as an interior lineman. Both guards have the potential to upgrade Florida's line in run and pass blocking.

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
AP Photo/Phil SandlinDemarcus Robinson, who caught five passes as a freshman in 2013, will be one of the Gators' playmakers next season.
WR Solomon Patton
Undrafted free agent, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a quiet first three years at UF, Patton became an indispensable contributor as a slot receiver, deep threat and kick returner. Patton's elite speed is something the Gators will be sorely lacking, but there are some emerging players on the horizon. Sophomore Demarcus Robinson was the Gators' best playmaker in the passing game throughout spring practice. He's not nearly as fast at Patton, but he's got some magic after the catch. Another sophomore, Chris Thompson, has the speed to be a deep threat and will be counted on to stretch the field. In the slot, the Gators' expectations are a bit lower as they look to juniors Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers to be solid route-runners and reliable targets.

H-back Trey Burton
Undrafted free agent, Philadelphia Eagles
In his unique career at Florida, Burton played every offensive skill position and finished his senior season as a wide receiver. In the pros he'll get a shot to be an H-back, which is where the Gators would have loved to have had him back. Under new coordinator Kurt Roper, UF's offense is perfectly suited for tight ends, tweeners and oversized wide receivers to play in the slot or release off the line. Florida's returning tight ends -- seniors Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton (Trey's brother) -- combined for four catches in 2013. While Westbrook, Burton and senior fullbacks Hunter Joyer and Gideon Ajagbe showed flashes of pass-catching ability in spring ball, the Gators won't have to rely on any of the four veterans to do more than he is capable of. That's because former Virginia tight end Jake McGee transferred to Florida after graduating from UVA last month. His experience as the Cavaliers' leading receiver in 2013 could be a game-changer for Florida's offense, which was severely lacking in proven playmakers.

C Jonotthan Harrison
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
Another three-year starter, Harrison anchored Florida's O-line and was a respected leader on and off the field. His replacement is a very similar player in senior Max Garcia, who was Florida's best and most consistent lineman last season. Garcia played much of 2013 at left guard but also has on his résumé a full season as a starter at left tackle for Maryland in 2011. Just like Harrison once did, Garcia is having some issues learning how to master the shotgun snap, but his coaches aren't worried and routinely praised him in spring practice despite some errant snaps. If he can fix that and also get comfortable calling out protections for his teammates on the line, Garcia could upgrade the position by being a little stronger as a run blocker.

OL Kyle Koehne
Tryout contract, Atlanta Falcons
Koehne became a key reserve on UF's line, as he backed up several positions and was able to step in as a starter for half the season with little drop-off. The Gators' starting O-line is set with all five players having starting experience. Where things get dicey is on the second unit. Florida's OL coach, Mike Summers, has his hands full trying to develop the next Koehne. His top reserve after spring practice was Trip Thurman, a junior who got a long look on the first unit and has played just about every position. Thurman will likely be Florida's top backup at all three interior spots. At guard, the Gators also have junior college transfer Drew Sarvary, who started 10 of 11 games as a freshman at Florida A&M in 2012 and has the requisite size at 6-6, 318. Options are even more limited with reserve tackles, where Florida has freshman early enrollee Kavaris Harkless, injured redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson, and soon-to-enroll freshman David Sharpe.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- An NFL draft with no Florida Gators picked in the first round has become a pretty rare occurrence, but that's exactly what most are expecting on Thursday night.

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.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida's Dominique Easley's draft stock has been hurt by injuries, but he could still go in the second round.
Dominique Easley
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

Rain drenches Florida pro day

March, 17, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There hasn't actually been a dark rain cloud hovering above the Florida program for the last year. It's only seemed that way as the Gators slogged through more injuries and losses than they've seen in decades.

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?

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLoucheiz Purifoy was one of several defensive backs drawing attention at Florida's pro day.
"You kind of feel sorry for these guys working out in these conditions," said Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, who was there to watch three Florida cornerbacks who are expected to be picked during the NFL draft on May 8-10.

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."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

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.

Our weeklong series moves to the offensive line, a group of players who are critically important to Florida's plans for a rebirth on that side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeDJ Humphries
AP Photo/John RaouxD.J. Humphries is back and healthy for the Gators.
Returning starters: Left tackle D.J. Humphries, who will be a junior this fall, started six games in 2013 and missed the last five due to a sprained knee. He's one of Florida's top talents and is looking to bounce back after a sub-par season. Rising senior Max Garcia emerged as a leader last fall and started all 12 games, mostly at left guard and left tackle. Rising junior Tyler Moore made six starts at tackle last season before missing the final four games with a broken elbow. Mammoth juco transfer Trenton Brown played in every game last season as a junior and started the final five games at right tackle. Chaz Green was the Gators' starter at right tackle before he tore his ACL and missed all of last season.

Departures: Florida lost three seniors in center Jonotthan Harrison (12 starts), right guard Jon Halapio (10 starts) and guard/tackle Kyle Koehne (six starts). They were the heart and core leadership of the line. The Gators also saw key reserve Ian Silberman, who started the final four games at guard last year, transfer to Boston College after graduating in December. Two other transfers, Quinteze Williams and Trevon Young, never saw action for Florida.

Returning reserves: Rising junior Trip Thurman played in all 12 games as a backup. While he's not expected to unseat any of Florida's incumbent starters, Thurman will have an important role as the Gators' only returning reserve. The former three-star prospect has good size at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds and can play guard or tackle.

Newcomers: Last season, Florida redshirted tackle Roderick Johnson, center Cameron Dillard and guard Octavius Jackson, whose playing career is over because of a chronic shoulder injury. The Gators have three midseason enrollees who will participate in spring practice -- juco transfer Drew Sarvary and true freshmen Nolan Kelleher and Kavaris Harkless. This summer will see the arrival of three more linemen from UF's Class of 2014 -- tackles David Sharpe and Andrew Mike and guard Travaris Dorsey.

What to watch: No unit could use a clean slate more than Florida's offensive line. It struggled with injuries in 2013, but that wasn't the only major problem. The Gators have had trouble with pass protection for several years now, and it's proven to be one of the most crippling issues for an offense that hasn't been able to get out of its own way. Improving the pass blocking and developing depth are the two most important tasks this spring, and Florida will look to new line coach Mike Summers to lead the way. Summers comes to UF with 34 years of experience and a reputation as a fine teacher. Those skills will be put to the test, as the Gators have just five linemen with starting experience and only two others who have ever played in a college game. It's not necessary to settle on five starters this spring, but Summers needs to quickly figure out his players' strengths and best positions. Finding a replacement for Harrison, a three-year starter at center, is key. It's expected that a veteran like Moore or Garcia will make the shift to center, but Florida must continue to develop Dillard as a quality reserve who can eventually push for the starting job. Last year, Florida was unable to play a true spring game because of injuries to its offensive linemen, so staying healthy is another modest goal this spring. There are holes all over the two-deep roster and plenty of opportunities to win jobs. Fresh faces like Sarvary, Johnson and Kelleher will have their chances to carve out roles and perhaps even make it a competition with one of the five veterans. With a new OL coach and that much-needed clean slate, anything is possible.

Florida O-line needs infusion of talent

December, 12, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With a strong desire for early playing time, new Florida offensive tackle commit David Sharpe (Jacksonville, Fla./Providence School) couldn't help but see plenty of opportunity with the Gators.

Florida's offensive line has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. It's been beaten up by marauding defensive linemen, battered by injuries and called soft by head coach Will Muschamp. The O-line became an easy scapegoat on an offense that has struggled not only to throw forward passes but to keep quarterbacks healthy and clean.

[+] EnlargeD.J. Humphries
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesD.J. Humphries is all that's left on the offensive line from Florida's 2012 recruiting class.
Getting a commitment from the nation's No. 2 offensive tackle prospect comes at just the right time for a UF program desperate to discover an offensive identity.

Muschamp is fond of calling the SEC a line-of-scrimmage league, but his Gators have missed on a few high-profile offensive linemen in recent years.

Last year it was Laremy Tunsil, the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the nation, who lived 45 miles up the road from Gainesville in Lake City. He had significant interest in Florida during his junior year of high school, but it waned throughout his senior year before he signed with Ole Miss. Tunsil lived up to his billing this fall, starting all but four games at left tackle for the Rebels as a freshman.

The Class of 2012 was a strong year for offensive linemen in the state of Florida. But Jacksonville's John Theus signed with Georgia and Palm Beach Gardens' Avery Young chose Auburn. Both are solid starters in the SEC.

UF wound up signing just one of the 2012 Floridian offensive linemen in Jessamen Dunker, who redshirted and was expected to compete for a starting job last spring. But he was arrested, suspended and transferred not long after his first year was complete.

Dunker's departure reduced Florida's already-tiny 2012 OL class to just D.J. Humphries, who started seven games at left tackle this season before a knee injury sidelined him for the final five games.

To bolster depth and stabilize the line, the Gators dipped into the transfer pool. They signed former Maryland left tackle Max Garcia, who stared all 12 games this past season; former Nebraska tackle Tyler Moore, who made eight starts before breaking his elbow; and juco transfer Trenton Brown (five starts).

The roster numbers are dwindling. UF loses three seniors in Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison and Kyle Koehne. The school also announced Thursday that junior guard Ian Silberman is departing, and freshmen Quinteze Williams and Trevon Young will transfer.

That means the Gators will have just two seniors next season in Garcia and Brown among nine returning offensive linemen. Starting right tackle Chaz Green would have been a part of that senior class, but he was injured in preseason camp and missed the 2013 season. With a medical hardship waiver, he can return as a fifth-year junior.

With six linemen leaving, the pressure is on Florida to sign at least the four pledges it currently has in Sharpe, Travaris Dorsey, Nolan Kelleher and Dontae Angus.

Another key to balancing the classes will be the progress of Florida's redshirt freshmen. While the Gators missed on some touted high school prospects, they instead stocked up on projects and players with projectable frames in their Class of 2013.

Florida was able to redshirt the three true freshman offensive linemen it signed. Guard Octavius Jackson drew the most praise in practice and came the closest to playing. Cam Dillard is being groomed to be UF's center of the future. Roderick Johnson has the size (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) to compete for playing time in the spring.

Of course, they'll all have to contend with Sharpe, who plans to see the field in 2014 as well.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like the little black lovebugs that swarm these parts twice a year only to splatter across windshields like a plague, the Florida Gators' injury bug in 2013 was a nuisance. Then it reached epic proportions. Here's a complete breakdown:

August

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel's season ended in the third game, when he broke his leg vs. Tennessee.
Injuries: Junior QB Jeff Driskel (appendectomy), sophomore RB Matt Jones (viral infection), senior WR Andre Debose (torn ACL), freshman LB Matt Rolin (torn ACL), junior OT Chaz Green (torn labrum)
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.

September

Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."

October

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesMatt Jones was Florida's leading rusher when he was lost for the season in the LSU game.
Injuries: Jones (torn meniscus), Murphy (sprained shoulder), senior DT Damien Jacobs (concussion), junior LB Ronald Powell (ankle), senior LB Darrin Kitchens (shoulder), redshirt freshman LB Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), sophomore LT D.J. Humphries (sprained MCL)
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.

November

Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.

Conclusions

It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.

The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.

"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."

Real painful.

Are the Muschamp-Zook comparisons fair?

December, 4, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ron Zook answers his cellphone on a bright and unseasonably warm autumn day in New York City. His car has almost reached the hotel when a reporter asks for his thoughts on Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Again.

He sighs deeply, painfully.

"What's the gist of the story about?" he asks warily and listens as the reporter says he wants some perspective on what Muschamp is going through now that Florida's season has gone south and fans are calling for his head.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jason Parkhurst/USA TODAY SportsRon Zook, who went 23-14 overall and 16-8 in the SEC from 2002 to 2004, can relate to what Will Muschamp went through this year.
As a former Florida head coach who experienced the exact same thing in his third season, Zook knows the drill.

He coughs a staccato burst of a laugh. "Heh, I don't know if you can call it an experience," he says and counts the number of times in the last week he's been asked this very same question.

He pauses to collect himself, then he answers.

"Let Will do his job," he says.

That's Zook's message nine years after he was fired by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, and he says it with a measure of exasperation, as though he has been given one more chance to speak directly to the fans who compose the proud Gator Nation.

Zook never got much of a chance to do his job. There was too much "noise in the system" as he called it. Many of those outspoken fans turned on him, just as they turned on Muschamp this season. Only for Zook, the honeymoon lasted a matter of hours.

Muschamp was given a mulligan in his first season after being handed a program that Urban Meyer admitted was "broke a little bit." What's followed has been more like a roller-coaster ride with the sugar-rush high of Muschamp's superlative second season followed by the sudden crash of 2013.

There are enough similarities between these two coaches that it's understandable how often they are compared. Both were defensive coordinators and recruiting whizzes with no head coaching experience who followed national championship-winning coaches at UF.

Zook went 23-14 with a 16-8 record in the SEC from 2002 to 2004. Muschamp has steered the Gators to a 22-16 record, 13-11 in the SEC over the last three seasons.

But the lows of 2013 are unlike anything Zook ever experienced: Florida's first losing season since 1979, the first loss to Vanderbilt since 1988 (first at home since 1945), the program's first loss to an FCS team, and the end of a 22-year bowl streak that dated back to 1991 when Steve Spurrier led the program out of the darkness of probation into an era of unprecedented heights.

"Obviously there's a lot of negativism going around right now," Zook said. "That's college football. That's part of it. That's one of the things that makes Florida a great place. It's is also one of the things that makes it tough. They want to win, and they want to win now."

Off the field, both coaches had some low moments in wrestling with the realities of their fans' expectations.

After losing this season to Georgia -- his alma mater -- for the third straight year, Muschamp got into a shouting match with a Florida fan as he walked off the field. A week later he acknowledged his emotions got the best of him.

"I made a real mistake over a very passionate, passionate Florida fan telling me his opinion of me," he said. "You know what, that’s fine, that’s fine. They pay their ticket, they can boo all they want."

A couple of weeks later, Muschamp boiled over again, saying, "there's a lot of negativity out there. Some of our fans need to get a grip."

In contrast, Zook took more heat from fans from the moment he was hired. He famously inspired a Florida fan to launch the website FireRonZook.com one day after he got the job. But nothing was worse than apologizing for his role in a late-night verbal altercation with an antagonistic fraternity on campus. Less than two weeks later, Zook was fired.

By the time Muschamp finished his third season, something Zook was unable to do, the pressure had risen to a feverish level. But let the record show that FireWillMuschamp.com is merely another placeholder website for sale.

With the benefit of hindsight, comparing Muschamp and Zook is on the minds of many irate fans. But is it fair?

Foley says it is not, and his opinion is the only one that matters.

"Zooker and I are friends, but it’s just not apples-to-apples," he said last Saturday before Florida finished its season with an expected blowout loss to unbeaten archrival Florida State. "It’s my job to evaluate and see where the program is headed. At that point in time, I didn’t think it was headed where we wanted it to be. This time, I think it’s headed where we want it to be. The proof is going to be in the pudding, but I don’t think it’s apples-to-apples.

"I'm like anybody else, I want to be successful for the University of Florida. The only thing that we want to do is to take care of the Gators. I've been doing that for 38 years. I've been doing it for 22 as athletic director. [It's not a matter of being] patient or impatient or wiser or older. I want to be successful. I'm very confident we're going to be successful moving in the direction we're moving in. That's where it's at."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWill Muschamp knows just how high the expectations are for the Gators and Florida officials say that despite this year's record he has things heading in the right direction.
Muschamp hasn't lost his players, either, despite suffering through an agonizing seven-game losing streak that ended the 2013 season. Many, like senior guard Jon Halapio, were upset and defiant about the criticism that bombarded their head coach.

"I strongly disagree with that," he said. "I'll go to battle with that coach any day, his whole coaching staff. I see the grind in his eyes every day. I see what he does every day, the passion he has for this team, and I'll go to war with him any day. He has our backs and I have his back, win or lose."

Senior center Jonotthan Harrison elaborated on why Muschamp won his enduring loyalty, why the players still believe in their coach.

"Because he is down to earth, as down to earth as it comes. He's as real as it comes," he said. "There's no sugar-coating anything. There's no BS. He's as black and white as it comes. He's going to tell you exactly how it is. He's going to treat you like you deserve to be treated. So if you're a hard worker -- no matter if you're a scholarship athlete, a third-string, no matter what your position is on the team, as long as you're a hard worker -- you have all of his respect. But if you go out there and you're a scumbag and you really don't want to work hard or whatever, then you're not going to have his support. That's just how it is. He's black and white. He's down to earth. He's a real guy."

The passion with which Muschamp's player support him is obvious. It's something Zook has seen and appreciated from afar.

"I think the fact that the players have circled the wagons for him, now they've got to come out and play for him," said Zook, who is two years removed from being fired as head coach at Illinois and is now a business development officer at Gateway Bank, back in Gator country, just 45 minutes south of Gainesville in Ocala. "I can tell ya he's on the right track. People say they've quit on him, but I do know that all of the negativism just zaps the energy out of your football team.

"Hopefully Will will get it turned around. I think he will."

In other words, let the man do his job.

Planning for success: Florida

November, 27, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida hit rock bottom last Saturday when it lost to a mediocre FCS team inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Or did it?

Don't look now, but there could still be a new low to come. The Gators' arch-rivals to the west are visiting this week to put an end to UF's season of misery, and the Seminoles have just the unbeaten juggernaut to inflict something even more painful than last week's loss.

"Very big game," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher on Monday. "Always a very difficult place to play there in Gainesville, one of the most difficult in the country. They’ll be ready to play. I know they will bring their 'A' game and we’ll have to bring ours."

[+] EnlargeWIll Muschamp
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIt's been a tough year for Will Muschamp and the Gators, but a win over the No. 2 FSU could salvage a losing season.
On paper, Florida (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has plenty to play for when it hosts No. 2 Florida State (11-0, 8-0 ACC) Saturday at noon. There are the 15 seniors who will be honored in a pre-game ceremony. There's basic pride. There's an opportunity to wipe away the bitter taste of a season gone wrong. And there's the chance -- however faint -- to ruin FSU's season and end the Noles' hopes of playing for the national championship.

The problem is this game will be played on turf, not paper, and the matchup tilts clearly in the Seminoles' favor. Florida State averages 55.2 points a game, while Florida averages 19.9. FSU allows 11.4 PPG. UF allows 19.6, which highlights the Gators' minuscule margin of error.

"Last one. Our bowl game," Florida senior guard Jon Halapio said. "We have a chance to go out there and resolve our whole season playing against the No. 2 team in the nation, and they’re a very good team.

"With everything we’ve had this year, I feel like a win against this group of guys would uplift our spirits as a football program."

Although it will be facing Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston and the Noles' high-powered offense, the Gator defense still provides a source of hope. Despite the team's struggles, Florida still ranks No. 7 in the nation in total defense and No. 3 in pass defense.

"Fifty-five points is a lot," said Florida senior defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, who was once an FSU signee before enrolling in junior college. "I honestly think they haven’t seen our type of defense all year in their league. We’ll be able to cut that down."

Florida may be down this year, but the Gators can expect no mercy from Florida State.

"If we let up they might hit us in the mouth, but we ain't letting up," Florida State running back Devonta Freeman said. "I know for a fact we ain't going to let up."

Led by their seniors, the Gators know they don't have a prayer of winning if they don't first believe it can be done.

"I think we have a chance," Halapio said. "If we go out there and play like we're capable of playing, I think we still have a good chance of playing a good game and possibly beating them. We've just got to execute."

Therein lies Florida's challenge -- execute or be executed.

One year changes everything for FSU, UF

November, 26, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Every year the most storied rivalries in college football add another chapter. On Saturday in the Swamp the steamroller squares off against the spoiler.

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.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWill Muschamp hasn't had much to be happy about this season, as the Gators have clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979.
"Our guys understand the importance of this game," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "We'll work hard and we'll have a great crowd just like we did this past Saturday to support our guys. [It's] one of the great rivalries in all of college football. Florida State's got a good football team. They're having a great year. It would help us a lot to go get a win."

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."

Changes are coming at Florida

November, 25, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Another week, another crushing defeat for Florida, and not even an FCS opponent could remedy what ails these Gators.

An epic losing streak pock-marked with the kind of history no team wants to make has reached six games. The end of the season can't come soon enough, and the negativity and pressure to act are growing as this season of misery threatens to implode.

The questions being asked are damning in and of themselves:

Have the players given up on the season?

Is the offense so debilitating it's affected the rest of the team?

The answers have steadily shown up in recent weeks.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFrustration has reached an all-time high for Will Muschamp and the Florida Gators after a loss to FCS Georgia Southern on Saturday.
After losing in the Swamp two weeks ago to Vanderbilt on homecoming, Florida's first home defeat against the Commodores since 1945, some of the Gators' upperclassmen acknowledged the need to guard against giving up on the final three games.

"We definitely need to look out for that," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "I feel like maybe younger players would have that mentality. I know the older players are trying to keep the team together. That’s something we’ve got to guard against with the younger players. We’re trying to keep everybody up and keep everybody together."

Halapio said he's seen it before, because he checked out when he was a fresh-faced Gator. His first season in 2010 was Urban Meyer's last, and UF slogged through a demoralizing four-game losing streak midseason. The following season, the first of Will Muschamp's tenure, saw Florida go 6-6 in the regular season.

Halapio, now a veteran who is expected to lead, says the young players need to follow the older players' example.

"When the older players come around they see you’ve got that look on your face like you don’t want to do anything this week," he said, "an older player comes around and says to pick it up this week and come together. The leadership on this team needs to take over."

Two weeks later, it still hasn't happened.

After losing to Georgia Southern on Saturday, Halapio did the veteran thing and faced the media again. There was nothing to sugar-coat after the program's first loss to an FCS team.

"Very shocking," he said. "The morale on this team is at an all-time low. We have a lack of leadership. We just really need to tighten up as a team."

Muschamp has obviously seen the same issues and pointed out the lack of leadership. He's no stranger to issuing blunt, public criticism. A year ago he called his offensive line soft. This season he has decried a lack of mental toughness throughout the team.

But look more closely and you'll see a defensive-minded coach who is past the point of exasperation with an offense that continually puts his defense in no-win situations.

After his quarterback, Tyler Murphy, threw three pivotal interceptions in the Vanderbilt game, Muschamp pointed out the ripple effect his offense had.

"We didn't take care of the football. And when those things happen, emotionally it's a killer. It's a killer for your entire organization," he said. "So when you spot them the ball on the 4-yard line, right now we're not strong enough mentally to handle that. A year ago, maybe early in the year, we were. Right now, we're not. It's a 'woe is me' mentality right now. We've got to overcome that. Our leadership needs to step forward."

Even with three games remaining, a .500 record and a 22-year bowl streak still on the line, Muschamp was concerned his offense might submarine the team's attitude.

"You can play with more of an edge than I believe we did," he said after the Vanderbilt loss shook many a Gator's faith. "Not saying we didn’t play hard. I think we did play hard. We competed and fought to the end. But at the end of the day, you cannot give them those opportunities. It’s just a complete emotional letdown.

"You can’t throw it to them. That helps you check out."

The implications of an inept offense were laid out even more bluntly after Florida's offense couldn't keep up with Georgia Southern on the scoreboard this past Saturday.

"You’ve got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It’s been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it’s my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. Very disappointed for our program. An embarrassment in this situation. ...

"We’re struggling offensively and it has infected our entire team right now."

With another season almost in the books and an offense that continues to rank among the nation's worst, it's obviously not a comfortable time to be an offensive assistant at the University of Florida. After the Vanderbilt loss, offensive coordinator Brent Pease admitted "it's human nature to probably think about" job security.

So what is left to do? Muschamp has promised he will evaluate his staff at the end of the season, as he has done the previous two years.

"What we’re doing so far is not working," he said. "Keep doing the same stuff, you’re going to get the same results."

Whether it's players or coaches, changes will come. You can bet the same people won't be doing the same stuff much longer at Florida.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.

The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.

And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.

Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?

A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.

"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsGators coach Will Muschamp was at a loss to explain the latest in a long string of disappointments.
As usual, the primary culprit was an inept offense that came into the game ranked No. 111 out of 123 FBS teams in total offense and generated 279 yards (4.5 yards per play).

"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...

"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”

On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.

Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).

Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.

"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."

It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.

Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.

But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.

"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."

The same cannot be said of Florida.

The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.

"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."

Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.

"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."

Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.

Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.

"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.

"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."

Few answers for beat-up Florida O-line

November, 11, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jon Halapio's voice was subdued, his words measured and his eyes mostly focused on the carpet beneath his seat as he tried to explain Florida's 34-17 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday.

It was another rough outing for the Gator O-line, which gave up five sacks and a total of nine tackles for loss for a whopping 67 yards. Losing at home to the Commodores was just the latest insult upon a season of injury.

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
AP Photo/John RaouxThe Gators lost sophomore tackle Tyler Moore for the season after a scooter accident Nov. 5.
Veterans like Halapio can only shake their heads in disbelief.

"I've never seen or heard of anything like this, but this is the game we play," Halapio said of the injury bug that Florida just can't shake. "We've just got to move forward."

The senior guard, who tore his left pectoral muscle just before training camp and missed two games, has embodied the season-long struggles of his offensive line, as injuries and ineffectiveness have eroded any cohesion and consistency the UF offense has been able to muster.

Just when Florida made some personnel adjustments that seemed to click in the Nov. 2 loss to Georgia, another devastating injury struck.

That was sophomore tackle Tyler Moore, who is out for the season after falling off his scooter and suffering a compound fracture of his elbow last week. Offensive tackle was already a particularly sore spot. The Gators lost junior starter Chaz Green (torn labrum) for the season in fall camp, and sophomore starter D.J. Humphries (sprained knee) missed his second consecutive game on Saturday.

Against Vanderbilt, the Gators used their sixth different offensive line alignment of the season. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison is the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.

Despite how often they have to talk about injuries, Halapio, his teammates and their coaches bristle at the thought of using them as an excuse.

"[Moore's injury] shook things up, but we practiced [last] week," Halapio said. "We prepared for Vanderbilt like they prepared for us. There's no excuses about the injuries."

But losing three starting tackles clearly has had a musical-chairs effect on the line. Against the Bulldogs, Moore replaced Humphries by moving from right tackle to left. Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, got his first start, and the line had its best game in the last month.

“Well, we felt very good about a combination of Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown at tackles. We lost Tyler on Tuesday night. It hurt us in the [Vanderbilt] game," head coach Will Muschamp said on Saturday. "So you move Max [Garcia] from left guard, where he's been playing all year, to left tackle. Then you have a new left guard coming in in Ian [Silberman], who was really -- going in the Georgia game, until he had another injury -- was going to play tight end for us. It's hard.”

Hard to keep up with, too.

The results this season are about what one might expect of such a banged-up unit. Florida has allowed 26 sacks, tied for 105th among 123 FBS schools. The tackles for loss statistics are even worse, as the Gators have given up 67 in nine games, which ranks 110th.

And there are few answers on a roster so depleted. It's no wonder Halapio feels the answers can only come from within.

"We've just got to look ourselves in the mirror individually, especially through this time," he said. "I've never been through this really like this, adversity like this. So we've just got to correct this and move forward with the guys that want to win."

At least the ones who are still standing.

Greetings from the Swamp

August, 31, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Season openers are usually met with tremendous enthusiasm. It's the day fans have waited months for.

As the No. 10 Gators are set to host Toledo, however, some of that excitement has been tempered by a slew of suspensions that will cost UF two defensive starters and a handful of depth players.

The Gators lost seven starters from a 2012 defense that ranked among the top five in the nation in total defense. Add the suspensions of starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (after two offseason arrests) and starting cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy (for an undisclosed violation of team rules), and Florida will have nine new starters on defense against an up-tempo, senior-laden Rockets offense.

The other suspensions are to defensive tackle Darious Cummings, wide receiver Latroy Pittman, and offensive lineman Quinteze Williams.

Another damper? The weather.

One of the iconic signs painted on the corners of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium says "This is The Swamp". Today that could be taken literally. It's very hot, very humid, and the forecast calls for scattered showers.

While the weather could dash Florida's hopes of showing off an improved passing game, a bigger issue is the running game, where in the Gators will be without starting tailback Matt Jones (viral infection) and two starting offensive linemen -- Jon Halapio (out for the first two games with a partially torn pectoral muscle) and Chaz Green (out for the season with a torn labrum).

Depth will key if the Gators are to add to their streak of 23 straight wins in season openers, the second-longest run in the country.

Five questions: Florida-Toledo

August, 30, 2013
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On Saturday, No. 10 Florida will host a Toledo team that went went 9-4 last season and knows how to move the ball at a fast pace.

The Gators are looking to prove that last year's 11-win season wasn't a fluke, but they'll start the year with a beat-up offense, as key players like running back Matt Jones and offensive linemen Chaz Green and Jon Halapio are out.

The defense will be down top linebacker Antonio Morrison, who is out due to suspension, and will have some younger blood on the field Saturday.

Here are five things to watch in the Gators season opener against the Rockets:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kevin Liles/US PRESSWIREAs usual, the biggest question mark for Florida's offense is centered on Jeff Driskel and the passing game.
1. Life in the passing lane? There's no denying that the biggest question resides in Florida's passing game. The Gators were last in the SEC in passing (146.3 yards per game) last season, and no one outside of Florida's football facility really knows what to expect from this unit again. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is a year older, maturing and more confident, but just how comfortable is he with his receivers? Who will be the guy(s) out wide? Well, Quinton Dunbar could be the best deep-play option to start the year, and it sounds like he's been more consistent in practice. Solomon Patton will be used more all over the field and has the speed to break off a few big plays. And Trey Burton proved to be a consistent weapon during fall camp. Keep an eye on freshman Demarcus Robinson, who has the talent to be a special player this year. Regardless, if this passing game wants to generate some confidence, Saturday would be a good time to start.

2. Return of the Mack: Coming out of high school, Mack Brown was considered one of the South's top running backs. But the redshirt junior has just 167 career yards and no touchdown on 40 carries. Brown has a chance to get half as many as his career carries on Saturday when he makes his first start at running back. With Jones out, Brown is now the center of Florida's running back stable. He's had an issue with fumbles in the past, but appeared to clean that up this fall. He's a tough runner, who has the ability to break a few. Last year, the Rockets ranked 82nd nationally in run defense (182.3).

3. Stopping the uptempo offense: This will be Toledo's first game ever against an SEC opponent. That means the Rockets will get a taste of what it's like to play what should yet again be one of the nation's top defensive units. But Toledo will have that exhausting uptempo offense on its side. The Gators did well against the uptempo last year, but right out of the gate, it's bothersome. Just look at how tired South Carolina's defense looked Thursday night against North Carolina. The Gators are working in some new parts on defense, and we all know how jacked up players get for openers. Toledo's trio of quarterback Terrence Owens, running back David Fluellen and receiver Bernard Reedy return a combined 6,033 offensive yards and 38 touchdowns from 2012 and will try to wear this defense down. One way to stop the uptempo is to disrupt things up front, where the Gators have harped on generating more pressure this year.

4. Safety zone: The Gators are replacing two starters -- Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- at safety. Heading into preseason camp, coach Will Muschamp wasn't exactly thrilled with the play at the position. But that changed with the emergence of veteran Cody Riggs, who moved to safety after spending most of his football career at cornerback. Riggs has really embraced his new role and will play both safety spots on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Marcus Maye will start alongside Riggs. Maye flew around the field during fall camp to earn his starting spot, but this will be the first action Maye sees in a Gators uniform. Riggs has tons of experience and started playing safety before his season-ending foot injury early last year. Maye will have some wide eyes Saturday, so expect Toledo to try and test him early.

5. Place-kicker: With record-setting kicker Caleb Strugis gone, the Gators have major questions at place-kicker. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin beat out senior Brad Phillips this fall and will see his first collegiate action Saturday. This is the first of many tests for Hardin. With the offense still a relative unknown, Hardin's foot could be called upon a lot this year. That's a lot of pressure to put on a young kicker. Getting some of those nerves out of the way on Saturday will go a long way.
All eyes were already on Florida's offense this season and whether or not the Gators could make the kind of leap on that side of the ball that would propel them to an SEC championship.

Florida GatorsThey won 11 games a year ago despite finishing 12th in the SEC in total offense and 10th in scoring offense.

There's optimism coming out of preseason camp that the Gators will be better on offense, but they'll start the season shorthanded. Running back Matt Jones and offensive guard Jon Halapio are still ailing and will miss the opener against Toledo. Halapio (torn pectoral) will also miss the second game against Miami, and Jones (viral infection) is questionable for that game.

Florida has an open date after the first two games and then kicks off the SEC season on Sept. 21 against Tennessee. The Gators are hopeful that both Jones and Halapio will be back in time for the Vols' visit to the Swamp.

With Jones out, this is a huge opportunity for redshirt junior Mack Brown. He came to Florida as one of the top running back prospects in the country but enters this season with just 40 career carries. The Gators certainly want to throw it better this season, and will need to, but they're never going to get away from a physical running game as long as Will Muschamp is coach. That means Brown could come close to equaling his number of career carries in the first two or three games.

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