Florida Gators: Michael Taylor

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody does optimism quite like a football team in springtime. Especially one with a lot to prove.

As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.

"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."

Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.

Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp was satisfied with the progress the Gators made in spring practice.
OK, so we started off with a softball. It wasn't much of a reach to say the Gators would change the "woe-is-me" tune that permeated through an awful 2013 season. Nevertheless, a new attitude was extremely important in setting the tone of spring practice, building team chemistry and creating an environment for learning and development.

Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.

The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.

Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense

This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.

The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.

In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.

The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.

Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense

This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Michael Taylor aims to lead by example for the Florida defense.
The names might have been slightly off, but the final outcome was as expected. Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jabari Gorman, Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis are the players to whom teammates look for tone-setting and guidance.

Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.

There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.

Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs

This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.

Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.

It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.

"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."

Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge

Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.

There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.

Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.

Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.

The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.

There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Michael Taylor is like any student about to embark on his final year of college. Time has flown fast, and there's a sobering finality about being a senior.

The Florida linebacker is more serious. He has his priorities lined up.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Taylor hopes to lead by example to help get the Gators back to their winning ways.
For his last season in orange and blue, Taylor isn't worried about being first team or second team. He's just focused on the whole team and getting the Gators back to their winning ways.

"Mike in our mind is a starter for us," Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Thursday. "Yeah, he does reps with the ones, the twos and all over the place. He's one of our most experienced guys obviously. Mike knows the defense really well.

"Talking about a leader and a valuable guy, you can't say enough about Mike Taylor for us."

It all stems from Florida's 4-8 record last fall and the soul searching that naturally occurs as a result. Looking back, some of the Gators have said there was no leadership last season.

"Wrong kind of leadership," Taylor said. "More vocal, rather than action. You know, we need action rather than just people saying what they're going to do or just telling people what to do.

"Guys will try to be vocal leaders and try say every word in the dictionary, but you can do it all you want if you're not setting the right example."

At this point in a spring full of burgeoning optimism, there's less of a need for speeches. To a man, the Gators say they're more focused on closeness and leading by example.

Taylor has grown into the role of mentor. Last year, he took then-freshman linebacker Jarrad Davis under his wing. This year it's sophomore LB Daniel McMillian.

"When I came in, I was kind of lost in the system," Davis said. "He reached out to me and he pulled me along. Once I got on my feet, he was a guy that I could always still lean on and definitely go to if I'm not seeing things right.

"If I need somebody just to talk to about anything, Mike Taylor is that guy for me. I really love him and appreciate him for that."

By the end of his freshman season, Davis made a splash and even got into the starting lineup. A few months later, Taylor speaks with a sense of pride when he tells people to look for Davis to make an even bigger impact this fall.

The same thing is happening with McMillian, whom Durkin calls one of the most improved players on the team this spring.

"[Taylor] has been great for D-Mac and some of the younger guys, because Mike is that type of guy," Durkin said. "He takes time to bring another guy along. He has spent time with Daniel off the field, too."

With so much of Taylor's time and effort going to help younger teammates, one might think he was preparing to take a back seat. But Taylor is coming off of his best season after leading the Gators in tackles.

This spring in another story, however. It's as if being a senior has inspired Taylor.

On a team so badly in need of respected voices, the mantle of leadership has fallen squarely on his shoulders.

"Mike really did step it up," Davis said. "He always takes the game seriously and he always takes everything we do seriously. But this year, something feels different. Something feels different being around him, practicing with him, everything. I don’t know what it is. It’s too early to tell."

Perhaps it was the gut-punch of a 4-8 record that sharpened Taylor's approach. Perhaps it's just the natural way of things -- a senior knowing he has only so much time left on campus.

"I've been talking to coaches," Taylor said. "They say this is the best time of your life, so I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy this time ... and yeah, have fun."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ever the perfectionist, Florida coach Will Muschamp was not happy with his run defense last season.

Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.

Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison is trying to mature in his role as the QB of Will Muschamp's defense.
"Our defense needs to handle and respond better to the tempo, especially our young defensive linemen understanding getting aligned, getting the call," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "All those things that a hurry-up offense creates angst with, we did not handle very well defensively.

"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."

Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.

The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.

"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...

"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."

As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.

"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.

"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."

This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.

"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.

"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."

Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.

Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.

"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.

"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."

Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.

"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.

"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."

With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.

"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."

Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.

"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
1:00
PM ET
Schedule: The Gators' first spring practice is Wednesday. It's open to the public and free, along with seven other practice sessions. Spring football concludes Saturday, April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut, which starts at 1:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida pushed back the start of spring practice to ensure that previously injured players such as Jeff Driskel could participate.
On the mend: Florida pushed back the start of spring football by about 7-10 days in order to insure the full participation of several players who were injured last fall. Most notable among them are QB Jeff Driskel (broken leg), LBs Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), and O-linemen Tyler Moore (broken elbow) and Chaz Green (torn labrum). Still, the Gators will be without nine players this spring, including two former starters -- RB Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and DT Leon Orr (broken wrist).

On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.

New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.

Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.

Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.

Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.

Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.

Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.

All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's no coincidence that Florida's vaunted defense slipped last season after the departure of several 2012 mainstays. Upperclassmen such as middle linebacker Jon Bostic, tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were that team's best leaders.

Florida coaches expected to ride out the leadership void because the team's heart and soul -- defensive tackle Dominique Easley -- returned with his unique and magnetic blend of intensity, silliness and determination.

Then Easley tore his ACL after the third game, and suddenly there was deafening silence.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFlorida hopes Antonio Morrison is over his sophomore troubles and is ready to become a leader.
The end of Bostic's college career was also an underrated factor in terms of Florida's lack of vocal leadership. The Gators had cultivated a pipeline of highly successful middle linebackers dating back from Channing Crowder in 2003 to Brandon Siler, Brandon Spikes and then Bostic.

The torch was supposed to be passed in 2013 to sophomore Antonio Morrison, who had already signaled his arrival with a big splash late in his freshman season. But Morrison's follow-up was full of turmoil. He was arrested twice last offseason and suspended before his on-field performance took a surprising turn for the worse. His season ended, like so many others, with a serious injury -- torn cartilage in his knee.

Instead of having a rising star at a crucial position in Morrison, the Gators were left with questions for the future. Can Morrison regain the trust of his coaches and teammates? Will he return to being a reliable tackler and playmaker?

That's what it will take for Morrison to become a leader on what is expected to be one of the SEC's best defenses.

It's easy to predict that he will, because Muschamp has witnessed Morrison's work ethic so far this offseason. The coach was quick to praise Morrison and has also seen fellow linebackers Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis emerge as leaders.

"I think Antonio speaks more with his work habits and how he works in the weight room and how he works in practice," Muschamp said. "He's an intense player. I think he speaks volumes, like Jarrad Davis does, like Mike Taylor does. Those guys work hard. Those guys have a good work ethic.

"Those guys realize we need to be more productive at the position than we were a year ago. But [with Morrison] I've seen a guy that's, again, you get humbled, you get knocked down like we were last season, you just shut up and go to work."

In defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, Muschamp recognized an opportunity to challenge two of his best linemen to embrace leadership.

"[They] have taken a little step forward as far those things are concerned and understanding it's time to step into their role," Muschamp said. "I sat both of those guys down when they came in [at the start of this offseason] and talked to them about Sharrif and Dominique: 'Listen, those guys kind of groomed you when you came in. Now it's your job to do that.' That's kind of what we need to start doing now, understanding what it takes."

In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III certainly understands what it takes. Muschamp calls him "a great leader," and it's easy to see why. Hargreaves not only excelled on the field as a true freshman in 2013, but off the field he's charismatic, well-spoken and popular.


Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring is the season of growth, renewal and rebirth. Sounds like a good wish list for the Florida Gators, who are just days away from starting spring practice.

Coming off a surprising 4-8 season that ended with three coaches and a couple dozen players departing, UF is turning the page and looking forward to the clean slate that comes with a new season.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxAfter a 4-8 record in 2013, Florida desperately needs quarterback Jeff Driskel to return strong from injury and set the tone this spring.
But that page won't turn itself.

This is a program that has been thoroughly humbled, and it needs a completely new approach in 2014.

The Gators have had some lows over the past four seasons with a 30-21 combined record, but they reached new levels of misery last year. The injuries piled up and the losses followed suit. It got so bad late in the season that it appeared some players were mailing in the season.

On more than one occasion last year, head coach Will Muschamp said, "If we keep doing the same things, we'll get the same results." He's expecting the results to be different in 2014, with the biggest change being a new offense led by former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper that features a faster tempo and some spread elements.

Roper and some new schemes ought to breathe life into a moribund offense and bring out the best in several talented players who were underutilized in recent years. But the problems at Florida run deeper.

Muschamp complained openly about his team's "woe-is-me mentality" and how it would snowball when things went wrong in games. That was a leadership problem.

A lot of players addressed the media with slumped shoulders and looks of resignation and confusion. There were few answers for how a team with the talent to win 11 games in 2012 could fall so far in one year.

But some players spoke defiantly, insisting Florida will bounce back in 2014. They made mental notes of all the embarrassments suffered last season and are coming back with something to prove.

These are Florida's leaders now -- upperclassmen like Max Garcia, Jonathan Bullard, Quinton Dunbar and Dante Fowler Jr. Along with the coaching staff, they have to push their teammates and use the painful memories of last season to forge something stronger.

It starts with belief.

This will be one of the most important spring practice sessions at Florida in the last decade, and fans can expect to see a level of urgency unlike anything they can remember.

The Gators will have a very young roster again, so it's critical to find new leaders this spring. There are just 16 seniors and 13 juniors on scholarship, tiny numbers considering the 53 underclassmen who are expected to be on the final roster this fall.

It happens every year. Whenever one senior class leaves, there is a void that must be filled. But this spring is different. This is a team that desperately needs strong, respected voices.

Florida appears to be in good shape on defense with vocal leaders like Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves III playing at a high level. It would also be a big help if middle linebacker Antonio Morrison returns to the level of play he showed as a true freshman starter. Morrison wanted badly to be a leader last season, and the team needed his voice, but two offseason arrests and a decline in play hurt him in that department. If Morrison cannot deliver this year, senior Michael Taylor will be waiting to take over at middle linebacker and will be needed as that vocal leader the defense can rely upon.

Offense, as always, revolves around the quarterback. Sure, it would really help the Gators if Dunbar takes the young receiving corps under his wing and holds his teammates accountable. And Florida could use a leader in a crowded backfield that features sophomore Kelvin Taylor.

But really, it's all about the quarterback.

Muschamp has a lot of faith in starter Jeff Driskel and has seen the fourth-year junior grow as a leader. But the challenge facing these Gators is greater than what these players have seen before.

Driskel has to set the tone this spring. More than any other player, he needs to show an understanding of Roper's offense and be responsible for the progress his teammates make in these 15 critical practice sessions. He must speak up and show everyone that this is his team.

One voice from one primary leader can work wonders, especially on a young team. The prediction here is that Driskel will not shy away from that spotlight.
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.

This weeklong series continues with a look at the linebackers. We'll skip the hybrid buck position because no one is likely to challenge budding star Dante Fowler Jr.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison hopes to rebound after a long season.
Returning starters: Some very talented youngsters are starting to come on strong, so this is a big spring for Florida's veteran linebackers. Junior Antonio Morrison looks to bounce back from what was clearly a terrible 2013. On the verge of becoming a team leader, he was arrested twice last summer and then didn't play his best before missing the final three games of the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Senior Michael Taylor started all but two games and led the Gators in tackles. Senior Neiron Ball started seven games at strong-side linebacker.

Departures: Florida graduated senior Darrin Kitchens, a solid reserve who made three starts in 2013. Fourth-year junior Ronald Powell declared for the NFL draft. He bounced between buck linebacker and strong-side linebacker last season, never truly settling in as the dominant force he was projected to be coming out of high school.

Returning reserves: With his athleticism and ability to soak up coaching, Jarrad Davis made a big impression as a freshman. The three-star prospect came in as the least-heralded member of Florida's fine four-man class of linebackers in 2013 and became the only one to start a game last season. Two of those highly touted freshmen, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, played on special teams and saw the field sparingly. Anzalone will miss the spring with a shoulder injury. Also sitting out will be third-year sophomore Jeremi Powell, who made a splash in 2013 as a freshman special-teams ace before tearing his ACL midway through the season.

Newcomers: Florida didn't sign any linebackers in its 2014 class and there's only one LB on the roster whom fans have not seen in action yet. They'll have to wait some more, as redshirt freshman Matt Rolin won’t be ready to play until fall practice. The No. 5 OLB prospect in 2013 tore his ACL in camp last fall and missed the season. It was the same ACL he tore in high school, so the Gators are taking it slow with his rehab. Before getting hurt, Rolin made a strong impression on the Florida coaching staff, which was prepared to use him as a situational pass-rusher, backup strong-side linebacker and on special teams.

What to watch: In Anzalone, Rolin and Powell, Florida has three talented underclassmen out for the spring. Head coach Will Muschamp said he's not overly concerned about the number of bodies, however, because the Gators play so much nickel and dime defense. Still, Florida will ask a lot of its linebackers this spring. Morrison had a dynamite freshman year and then slumped badly as a sophomore. He'll look to bounce back and convince his teammates he is worthy of a leadership role. Morrison and Taylor will continue to battle for the starting inside linebacker job. Whoever shifts to weak-side linebacker will have to deal with the hard-charging Davis, who is looking to seize the starting job. On the other side, Ball has the size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and experience (36 career games) to lock up the starting job, but McMillian has a lot to prove as well. He was one of the top prospects in the nation before starting slowly with UF as a freshman. His talent is undeniable, though, and his learning curve could be steep.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Urban Meyer's last complete recruiting cycle at Florida, the Class of 2010, was astounding on paper.

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.

[+] EnlargeSharrif Floyd
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSharrif Floyd was one of too few gems to come out of Florida's top-ranked 2010 recruiting class.
Much was expected of such an impressive array of top-rated players, but instead of playing for championships, this class became better known for falling short of those goals.

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.

Reviewing Florida's Class of 2010

January, 29, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Every year on signing day, Florida coach Will Muschamp takes a moment to throw a jab at the media.

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."

The stars

[+] EnlargeSharrif Floyd
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSharrif Floyd became everything the Gators hoped he would when they signed him in 2010 and was Minnesota's first-round pick in 2013.
Sharrif Floyd (No. 3 DT prospect in the nation): He just about embodied the blueprint for how you'd like a top prospect to go through school. Floyd grew into a dominant force in the middle for Florida, was a leader and became a first-round NFL draft pick after his third season.

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.

The contributors

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.

[+] EnlargeSolomon Patton
AP Photo/John RaouxIt took time for him to develop but WR Solomon Patton made an impact in his senior season.
Solomon Patton (No. 17 WR): Had a standout senior season after toiling in anonymity the previous three.

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.

The transfers

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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- By now the benefits of enrolling early are well known both to players and the football programs that typically put such valuable freshmen right to work.

Not only do these select prospects get a significant head start in terms of strength, conditioning, learning the playbook and participating in the all-important spring practice session, they also have extra time to settle into college life.

This year, the Gators are expecting nine mid-year enrollees. That makes it a perfect time to look back at how last year's bumper crop performed.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesOf all the players who were early enrollees at Florida last year, RB Kelvin Taylor was the one to make the biggest impact.
The headliner

Kelvin Taylor came to Florida with all the hype of the nation's No. 1-rated running back. He also had huge cleats to fill as the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. It's fair to say he lived up to the expectations, showing good vision and a blend of power and quickness right away. Taylor started at No. 3 on the depth chart because he needed to learn the plays and improve his pass-blocking. But he was ready when called upon. He played in all but two games and started four of the last five after starter Matt Jones was injured. Taylor finished with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), four touchdowns and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

The starters

Tyler Moore, a sophomore transfer from Nebraska made six starts on the offensive line -- five at right tackle and one at left tackle -- before a freak injury ended his season. It sort of epitomized Florida's season. Moore struggled some in adapting to SEC defensive ends at right tackle. Just when he played one of his best games (at left tackle, no less), he fell off his scooter and broke his elbow. Florida's offensive line was never the same.

Darious Cummings, a junior transfer from East Mississippi CC, stepped up when Florida needed him after Dominique Easley's season-ending injury. The 6-foot-1, 309-pound defensive tackle they call "Bear" played in 11 games and started the last six. He finished with 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, two QB hurries and a pass breakup.

The linebackers

Alex Anzalone joined the Gators' group of early enrollees in dramatic fashion after decommitting from Notre Dame just two days before he was to report to South Bend, Ind. Slated to be Florida's backup middle linebacker, he injured the labrum in his right shoulder early in spring practice and needed surgery. Anzalone returned in the fall to play mostly on special teams, where he had one tackle. He was pressed into his most significant duty after starting middle linebacker Michael Taylor was injured in the Gators' disastrous loss to Georgia Southern. Anzalone came into the game and made one unassisted tackle and then followed Taylor with an injury of his own soon after, suffering a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery.

Daniel McMillian came to UF as the nation's No. 3 prospect at outside linebacker. The 6-2, 225-pound freshman earned praise and raised expectations after a standout spring practice. Florida head coach Will Muschamp even said he thought McMillian would start several games at some point in 2013. Capable of playing all three linebacker positions, McMillian opened the season as the primary backup to Ronald Powell at strong-side linebacker, but that was about as close as he got to making an impact. He never saw much playing time on defense, seeing action mostly on special teams in nine games and recording two tackles.

Matt Rolin missed spring practice rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in high school. Early in fall camp, Muschamp was full of praise for Rolin and said the freshman strong-side linebacker was expected to play as a reserve and on special teams, calling him physical, tough and smart. But Muschamp said all of this while announcing that Rolin had suffered another tear of the same ACL. Rolin went right back to rehabbing and was the only early entrant who redshirted.

Wait and see

Injuries on the defensive line created an opportunity, and Joey Ivie was rewarded for his strong efforts in practice with playing time. He came to Gainesville a little-known three-star recruit who was expected to redshirt, but Ivie ended up playing in three of the final five games of the season and recorded three tackles.

The highest ceiling

So much was expected of wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, so little was delivered. After UF beat out Clemson to win his turbulent recruitment, Robinson became the latest in a string of recent spring standouts at wide receiver who gave fans hope only to disappear when the games counted. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease tried to get Robinson involved early in the season, but nothing clicked as the offense struggled overall. Later, Pease expressed frustration with Robinson's "ups and downs in practice." He played in just seven games and finished with a disappointing five catches for 23 yards. By the end of the season, while Robinson sat out the final three games, he was passed on the depth chart by fellow freshmen Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson.
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.

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."

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here's what we learned about the Gators after their 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern on Saturday:

1. Florida needs Tyler Murphy back: All week the Florida coaching staff expressed its confidence in third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg by saying he was ready to use more of the playbook in his next start. And sure enough he threw a pass on the third play of the game, which was a sharp contrast from the previous week, when Mornhinweg threw just two passes in the first half. But any hopes for an expanded offense went out the window at the end of the Gators' first possession after Mornhinweg threw two bad passes into the end zone that should have been intercepted. Mornhinweg was 4-of-10 passing for 6 yards in the first half and 6-of-13 for 14 yards after three quarters. Perhaps a bright spot was his fourth-quarter performance, when he completed 8-of-12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. After the game, UF coach Will Muschamp said he would not rule out Murphy for next week's game against No. 2 FSU.

2. Clutch defense has disappeared: During its 11-1 season in 2012, Florida displayed a knack for making halftime adjustments and shutting down its opponents. That certainly hasn't happened this season, as the Gators have bent and broken lately when the team needs its defense the most. After Saturday's loss, Muschamp seemed to indicate that the offense's inability to score is at least partially to blame. Florida gave up 429 yards on the ground but was unable to score enough points to force Georgia Southern out of its basic scheme. "We got gapped out in some situations. But you've also got to change the scoreboard offensively," he said. "You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively. It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed."

3. The injury bug: None of the UF players or coaches want to use the rash of injuries this season as an excuse. It's just something they all mention every time they're asked about what's gone wrong this fall. Saturday was another example of just how snakebitten the Gators have been with injuries. Already missing starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison (out for the season after knee surgery), the Gators lost backup Michael Taylor to a knee injury in the second quarter. Taylor had been playing well, too, snagging his team-leading third fumble recovery of the season. But then it got ridiculous, as Taylor's backup, true freshman Alex Anzalone, dislocated his shoulder. Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens also missed time with a shoulder injury. And at one point, the Gators were using a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster in David Campbell to help defend a triple-option offense that was hitting on all cylinders. Talk about ouch.

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."

Planning for success: Florida

November, 21, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No Florida team since 1979's winless bunch has needed a win as badly as these Gators. Coming off a five-game losing streak, Florida (4-6) returns to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday to play host to Georgia Southern (6-4).

Just how desperate are the Gators?

"About as desperate as I am [to stop] hearing about it," said middle linebacker Michael Taylor. "You get tired of losing. You come to a place like Florida, you’re not accustomed to it. You’re not used to losing five games. It definitely wasn’t in the plans. Players, coaches, we’re all disappointed. It’s like it’s all sliding downhill. But one thing we do have is two games left on the calendar. Those are two games we’re going to go out and focus on."

[+] EnlargeWIll Muschamp
Brad Barr/USA TODAY SportsIt's been a struggle lately, but Will Muschamp and the Gators are determined to finish strong.
Before anyone thinks this facing an FCS foe is going to be easy, consider that the Eagles run the triple-option offense, which is known to confound even the stingiest of defenses.

"It's all about eyes and execution offensively, taking care of your responsibility on every snap," Florida coach Will Muschamp said on Monday. "They run a classic triple-option, a dive-option with a lot of different looks that they're going to give us, and they do a nice job of executing those things. It's all responsibility football. It's an over-and-under defense. ….

"We're getting ready for an offense that's so different from what we've seen in three years. Obviously we spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing and looking at different teams and how they handled this because it's so different from what we've faced."

To make matters worse, the Gators recently lost leading tackler and starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. With Taylor sliding over to fill in at middle linebacker, true freshman Jarrad Davis made his first career start last week at South Carolina and earned good reviews.

"I thought Jarrad played really well," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said on Wednesday. "He played fast. The game wasn't too big for him. He was ready. Obviously it was his first start and it so happened to be on his birthday, so he was kind of amped up before the game. He responded well, played really well."

The Gators will need that kind of effort to break their losing streak.

Georgia Southern has never defeated an FBS opponent in 20 contests. The Eagles, who are moving to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference next season, ought to be fired up for their last chance to make history.

The Gators, meanwhile, have desperation on their side.

"I mean, if you don’t come out prepared and ready to play you can lose to anybody," Taylor said. "We lost to Vanderbilt. We hadn’t lost to Vanderbilt in 20-something years. So, any team is capable of losing on any day. I know this team put up [341] yards on Alabama [two years ago], so this is no team to push aside. This is a team to be prepared for."

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