Florida Gators: Neiron Ball

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.

Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.

"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."

The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.

It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators believe Dante Fowler Jr. could be a special player when it comes to rushing the passer.
Since Muschamp's first season with the Gators in 2011, when a sophomore named Ronald Powell led the team with six sacks, the pass rush has been anemic. Dominique Easley led the team with four sacks in 2012. Powell led UF last season with four as well.

In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.

Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.

He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.

"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him. …

"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."

Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.

"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."

Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.

"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.

"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."

Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?

Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.

"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. … He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."

The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.

"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."

Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.

"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."

Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.

"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."

Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.
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. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.

As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.

On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.

LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.

His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.

LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.

DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.

Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.

A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.

The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.

Gators moving on from Saturday's loss

September, 12, 2013
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Will Muschamp has mixed feelings about his team being off this week.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Getty ImagesJeff Driskel and the Gators will have an extra week to fix some mistakes before opening SEC play against Tennessee.
On one hand, the bye week creates a chance for his Gators to rest and recharge after a rough 21-16 loss to Miami. On the other, he'd like to see his players get right back on the field and immediately wipe away the sting of their subpar performance from last weekend.

"As a competitor, you want to get on the field the next day," Muschamp sad. "You don't want to stew over this for two weeks."

But with no game Saturday, the Gators won’t soon get their chance to regroup on the field. It isn't ideal for Muschamp and Co., but moving on from the loss is priority No. 1 for the Gators.

Muschamp said he tried to get his players in the right mindset almost immediately after the Gators returned to Gainesville after the Miami game.

"I told the team on Sunday, I said, 'I didn't question your effort or your want to,'" Muschamp said. "When you start having those questions, then you have a problem. We had put ourselves in positions to win the game, but we didn't get it done.

"Close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. They don't count in football."

The Gators found that out the hard way.

Florida out-played Miami on both sides of the ball for most of Saturday's loss, but egregious mistakes, like turning the ball over five times and going 2-for-6 in the red zone (with two Jeff Driskel interceptions and a Trey Burton fumble), cost the Gators.

Miami's defense, especially its defensive line, deserve some credit. The Canes were very disruptive and created a lot of issues for Florida's offense, but the Gators dominated the yards column (413-212), and averaged 6.1 yards per play inside the first 80 yards of the field. Inside the red zone, they averaged just 1.2 yards per play. Add the failed fourth-and-1 attempt and the turnovers, and you have a recipe for disaster in a game that was very winnable for Florida.

"We had some good things, but we just didn't capitalize on some situations that we should have," Muschamp said.

Linebacker Neiron Ball said a week of physical practices have helped shake the sting from last weekend. The loss hasn't completely disappeared, but Ball said players understand that this team's goal of reaching the SEC championship is still in sight.

"Just move on and worry about Florida," Ball said. "We can't worry about any other teams. We have to get back on track, obviously, but we'll be alright.

"We still have confidence. We haven't even played an SEC game yet, so we have so much more to look forward to."

And Ball's right.

The offense is taking a lot of heat, but the Gators have moved the ball considerably better through two games than they did for most of last season and the defense ranks first in the SEC and fifth nationally in yards allowed per game (208.5). Right now, no team in the SEC’s Eastern Division is close to being perfect. There are too many flaws to crown anyone, even division-leading Georgia.

"We just need to worry about us," Muschamp said. "We just need to take care of Florida right now, and that's true for the rest of the season. We need more attention to detail as far as ball security is concerned, getting alignment, getting your eyes in the right spots, executing your assignments -- all the things good teams do."

So far, Ball said he's seen more upbeat practices and an attitude shift since Saturday's loss.

"I feel a whole different vibe," he said. "Our coaches are trying to emphasize urgency. I feel a big sense of urgency out of the whole team."

With the SEC opener against Tennessee fast approaching, we’ll see if the Gators were stewing this week or if that urgency carries over to next week.


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Throughout the offseason, Florida knew its program depth would be tested.

The Gators lost seven starters from last year's defense and knew Week 1 would mean a match up against a veteran Toledo offense that averaged more than 445 yards of total offense in 2012.

In fall camp Florida lost three starters on offense to injury. And Saturday saw five players suspended, including two starters on defense.

Throw in a head coach who believes in playing his best freshmen, and there were so many new faces on Florida Field it's a wonder there were any game programs left unsold.

"We're taught by our coaches, especially [head coach Will] Muschamp, when there's a man down to man up," linebacker Neiron Ball said. "If there's a man down, the next player's got to be ready."

Muschamp, who expects this year's defense to be just as good as last year despite all the new starters, is standing by the motto. He expects injuries and he doles out discipline knowing he can weather a suspension to an important player.

"We're not going to make excuses at Florida, regardless of injury, sickness, whatever the situation may be," he said. "We're just going to move forward. That's why you have a deep roster and that's why you recruit guys who don't ask you about the depth chart 400 times. You recruit guys who want to come in here and compete.

"A lot of young guys, they were a little big-eyed walking out of the locker room. But [it was good] for them to get that experience. I think we played 15 freshmen, eight or nine true and then seven redshirt guys. So that's good to get those young guys playing. The way it is in college football now, you've got a bunch of guys coming out early, you might as well play the [young] guys."

Leading the way, however, was running back Mack Brown. Not a new face, but maybe an anonymous one. Brown has toiled in orange and blue for more than three years, amassing just 40 career carries, despite once having four-star recruiting status. Still, Muschamp said he wasn't at all surprised at Brown's performance.

The redshirt junior was Florida's workhorse on Saturday, rushing for 25 times for 112 mostly tough yards and two first-half touchdowns. He drew the starting assignment because sophomore Matt Jones is still recovering from a viral infection.

Brown's reaction to possibly losing the starting nod next week against the in-state rival Miami Hurricanes?

"You know what, we need [Jones] back, man," Brown said. "We've got about four to five backs. You need a lot of backs in a season. Can't wait to see Matt Jones back. Really can't wait to see him."

Sharing the starting backfield duties with Brown on Saturday was fullback Gideon Ajagbe, another forgotten redshirt junior who credits an offseason switch from linebacker with providing his first chance at playing time. He cashed in with his first career touchdown, a wide-open 4-yard pass from Jeff Driskel.

To hear Ajagbe tell it, he was simply the next man up, as Florida limited the playing time of incumbent starter Hunter Joyer, who is dealing with a pulled hamstring.

"It was fun. It was cool," Ajagbe said of the pregame locker-room scene where so many new players were slated for more prominent roles. "I know everybody was jacked up for it."

When the players line up to come out of the tunnel during Florida's pregame introductions, the starters get to lead the way. Of all the new faces at the front of the line, Brown might have been the most emotional.

"You lose a lot of confidence over the years, not playing," he said. "The last time I started was my senior year of high school.

"I had tears in my eyes. I felt like I was useless the last couple of years."

Not Saturday. With a man down, Jones and other Gators manned up.

Muschamp: Bigger is better at UF

August, 16, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida fans better get a good look at senior wide receiver Solomon Patton this season because guys like him are going to be hard to find around here from now on.

Small guys.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.

[+] EnlargeJon Halapio
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGuard Jon Halapio, at 6 feet 3 and 321 pounds, meets Will Muschamp's size criteria to compete in the SEC.
Size does matter at Florida now. Muschamp believes it’s the best way to have success in the Southeastern Conference.

"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.

"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."

Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.

This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.

Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).

Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).

It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.

And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.

"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.

"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."

Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:

Offensive line

Ideal number: 15-17

Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.

Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.

Defensive tackle

Ideal number: 8-10

Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.

Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.

Defensive ends

Ideal number: 6-8

Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.

Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.

Bucks

Ideal number: 4-6

Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.

Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.

Linebackers

Ideal number: 9-12

Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.

Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.

Tight ends

Ideal number: 3-5

Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.

Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- D.J. Durkin enjoys being able to roam.

During his first three seasons at Florida, Durkin coached the Gators’ linebackers. All day. Every day. Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Antonio Morrison. The same faces every day in meetings and on the field.

He was happy doing it, though. Loved it, in fact.

But now that he’s Florida’s defensive coordinator, he’s finding out that he likes moving around the practice field and spending some time with each position group just as much.

"It has been an adjustment," Durkin said. "As a position coach you’re always so locked into your position. Sometimes you have blinders on because you have your concerns about what you need to get corrected and work on in practice.

"I’m really enjoying it. It’s great."

[+] EnlargeD.J. Durkin
Kim Klement/US PresswireNew defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is enjoying his expanded responsibilities.
Durkin is making his debut as a defensive coordinator after being promoted in January when Dan Quinn left for the Seattle Seahawks. Being able to wander the practice field and spend time with defensive linemen and defensive backs is way for the other players to get to know him better, but also for him to become familiar with the players, too.

It’s also allowing Durkin to get a better feel for the defense. As the linebackers coach, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his players. He knew what they could do, how to motivate them, and the roles they could play. Now he’s finding that out about guys such as cornerback Marcus Roberson, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and defensive tackle Leon Orr.

"We’ll do individual drills and we’ll be broken up and I can move a little bit and see some different things," Durkin said. "I’ll see it on tape later but it’s always good to see it on the field and coach guys while we’re out there."

Durkin has been handed a defense that lost five key players in Bostic, Jenkins, safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd from a unit that finished fifth nationally in scoring and total defense and fourth in rushing defense. Add in a first-year defensive coordinator and there’s certainly some doubt if the Gators will be able to have similar success in 2013.

"Our biggest thing, our focus, is you start camp right now and you’re a new team," Durkin said. "It’s not about what we did last year or how we did it. It’s what are we going to do and how are we going to do it? I feel really good about the guys we have that are replacing those spots. Although those might be starting positions that are gone, we have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football here. We’re not an inexperienced unit.

"We have guys that played a lot of football that we believe in and I feel really good about how we’ve recruited here the past couple years. Some guys get their chance now."

UF does have one of the country’s better secondaries -- led by projected first-round NFL draft picks Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy -- and should have an improved pass rush thanks to the return of buck Ronald Powell from a torn ACL. Powell was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2010.

That’s a good base upon which to build. But it comes back on the linebackers -- the position that Durkin coaches -- to make significant improvements or the defense could struggle. The Gators won’t have Morrison (suspension) for the first two games UF has only three other true linebackers who have appeared in a game: Ball, Michael Taylor and Kitchens. Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. are hybrid ends/linebackers and will line up at strongside linebacker.

But the group isn’t hurt by Durkin taking the time to roam the field to work with the rest of the defense. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate also works with the outside linebackers and former Gators and NFL linebacker Mike Peterson is working as an undergraduate student assistant.

"Jeff Choate, who is a great addition for us as a special teams coordinator, also is a great addition for us defensively," Durkin said. "He has a great knowledge of defense and coaching linebackers so at times we can break off the linebackers and he can work with them and that allows me to do other things. That’s been huge for me personally and for our defense I think it’ll make us better."
During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 28 Jeremi Powell
Redshirt freshman linebacker

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During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 11 Neiron Ball
Redshirt junior linebacker


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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida released a post-spring depth chart on Wednesday. There were no big surprises, although seeing running back Mack Brown behind Matt Jones and ahead of Kelvin Taylor did earn a raised eyebrow.

Here’s the breakdown:

Offense

LT: D.J. Humphries (6-5, 285, So.)/Trenton Brown (6-8, 363, Jr.)

LG: Max Garcia (6-4, 307, RJr.)/Ian Silberman (6-5, 290, RJr.)

C: Jonotthan Harrison (6-3, 303, RSr.) /Kyle Koehne (6-5, 314, RSr.)

RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 317, RSr.)/Trip Thurman (6-5, 313, RSo.)

RT: Tyler Moore (6-5, 315, RSo.) OR Chaz Green (6-5, 305, RJr.)

TE: Clay Burton (6-4, 247, Jr.)/Tevin Westbrook (6-5, 258, Jr.) OR Colin Thompson (6-4, 250, RFr.) OR Kent Taylor (6-5, 223, So.)

RB: Matt Jones (6-2, 228, So.)/Mack Brown (5-11, 215, RJr.)

(Read full post)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida is now a little thinner at linebacker after losing freshman Alex Anzalone for the rest of the spring because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Alex Anzalone
Courtesy of Gregg Forwerck/ToppsAlex Anzalone will miss the rest of the spring after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder.
UF coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday that Anzalone had surgery on Monday to repair the injury but expects the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Anzalone to be fine in time for the beginning of fall practice.

"It’s a freak deal," Muschamp said. "It was in a tackling drill. He just got hit on it the wrong way. Disappointed for him but he’s going to be a really good player, so we’re going to be fine."

Anzalone enrolled in January and was backing up starter Antonio Morrison at middle linebacker. Morrison played outside linebacker last season as a freshman but moved inside this spring after Jonathan Bostic graduated.

Anzalone is one of three freshman linebackers to enroll early. Only one of them is healthy now. Matt Rolin (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods) is sitting out spring as he continues to recover from offseason ACL surgery. Daniel McMillian (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast) is the backup to starter Michael Taylor at weakside linebacker.

Senior Darrin Kitchens, redshirt junior Neiron Ball and redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell are working at strongside linebacker.

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
5:12
PM ET
Schedule: The Gators open spring practice today at 4:30 p.m. ET and will conclude the spring with their annual Orange & Blue Debut on April 6 at 1 p.m. ET inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

What's new: Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left to become the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Will Muschamp then promoted D.J. Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator. Brad Lawing was hired away from South Carolina to help coach Florida's defensive line and was given the title of assistant head coach. Interim wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan was replaced by former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.

On the mend: Redshirt junior offensive lineman Chaz Green will miss all of spring after undergoing ankle surgery following Florida's bowl game. Redshirt junior defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell will also miss the spring while he continues to rehab his ACL injury that he suffered last spring. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman is out for the spring, as he recovers from shoulder surgery that he had before the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Matt Rolin is also out, recovering from ACL surgery. Senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio (knee scope), senior wide receiver Solomon Patton (broken arm), redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball (ankle) and punter Kyle Christy (shoulder) will all be limited this spring.

On the move: Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will start the first seven practices at the "Z" receiver spot. Redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Sophomore Antonio Morrison moved from Will to Mike linebacker, while redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor has moved from Mike to Will. Redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter moved from safety to fullback. Redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe also moved from linebacker to fullback. Redshirt junior Cody Riggs has moved from cornerback to safety, where he's listed as a starter.

Question marks: Heading into the spring, the biggest questions remain on offense, where the Gators were incredibly inconsistent last year. Workhorse running back Mike Gillislee is gone, and while the Gators should feature a stable of running backs this fall, throwing the ball has to improve or this offense will go in reverse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel says he's more confident and offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects to open things up more in the passing game, but the Gators also have to get better protection up front and develop some more reliable receivers and replace top target, tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's defense has a lot of experienced youngsters, but it won't be easy to replace the production that guys like Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jon Bostic had last year. Florida is also looking for someone to replace kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips will compete for that spot.

New faces: Rolin, running back Kelvin Taylor, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson all enrolled early as true freshmen. Florida also welcomed Nebraska offensive lineman transfer Tyler Moore (sophomore) and junior college transfer Darius Cummings (DT). Offensive lineman Max Garica also transferred from Maryland and sat out last season.

Key battle: Florida has to find a reliable receiving target at either tight end or receiver. The athletic Kent Taylor figures to be the favorite at tight end, but he'll have to compete with Colin Thompson, Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. At receiver, it's a free-for-all, and there isn't a ton of experience. Purifoy will certainly get his shot, but vets Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose have to make significant strides. So does rising sophomore Latroy Pittman, who fell off last year after a successful spring. Sophomore Raphael Andrades will be back and forth between football and baseball, while Patton will be limited. Keep an eye on Robinson, who was the top receiver in the Gators' 2013 class and is a downfield threat and someone who can be elusive through the middle of the field.

Breaking out: Florida needs to replace Gillislee, and sophomore Matt Jones has already had a solid offseason, according to coaches. He progressed as last season went on and has both speed and strength to work with. The plan is for him to be a 20-plus-carry player this fall. Morrison's role now expands, and after having a very solid freshman year, even more is expected from him now that he's at the Mike. If he improves his coverage ability, he could be a big-time player for the Gators. Also, keep an eye on junior safety Jabari Gorman. He covers a lot of ground and isn't afraid to play in the box.

Don't forget about: Ball and Riggs have dealt with injuries in the past, but as they get healthy, Florida's coaches are excited about what they could do in 2013. Ball will play some Buck and provides Florida with another solid third-down pass-rusher and should help the Gators put more pressure on opposing backfields this fall. Riggs played in just two games last year before fracturing his foot, but he's a very physical defensive back. With his speed, moving to safety should provide him a chance to make more plays in Florida's secondary. He was also the starter at safety when Elam went to nickel last year.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp announced the following during today's afternoon news conference:

The Gators have cleared additional space on the roster with the impending spring graduations of DE Kedric Johnson and WR Stephen Alli and a potential medical exemption for OL Tommy Jordan.

Muschamp said Alli is going to attend graduate school and could remain with the program in the operations or with the strength program. Muschamp said Johnson, a redshirt junior with one season of eligibility remaining, might transfer to another school and try to play another season under the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

Jordan, who would have been a redshirt sophomore in 2013, has chronic shoulder problems. He would remain on scholarship but would not be eligible to play at Florida if his hardship is granted, as expected.

Those three moves leave the Gators able to sign 33 players next month. Eight players already have enrolled and would count toward last season.

In addition, four players had minor surgeries this month: OL Jon Halapio (knee), OL Chaz Green (ankle), LB Neiron Ball (ankle) and P Kyle Christy (shoulder).

"All those guys will be able to take part in spring [practice]," Muschamp said. "I just don’t know how much at this point."

Muschamp also said WR Solomon Patton is progressing well in his recovery from a broken arm. He said he didn’t believe Patton would be cleared for contact in the spring.

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