Florida Gators: Skyler Mornhinweg
We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This weeklong series kicks off with the player who always seems to start every discussion -- Florida's starting quarterback.
6-foot-4, 237 pounds
Credentials: Driskel has started 15 of his 20 career games at UF. Even though coach Will Muschamp has declared open competition at every position, Driskel's experience is why he is expected to quickly and easily win the starting job once again.
How he fits: Driskel is an excellent athlete for his size and has enough speed to outrun most defenders. His biggest question marks are in the passing game, where Driskel has completed 62.9 percent of his career passes for 2,271 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has promised to shape the offense around what Driskel does best. If that is indeed the case, look for Driskel to run a lot of zone-read option. It's something that he executed very well in 2012 with running back Mike Gillislee. Combine that with a traditional downhill running attack, and Roper appears likely to design a simplified passing game to complement that diverse rushing attack.
Who he's competing with: Once Tyler Murphy graduated and transferred after his junior season, Driskel had no true competition on the roster. Skyler Mornhinweg, who started the final three games of the 2013 season, is entering his third year at UF but is more of a pro-style QB and lacks arm strength. The real competition at quarterback is for the No. 2 spot. Mornhinweg will battle this spring with true freshman early enrollee Will Grier, who was the No. 4-rated dual-threat QB prospect in the country. Like Driskel, Grier has a strong arm and great athleticism. Another recruit, Treon Harris, will join the competition in fall practice. Harris gives the Gators another excellent athlete to fit Roper's offense.
What needs to happen this spring: Driskel needs to stay healthy; he has missed at least one game due to injury in all three of his seasons at Florida. Last year was the big one, a broken bone in his lower right leg that cost Driskel the majority of the season. Muschamp pushed the start of spring practice back 10 days in order to give Driskel extra time to get ready. His presence is extremely important as the Gators seek to turn around the bad vibes that came with a 4-8 record in 2013. Driskel also takes over as one of the team's unquestioned leaders. At this point, how he goes, so goes the team. For all of those reasons, he is the most important player to watch. As usual.
No one on the football field touches that ball as much as the quarterback. Therefore, as QBs go, so goes the offense. And as the Florida Gators have found out the hard way in recent seasons, strong defense and special teams alone cannot win games consistently.
The quarterback position has been a sore spot since the departure of Tim Tebow, who was quickly cast in a bronze statue outside the stadium after a legendary career. It's hard to follow that act, and the Gators have seen a lot of poor production since 2009.
Battling for No. 1: Junior Jeff Driskel is a survivor. In 2012, he fought for the starting job with Jacoby Brissett, who then transferred to NC State. And last season, Driskel fought injury, suffering a broken leg early enough to result in a medical redshirt. Florida coach Will Muschamp has declared all starting positions open after a 4-8 season, but this is one job that is expected to be decided early and with little drama.
Driskel runs well and is a very good athlete for his size (6-foot-4, 239 pounds), but hasn't shown a good feel for the passing game despite a strong arm. Whether it's accuracy, reading defenses, pocket presence or decision-making when the pocket collapses, Driskel has plenty of room to improve. Florida's great hope is that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who has an excellent track record working with QBs, will be able to strike a balance in creating an offense around Driskel's strengths while developing him as a passer.
Gators fans can expect plenty of running, as usual, so Driskel will be handing off and keeping the ball on zone-reads. But the true test of offensive progress in 2014 will be how much improvement Roper can coax out of Driskel in the passing game.
Strength in numbers: When Tyler Murphy graduated and transferred to Boston College, Florida lost an experienced and athletic backup who fit the offense Roper is likely to build. Skyler Mornhinweg, who will be a third-year sophomore this fall, started the last three games of the 2013 season under difficult circumstances. But because Mornhinweg did not display a strong arm and is better suited for a pro-style offense, Muschamp and the Gators turned to the recruiting trail to search for depth at the position. Florida's backup quarterback in 2014 is expected to be one of two true freshmen.
New on the scene: As the No. 3-rated dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country, Will Grier was one of the headliners in Florida's 2014 class. Expectations are high, and because he is already on campus and will compete this spring, Grier has a good chance to grab that No. 2 spot. But shortly after he was hired, Roper made sure to recruit another prospect. The Gators were able to flip another highly regarded dual-threat prospect, Treon Harris, from Florida State on national signing day last week. Like Grier, Harris is an exciting athlete who truly can threaten a defense with his arm or legs. The battle to be Driskel's backup should be a fascinating tilt this fall.
Eight recruits are enrolling early, as classes began this week. Seven have already arrived in Gainesville, while surprise commit Jalen Tabor will enroll by Monday.
The Gators have 25 scholarships to fill in their Class of 2014. That includes 15 seniors, three early departures for the NFL and seven transfers. All of the transfers came from the offense -- two quarterbacks, three offensive linemen, a tight end and a fullback. So Florida can restock most of those positions with a QB, three OL and a TE among the early entrants.
Here's a scouting report and projection for each new Gator.
CB Jalen Tabor
Scouting report: When he flipped to Florida on Thursday morning, Tabor instantly became the top recruit in the Gators' top-10 class. The nation's No. 15 overall prospect has got great size for a cornerback (6-foot-1, 188 pounds), and the speed and athleticism to match up with receivers of all shapes and sizes. Tabor is ultra-competitive and ultra-confident. His coverage skills are a perfect match for Florida, which plays more man-to-man than most schools.
Impact in 2014: When the Gators lost cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins, a huge void was created in the secondary. Armed with immediate playing time, head coach Will Muschamp went hunting for a starter and bagged Tabor. Florida doesn't exactly need a true freshman to start opposite Vernon Hargreaves III, but an elite prospect who can do so sure gives them comfort. Having Tabor enroll early is an ideal situation for both parties.
QB Will Grier
Scouting report: At 6-3 and 181 pounds, Grier is considered a dual-threat quarterback. His foot speed and quickness are probably underrated, but that's because of his strong arm and the monster numbers he posted through the air in high school. In the pocketm he shows good vision, decision-making and the ability to put touch on the ball or throw with zip. The No. 2-rated QB in the nation, Grier has the mental makeup to handle high expectations at Florida.
Impact in 2014: Grier has a very good chance to leap over rising sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and assume backup duties. But before he gets that chance in spring football, Grier has a lot of work to do in the weight room and in studying with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. There isn't another recruit who is more likely to take important reps in practice.
DB Duke Dawson
Scouting report: A true defensive back, Dawson has the athleticism to play corner and the size (5-11, 197) to play safety. He can handle bigger receivers as well as play in the slot. He shows advanced coverage technique and instincts, thanks in part to working with former Gator standout Keiwan Ratliff.
Impact in 2014: Florida clearly has a big need at cornerback with three upperclassmen departing so Dawson could get a look there. But if he ends up at safety, it might be harder to see early playing time. Still, he has the size and speed to make an impact on special teams right away.
DE Taven Bryan
Scouting report: It's not often the Gators go to Wyoming to pull a recruit, but Bryan made a strong impression during a summer camp, and he is the No. 1-ranked prospect from his state. Coaches were impressed by his explosiveness and motor, but it remains to be seen which side of the ball Bryan will end up on.
Impact in 2014: At 6-4, 250, Bryan has some growing to do if he's going to play in SEC trenches. There's a good chance he'll redshirt, but first he'll have the benefit of spring football to determine if he can stick at DE or move to OT.
OL Nolan Kelleher
Scouting report: He already looks the part of an SEC offensive lineman at 6-5, 310 pounds, and Kelleher has the nasty attitude to be a road-grader. With his long wingspan and solid footwork, however, he could eventually play tackle with some coaching.
Impact in 2014: Enrolling early should benefit Kelleher tremendously, as he has the size and run-blocking chops to make Florida's thin two-deep roster. There are needs all over the OL so he'll have a chance to chip in as a freshman.
OL Kavaris Harkless
Scouting report: He played wide receiver and tight end as a freshman in high school before gaining enough weight to play offensive tackle. The athleticism is there. So is the toughness and mean streak necessary to survive in the SEC. Harkless is smart and very coachable. His 6-5, 285-pound frame projects well to handle another 20-30 pounds.
Impact in 2014: He could use a redshirt year to bulk up, but everything else is in place for him to eventually contribute as a Gator. His technique and attitude make him less of a developmental project than some think.
TE DeAndre Goolsby
Scouting report: The Kansas product displays above-average hands and can make plays with intermediate routes. He has decent speed for the tight end position, but will need to add some upper-body strength and work on his technique as an inline blocker if he's going to play right away.
Impact in 2014: Coming in early should give Goolsby a chance to get into the tight end rotation as a freshman. Florida has a dearth of pass-catchers at the position so it's not out of the question that Goolsby can avoid a redshirt and find a role catching passes over the middle.
OL Drew Sarvary
Scouting report: Not an elite prospect, but solid and experienced. Sarvary comes to UF via Tyler Junior College in Texas, where he was named All-Southwest Junior Football Conference first team last season. He's physically ready at 6-5, 318 and has enough mobility to be an effective pulling guard.
Impact in 2014: Florida has just five offensive linemen with starting experience and needs all the help it can get to completely rebuild its rotation. Sarvary, a juco transfer who started 10 of 11 games for Florida A&M as a freshman, will be expected to join UF's core group and could even challenge for a starting job before his two years of eligibility are through.
And it's true. The Gators had terrible luck, enough injuries to fill an entire season of "Grey's Anatomy" and a team that couldn't wait for all of it to be over.
But can they really bounce all the way back to the Top 25?
Right after the season ended Monday night, Florida made Mark Schlabach's always fun Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
The case for
Speaking of Driskel, he and most of last season's wounded should be healthy in 2014. That alone gives coach Will Muschamp reason for optimism. By the final game of last season, he was dumbstruck by just how many players were out: "There were a bunch of [talented] guys that didn’t play for us today. 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.
"We’re going to be fine. We’re going to have a good football team next year, I can assure you of that. Sitting in that locker room with those guys, we’re going to be fine. And that’s what’s encouraging for me. It’s damn encouraging."
The case against
The injury bugaboo is still lurking. If Driskel misses time, as he has in each of his three seasons, the Gators will be forced to turn to true freshman Will Grier or sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg. The transfer of Tyler Murphy cost Florida a reliable backup at the most important position.
The offensive line is paper thin as well. Beyond D.J. Humphries, Max Garcia, Tyler Moore, Chaz Green and Trenton Brown, there are only a handful of scholarship linemen on the roster. Just one -- rising junior Trip Thurman -- has even taken a college snap. That's a whole lot of inexperience ticketed for UF's line in 2014.
There are plenty of other reasons for pessimism, such as a lack of proven playmakers at receiver and tight end, some shuffling needed in the secondary after losing three upperclassmen at cornerback and a dearth of pass-rushers off the edge. Then there's the always-difficult schedule.
But with a sizable recruiting class ranked in the top 10 and some fresh ideas from three new coaches, it's a lot more fun to imagine a Gators turnaround next fall.
Considering all seven of those departing players were from the offensive side of the ball, it's obvious where much of the Gators' recruiting efforts are focused.
Florida has 23 scholarships available with cornerback Louchiez Purifoy forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
Here's a breakdown of Florida's biggest needs in restocking its roster with talent.
The numbers are obviously low with just two scholarship QBs on the roster, but help is on the way. Florida expects Will Grier, the nation's No. 2-ranked quarterback, to enroll in early January. Now that Murphy has departed, expect the Gators to add a second quarterback to their 2014 class. A dual-threat QB who can bring a more athletic dimension and schematic flexibility to the position makes the most sense. Coach Will Muschamp will let his new offensive coordinator find the right fit.
Offensive line: Florida graduated three starters and lost reserve Ian Silberman to transfer along with two others who were buried at the bottom of the depth chart. That's six departures -- a lot for any season. Muschamp likes to have at least 15 offensive linemen on his roster, so expect a handful of newcomers. Offensive line has been a sore spot for the last two seasons, and injuries decimated Florida in 2013. The Gators return five players with starting experience, but depth must be created as only four other scholarship linemen remain. With so few bodies, at least one of the incoming prospects can expect to make the two-deep roster.
Florida needs the most help on the edges, which is why the headline OL commitment is David Sharpe, the nation's No. 2-ranked offensive tackle prospect. The Gators recently signed Drew Sarvary, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound juco OT who could also play inside. Of all the newcomers, he'll have the inside track to play first. Florida also has pledges from three of the nation's top-30 guard prospects in Nolan Kelleher (6-5, 310), Travaris Dorsey (6-3, 314) and Dontae Angus (6-5, 310).
Offensive skill positions: Florida's QBs haven't had much time to develop in the passing game in recent years, and some of the blame can be directed at the offensive line. But nothing is more obviously missing in the Gator offense than playmakers at the wide receiver and tight end positions. The Class of 2013 saw five talented freshmen WRs join the program, three of whom saw action. But with two senior starters leaving, it's imperative that UF continue to add talent and numbers to its receiving corps. The Gators' top wide receiver commit for 2014 is Ermon Lane, the No. 2 WR prospect in the country. Keeping him in the fold is a top priority.
UF also has pledges from former FSU commit Ryan Sousa and Moral Stephens. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, Stephens would give UF a prospect with some size who could play H-back or grow into a full-time role at tight end. Florida has just three scholarship TEs on its roster, but has commitments from DeAndre Goolsby and C'yontai Lewis, both three-star prospects. The Gators have plenty of talented options returning at tailback but lack a game-breaking home-run hitter who can gain the edge. That's why it's so important they hang onto the commitment of Dalvin Cook, the nation's No. 4 RB prospect. Coaches presume he would have a role as a true freshman in 2014.
Defensive line: Florida is in good shape with 10 returning scholarship players. But Muschamp's multiple-scheme defense, which uses 4-3 and 3-4 alignments up front, puts a heavy emphasis on defensive linemen making plays and disrupting the opponent's offense. Florida has three commitments -- DT Khairi Clark, DE Taven Bryan and DE Justus Reed. Bryan could end up on offense, so the object of much of Muschamp's hard work on the recruiting trail is adding another difference-maker who can rush the passer.
Cornerback: The Gators graduated two cornerbacks and are losing Purifoy to the NFL. If he is joined by fellow starter Marcus Roberson, who is projected as a first-round pick in ESPN Insider Todd McShay's first mock draft, there will likely be immediate playing time available. That's Muschamp's sales pitch. It's also why Florida is trying to load up on DB prospects. The nation's No. 10 athlete, J.C. Jackson, is committed, as are Chris Lammons, Quincy Wilson and Duke Dawson. Wilson and Dawson could end up at safety, so Florida must close strong in adding at least one more pure cornerback with the talent to contribute right away. Florida hit the jackpot last year in signing All-SEC first-team CB Vernon Hargreaves III. Few prospects enter the college ranks as technically skilled and prepared as he, but the Gators are hoping another recruiting bounty will keep the pipeline of impact cornerbacks flowing.
Florida announced that six offensive players -- sophomore tight end Kent Taylor, true freshman quarterback Max Staver, redshirt freshman fullback Rhaheim Ledbetter and offensive linemen Quinteze Williams, freshman offensive lineman Trevon Young, and junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman -- will transfer.
On the surface, that's a lot of players, especially for a team that has struggled so much offensively in the last two seasons. It doesn't help that one of those players, Staver, was a quarterback, which is a position that still has a lot of questions surrounding it entering the 2014 season.
Taylor arrived at Florida with a load of hype surrounding his name, as he was ranked as the nation's No. 1 tight end. But in his two seasons with the Gators, he caught just two passes for 5 yards and a touchdown. Both of those catches came last year, as he struggled to get any real time on the field at all this season. When you talk to people around the program, it sounds like Taylor's heart just wasn't in it in Gainesville, as he spent most of his time on the practice squad.
The loss of Staver might not hurt Florida's depth as much as it seems. As bad as the play became at quarterback this season, Staver, a pro-style passer, remained on the sideline in order to preserve his redshirt. But even with the quarterback position likely up for grabs next spring and fall, Staver probably saw the writing on the wall with the Gators moving to a new offensive scheme that will add more tempo and likely utilize more runs from the quarterback.
Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the season with a broken fibula, will return and will have two more years of eligibility if he gets a medicial redshirt. Florida also returns Tyler Murphy, who replaced Driskel last year, and Skyler Mornhinweg, who eventually replaced Murphy.
Not to mention, the Gators will welcome four-star ESPN 300 quarterback Will Grier in January. Four quarterbacks on the roster should be enough for Florida.
While losing players can unnerve people, Florida shouldn't hurt too much from the loss of these six players. Florida's offense had myriad issues last season, but chances are these guys weren't going to be the ones to help turn things around. That will come with a new offensive coordinator and an offensive identity.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch as the Florida Gators (4-7, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to the Florida State Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) on Saturday at noon ET (ESPN) in the final game of the regular season.
1. Stopping Jameis: Florida's defense has gradually gotten worse with almost every passing week during a six-game losing streak. The Gators gave up 429 yards to FCS Georgia Southern last week, and while those yards were all on the ground, simply getting stops has become an issue. Injuries have continued to pile up, and the timing couldn't be worse with Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston in town. The Seminoles are a juggernaut on offense, having already scored a school- and ACC-record 607 points this season. Winston leads the nation in passing efficiency, has thrown the third-most TD passes (32) and is second in the nation in yards per attempt (11.1). "He can make all the throws and he does make all the throws," UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "He’s got great confidence in his arm and you can understand why. It’ll be our biggest challenge of the year."
2. Stopping the FSU running game: The Gators know Winston will be a handful, but it would be wise not to overlook the Seminoles' ground game. FSU actually runs (399 attempts) more than it passes (344). The Noles will look to challenge that suddenly suspect Florida run defense. FSU junior tailback Devonta Freeman has 808 yards (6.2 yards per carry) this season and appears on his way to being the Seminoles' first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996. James Wilder Jr. also has been coming on strong after missing FSU's game against NC State with a concussion. Wilder has run for six touchdowns and 285 yards on 22 carries (13.0 YPC) in his last four games.
3. Florida's quarterback: For the third week in a row, the Gators are preparing redshirt freshman QB Skyler Mornhinweg to play. Junior Tyler Murphy, who is listed as questionable, has thrown some passes in practice the last couple of weeks, but is clearly still feeling the effects of a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder. The problem for Florida is the limitations Mornhinweg presents to an already foundering offense. If he makes his third career start, there might not be much that can be expected in the way of sudden improvement in Mornhinweg's arm strength or decision-making. He did, however, direct a pass-heavy two-minute offense in the fourth quarter of last week's loss to GSU. Perhaps with nothing to lose in the season finale, the UF coaching staff will allow the Gators quarterback -- whoever it is -- to take some shots down the field.
4. Can the Gators score any points? With Mornhinweg likely at the helm and the Gators' kicking game a season-long sore spot, there is a real possibility Florida could be held off the scoreboard. Factor in a Seminoles defense that is hungry for revenge after being gutted in last season's 37-26 home loss to Florida, and this game could be a feeding frenzy. FSU has the nation's No. 2 pass defense and leads the nation in interceptions with 23. As it did last year, Florida State has one of the nation's best run defenses, allowing just four rushing TDs in 11 games this season. Florida's beleaguered offensive line expects to have its hands full up the middle against defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who has 43 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
5. Familiar faces: One of the reasons this series, which UF leads 34-21-2, is so special is the familiarity of most of the players. There are 36 players on both sidelines who were once high school teammates. FSU has 93 players from the state of Florida on its roster. Florida has 83. Many of these players knocked helmets in high school grudge matches, so the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is certainly fitting. For the head coaches, however, it's done nothing of the sort. Florida's Will Muschamp and his FSU counterpart, Jimbo Fisher, remain close friends after first working together under Auburn coach Terry Bowden in the mid-90s and again under LSU coach Nick Saban. They even share a beach house in Panama City, Fla. Bragging rights are on the line on Saturday, as their head-to-head record is 1-1.
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
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."
"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."
1. The level of enthusiasm: The Gators return home after completing their SEC schedule with five consecutive losses. Against an FCS opponent, there is always the possibility of a letdown in terms of the players' focus and passion. Do they just want this nightmare season to be over? Will they mail it in? There is certainly a chance the Gators will take the field only to find a half-filled stadium, as many irate fans have promised to stop attending games while their team struggles. On the other hand, Florida should motivation to end its long losing streak, and an overmatched opponent could be just the ticket to winning back some of those disappointed fans.
2. Defending the dreaded triple-option: It won't be easy. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the team "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." Georgia Southern totaled 341 yards against Alabama's stout defense in 2011, so the Eagles have everyone's full attention. The Gators defense, which ranks No. 15 against the run (allowing 115.1 yards a game) seems to understand its task at hand and Georgia Southern's capability of causing embarrassment. The triple-option attack forces defenses to play mistake-free and with great discipline while also defending big plays in the passing game that can come from just about anywhere on the field.
3. Who starts at quarterback? Starter Tyler Murphy (shoulder) missed last Saturday's game at South Carolina and is listed as questionable against GSU. He did get some throws in this week during practice, but Skyler Mornhinweg remains poised to make his second career start. Mornhinweg led a very conservative offense against the formidable Gamecocks defense, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week they believe the redshirt freshman can handle an expanded playbook and more of a look in the passing game. The Gators might be tempted to keep Murphy on the sideline as a Plan B vs. the Eagles, considering how much Florida wants Murphy to be healthy for the regular-season finale against No. 2 Florida State.
4. Momentum: Florida fell short of winning in Columbia, S.C., last week, but the Gators returned home with a measure of pride and confidence after nearly pulling off a surprising upset. Unlike the previous four games in its losing streak, Florida got off to a fast start against the Gamecocks. A first-quarter touchdown gave the Gators their first lead in a game since a 3-0 advantage at LSU on Oct. 12. Florida also had a 14-6 lead at halftime at South Carolina, its first advantage at the break since a 17-7 lead over Arkansas on Oct. 5. It will be interesting to see if the Gators can shake off the disappointment of their second-half collapse last week and reclaim the momentum they generated in the first half.
5. Anyone want to kick field goals? Two missed field goals against the Gamecocks might well have been the difference between winning and losing (not to mention staying home during bowl season). Florida has enough problems on offense to contend with, but when the Gators get bogged down in or near the red zone, a special kind of anxiety takes over on fourth down. After enjoying the luxury of record-breaking kicker Caleb Sturgis and his 79.5 percent field-goal accuracy for the previous four seasons, UF has struggled. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, the nation's No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012, has the strongest leg and was supposed to be the answer. However, he's made 4-of-11 field goals (36.4 percent). Senior Brad Phillips made a 28-yard field goal against Arkansas on Oct. 5 but also missed an extra point. Junior walk-on Francisco Velez has made 4-of-5 field goals but has limited range. The next time Florida is in field-goal range, the Gators might just want to go for it on fourth down.
The opponent? Then-No. 10 South Carolina. The scene? Rowdy Williams-Brice Stadium. The intimidator? Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, widely regarded as the top prospect in next April's NFL draft.
"Oh yeah, he’s a great player. It was great, great atmosphere," he recollected with a smile. "Couldn’t ask for really any other better stage to play on. It was pretty sweet."
Mornhinweg, who entered this season No. 3 on the depth chart, said he felt prepared for the game. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease agreed, although Mornhinweg didn't know he would start until the day before the game, as Florida made the decision to sit starter Tyler Murphy with a sore throwing shoulder.
"I think early in the week [Mornhinweg] still approached it like he was going to be the guy," Pease said. "He's a young kid. He's eager. He understands preparation. His dad's a coach. His approach was good. He took all the reps so every day you knew he was trying to build off of that."
Mornhinweg downplayed the nerves that gathered in what turned out to be a 19-14 loss, and the Gators played an inspired game around him with the offensive line and the running game absorbing much of the pressure.
"I thought he played well, but there were a few miscommunications. I wouldn't say that was his fault being out there," Murphy said on Monday. "I thought he played well. I thought he controlled the things he could control. I thought he did a good job managing and controlling the atmosphere and not letting it get to him, and being calm and poised and just carrying himself with confidence.
"The team really had his back and [was] behind him. I thought he did a good job of leading the way. We almost came out with the victory."
Mornhinweg gave Florida a chance to win, but it was clear that his inexperience necessitated a limited game plan. In fact, he attempted just five passes until there was less than seven minutes remained in the game. Pease explained the conservative game plan on Tuesday, saying it had less to do with Mornhinweg's limitations and more to do with Clowney.
"Understand that last week was really based around No. 7 on their team, too," Pease said. "That guy's the best player in the nation. He can change a game, cause a fumble, pick the ball up and run. Going in, our plan was really designed to make sure that we were going to do things that [Clowney] couldn't change the momentum of the game.
"We need to expect more of Skyler now. I think he can handle it. I've got confidence in him that he can."
As Florida prepares to face FCS opponent Georgia Southern in the Swamp on Saturday, the Gators have the dual objective of trying to get Murphy back on the field while continuing to work with Mornhinweg.
Murphy, who sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the LSU game on Oct. 12 and aggravated it in the Gators' Nov. 9 loss to Vanderbilt, described his attempts last week to practice and try to make himself available for the South Carolina game.
"It was just painful," he said. "There wasn’t much velocity and stuff like that on the ball so it wasn’t coming out pretty."
This week, Murphy has progressed from jogging on Monday and working with Pease on the game plan to throwing on Tuesday. Florida coach Will Muschamp updated Murphy's status on Wednesday to questionable, saying he would throw again in Wednesday's practice.
"Right now Tyler Murphy is questionable," Muschamp said. "He threw a little bit yesterday, and we'll see what else he can do today and we'll go from there.
"If we had to play today, Skyler would start and be ready to go in the game. He had a good day yesterday. So we'll see what Tyler can do on Thursday, and as we move closer to the weekend, we'll see where it is."
With South Carolina's defense in the rear-view mirror, Muschamp said he expects Mornhinweg to be able to handle more of the offense if he makes his second career start on Saturday.
"I think he can handle more," Muschamp said. "I think a lot of our plan was based on their front and Clowney and [Florida's offensive line] being able to protect for his first start and a lot of those situations. When you move past that, he'll be able to do more."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
1. They have a pulse: Will Muschamp and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for circling the wagons. The mid-week votes of confidence from AD Jeremy Foley and school president Bernie Machen certainly helped calm down things. Florida players looked lost and disinterested a week ago in falling at home to Vanderbilt for the first time in 68 years. So credit should be given to Muschamp for rallying his troops. Moral victories don't count in the standings, but with the vitriol surrounding the program a week ago, it was important for Florida to give its fans something to be proud of.
2. The running game made a comeback: The 200 yards rushing was Florida's best performance by its running game since it racked up 246 yards at Kentucky on Sept. 28. When Florida opened the game with 169 yards and a 14-6 lead in the first half, it appeared the Gators might actually score an upset on the road with a one-dimensional offense. While that did not come to pass, UF's ground game did its job and gave the team a couple of chances to score points late in the third quarter and in the fourth.
3. Florida still has a lot of problems: Clearly the Gators have to work on coaching up their quarterbacks. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg made his first career start, took his first collegiate snaps and performed admirably with a game plan that was designed not to expose his weaknesses. But starter Tyler Murphy missed the entire week of practice and has been struggling with a shoulder injury since Oct. 12. There are plenty of problems on the roster that cannot be fixed -- like season-ending injuries or an abysmal kicking game -- but UF must get Mornhinweg up to speed as it tries to get Murphy healthy. Another area of concern is the defense's lack of clutch plays. The turnovers have largely disappeared, and for a defense ranked in the nation's top five, the Gators have given up too many back-breaking second-half plays to win games. Florida had held USC to 93 yards rushing on 27 carries (3.4 yards per carry) before Shon Carson's 58-yard run in the fourth quarter set up the game-winning field goal.
1. Kelvin Taylor, RB: The true freshman was huge in the first half, carrying the ball 13 times for a career-high 86 yards (6.6 yards per carry). He also had first-half touchdown runs of 20 and 29 yards, which were exactly the kind of big plays the Florida offense has desperately needed of late. Taylor finished with 21 rushes for 96 yards, added a 15-yard catch and run on a screen pass, and really hurt the Gamecocks on direct snaps. Like his father, Gator great Fred Taylor, Kelvin combines power and speed with good vision and some wiggle. He's a building block.
2. Offensive line: The Gators O-line was a mess one week ago against Vanderbilt when it gave up five sacks and nine tackles for loss. Faced with a much stiffer test against Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Co., UF's offensive line was stout. It wasn't asked to do much in pass protection, a season-long weakness, but the run-blocking was better than it had been in weeks. Florida played with the same five starters as last week, and each player showed improvement.
3. The coaching staff: They don't have helmets to stick them on, but UF coaches get some props for the way the Gators gave South Carolina all it could handle. After the game, Steve Spurrier scolded the local media for expecting a blowout win. And when yet another Florida starter -- QB Tyler Murphy -- was declared out before the game, it certainly seemed like a Gamecocks blowout was in the offing. Yes, the offensive game plan was run-heavy and more conservative than usual, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease had no choice but to protect redshirt freshman quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg. Under the circumstances, Pease did an excellent job of employing various run packages, mixing in short, safe passes and generally keeping South Carolina on its heels.
Recruit Comparison: Manziel to Harris
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35