Team preview: Florida

The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2008 Florida Gators, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: July 7, 2008, 10:20 AM ET
Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook

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(All information as of June 20, 2008)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Urban Meyer can do offense. Of that there is no question. Meyer's spread attack produced spectacular results at Utah, where he led the Utes to unprecedented heights. And since Meyer took over as coach at Florida in 2005, bringing quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen with him as coordinator, the Gators have soared in the offensive rankings.

These days, Meyer's Gators, led by college football's ultimate weapon -- multi-talented Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow -- are all but unstoppable when they have the ball. They were by far the SEC's highest scoring team last season, scoring 75 touchdowns and averaging 42.5 points per game, third most in the nation. They led the league in total offense (457.2 yards per game) and led the nation in third-down conversion rate (53.4 percent).

And they weren't one-dimensional by any means. Florida was first in the SEC and second nationally in passing efficiency, and only Arkansas, home of NFL first-round running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, averaged more yards per carry than the Gators' 5.3. With eight offensive starters back, nobody doubts Florida's ability to race down the field and put the ball in the end zone.

But that is not the key to making Florida a legitimate contender for the SEC and national championships. If the Gators are to be players on the conference and national stage, their defense must take them there.

That is a tall order, because it was defense that held Florida back in 2007. Despite the dazzling numbers posted by the high-flying offense, the Gators' defensive struggles turned a potentially elite team coming off the 2006 BCS title into a merely better-than-average 9-4 group.

Meyer knows that to get back to the pinnacle, the defense must be able to stop people consistently. To that end, he made staff changes in the two most glaring problem areas, bringing in former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney to handle the defensive line (and serve as assistant head coach) and ex-Texas defensive back and NFL assistant Vance Bedford to work with the cornerbacks.

They come in with no illusions. Florida finished last season ranked last in the SEC in pass defense -- 98th among the nation's 119 Division I teams -- which reflects directly on shaky coverage by the secondary and an inconsistent pass rush by the line. Only Ole Miss allowed a higher completion percentage than Florida's .594 and had fewer interceptions than the Gators' 11. Florida managed to force only 20 turnovers all season, ranking a dismal 88th in the country.

While coordinator Charlie Strong's defense was the SEC's stoutest against the run, receivers were too often running free down the field for quarterbacks with plenty of time to find them. As a result, Florida had trouble getting opponents' offenses off the field, giving up a 41.2 percent third-down conversion rate, third worst in the SEC, and only four league teams gave up more points per game.

Most of that defense is back, but few of the eight returning starters are entrenched at their positions. And among those lost was defensive end Derrick Harvey, who left early for the NFL draft and wound up as the eighth player selected.

"There are more than a couple questions to be answered,'' McCarney said. "Just a short couple of years ago, when the Gators won the national championship, there was no question that was one of the premier defenses in all of college football. And there was a drop-off last year. They weren't as good defensively.

"We've got to get back to being more physical and making more plays and getting more tackles for loss and getting more pressure on the quarterback -- the things they were so phenomenal at a couple of years ago.''

And that has opened the door for a sizable contingent of talented young defenders to push their way onto the field in a hurry. That includes several players who were thrust into the fire as freshmen last season, but more than a few incoming freshmen and other first-year players will be given a chance to earn their way into the lineup.

The influx of kids is a risk -- there will be plenty of learning on the job -- but the potential payoff is great, and after last season's dismal showing, there seems to be little to lose. "It's a concern, but it's exciting, too,'' McCarney said. "There are a number of openings and possibilities.''

Among them -- if the young players can grow up quickly enough -- is the possibility that the Gators can rise to the top of the SEC again.

QUARTERBACKS

No player in college football has less to prove than junior Tim Tebow. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound left-hander performed every task imaginable from a quarterback on his way to earning the nation's most coveted award -- the Heisman Trophy.

He displayed touch, power and accuracy in the passing game, posting the nation's second-best efficiency rating and completing 67 percent while averaging 14 yards per completion and more than 9.0 yards per attempt. He took care of the ball, throwing six interceptions in 350 passes. And he was a beast as the Gators' featured player in the running game, plowing his way to 895 yards -- much of it on tough, inside running -- and an average of 4.3 yards per rush.

Most of all, though, Tebow was a points machine in 2007. He threw 32 touchdown passes, striking from anywhere and everywhere, and he scored 23 touchdowns himself while serving as Florida's chief goal-line runner. No other player in NCAA history ever recorded 20 touchdowns each passing and rushing. He had a hand in more than 77 percent of the Gators' 71 offensive touchdowns.

"He's a guy who's real hungry and fights for those extra yards and that goal line,'' Mullen told The Associated Press.

The challenge now for Tebow is to keep that hunger after achieving the highest individual goal attainable. Certainly, a player with a Heisman already on the mantel would seem ripe for a motivational letdown, but as far as Tebow's competitiveness and intensity, Mullen believes that is a non-issue.

"He's such a level-headed kid that it's not that big a deal,'' the offensive coordinator said. "The biggest thing is that your success as a quarterback at Florida is judged on championships. And even though he won the Heisman Trophy last year, he didn't win a championship -- not even the SEC East title -- and that's something that really eats away at him.

"I think that's his main focus. His success is going to be based on winning a championship.''

But there is another threat to a repeat performance in 2008. Tebow's breakout season made him a celebrity, and as such, everyone from the media to booster clubs to charities wants a piece of him.

For a young man who already spends his offseasons doing missionary work, playing a sport that, at the highest level demands a year-round commitment, can result in a problem not so much of motivation but of time. In an interview with the Gainesville Sun, Meyer expressed concern that Tebow was being pulled in too many directions during the offseason.

"That's a big thing,'' Mullen said. "Tim's always been somebody who is very giving and gives of his time. And this year, there are so many requests, and he's a guy who doesn't want to say no, that has been hard for him to limit it. He has to say no sometimes. There's a limit to what he can do and what he has time to do. That's a big deal for him to kind of really get that into focus.''

While there seems to be no limit on what Tebow can do on the field, one of Mullen's goals for this season is to ask his star to do a bit less. Tebow accounted for 70 percent of the Gators' total offense in 2007, far too large a load for one player to have to carry. The hope is that not only will one or more of the running backs emerge to take some of the rushing burden off Tebow, but that he'll be able take a few plays off from under center. The idea is to use the second quarterback the way Tebow was used in 2006 to spell starter Chris Leak and provide a change of pace.

How feasible that scenario is depends on the progress of imposing sophomore Cameron Newton (6-5, 246) and redshirt freshman John Brantley (6-3, 205), who are battling for the No. 2 spot. Brantley, recovering from shoulder and hand injuries, began throwing again in May and is expected to be 100 percent when two-a-days begin in August.

"The No. 1 thing is that we have two experienced backup quarterbacks now who have a year of college under their belts,'' Mullen said. "That allows Tim a little bit more freedom to come out of the game at times to let those guys do some of the stuff Tim did as a role player when he was a freshman.''

RUNNING BACKS

The good news is that Florida's leading rusher from last season is back. The bad news is he's the Gators' quarterback.

Actually, that's not a bad thing per se. But it does speak to the strength -- or lack of same -- of the 2007 running back corps. So does the fact that the Gators' best back other than Tebow was a tiny wide receiver who parachuted in to start the last three games at tailback.

That was Percy Harvin (5-11, 178), a junior who averaged an eye-opening 9.2 yards per carry and finished with 764 yards and six touchdowns. His 66-yard run against Michigan in the Capital One Bowl was Florida's longest of the season. He was chosen to the AP's All-SEC first team as a utility player and the second team as a wide receiver, making him the premier example of one possible solution to the running back issue.

Instead of using a workhorse featured back to carry the bulk of the load, the Gators could scrap the accepted notion of what a running back should be, worrying less about controlling the ball and the clock and more about creating advantageous match-ups with speed and size. So instead of answering directly when asked if Harvin is a running back or a receiver, Mullen just laughs.

"That's one of those mismatch problems he can cause,'' the coordinator said. "He can line up as a tailback, or he can flex out and line up as a receiver. It's just really hard to match up with him one-on-one. If they're going to treat him as a tailback, we'll flex him out and he'll have a linebacker on him in coverage. If they put a corner on him and he lines up as a tailback, the corner has to come into the box to play linebacker. Those are the mismatches we like to find.

"That's kind of what the spread offense is for us -- spread the field and create match-ups anywhere.''

And it's not only Harvin creating those match-ups. Florida has a seemingly endless supply of undersized but fleet scat-backs who can line up virtually anywhere. The coaches see redshirt freshman Chris Rainey (5-9, 167) as a game-breaker who will eventually grow into a role as a full-time tailback. Junior return man Brandon James (5-6, 179) and incoming freshman Jeffrey Demps (5-8, 185) come from the same mold.

In contrast, senior Kestahn Moore (5-10, 206) is less flash and more about grinding out yardage, though he did finish last season with an excellent average of 5.6 yards per rush on the way to 580 yards.

Add in Emmanuel Moody (5-11, 206), a stunningly talented sophomore transfer from USC, and sophomore Mon Williams (6-1, 206), back after missing last season with torn knee ligaments, and the possibilities seem infinite, begging the question of how many of these runners can share one position.

Mullen's answer might be scrapping the fullback and running the two-tailback offense he and Meyer used often in their days at Utah.

"Oh, we can play a bunch of guys,'' Mullen said. "If you're looking at a two-tailback type of offense, you can play four or five of them throughout the course of a game. Especially if Percy Harvin is going to be one of them, or Chris Rainey. Those guys are a little bit different style than your average tailback. They're not quite as big, but they're electric and can run in the 4.2s [in the 40]. It gives you a little bit different look if they're in the backfield with a guy who's more of a bruising, inside runner, like a Kestahn Moore.''

And don't forget Tebow. Though the coaches would like him to run less, he still figures to be a big factor in short-yardage and goal-line situations, especially if the Gators rely on their little men in the backfield.

"The nice thing is, Chris Rainey doesn't have to come in to be that third-down-and-2 tailback for us,'' Mullen said. "I've got a great third-and-2 tailback. He wears No. 15. That lets Rainey do what he does best -- get into the open field, get mismatched on people.'' The wildcard in this mix is Moody, the only one of Florida's backs with the combination of speed, size and elusiveness to be a true, featured back. He arrived with great fanfare and had a fine spring, rushing for a game-high 111 yards in the spring game, though a fumble in the end zone left Meyer questioning his ball security.

"If he's not very good with ball security, then he won't play tailback at Florida,'' Meyer told the Gainesville Sun. "He's got talent, but there's no chance you'll see him play regardless of whatever dot.com says and all the e-mail I'll get and everything else. He will not play football if there's a chance it's falling on the ground.''

Given the direction the Gators seem to be heading on offense, exactly where Moody fits in is unclear. Mullen, though, quickly dismissed any notion that a traditional tailback has no place in the offense he is building.

"You'd love a guy like that,'' Mullen said. "Moody probably has a little more speed and open-field running ability than Kestahn Moore, but he has that size that some of our other, smaller backs don't have. He's probably our most prototypical tailback. I'm hoping he emerges during two-a-days to become what we thought he was and what he was building up to be as a freshman, and that's a feature back.''

More likely, though, the Gators will try to take advantage of all of their weapons, which means the offense will offer a variety of wildly different looks, and who starts isn't nearly as important as the ball is spread among them.

"We spend so much time on our offense trying to create mismatches and getting the ball into playmakers' hands, so who starts the game is not quite as important to me as how many touches each guy's going to get,'' Mullen said. "Who plays the first play isn't as important as how we're going to break it up, to get those touches to the guys we need to get the ball to.''

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

How much Harvin plays on the outside is open for debate. How effective he can be at wide receiver is not.

Despite moving back and forth from the backfield, the speedy junior was not only the Gators' leading receiver, with 59 receptions for 858 yards, but one of the SEC's premier home-run hitters with ability to outrun most coverages.

His biggest issue is health. Last season, he struggled with hip and heel injuries, and he spent the summer recovering from April surgery to correct the heel problem. He was expected to be 100 percent for the beginning of two-a-days.

Rainey is also likely to get plenty of work as a wideout, though unlike Harvin, the coaches consider him a running back first. But they gave Florida's fans a glimpse of what to expect in the spring game, when they broke Rainey out of the backfield and watched him blow past the defense for a 65-yard touchdown catch.

"We put him in the slot as a receiver and he had a linebacker matched up on him,'' Mullen said. "He beat him on a go route down the sideline for a big play.''

Before the game, Rainey gave another display of his speed. Representing the football team in a 40-yard race against five Florida students -- anyone who beat him would be awarded a scholarship -- Rainey was clocked in 4.24 seconds.

The Gators have experience on the other side with the return of junior Louis Murphy (6-1, 195), who last season caught 37 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns. He should move up among Tebow's receiving options, stepping in for departed Andre Caldwell as the No. 2 man.

"Louis is the big go-to guy coming back,'' Mullen said. "We're counting on him a lot.'' Mullen is hoping for help right away from junior Carl Moore (6-4, 223), a big receiver who comes in with a big reputation as one of the nation's most prized junior college recruits but was a disappointment in spring practice. There is also a collection of young players hoping to make an impact, including sophomores Riley Cooper (6-3, 209) and Deonte Thompson (5-11, 188), who showed big-play ability in the spring. The Gators expect to be strong at tight end, thanks to the return of Cornelius Ingram (6-4, 230). The fifth-year senior was an All-SEC pick last season after catching 34 passes for 508 yards and seven touchdowns -- tied for the team lead -- as a hybrid tight end-wide receiver, but his role will edge more toward that of a classic tight end in 2008.

"One of the nicest surprises of the spring was Cornelius Ingram's development as a tight end,'' Mullen said. "He's continued to be a good receiver for us, which is great, but with his size, he's now developed himself and gained the ability to be a blocking tight end.'' He'll have help in that regard from sophomore Aaron Hernandez (6-3, 250), who previously manned the likely-to-be-phased-out fullback spot. Actually, Hernandez's success as a receiver -- he averaged a dynamic 16.8 yards on his nine receptions last season -- convinced the Gators to move him to more of an H-back role, working as a tight end, wingback, slot back or motion man. His emergence makes the two-tight end set another viable option in their vast offensive arsenal.

"He became more of a tight end than a fullback, and much more of a pass receiving threat,'' Mullen said. "You can flex him out, motion him around, use him as a tight end or as a wing to get out there in space and create a mismatch problem with a linebacker.''

OFFENSIVE LINE

On the plus side, the offensive line is probably the offense's strongest unit. Three starters are back from a group that helped power the SEC's third-ranked rushing attack (200.2 yards per game) while ranking fifth in the nation for fewest sacks allowed (1.0 per game, 13 total) and gave up the fewest tackles for loss in the FBS (3.85 per game). The only question is health. By the spring game, the list of recovering linemen was so long the Gators were down to a skeleton crew.

"We basically had six players playing until the end of the game,'' Meyer said. Among those coming back from injuries is senior left guard Jim Tartt (6-3, 312) a second-team pick on the coaches' All-SEC team last season who is on this season's watch list for the Outland Trophy. Tartt, who has made a team-high 29 career starts, missed time in spring practice with a shoulder injury. Fellow guards Maurice Hurt (6-2, 319) and James Wilson (6-4, 308) were also hobbled. Both are sophomores.

"I think we can have a great offensive line and we're really excited about it, but it was banged up,'' Mullen said. "If we can keep everybody healthy, we feel we can get to the point where we're two-deep across the front. And if we can get there, that group really should be the strength of our team.''

And the strongest point on the line will be left tackle if fifth-year senior Phil Trautwein (6-6, 301) is back at full strength. Trautwein was a second-team all-conference choice in 2006 and was expected to be one of the SEC's premier blockers last season, but a stress fracture in his right foot ended his season before it began. He comes back in 2008 as the undisputed leader of the offensive front and a potential All-American.

"It is a really big deal to have him back,'' Mullen said. "It's really huge for us. Phil has done a tremendous job coming back. The kid was getting ready for his senior year, and to have that taken away from him was a tragedy. But he really put a lot of work into getting better and improving himself -- in the weight room, with his footwork and fundamentals, his knowledge of the game. He took advantage of that time to do those things.''

As difficult as it was, Trautwein's injury produced an unexpected payoff by opening a spot on the line for sophomore Maurkice Pouncey (6-5, 312). Pouncey earned raves -- and a spot on the conference's all-freshman team -- for his performance at right guard. This season he will slide over to center to replace departed starter Drew Miller, and figures to be a solid anchor in the middle.

Even with Pouncey moving over, the right guard position will look no different. That's because Pouncey's successor is his identical twin brother, sophomore Mike Pouncey (6-5, 309). Mike was moved to defensive tackle late last season to help out a position of need, but he comes back to the offensive line with high expectations.

The man who took over Trautwein's left tackle spot, senior Jason Watkins (6-6, 302), moves back to his original position of right tackle after filling in admirably. He'll be pushed by powerful sophomore Marcus Gilbert (6-6, 308).

The two-deep strength Mullen envisioned would have to come from some young players who got a chance to get on the field last season. That group is led by sophomore Carl Johnson (6-5, 343), who had a strong spring, and also includes Hurt, Gilbert and sophomore Corey Hobbs (6-3, 298).

KICKERS

Field goals were very much a hit-and-miss proposition the last two seasons. Florida kickers were a mediocre 10-of-16 last season and haven't made a field goal longer than 43 yards the last two seasons. They've tried only one of 50 or longer in that span.

Enter Caleb Sturgis (5-10, 182), an incoming freshman from St. Augustine, Fla., who has a 55-yarder to his credit in high school. During the spring game, Sturgis drilled field goals of 52 and 57 yards and missed from 62.

Not to be outdone, senior Jonathan Phillips (5-11, 207) made a 57-yarder and a 60-yarder.

Sturgis is considered the favorite to win the job.

DEFENSIVE LINE

There are far more questions than answers regarding the Gators' most volatile position group.

For starters, there are no starters. At least, defensive line coach McCarney says, no one has seized a position yet. Not even sophomore defensive end Carlos Dunlap (6-6, 290), a magnificently gifted physical specimen who broke loose for four sacks in the spring game. Before the echoes of the crowd's cheers had died away, Meyer blasted his would-be star for his poor play against the run.

"Three times I happened to look,'' the coach said, "and he was out of his gap.'' McCarney said he had penciled Dunlap in for a starting spot, but added, "it's a real light pencil.''

The thing is, the pass rush is high on Florida's priority list, and there is no question Dunlap possesses the ability to get to the passer. That's why Meyer referred to Dunlap as a potential "force in the SEC,'' and why there will be a prominent role for him. "The mistakes come with inexperience,'' McCarney said. "I'm thrilled he's in our program. He has tremendous potential. But he's got to become a complete football player. We want him to play the run. We want him to be physical. We want him to be a great fundamental technique player, and then turn him loose with his talent and ability when we've got to go collapse that pocket and rush the quarterback.

"Carlos will definitely be very much in the mix. Whether he's a one or a two or a swing guy, there's no doubt he'll be playing a lot of football for us. I'll take as many Carlos Dunlaps in this program as we can get. ''

But unless his run defense improves in a hurry, Dunlap is better suited for more of a situational role and could wind up sharing an end spot with Justin Trattou (6-4, 248), a sophomore. Trattou had some impressive moments last season, recording 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks among his 20 tackles. Jermaine Cunningham (6-3, 241), a junior who had 6.5 sacks -- second on the team to NFL draft choice Harvey -- and 12 tackles for loss last season, is the frontrunner to start on the other side. Red-shirt freshman Jaye Howard (6-3, 262) and incoming freshman Earl Okine (6-5, 250) will be given a hard look in preseason practices.

At tackle, nothing has been decided, and making the situation even shakier is the uncertainty surrounding senior Javier Estopinan (6-1, 279), who is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery for the second consecutive season. Without him, all the tackle prospects are kids. And that fact brings with it the expectation that there might be some bumps in the road in the short run.

"We only have one senior, and he's already had three ACL reconstructions in his knee,'' McCarney said. "Whether he can play or not, I don't know. It's basically a freshman and sophomore unit.

"I really want to get to an eight- or nine- or 10-man rotation for the front four positions. I'm hoping we can get to that, but the players will determine that. I won't. They've got to earn the respect and trust of their teammates and of me, coach Meyer, and everybody else.'' One tackle who has taken a huge step toward earning that trust is Matt Patchan (6-7, 265), a freshman who wowed McCarney from the moment he set foot on the field in spring practice. But he is only one of a crowd of contenders pushing for the two inside spots.

Sophomore Brandon Antwine (6-0, 283) got some playing time in 2007 but is coming off an injury and didn't participate in the spring. Sophomore Lawrence Marsh (6-4, 285), sophomore Terron Sanders (6-2, 285) and redshirt freshman John Brown (6-1, 285) all got a good look, as did sophomore Torrey Davis (6-3, 298), who is still working his way back into the coaching staff's good graces after an arrest for possession of alcohol by a minor.

"There's no question he's got SEC talent, but he's got some issues away from the field he needs to work through,'' McCarney said of Davis. "He'll be in the mix, too, if he's back with us completely.''

But none of those players managed to seize a starting position, leaving the matter to be settled in the fall, and leaving the door open to a newcomer such as Patchan, junior college transfer Troy Epps (6-0, 276), a junior, or immense incoming freshman Omar Hunter (6-0, 322).

"There are two ways you can look at it,'' McCarney said. "It's disappointing that someone didn't grab it and say, 'This is mine. I'm the guy to beat.' But there was a lot of improvement and progress at that position, and there is going to be good competition when we reconvene.''

LINEBACKERS

Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (6-3, 243), a junior, is without question the Gators' best defensive player, an undisputed all-league talent who finished last season as the SEC's second-leading tackler.

But even Spikes has room for major improvement as the leader of a defense that needs major improvement.

"Spikes was a sophomore and didn't run the defense very well,'' Meyer told the Gainesville Sun. "He played well, but he didn't run it very well.''

That was the focus of Spikes' offseason, and he did seem to be more in charge during spring work, earning the approval of the coaches.

"It's unbelievably important,'' McCarney said. "He's the quarterback of our defense, and I really think his leadership is special. This spring, coach [Charlie] Strong and coach Meyer asked him to step it up, and it was important for him to do that. And not just lead by working hard and hitting running backs as hard as you can, but lead vocally and be a guy everybody can rally around. "I think he's that kind of guy, I really do. He loves to lead and has a real passion for it, and he showed that in the spring.''

The group around him isn't too bad, either. Junior Dustin Doe (6-0, 211) is undersized but fast and active on the weak side, posting 85 tackles -- five for loss -- last season. Likewise, strong-side linebacker A.J. Jones (6-1, 213), a sophomore, can run and make plays.

But both will be pushed to keep their jobs, because the depth on hand is excellent. Red-shirt freshman Lorenzo Edwards (6-2, 234) got bigger in his redshirt season and provides the size lacking among the starters on the outside. Once projected as a safety, he retains some of that cover ability and explosiveness -- he returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in the spring game.

At 6-2, 207, sophomore Brandon Hicks is built along the lines of Doe and Jones and has similar speed and toughness. He displayed an ability to make plays in limited duty as a freshman and in spring ball.

Junior Ryan Stamper (6-1, 231) backs up Spikes and showed some ability in that role in 2007, finishing with 21 tackles, four for loss.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

If Tebow has nothing to prove this season, Florida's maligned secondary has everything to prove. The Gators' pass coverage was nothing short of a disaster last season, allowing opponents to sail down the field and keep drives going with third-down completions. It was the most obvious reason for Florida's fall from the national elite.

The major problem was inexperience. With youngsters taking the place of veteran from the 2006 national championship team, there was bound to be a drop-off. Likewise, with everyone a year older and smarter, the secondary should improve in 2008. Having finished last in the SEC in defense last season -- with some of their worst showings late in the season -- there really is nowhere to go but up.

Indeed, cornerbacks Joe Haden (5-11, 180), a sophomore, and junior Wondy Pierre-Lewis (6-0, 182) showed in the spring that they could actually play a little bit, though there is still a long way to go. Haden finished last season with 63 tackles, which means a lot of balls were caught with him around, and a team-high 12 passes broken up. Pierre-Louis broke up only three, but he did return one of his two interceptions for a touchdown. Still, they remain Florida's best option, because there is little to no depth behind them. The top alternative is junior Markihe Anderson (5-10, 176), who was bothered by a knee injury last season and hopes to better show off his speed and athleticism in 2008. Incoming freshman Jeremy Brown (5-10, 163) participated in spring practice and should also get a chance to contribute.

At safety, the pressure is on sophomore free-safety Major Wright (6-0, 194) to become more than just a big hitter in the running game. Meyer told the Gainesville Sun he needs Wright to join middle linebacker Spikes to give the defense a solid core.

"It's like the baseball axiom, that you've got to be strong up the middle,'' Meyer told the newspaper. "Absolutely, you have to be. & Those two players have to be a lot better for us to be good.''

Strong safety Tony Joiner is one of the three starters lost from last season, and his replacement could be junior Dorian Munroe (5-11, 202), who broke up five passes and made 28 tackles as a reserve last season, or undersized sophomore Ahmad Black (5-9, 177).

One player who won't be in the rotation is Jamar Hornsby, who ran into trouble last season and was dismissed from the team in the spring after he was arrested for allegedly using the credit card of a woman who died in a motorcycle accident for six months after her death.

PUNTERS

Sophomore Chas Henry (6-4, 204) isn't going to get off many long bombs -- his average of 39.3 yards per punt last season ranked near the bottom of the SEC -- but he is far from a liability. Henry's ability to place the ball and almost never allow a return allowed Florida to lead the league in net punting at 38.7 yards per kick.

Henry dropped 14 of his 37 punts inside the opponents' 20 without a touchback, and only five of his punts were returned the entire season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Gators boast the SEC's most explosive return man. Brandon James served as the primary kickoff and punt returner last season and earned All-SEC honors by averaging 18.1 yards per runback, including an 83-yard touchdown, to rank second in the nation. He was also second in the SEC at 28.0 yards per kickoff return.

"He has the ability to give the offense some firepower with his special teams play,'' offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "He's an offensive threat on special teams.''

Florida's punt coverage was all but perfect last season, with opponents returning only five punts against the Gators and managing 4.4 yards when they did try to run it back. The kickoff coverage was shaky at times, but the addition of freshman kicker Caleb Sturgis and his stronger leg should help.

Senior James Smith (6-1, 234) returns to handle long-snapping duties for the fourth consecutive season, giving the Gators a rock-solid performer at that critical spot.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

The Gators have the potential to be explosive on offense, and with Tebow at the controls they are a dangerous opponent for any team.

But the defense has too many freshmen and sophomores and too many unanswered questions, and the young Gators make too many mistakes -- last season only six teams in the nation committed more penalties than Florida -- to be an elite team.

Using a lot of young players is terrific for the Gators' future, but not so much for the present.

For the most comprehensive previews available on the Division I-A teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2008 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).