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Banged-up Gators seek momentum vs. Toledo

The SportsXchange

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The Florida Gators are heading into their season-opener against Toledo on Saturday a little banged up.

With running back Matt Jones and two offensive line starters (Jon Halapio and Chaz Green) out for the opener, the Gators will try to build off their 11-2 season in 2012.

"You like to go into a season with less unknowns than usual," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "But certainly, I feel comfortable with the makeup of this football team."

Jeff Driskel is back for his second season at quarterback and more comfortable with the offense. Driskel finished with 1,646 yards passing in 2012 and another 412 yards rushing in his first full season as a starter, with 16 combined touchdowns (12 passing, 4 rushing).

Driskel may have more opportunities to take shots downfield, depending on how freshman receivers Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood develop during the course of the season.

"We've stressed making the big play this offseason and we've show it in camp," Driskel said. "We really want to show it in the first game."

Defensively, Florida will need to be sound against an up-tempo Toledo offense. The Rockets, who went 9-4 a season ago, averaged 31.5 points and 252 yards per game last season.

"Their goal is going to be to get 80-85 snaps against us," Muschamp said. "They return nine starters on offense. This is a good football team."

Getting off to better starts has been another point of emphasis this season. The Gators were an excellent fourth-quarter team in 2012, outscoring opponents 128-32 in the final 15 minutes. But in the first quarter last season, Florida was outscored, 40-54.

"We'd like to play well in all four (quarters) if we can, but again we started talking to guys more about starting fast, especially on the offensive side of the ball," Muschamp said. "It creates some positive opportunities for our football team.

"But that goes in all three phases, in (the) kicking game, being able to pin someone back or get a big return and create some momentum for our football team, defensively create a turnover early in the game and create some momentum for our fans, our football team. It's a team thing and we've emphasized it, maybe more so than we have in the past. It's a huge point of emphasis."

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH VS. TOLEDO

--QB Jeff Driskel begins his second season as a starting quarterback eager to improve a pass offense that finished last in the SEC last season. Still, Driskel was effective as a dual-threat quarterback last season, as capable of making plays with his legs (413 rushing yards, 4 TDs) as his arm (1,646 yards, 12 TDs, 5 interception). There is hope that in year two Driskel will get better at staying in the pocket and reading through his progressions rather than keeping eyes locked on one receiver.

--WR Demarcus Robinson wowed Florida fans in open practices with his speed and pass catching ability. The freshman from Fort Valley, Ga., could emerge as a big-play threat Florida has lacked in the passing game in recent seasons. At 6-feet-2, 201 pounds, Robinson has shown the size, strength and body control to make tough catches in man coverage.

"He can get knocked off at times on a re-route, but he has the ability to explode to go get a ball," Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. "So he's got a lot of range."

--DE/LB Ronald Powell is eager to make an impact after sitting out the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL. Powell led the Gators with six sacks in 2011 and is projected to start at strong-side linebacker. But in Florida's rotating 3-4, 4-3 front seven schemes, Powell will get plenty of chances to rush the passer.

"I feel I'm moving fast, moving as well as anyone out there," Powell said, when asked about coming back from the knee injury. "The little things ... technique-wise and keeping my feet moving and hand placement, I have to remind myself. "

Notes: RT Chaz Green will undergo surgery this week to repair a torn labrum and is out for the season. ... Muschamp announced that MLB Antonio Morrison's suspension has been reduced from two games to one game. Morrison will sit out the Toledo game but will be back for Miami on Sept. 7. Morrison was involved in a pair of offeseason arrests, but charges for the second arrest were dropped due to insufficient evidence. "I just don't feel like his actions warranted a two-game suspension," Muschamp said. ... Valdez Showers is taking well to his position change from DB to RB. A former 2,000-yard rusher out of Madison High in Detroit, Showers has impressed coaches with his breakaway speed. "He's got great speed and brings in kind of that scatback-type of runner," Pease said. "You have the pounding back who's running it downhill, then all of a sudden you spread them out and this guy's hitting creases and seams because he's got enough foot speed (to do it)." ... Clay Burton has won the starting TE job in camp. Tevin Westbrook is second on the depth chart behind Burton. ... Sophomore Austin Hardin has won the starting job at kicker.
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