Florida's offensive malaise continued last season, which meant that Will Muschamp's first go-round as Florida's coach was a disappointing one.
The Gators finished 105th nationally in total offense last season, one season after finishing 82nd. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is gone, hired as coach at Kansas, and the new guy is Brent Pease, who arrives from Boise State. Pease's job is to rev up an offense devoid of proven playmakers.
The defense looks fine, with the return of 11 players who started at least seven games. And special teams look good, too, so there is a ton of pressure on Pease.
Florida finished with six losses last season, the most for the Gators since they lost six in 1987. The Gators did manage to beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl and avoid their first losing season since 1979, when they went 0-10-1 in Charley Pell's first season.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in SEC (3rd in SEC East)
Coach: Will Muschamp (7-6, 2nd season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – H-back Trey Burton, T Chaz Green, G Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, T Xavier Nixon, T Matt Patchan, TE Jordan Reed. Defense (11) – LB Jon Bostic, T Dominique Easley, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, T/E Sharriff Floyd, LB Jelani Jenkins, E/LB Ronald Powell, CB Cody Riggs, CB Marcus Roberson, S DeAnte Saunders, CB Jaylen Watkins. Special teams (2) – P Kyle Christy, K Caleb Sturgis.
Fast fact: Florida has lost a combined 11 games in the past two seasons; that's the worst two-season stretch for the Gators since 1987-88.
Welcome back to the SEC, Brent Pease. You're taking over a unit that does not have a proven quarterback, tailback or wide receiver; in addition, the line has been a mess the past two seasons. Have fun.
Actually, Pease does have some talent with which to work, but none of it is proven. Both sophomore quarterbacks, Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel, were considered to be among the nation's top 10 prep quarterbacks in the 2011 signing class. Both are athletic and have good arms; Driskel is the better runner. Their fight for the starting job likely will last until a few days before the season opener. A big part of the decision will come down to which quarterback makes the fewest errors.
The starting tailback job should belong to senior Mike Gillislee, who has just 145 rushes in his career. While not a burner, Gillislee does have a burst and also has been comfortable running between the tackles. His blocking has been an issue in the past. Others in the mix at tailback will be sophomores Mack Brown and Chris Johnson and true freshman Matt Jones, a four-star signee. FB Hunter Joyer will be a short-yardage option. There's also H-Back Trey Burton, who has played all over in his first two seasons.
Receiver is a giant question, as well. The most experienced wideout is senior Frankie Hammond, who has 41 career receptions. There are high hopes for sophomore Quinton Dunbar, who needs to become an important part of the offense. Junior Andre Debose has big-time speed, which he has used to become a dangerous kick returner, but the former five-star prospect hasn't really done anything of note as a receiver (26 career receptions). Debose can become a legit deep threat, and his development is an important storyline this fall. Redshirt freshman JaJuan Story and true freshman Latroy Pittman are others to watch.
Junior TE Jordan Reed, a converted quarterback, had 28 receptions last fall, and if he can stay healthy, he could flirt with 40 catches this season. Senior Omarius Hines, who also has played receiver and running back in his career, seems to have the needed tools but never has put it together; he could be a dangerous option if he can develop some consistency. Florida signed two of the nation's top tight ends in Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson. Taylor is noted for his hands, Thompson for his blocking ability.
The line has potential if the tackles come through. Chaz Green, Matt Patchan and Xavier Nixon were highly touted recruits, but none has lived up to the hype of yet. Each has had his moments, but the consistency hasn't been there. True freshman D.J. Humphries, the nation's top offensive tackle recruit, also could see time. Junior G Jon Halapio is heading into his third season as a starter; he is an effective run blocker. Sixth-year senior James Wilson, a former five-star recruit, has been incredibly injury prone, but if he is healthy, he could solidify the middle. C Jonotthan Harrison did an OK job last season, his first as the starter. Depth looks fine for a change, though another Wilson injury would be problematic.
The Gators are deep and talented on this side of the ball, but they definitely need a few more playmakers to emerge. Florida forced just 14 turnovers last season, an embarrassingly low number for a team with this many top-flight athletes.
The health of E/LB Ronald Powell is worth watching. He tore his ACL in the spring game, but reports last week have him returning at some point this season. While he hasn't lived up to his high school hype (he was the No. 1 recruit overall in the 2010 class), he did show signs late last season of understanding his new position and he does possess pass-rushing ability. Also worth watching is the health of T/E Dominique Easley, who suffered a torn ACL in the regular-season finale against Florida State. Easley has a quick first step and can be a disruptive force.
Of the guys who are 100 percent healthy, junior Sharrif Floyd is the standout. He has All-SEC ability and just needs to play with more consistency. He is another who can play tackle and end, though he seems better-suited to tackle, where his strength and first step could make him special. Senior Omar Hunter, sophomore Leon Orr and junior college transfer Damien Jacobs also will be important parts of the tackle rotation.
The end spots are a concern, especially with Powell's injury. Senior Lerentee McCray likely will start for Powell at the "buck" position, but he hasn't shown much in his career. Senior Earl Okine has great size (6-7/270), but he has done less than McCray. Junior Kedric Johnson also could get in the mix. It seems a given that highly touted freshmen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard will see time at end.
Things look better at linebacker, with senior Jon Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins having the talent to vie for all-league honors. The duo combined for 169 tackles last season. Sophomore Michael Taylor should move into a vacated starting spot, and true freshman Antonio Morrison, who enrolled early, Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball also should be in the rotation.
The secondary should be the team's biggest strength. Junior SS Matt Elam is a big hitter who had two interceptions and seven pass breakups last season. Senior FS Josh Evans finally showed some consistency last season and should be a fulltime starter for the first time in his career. Sophomores DeAnte "Pop" Saunders, who started nine games last season, and Jabari Gorman and true freshman Marcus Maye provide good depth.
Florida is even deeper at corner, with five returnees and a true freshman in the mix for time. If healthy, sophomore Marcus Roberson will start. He suffered a neck injury in Game 10 and missed the rest of the season. He has the talent to eventually become an All-SEC player. The others in the hunt for a starting berth are oft-injured junior Jeremy Brown, junior Jaylen Watkins (the half-brother of Clemson WR Sammy Watkins), junior Cody Riggs, sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy and touted true freshman Brian Poole. Purifoy had a big spring and likely has the inside track to start opposite Roberson.
K Caleb Sturgis was a finalist last season for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker, and has a strong leg. He was 22-of-26 last season, including 3-of-5 from beyond 50 yards; his longest was a 55-yarder. P Kyle Christy returns after averaging 40.9 yards as a true freshman.
Debose is a dangerous kick returner, but the Gators need a new punt returner; they have a number of candidates.
The punt coverage was good, the kickoff coverage merely adequate last season. That is an area that needs to be improved.
The opener against Bowling Green will give the Gators some time to work out the kinks. But then come eight consecutive games against conference opponents, including back-to-back road games in Weeks 2 and 3 against Texas A&M and Tennessee, respectively. Those could be measuring-stick contests for both teams, and given Florida's quarterback situation, both are dicey.
The Gators also play host to LSU, get SEC East foes South Carolina and Georgia in back-to-back weeks in mid-October, then close out the regular season at Florida State.
There is just one true road game after Oct. 13.
The offense doesn't have much time to hits its stride, but a potential saving grace is that the defense should be stout. The run defense was OK last season (132.7 ypg, 40th nationally), but should make a big jump for the good this season.
But the offensive questions have to temper expectations. There is no proven quarterback, tailback or wide receiver; that obviously is not good.
Florida looks primed to win at least seven games. But the ceiling with this team appears to be nine victories, and that's with the offense becoming competent, something it has not been in either of the past two seasons.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 6th nationally
The buzz: Florida finished with the No. 2 class in the SEC and the No. 3 class nationally in 2012. Muschamp and his staff especially got it done on the defense, with four of their top seven commitments from that side of the ball. The defensive group is led by two five-star ends – Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. Fowler Jr. was a late flip from Florida State. The other five-star is OT D.J. Humphries. Other top-tier players include the nation's top tight end, four-star prospect Kent Taylor, and two four-star defensive backs: CB Brian Poole and S Marcus Maye. Thirteen signees were in the Rivals250. – Rivals.com
RB Mike Gillislee. Gillislee, a senior this fall, had just 56 carries last season as Florida focused more on a lateral running game to accommodate Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey in 2011. That won't be the case any longer. It has been made clear that Gillislee, a tough runner at 5 feet 11 and 201 pounds, will be the feature back. In his limited duty, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season. – Mark Wheeler, InsideTheGators.com
For more on Florida throughout the season, check out InsideTheGators.com
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