Breathe people. Gator football is finally back and in full swing. Last season was an unexpected, exciting, but sour ending 11-2 one. The 2013 Gator team has all the potential to be exceptional this year, but that means conquering a brutal schedule and counting on some young guys to make plays. Could Will Muschamp’s 2013 Gator Football team have what it takes to make it to Atlanta this season? Pasadena for a national title? Let’s break it all down to see what the Gators have this year.
If it wasn’t for tailback Mike Gillislee last season, the Gator offense would have been significantly less successful. Gillislee is now a Miami Dolphin, which means the pressure is on quarterback Jeff Driskel and his receivers to open up the passing attack. Last year’s 146.3 pass yards per game was a Gator second-lowest in a season since 1979. So what has to happen this year? For one thing the Gator receiving corp has to have consistent targets emerge. Last year’s most reliable target for Driskel was tight end Jordan Reed, who is now on the Washington Redskins’ roster.
At this point, the depth chart has junior Quinton Dunbar at the X WR spot, senior Solomon Patton at the Z and senior Trey Burton at the F. Dunbar had a pretty productive season last year where he was second on the team with 36 receptions for 383 yards. Last season he had some great break away and second effort plays as well. Patton beat out true freshman Ahmad Fulwood for the Z spot. Patton’s 2012 season was cut short in the Georgia game with a broken arm suffered from an awkward tackle, but before that he played in all 8 games and carried the ball for an average of 10 yards per play. Trey Burton is probably Florida’s most versatile athlete on offense. The senior can play wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and even a little bit of quarterback. Burton with the right packages could turn out to be a lethal weapon to have on offense this season.
If the receiving corps improves this season, Driskel could have an even better year. The sophomore in coordinator Brent Pease’s intricate system a year ago showed flashes of his athletic ability to make plays with his feet, but often times his accuracy and decision making seemed off.
Keep in mind 2012 was his first year in a complicated Pease system, though. Driskel will have a definite advantage in 2013 with a year of Pease’s scheme under his belt, and if he can grasp the offense better this season, the Gators won’t have to rely on their running game as much as they did a season ago. Driskel has more than enough athletic ability to run Pease’s system, for him it’s just a matter of executing it efficiently at this point, which includes making smarter decisions and going through his reads during every throw. Wouldn’t hurt if he threw the ball away a little bit more, too.
Driskel’s improvement is also very contingent on the offensive line’s performance. Last season Driskel was sacked 1 in every 7 pass attempts. That statistic makes it difficult for any quarterback to be successful trying to run the offense, especially in a tough defensive league like the SEC. The O-Line gets some help this season from Maryland transfer Max Garcia at left guard. Center Jonathon Harrison and right tackle Tyler Moore have also received praised from Muschamp during fall camp. Left tackle D.J. Humpries will be even more improved as a sophomore this season. If the line can protect Driskel better, the passing game could break wide open.
The ground game for Florida will be led by sophomore running back Matt Jones. Jones will not play Week 1 against Toledo as he is recovering from a viral infection, but he will be listed as “questionable” from there on out. Jones is built like a linebacker at 6’2’’ 226 pounds, but his size fits in perfectly with Pease’s ground and pound power running scheme.
As a freshman last season he had a solid year behind Gillislee rushing for 275 yards. Jones has the talent and build to handle the ground game effectively, and let’s hope he recovers from that viral infection before a road trip to Miami September 7th. For now, the starting back is redshirt junior Mack Brown, who had good reps last year getting 25 carries for 102 yards. If it’s just Toledo that Jones misses, the ground game should be fine week 1 with Brown at the helm.
Florida’s defense in 2012 was in a word dominant across the board. In fact they were so dominant that they finished 5th in the nation in total defense. Additionally they allowed just 7 plays of 30 yards or longer in 2012, the fewest in the Southeastern Conference. That defense lost a lot of marquee players such as Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, and Jelani Jenkins to name a few, but Florida has players with the ability to fill these voids without missing a single beat.
Junior “Sam” linebacker Ronald Powell is making his return after recovering from an ACL injury in 2012. Powell will probably also get reps at the buck position, which is essentially a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. If Powell’s knee stays healthy, he could have a monster year and prove to be the rock of Florida’s defense. Another guy to play the buck is sophomore Dante Fowler Jr., who a season ago played in every game as a true freshman and was voted on the SEC Coaches All-Freshman team. Weak side LB Darrin Kitchens started in the last 2 games last season, and he’ll be helped out by true freshman Daniel McMillian, who Muschamp has cited as one of the freshmen that will get reps this year. Middle linebacker Antonio Morrison, who is suspended for Toledo for barking at a police dog in July, had his best game at Florida State where his forced fumble allowed Florida to take the lead in the 4th quarter. Dominique Easley led the Gators last season in sacks with 4, and he has the talent to play both defensive end and tackle.
The Gator secondary, or the “No Fly Zone” as it’s been named, was outstanding last year. They finished second in the nation in passing efficiency defense. The loss of safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans is big, but Marcus Maye and Cody Riggs will fill in at safety. Riggs was sidelined most of last season with a fractured foot, but in 2011 he played in all 13 games making 10 starts. Maye, a redshirt freshman, had 4 interceptions and 45 tackles as a senior in high school at Holy Trinity.
The cornerback position has great depth, and features an extremely talented group of players. Junior Loucheiz Purifoy is a shut down corner who had 5 pass breakups last season. Jaylen Watkins will likely split reps with Purifoy at right corner, but could get reps at safety too. Watkins had an impressive three interceptions along with eight pass breakups last year. Junior Marcus Roberson will start at left corner. Roberson finished second in the SEC in passes defended with 14. Keanu Neal and Vernon Hargreaves III are true freshmen who could very well get reps in the secondary this season, too. Florida clearly has all the tools to be another no fly zone in the SEC this season.
Gator Special Teams
Florida’s special teams unit was flat incredible a season ago, and it was led by the athletic prowess of Loucheiz Purifoy. Purifoy forced two fumbles and blocked two kicks in 2012, including one that saved the Louisiana Lafayette game with only a few seconds remaining.
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Punter Kyle Christy returns for his junior season, and last year he averaged 45.8 yards per kick, allowing Florida to finish ninth nationally in net punting. Florida will unfortunately be without the talented kicker Caleb Sturgis, who made 24-of-28 field goals last season. Taking over for Sturgis is redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, who went 13-of-20 on field goals his senior season of high school. As far as punt and kick returning is concerned, Florida took a big hit with the loss of Andre Debose to an ACL injury. Solomon Patton is listed as the first team kick returner and Marcus Roberson as punt returner. New special teams coordinator Jeff Choate has emphasized that he believes special teams is simply an extension of a team’s offense. If that’s the case, special teams could once again play a huge role in the Gators’ success in 2013.
While Florida is coming off of an 11-2 season with lots of talented players in place for 2013, their brutal schedule is why most analysts are counting out the Gators to compete for an SEC Title. Toledo and Miami should be easy games for Florida, unless the Gator offense struggles on the road in Miami during week 2. Tennessee and Arkansas at home definitely helps, but the 5 game stretch from October 12th through November 16th is tough. The 12th they take a trip to Death Valley to face the LSU Tigers, which is an unbelievably tough place to get a victory, even tougher if that game is at night. They travel to Missouri to face the Tigers October 19th before getting a bye week before the critical Georgia game on November 2nd in Jacksonville. The young Georgia defense will be very much developed by that point in the year. Then they get Vanderbilt at home, who had their first 9 win season since 1915 a year ago, before traveling to South Carolina to face the Gamecocks in another possibly pivotal match up with SEC East title implications. They finish the season with Florida State at home.
Florida offensively needs to have a big year, especially in the passing game if they want to make it to Atlanta in December. Defensively there are big expectations of a group that lost very talented players to the NFL last season. The schedule is difficult, but could turn out to be manageable if pieces on offense and defense come together. Is this the year Muschamp shocks the world again by leading the Gators to Atlanta for an SEC Title? Or even an National Title? Strap in folks, we’ll get to find that out in just a few short days.
Morgan Moriarty is a third year Telecommunications major at the University of Florida, and covers college football and recruiting for Florida Sports Talk Radio. She is also on the University of Florida Women’s Club Water Polo Team. Follow her on Twitter here @Morgan_Moriarty