Florida Football: The Weakest Positions to Worry About
The Florida Gators had a poor outing in head coach Will Muschamp's first year on the job. The Gators were blown out by conference leaders Alabama and LSU and lost to bitter rivals Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina.
The lone bright spot was getting matched up against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, a team that can't seem to top the SEC.
While times are changing in Columbus with the arrival of Urban Meyer, Gator fans are hoping for the change in Gainesville as well.
Fans gave Muschamp a year to get his feet wet, but that's about all the time he is going to get. With an easier schedule and 19 returning starters, the expectations for the Gators to bounce back in 2012 are about as high as possible.
While Muschamp's team will be returning more starters than most of the SEC teams, it's losing some key pieces. Chris Rainey, who was basically the entire offense in 2011, is gone along with Jeff Demps.
While the departures of Demps and Rainey will sorely be missed, other players will be easier to let go.
Quarterback John Brantley graduated after a roller-coaster ride in Gainesville and took his offensive guard, Dan Wenger, with him. After failing to live up to expectations, the speedy Deonte Thompson is out, which rounds out the losses on offense.
Defensively the Gators return an impressive 10 starters, only losing Jaye Howard up front.
After taking a year to initiate the new head coach and change over from the spread to the pro-style offense, the Gators are poised to strike in 2012. Improvement in Gainesville will have to begin in these four areas.
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Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey have long been the playmakers in the backfield for the Florida Gators.
After "Tebow Time" ended, Demps dropped off due to is focus on getting into the Olympics while Rainey carried the offense.
In 2011, the Gators were ranked 89th in passing yards, 73rd in rushing yards and 71st in points scored.
After John Brantley was injured against Alabama, the quarterback play suffered tremendously. Backups Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brisset were thrust into action in back-to-back games against Alabama and LSU, and Brantley proved to be ineffective after his return.
Due to the Gators' inability to pass the ball, the rush became the only way to move the ball. SEC defenses quickly figured that strategy out and shut down the Gators altogether.
It has been quite a while since the offensive production in Gainesville has been that poor.
For the Gators to rebound in 2012, a run game must be established.
Mike Gillislee is poised to take the reins after serving as a backup to the two-headed monster of Demps and Rainey for he past three years, but will be pushed by incoming freshman Matt Jones and versatile Trey Burton.
Since Ciatrick Fason finished with 1267 yards in 2004, the Gators have not had another 1,000-yard rusher. With the switch to the pro-style offense, this must change. Whether Gillislee finally steps up or another player jumps in and steals the starting job, Will Muschamp must find a reliable running back to move the ball.
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You saw this one coming.
The inconsistent quarterback play has been the root of all the problems in Gainesville since the departure of Tim Tebow. John Brantley was forced into a system that refused to utilize his strengths while demanding him play through his weaknesses.
The result was ugly.
After Brantley's knee injury against Alabama last year, we caught a glimpse of what 2012 may hold for the most important position. Although Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett were up against two of the nation's best defenses in Alabama and LSU, there were still signs of promise.
Brissett had a 65-yard pass over the LSU defense for a touchdown to Andre Debose, while Driskel had a 31-yard scamper on Alabama. While both quarterbacks proved they were able to compete, there was still certainly room for improvement.
That's the focus heading into 2012, but so far there appears to be no front-runner.
"Both guys can create plays off rhythm with their legs. Both are very accurate throwers. Both are very talented, and we can win with both of them. In managing our offense, we’re talking about converting third downs, making vertical plays down the field, getting us in the right spots and not turning the ball over," Muschamp said during spring practice.
After the Orange & Blue Debut spring game, the race still appears to be deadlocked.
Brissett finished 9-of-16 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, while Driskel was 12-of-14 for 147 yards and ran for a score. However, Brissett took snaps with the first team offense which might indicate he has a slight advantage.
Whichever quarterback will win the starting job in the fall, it is evident that both have made considerable improvement already.
Much of that is attributed to the departure of Charlie Weis and the arrival of Brent Pease as offensive coordinator, who chose to adapt to the Florida playbook instead of installing a completely new system.
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Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett can improve the passing game as much as they want, but it won't be effective without a solid receiving corps.
Andre Debose stepped up as the go-to target in 2011 by making several big plays in the passing game, but was not consistent year-round. Further development of Debose along with the emergence of other receivers will be instrumental in both the development at quarterback and the offensive improvement in 2012.
The Gators failed to land highly-touted wide receiver Stefon Diggs during the offseason, but have several receivers that should improve heading into next season.
Despite Debose's big plays last season, it was Jordan Reed that was the team's leading receiver with 31 catches for 381 yards. He should continue to be one of the more versatile receivers for the Gators, but he won't fill the void left by Deonte Thompson.
Although Thompson was somewhat of a disappointment while at Florida, he leaves the side opposite of Andre Debose empty. Quinton Dunbar has gotten plenty of praise from Muschamp and Pease so far this spring, and he definitely has the speed to step in where Thompson left off.
While Debose and Dunbar stretch the field, veteran Frankie Hammond will likely be the receiver that moves the chains. Newcomer Latroy Pittman has also received praise and seems to be ready to be a key part of the rotation.
There aren't any superstars in the Florida Gator receivers unit, but there are certainly the tools to get the job done. If each player can develop in order to fill his own role, it will prove to be a much better unit than what Gator fans have seen since Percy Harvin, Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper, David Nelson and Louis Murphy rocked the Swamp.
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The only defensive starter not returning is defensive tackle Jaye Howard, who had the second most sacks behind the recently injured Ronald Powell.
Omar Hunter, the backup to Jaye Howard, will be back as a redshirt senior but Hunter alone won't be enough to compensate for the injury to Powell and the departure of Howard.
The Gators will either have to quickly develop incoming freshman Damien Jacobs and Jafar Mann or maneuver some players to fill the gap.
Ronald Powell should be back in action sometime in October but will likely miss what is perhaps the Gators biggest challenge on Oct. 6 when LSU comes to visit.
The defense should be one the nation's best units next year, but it was pushed around last season up front. In Muschamp's first full recruiting class, the Gators have already gotten much bigger and more physical, but the defensive tackle position is a key point of attack for stopping the rushing attack of several SEC teams.