It won't be easy, but with some immense talent on defense and a potential star in the making, the Florida Gators have a chance to get back to the top of the SEC in 2012.
Sure, playing against the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers doesn't make life easy, but Will Muschamp and his team have reason to be optimistic this season.
With disappointing quarterback John Brantley having moved on to the NFL (for now), it's up to former mega-prospect Jeff Driskel to grasp the reigns of the offense.
Luckily for Driskel, he'll have a strong defense to lean on, as the Gators boast a wealth of NFL-caliber talent at every level.
Let's take a look at three reasons why the Gators will be back in the mix atop the SEC this season.
The Florida Gators have churned out quality NFL linebackers like Brandon Spikes, Channing Crowder and Mike Peterson over the past decade.
Jelani Jenkins and senior Jonathan Bostic figure to be the next great Gators to make the jump to the pros.
A former 5-star prospect, Jenkins has steadily improved both his play and his physique since he arrived at UF in 2009.
The weak-side linebacker has added more than 20 pounds of muscle to his 6’0" frame without sacrificing his signature speed and agility.
Although he hasn’t truly emerged as an elite NFL prospect, 2012 could be the year that Jenkins takes the next step.
Along with Jenkins, Bostic has shown a healthy progression during his three years in Gainesville. Possessing NFL-caliber size at 6’1”, 243 pounds, Bostic is a true thumper in the middle, leading the Gators with 94 tackles in 2011.
With Bostic manning the middle and Jenkins roaming on the weak side, the Gators have a few intriguing options to fill out the lineup.
Senior Lerentee McCray got off to a solid start last season before missing four games due to injury. The 6’2”, 247-pounder figures to get the first look at replacing Ronald Powell (torn ACL) at the BUCK position.
In addition to McCray, the Gators boast a couple of impact underclassmen in sophomore Michael Taylor and freshman sensation Antonio Morrison. If Powell recovers quickly from his knee injury, it will only bolster one of the nation’s deepest and most talented group of linebackers.
Based on his high school credentials, quarterback Jeff Driskel’s freshman campaign was certainly a disappointment.
The former Gatorade Florida Player of the Year looked overwhelmed in spot duty, completing only 16 of 34 attempts with two interceptions.
However, with another year of offseason preparation, the nation’s top quarterback recruit of 2011 has a chance to grasp the starting spot.
Though he’s entrenched in a battle with fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett, it would be a disappointment if Driskel doesn’t emerge as the starter.
Besides his impressive frame (6’4”, 232 pounds), Driskel has incredible arm strength, speed and athleticism.
If Driskel is able to live up to his elite billing, the Florida Gators offense should take a huge step forward in 2012.
When Urban Meyer inked his final recruiting class in 2010, it was quickly deemed a potentially historic one.
The reason? An incredible haul of defensive linemen.
Besides signing Ronald Powell, the nation’s top recruit, Meyer was able to get commitments from the two top defensive tackles in the country in Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley.
While all three have shown flashes, inconsistency and injuries have prevented the group from taking the SEC by storm.
Although their chance of finally emerging took a big hit when Powell tore his ACL in Florida’s spring game, coach Will Muschamp’s strong recruiting class has bolstered the depth of an already impressive group.
With Floyd penciled in as a starter (either at defensive end or tackle), Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have a bunch of capable bodies to call upon on game day.
Senior Omar Hunter is a former 5-star recruit who has been solid but unspectacular to this point. However, the 314-pounder is a locker-room leader who should do better in his second year in Quinn’s system.
Redshirt sophomore Leon Orr stands at a menacing 6’5”, 305 pounds and could be a player to emerge. JUCO signee Damien Jacobs is also expected to be an immediate contributor in 2012.
The Gators attacked the defensive end position with their 2012 recruiting class, signing four edge players to help fix an anemic pass rush.
Muschamp’s biggest get was Jonathan Bullard, the nation’s top strong-side defensive end. The 6’3”, 263-pounder has a great blend of pass-rush skills to go along with a good motor.
The Gators' defensive end group also features Earl Okine, a 6’7” senior, and freshmen Dante Fowler Jr., Bryan Cox Jr. and the 6’6” Alex McCalister.
For a conference that's won in the trenches, the Gators have a unit blessed with talent, athleticism and youth.