Florida Football: Most Improved Gators of 2012 Season

Stephen Sheehan@@StephenPSheehanCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2012

Florida Football: Most Improved Gators of 2012 Season

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    A year ago, the Florida Gators won the fewest games in program history since 2004. 

    In 2012, the Gators showed marked improvement across the board in going 11-1, earning the No. 3 spot in the BCS Top 25. 

    Thanks to a lights-out defense, powerful running game and flawless special teams, Will Muschamp's team took down a who's who of opponents in recording the most victories since the Gators went 13-1 in both 2008 and 2009. 

    With a roster largely the same as 2011, the Gators achieved new heights due to the improvement of several key players. 

    Let's take a look at which Gators made the biggest strides in 2012. 

Josh Evans, FS

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    No player exhibited a bigger jump from 2011 to 2012 than Josh Evans. 

    The senior free safety dedicated the offseason to improving in every facet of the game and the results paid off. 

    After recording just 51 tackles, a single pass breakup and one interception in 2011, the 6'2", 210-pound Evans leads the Gators with 79 total tackles (4.5 for loss) while chipping in three pass breakups and two picks. 

    Entering the season, Evans didn't look like a draftable player, but his terrific senior campaign has earned him the No. 7 spot on NFLDraftScout.com's free safety rankings. 

    Evans' consistent play and steady leadership have been invaluable this season.

Loucheiz Purifoy, CB

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    In the course of a year, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy went from just a special teams player to an all-around playmaker. 

    Never lacking in athletic ability, Purifoy reportedly lacked maturity during his freshman campaign before taking things more seriously in 2012. 

    His improved attitude and work ethic reflected on the field, as the talented sophomore recorded 51 tackles, five passes defended, three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks in the regular season. 

    Purifoy's size, speed and physicality are so good that the 6'1", 189-pounder will reportedly see time at wide receiver in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and next season, according to Michael DiRocco of Gator Nation

    If Purifoy made such a big jump from 2011 to 2012, the results could be dangerous next season.

Omar Hunter, DT

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    It took Omar Hunter five years to fully realize his potential, but it couldn't have come at a better time for the Gators. 

    The former 5-star recruit largely underwhelmed to this point in his career, failing to become the impact run-stopper many expected him to be. 

    However, after going through new strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman's Olympic-style lifting program, Hunter's explosion and stamina improved tremendously.

    With an improved physique and even better technique, Hunter evolved into one of the Gators' most consistent defenders. 

    The 6'0", 313-pound redshirt senior recorded 39 tackles (four for loss) and four pass breakups in his final season at Florida. 

    He may never have developed into an All-SEC player, but Hunter's play improved tremendously in 2012.

James Wilson, G

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    If Omar Hunter's career seemed to last forever, let's not forget about James Wilson

    The sixth-year left guard came to Florida as one of the premier high school offensive linemen, yet he'll leave Florida with a resume well short of what it could have been. 

    Most of that isn't his fault; Wilson underwent four knee surgeries and broke both of his feet during his extended stay in Gainesville.

    A former high school teammate of Tim Tebow, Wilson finally stayed healthy in 2012, earned a starting spot and excelled. 

    The burly 6'4", 323-pounder helped key a strong running game and didn't embarrass himself in pass protection. 

    Wilson provided stability, experience and leadership for a young Gators offense and finally made big contributions in his final year at UF. 

Jordan Reed, TE

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    Jordan Reed has always been one of the most athletic weapons on the Gators offense, but up until 2012 he lacked consistency. 

    The redshirt junior flashed big-time ability in 2011 when he recorded 28 catches for 307 yards and a pair of scores. 

    This season the 6'3", 243-pound tight end developed into the go-to guy for quarterback Jeff Driskel, posting new career highs in receptions (44), yards (552) and touchdowns (three). 

    Reed still isn't a great blocker, but that's not where he'll make his money in the NFL. 

    His supreme athleticism and large frame will make him a premier receiving threat much like predecessor Aaron Hernandez. 

    If Reed declares for the 2013 NFL draft, the Gators will have lost an invaluable weapon.