Florida Football: 5 Gators Under the Most Pressure to Perform in 2013
The Florida Gators were expected to make little noise in the SEC race last season. A second-year head coach and a new starting quarterback were just two of the issues that scared experts prior to the team's home opener against Bowling Green.
For a team facing low expectations, however, Florida put together a season to remember.
Eleven wins later, the Gators reached their first BCS bowl since 2010. They made it to that point because different starters on both sides repeatedly made critical plays in pressure-packed situations. Whether it was through a game-changing interception or a key third-down conversion, multiple individuals made valuable contributions in tight games.
Things will be no different in 2013, as the Gators once again face one of the toughest schedules in the country. There are, however, a few players who will have added pressure to perform throughout the campaign.
Here are five Gators whom many will be watching more closely than others during the coming season.
Yes, Jeff Driskel is a blatantly obvious choice for this category.
However, it is also blatantly obvious that the Gators will be heavily relying on a solid season from their junior quarterback this fall.
For a young signal-caller that did not even know his fate until the season opener, Driskel played about as well as one could have hoped in 2012. He did not overload the stat sheet, but he limited turnovers and made key plays on the run in clutch moments. The Gators nearly made the BCS title game as a result.
With key performers on both offense and defense from last year's squad now departed, Driskel's role needs to be significantly larger than it was one year ago. Because Matt Jones and the rest of the Florida backfield will remain the focal point of the offense, Driskel will not have to be a scoring machine. However, there is no reason why he should not eclipse the 2,000-yard passing plateau and produce more than 20 touchdowns.
Driskel needs to improve his pocket presence and make faster reads. If he can do so, he will gain national prominence. More importantly, the Gators will repeat their 2012 successes.
Loucheiz Purifoy provided a continuous spark for the Gator secondary and special teams. He finished the year with five pass breakups and 51 tackles, not to mention two blocked kicks.
Interestingly enough, however, he may be asked to be on the receiving end of those tackles this season.
It remains to be seen how significant his role at wide receiver will be in 2013. In any case, Purifoy will be under pressure to make plays for a team that lacks weapons on the outside. He is fast and athletic, and he has shown promise during the early days of spring practice.
Still, the move is a risky one. The Gators cannot afford to have Purifoy injured or simply exhausted.
Should Will Muschamp and Brent Pease decide to work Purifoy into the offensive game plan, all eyes will be on the junior throughout the entire season. No matter where he plays, he will need to be at his best if the Gators want to achieve their goals.
Vernon Hargreaves III
He has yet to even officially hit the practice field as a member of the Gators. However, ESPN 5-star recruit Vernon Hargreaves III is already expected to be a major factor defensively.
Hargreaves capped off a terrific high school career by being named MVP of the most recent Under Armour All-America game. His reactionary instincts and ball skills were on full display as he made tackles all over the field and intercepted a pass.
Such performances have many thinking he can immediately start and be a shutdown corner in the Florida secondary.
If Loucheiz Purifoy does indeed see a lot of time at wide receiver, Hargreaves will be given many extra opportunities to excel over the course of the season. If Florida gets a defender that is as good as advertised, the team will not feel the sting of losing key secondary members as strongly as most believe will happen.
He may only be a freshman, but the pressure to be a star is already on Hargreaves.
Even though he has no real college experience as a kicker, Austin Hardin is competing with Brad Phillips in the battle to replace Caleb Sturgis. Should he indeed earn his spot atop the depth chart, Hardin will face numerous pressure-packed situations next season.
The consensus top kicker in the 2012 class, Hardin has tremendous upside. He possesses a cannon for a leg, as evidenced by the 59-yard field goal he converted on during the 2010 high school season.
At the moment, his accuracy has room for improvement. His only struggle during high school was accuracy from long distance, and he has faced a similar problem this spring.
However, the Gators cannot afford to give Hardin a full season to improve in this area. They will be in many close games, and field goals will be crucial to their success.
Combine this with the fact that he is replacing the best kicker in school history, and you can see why Hardin will be under immense pressure.
Before you roll your eyes at the fact that two special teams players made the list, allow me to explain.
Despite being on the field for only a tiny fraction of Florida's total plays, Christy managed to make more valuable contributions to the team's overall success than a large number of other players. His average of nearly 46 yards per punt, which happens to be a school record, and his nomination as a Ray Guy Award finalist are proof of his immense value.
Christy proved he can shift the momentum of any game with a perfectly placed directional kick. The best example was his performance against South Carolina. His kicks completely altered field position and gave Steve Spurrier's squad fits throughout the entire game. The Gators were able to win big as a result.
For a team that lacks an explosive pass offense, having a punter like Christy is a major benefit. When Driskel struggled last season and failed to convert on third down, Christy was able to limit the damage with his leg. There will be numerous occasions in 2013 during which he will be asked to do the same thing.
With his talent level, he should have no trouble accomplishing this task.
With Christy on the team, no stalled drive can be classified as a complete failure. He was an integral piece of the team puzzle last season, and he will remain a valuable contributor this season.