After such a letdown season last year and a longer offseason than usual, it’s always nice for Florida fans to be reminded that there are still positives in place heading into this season. Yes, there are still glaring weaknesses that could easily hold the Gators back once again, but there are some major strengths and even a few surprise players that could have Florida in the thick of the SEC East race down the stretch.
How this season turns out is really a matter of how well the team balances out its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths need to be just that throughout the year and the weaknesses need to be improved enough to where they don’t open the door for another nightmare of a season.
Let’s take a look at how things stack up.
Secondary: Florida had the seventh-best pass defense in the country last season and could be even better with the addition of a couple of true freshmen. Even with just one year under his belt, Vernon Hargreaves III is the best corner in the country and is a big reason the secondary may be Florida’s biggest strength. He led the Gators with three interceptions, 11 pass breakups and is somebody who can shut down the opposing teams’ best receiver on a weekly basis.
Jalen Tabor is a corner who can have a Hargreaves-like impact this season as a freshman. His instincts, football IQ and ability to play man and zone-coverage at a high level puts him ahead of the learning curve for such a young player. The two have a chance to be one of the top cornerback tandems in college football.
Kurt Roper: Some may say it’s hard to call Roper one of Florida’s strengths, but that doubt would go away if you saw what the offense accomplished in the spring game. Yes, spring games are nothing more than glorified scrimmages, but there was more life to that side of the ball and that’s likely going to grow into something special as the players spend more time in the system.
All you have to do is check out Roper’s track record at Duke to know just what he’s capable of accomplishing:
|Year||Total Yards||ACC Rank|
Besides a minor drop in production in 2011, Roper has been wildly consistent and improved each season. With better athletes than what he had in the ACC, I think it’s fair to say Florida’s offense is in good hands and will be a lot more effective than it was a year ago.
Quarterback: Those two Jeff Driskel interceptions against Miami probably still make you cringe. Your eyes still get watery every time you’re reminded that Tyler Murphy threw three picks, and the Gators lost to Vanderbilt for the first time in more than two decades. The bottom line is Florida had the 109th-worst passing offense in the country last season. Eastern Michigan, Rice and Florida Atlantic were just some of the teams who averaged more passing yards per game.
This isn’t something that just goes away after a few practices. Roper can have the magic touch and make miracles happen, but drastic improvement is something we have to see with our own eyes before being able to remove this off the weakness list.
Driskel will be given another shot to right so many wrongs, but he’s got to improve his accuracy and settle down in the pocket. He still looks uncomfortable at times and misses open receivers downfield. Gator fans can only hope this area of the team improves, as it can go a long way to turning this season around in a hurry.
How much better will Florida's offense be in 2014?
Offensive Line Depth: How many times do you see an offensive lineman have to leave the game due to somebody falling on his leg from behind? He tweaked an ankle and won’t return for the remainder of the quarter. He simply needs a breather.
The Gators hope none of those situations play out this season, as the Gators have only two offensive linemen who have played a down of college football. Unfortunately, it would be a once in a lifetime scenario where every offensive lineman is available for every down of every game. That means there is going to be a lot of fresh faces thrown into the lion’s den and a lot of hoping and praying from Florida’s coaching staff.
Yes, a starting rotation that consists of D.J. Humphries, Chaz Green and Max Garcia has the potential to be one of the better units in the SEC. But offensive lines are sure to get banged up in this brutal conference, and the backups can sometimes be more important than the starters.
Developing depth over the next couple of months and making sure guys are ready will be crucial.
Andre Debose: One of Florida’s top recruits what seems like ages ago has become one of the biggest busts in program history. But after receiving a sixth-year of eligibility, Debose has a chance to really have a special season. Not only can he remain a key weapon on special teams as he has throughout his career, but his speed and athleticism is desperately needed in Roper’s offense. Debose can stretch the field, take the top off the defense and create big plays the way Florida was expecting when he arrived back in 2009.
Bryan Cox Jr.: Cox had a solid spring practice and certainly guaranteed himself some playing time along a deep defensive line. The son of former NFL great, Bryan Cox Jr. is a solid open field tackler and plays the game with a ton of energy. He has a solid first step, but overall he’s a hustle player who gives it his all on every play and can be that spark of the bench that this team needs late in games. While Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard will steal all the headlines, don’t sleep on the hungry redshirt sophomore.