The 2010 Florida Gators are going to look a little bit different than the team that we all came to love (or hate, mostly hate I'm sure, with all of the coverage ESPN gave the team, particularly Tim Tebow) the past few seasons, but make no mistake about it, this team will be on par in the talent department with the past few renditions.
The biggest difference obviously comes in the form of experience, or lack thereof, something that tends to happen when you send what seems to be almost your entire roster to the pros. And of course, with experience comes intangibles and that immeasurable ability to simply win ballgames. The last rendition of the Gators undoubtedly had that killer instinct. This version? Well, that remains to be seen.
Here is a very early look (but is it ever too early to start looking towards the football season?) at who might be the X-factors for Florida's offensive unit in 2010. These guys should have a big say in how high in the polls the Gators are able to go, and not to mention, how often they can ring up the scoreboard next season. With so many key departures from last year's team, there is plenty of room for someone (or someones) to step up big time and fill in the void.
So who will the Gators be turning to this year to carry the torch left by Tim Tebow and crew?
No discussion about how an offense will perform can take place without starting in the trenches and taking a look at the offensive line. It's not a profound statement to say that the offensive line makes or breaks an offense, but it's also not fair to leave these guys off the list.
So for a unit so important, why are they so low on this list? You're probably thinking it's because it's not the "sexy" choice to pick the linemen to make the X-Factor list. While that may be true, it's because you know what you are going to get with this crew -- a veteran unit that will do it's job game in and game out.
The team loses first-round selection and Rimington Award winner (nation's best center) Maurkice Pouncey. But what better way to replace a Pouncey than with... well, a Pouncey -- his twin brother Mike. Pouncey will get a chance to show the same versatility that helped his brother skyrocket up the NFL Draft boards by moving to center this season.
Alongside Pouncey, the Gators will feature three other returning starters in sophomore left tackle Xavier Nixon, who started the last five games of 2009 as a true freshman, senior left guard Carl Johnson, and senior right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Senior Maurice Hurt and junior James Wilson are expected to battle for the right guard spot.
The Gators are set at offensive line, and that stability will give the next five guys on this list every opportunity to break out this year and become an X-Factor -- someone poised to take on a new and potentially major role in the team's plans, with their impact being the "X-Factor" on how the season pans out -- for the Gators.
If you saw Florida's beatdown of Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl to conclude last season, then you know why Gillislee is on this list. Gillislee only had five carries in that game, but he made them count, racking up 78 yards, including a 52 yard scamper. A true freshman last year, Gillislee didn't get much playing time in a crowded backfield that also featured Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Emmanuel Moody.
The 5-foot-11, 191-pound back is not going to all of a sudden take over the "feature" back role by any means in his second season, but I foresee him having a noticeable impact on the Florida offense this season. With Chris Rainey moving to the slot, someone needs to fill in that void of extra carries in the backfield to complement Demps (speed) and Moody (power). It has always seemed that Urban Meyer and Co. have never really trusted Moody with prime carrying opportunities, which is another reason I see Gillislee having a breakout season.
Another factor to consider in the equation is the appearance of true freshman Mack Brown in the backfield in the fall. Brown has the talent to be that every-down back that Meyer has craved since he arrived at Florida. There is a very good chance that he will get a decent number of carries this year as a freshman, but because it is early in the offseason and you never know what to expect from freshmen, I am tabbing Gillislee as No. 5 on the X-Factor list for Florida's offense this season.
In an offense that did not exactly have a reliable downfield receiving threat for Tebow last season, other than Riley Cooper, the Gators went early and often to the tight end machine, Aaron Hernandez. The large but deceptively nimble Hernandez was probably Florida's top offensive X-Factor last season outside of the do-everything Tebow, so his replacement has extremely large shoes to fill in the offensive scheme.
That guy appears to be Jordan Reed, the redshirt freshman who was recruited to play quarterback at Florida. With Tebow and now John Brantley playing the quarterback decision, it was a logical choice to move Reed to tight end so he could actually see time on the field.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder has the size to make an impact at tight end and replace some of the massive production that Hernandez brought to the table last season -- 68 catches, 650 yards and eight touchdowns.
Also rumored to be an option for plays in the Wildcat formation, Reed will get ample opportunities to make an impact for Florida's offense. Most likely, he will not have nearly the impact that Hernandez had last season, especially since Reed is only a redshirt freshman, but he definitely has the tools to develop into that player.
Luckily for Reed, there should be a plethora of options in the receiving corps this year, a slight change from last year's seemingly barren receiving cupboard, which brings us to...
Thompson made headlines this offseason when Urban Meyer lashed out at Orlando Sentinel reporter Jeremy Fowler for taking a Thompson quote out of context and making it appear as if the redshirt junior "dissed" Tim Tebow as a non-traditional quarterback. In all fairness to Thompson, Tebow wasn't a traditional quarterback, a big reason why Tebow was so special in the collegiate game.
There was the perception last season that Tebow did not look Thompson's way enough last year, preferring to lock on to his roommate, Riley Cooper, and whether or not that is true, Thompson will have ample opportunity to prove himself this season, as he is expected to be the top wideout among a very talented but young receiving corps.
The team will now have redshirt freshman Andre Debose (missed all of last season with a hamstring injury and was/is expected to be the "next Percy Harvin"), redshirt freshman Stephen Alli (the mammoth freak of a wideout who stands at 6-foot-5), and a nice selection of freshman options in Solomon Patton, Robert Clark and Chris Dunkley for Brantley to choose from.
With all of those targets, Thompson should get a chance to shine this season and I believe the Brantley-Thompson connection could cause opposing defensive coordinators fits, especially since there will be so many other threats to quell, including the next guy on this list...
Perhaps the biggest difference between last year's Gators and the national champions of a season prior was the absence of a player who could absolutely take over a game in the manner that Percy Harvin did on many occasions during his time as a Gator. Although Andre Debose could eventually take over that title, next season is Chris Rainey's time to shine.
Rainey will be predominantly lining up in the slot position next season for the Gators, a role that suits his speed and elusiveness perfectly. The Gators experimented with his new role against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl and came away with very positive results -- 4 rushes for 27 yards and a touchdown, 4 receptions for 71 yards.
With a full offseason to prepare for taking on the all-important slot position, expect Rainey to absolutely blossom this season for the Gators. As mentioned previously, there should be countless options in the offensive scheme, which will make it hard for opposing defenses to key on Rainey, giving him the room he needs to operate and make things happen in space -- trust me, he doesn't need much.
There is a very good chance that Rainey will develop into the prime weapon in the 2010 Florida offense, and although it is hard for anyone to replicate what Harvin brought to the table, Rainey will certainly make the Gators forget there was ever a void at the position last year.
Along with that void, Rainey is also expected to replace one of the most dynamic returners in the nation the past four seasons in Brandon James, who graduated. James was a natural at the return position, causing most of Florida's opponents (I'm looking at you, Tennessee) fits every time they had to kick or punt the ball. While the Vols, and others, will be glad to be rid of James, they will be feeling that incredibly nauseating feeling pretty soon if they don't take the same approach in kicking the ball away from Rainey when he lines up to field the kick.
Fair or not, when you replace what many consider one of the greatest college players of all-time (yes, that would be Tim Tebow), you are under an enormous amount of pressure.
Gators' fans will get to taste more of a pro-style offense this year with Brantley taking the snaps, as he figures to spread the ball around to the aforementioned wealth of options.
It doesn't take a genius to see that Brantley (prototypical pro-style gunslinger) + a value-meal-length list of receiving options = potential video-game like statistics.
While Tebow was a truly special player in every sense of the word, particularly the sense that he is one of those once-in-a-generation type players that is often imitated but never duplicated, Brantley will become a great player in his time at Florida. I would say it is a matter of time until that happens, but with the experience sitting behind Tebow and the in-game reps that he garnered last season, I foresee Brantley making Florida fans exceptionally giddy at the idea that the only difference between Brantley and Tebow is the style of offense -- there is a very good chance the numbers will be even better this time around.
The only downside is that many of his options are very young, but as a first-time starter, Brantley may make his share of mistakes as well. This is an offense that will develop rapidly and contend for the SEC Championship this season, with the potential to be the favorites out of the gate in 2011.
I expect Brantley to be the prime X-Factor, the premier catalyst for that goal to come to fruition.
Tune in tomorrow for a look at my top five X-Factors on the other side of the ball next year for Florida, including this guy (Will Hill).
To see part two (the defensive X-Factors for Florida): http://bleacherreport.com/articles/396569-top-five-defensive-x-factors-for-florida-gators-heading-into-2010