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Florida Gators Football: 5 Players Who Surprised Us, 5 Who Need to Step Up

Nick de la TorreCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2011

Florida Gators Football: 5 Players Who Surprised Us, 5 Who Need to Step Up

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    The 2011 Florida Gators came into the season with sky high expectations despite changing coaching staffs and their offensive scheme. 

    What did we learn after watching the Gators flounder their way to a 6-6 season? We learned that despite top-rated recruiting classes, Urban Meyer didn't leave as much talent or depth on the roster that Gator fans initially thought.That this much turnover in a program takes time to work itself out and that Will Muschamp is committed to turning the team around. 

    Let's take a look at some of the players who didn't meet expectation and others who exceeded them.  

Need to Step Up: Xavier Nixon

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    Nixon stepped in as a freshman, seeing action in 10 games and starting five of them. Nixon even earned SEC all-freshmen honors in 2009 and was a Collegefootballnews.com All-American honorable mention. 

    Expectations were high for Nixon after being able to step in as a freshman and earn a starting job. 

    This season saw Nixon battle his weight due to an illness and struggle to protect the quarterback. Nixon was the worst lineman on a unit that allowed 23 sacks this season, which could have been more if not for Jacoby Brissett being so hard to bring down. 

    With D.J. Humphries and a solid offensive line recruiting class, Nixon will need to step up or step aside next year. 

Surprised: De'Ante "Pop" Saunders

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    The freshman from DeLand was a big surprise this season. 

    Rated a 3-star prospect according to Rivals, Saunders enrolled early and earned a starting job at safety. 

    Saunders stepped in right away and excelled in his first year on campus, recording 22 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown. He also saw time on special teams returning punts. 

    De'Ante was given the nickname "Pop" by his father when he was young. His father says he gave him the nickname because his son looked like a grown man when he was born; now he just plays like one. 

Disappointment: Deonte Thompson

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    Deonte Thompson came into Florida with all the hype in the world. Thompson came into Florida from Glades Central High School a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 receiving recruit in the state. 

    Thompson struggled the past three seasons to live up to that billing and his senior season was no different. 

    Thompson finished the season with 19 receptions, 237 yards and no touchdowns. 

    Thompson has struggled with a bad case of the dropsies throughout his career and as a senior has only one more opportunity to have a moment that could leave a better memory of his career. With a game against Ohio State and incumbent head coach Urban Meyer, this is as good a time as any for Thompson to look like the 5-star he was rated coming into Florida. 

Surprised: Marcus Roberson

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    Marcus Roberson was a late commit to Florida, did not enroll early, but still earned the starting job on opening day. In doing so Roberson became only the third freshman to start their first game, joining Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins. 

    Coming from St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Roberson won a state and national championship in his senior year of high school and continued to impress in college. 

    Roberson committed a few penalties early, mainly pass interference, but that has more to do with the style of defense that Will Muschamp plays and less about Roberson. 

    The freshman was asked to play a lot of bump-and-run and man coverage and for the most part filled the shoes of Haden and Jenkins nicely. 

    A neck injury ended his season early, but Roberson will be a player to look for next season. 

Disappointment: Ronald Powell

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    The consensus No. 1 overall recruit from 2010 Powell came into school as one of the most decorated recruits in Florida history. Powell had success as a freshman, appearing in all 13 games earning one start.

    With Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn moving Powell into a hybrid "Buck" position, it was assumed that Powell would enjoy more of the same success this season. Being able to rush with his hand on the ground or standing up would surely cause havoc in opposing backfields. 

    Think again.

    Powell played so poorly early that he was called out by his coaches and told that he needed to do more on the field. He responded, if only for a game, against Tennessee earning his coaches' praise. 

    Other than that game Powell seemed to disappear during games this season. At times you would wonder if he was even on the field because of how little of an impact he had. Powell is one of the biggest disappointments this season for a Gator defense that was forced to carry the offense. 

    Only a sophomore Powell will have at least one more season to live up to his billing coming out of high school. 

Surprised: Jaye Howard

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    Jaye Howard will end up being one of the best Gators to come out of the 2007 recruiting class. A class that included both Pouncey brothers, Aaron Hernandez, Joe Haden, Major Wright and, of course, Cam Newton. All of those players are now enjoying success in the NFL, and after the season Howard had, so should he. 

    Howard, a red-shirt senior, had the best season of his career in Gainesville. Howard finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles while playing on the interior of the defensive line. Howard also recorded 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and scored the first touchdown of his career on fumble return. 

    Howard had the type of senior year that fellow '07 recruits John Brantley and Deonte Thompson wish they could have had. 

Disappointment: John Brantley

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    Oh, John Brantley. 

    The senior has remained loyal to the Gators since he committed to them a year after Tim Tebow, knowing full well that he would have to wait his turn to play at Florida. 

    Brantley's first season was a disaster and the excuse was that Brantley wasn't successful because he was not a good fit for the option that Meyer ran. 

    This season was filled with hope because of Charlie Weis and the pro style attack that would surely bring Brantley back to his high school form where he held the Florida state record for career touchdown passes. 

    Wrong. 

    Sure, Brantley had some sporadic success this season, but an injury sidelined him for a month, and he wasn't the same after. 

    Brantley played possibly the best half of football he had ever played in orange and blue against Alabama. A half that includes a pick six is the best half of your career? The 2007 Gatorade National Player of the Year, Brantley never lived up to the hype and as a senior will have only one more game to play before the sun sets on his career in Gainesville. 

Surprised: Dominique Easley

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    After struggling to find playing time and almost transferring in his freshman season, Easley burst on to the scene in his sophomore campaign. 

    Easley emerged as an emotional leader for the defense and the team as a whole. An interesting character who would carry a Chucky doll into the stadium and was seen dancing on the sidelines and on the field. 

    Easley plays with a fiery passion and an explosive first step. His quickness off of the line helped him account for 37 tackles, 7.5 for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. Easley has found a home in this new defensive scheme and will be a player to build around for the next two season. 

    Unfortunately Easley tore his MCL against Florida State and had surgery that will keep him out of the Urban Meyer, I mean Gator, Bowl this season. 

Disappointment: Charlie Weis

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    While he is not a player, Charlie Weis has been the biggest disappointment for the Gators this year. 

    Weis brought in a pro style offense, and granted he didn't have the players he needed to run everything he wanted, but his inability to adapt his offense to the players he had reminded Gator fans of watching Steve Addazio call plays last season. 

    Addazio is not a name you want to be associated with in Gainesville, especially if you are calling plays. 

    Weis leaned on Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps to coast through an easy September schedule and promised to throw the kitchen sink at Alabama. Florida connected on a long touchdown to Andre Debose to start the game, but wouldn't score another touchdown the rest of the game. 

    To describe Florida's offense as anything other than anemic would be wrong. 

    To put it into perspective how bad the offense was this season let's take Weis' salary for 2010. Weis is set to make $765,000 this season, not including a $100,000 signing bonus. If you divide his salary, $865,000 by the touchdowns Florida scored this year, 29, than Charlie Weis was paid roughly $29,827 for every touchdown Florida score. 

    If you don't want to think about the money than compare the 29 touchdowns to the 38 scored by Montee Ball. Ball, a junior Heisman hopeful, outscored the entire Gator offense by nine touchdowns. 

    Weis and Muschamp will need to turn things around quickly, or they will find out how little patience Gator Nation has for losing coaches. If they don't want to wait and find out, they can call Ron Zook, who went 8-4 in each of his first two seasons at Florida not 6-6. 

Surprised: Chris Rainey

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    Chris Rainey is the hands-down offensive MVP and quite possibly the team MVP for 2011. 

    Rainey ran the ball 155 times for 790 yards and two touchdowns. He also led the team in receiving with 28 receptions for 350 yards and two touchdowns. 

    Rainey accounted for 28 percent of the Gators offensive production this season, his best season in Gainesville. 

    Rainey will be remembered fondly among Gator fans who will overlook his run-in with the Gainesville PD and remember him as an exciting player who provided some memorable plays, memorable quotes and an infectious smile. 

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