GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jim McElwain’s quest to revitalize Florida’s now-slumping program begins and ends with repairing a middling offense.
No offensive position is immune to renovation in Gainesville, and a lot of what happens going forward will depend on who can step up and create some excitement with the ball. Florida hasn’t had enough of that over the last five years, but McElwain and his staff believe they might have found at least one answer to this lingering problem in pint-sized form.
That answer is 5-foot-9, 181-pound wide receiver Brandon Powell, who moved from running back when McElwain and Florida’s new staff arrived a few months ago. After a freshman season that brought flashes but never enough consistent attention, Powell is out to really make a name for himself as he attempts to restore some respect to Florida’s receiving corps.
“The whole spring [the new coaches] were trying to figure out who their playmakers were, and I guess I was making plays so they started to put me in the rotation a lot more and I started picking things up a lot more,” said Powell, who registered 217 total yards of offense last season at both running back and receiver.
Powell, who is lining up in the slot, outside and even in the backfield, is no stranger to making changes for the greater good of the team. Primarily a running back at Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, Powell saw time at receiver and corner and returned kicks. Last season, Powell made somewhat of a transition to receiver late in the year.
Receiver film from McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s pasts at Alabama thrilled Powell, and Rashard Higgins' 1,700-yard breakout season at Colorado State last season had Powell anxious to play in a more wide-open, pass-friendly offense.
But even getting to this point was an ordeal for Powell.
Powell was committed to Miami for all of his senior high school season after a nose blow of a Tennessee commitment the previous summer. Powell was all set to enroll on a Wednesday in early January -- bags packed and ready for class -- but a Miami coach called to inform him the school had to push his signing/enrolling date back because of a paperwork issue that Powell said none of the other early enrollees had. Powell believes the snag occurred because the coaches were waiting to see where current Georgia running back Sony Michel was going to sign.
No longer feeling like a priority, Powell decommitted.
“I was like, I’m not going to Miami,” he said.
Powell considered reconnecting with Tennessee, but a random call from former Florida coach Will Muschamp changed everything. Almost immediately, Powell had an offer from Florida, a school he hadn’t visited or been in contact with since his sophomore year of high school, and within hours he was committed to the Gators. His previous relationship with former Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper during his recruitment by Duke coupled with his father and coach’s insistence on taking an opportunity in the SEC in his home state swayed Powell.
Because Powell was an early enrollee, Florida had to rush to get his paperwork together and get it to him before the end of the day, which happened to be the final day for early entrants to enroll at Florida.
Less than 24 hours later, Powell was sitting in a UF classroom with only a few pairs of clothes and a toothbrush to carry to his new dorm.
Fast forward to now, and Powell’s gut reaction could pay off in a big way for the Gators.
“He’s a natural route runner and he’s got some initial in-and-out-of-break quickness,” McElwain said of Powell. “He gives you that ability to be your jet-sweep guy. You can get into empty, bring him back and still hand him the ball. You can create through motions and shifts and get him matched up on the inside.
“You can’t just say, ‘There he is. Let’s take him out of the game now.’ Brandon has done a great job of understanding that part of it.”
Powell’s emergence has come at a price, however. Last week, Powell re-aggravated a foot injury that has lingered since high school. Powell said he unknowingly played his entire senior season with a tiny fracture in his foot, thinking it was only soreness. Florida’s medical staff X-rayed his foot and found the fracture last year. Surgery was performed and screws were put in. Powell’s recent flare-up, though not thought to be serious, has sidelined him for the rest of spring, leaving him to take only frustrating mental notes until fall.
“It’s hard for me right to watch and learn what to do,” Powell said.
Any talk of Powell’s early work comes with adjectives like “smooth,” “fast” and “elusive.” His size doesn’t hinder him, he says. In fact, it’s an advantage in his eyes because his small figure and quick at-the-line speed have frustrated defensive backs unable to wrangle him early in his breaks.
Line him up in the slot and Powell is quick to smirk at the sight of a linebacker or safety lining up opposite him.
“I don’t think any of them can guard me,” Powell said with a smile.
The soft-spoken yet incredibly confident Powell has learned to be more physical, especially with his hands at the line of scrimmage. He’s gained four pounds but wants to pack on four more before the season. He has a new look, shredding his signature dreadlocks and changing his number to 4.
Despite an annoying injury, Powell is reinventing himself this spring. The hard-nosed jitterbug wants to be the spark in an offense looking for a pulse.
“The first two weeks of [spring] practice," he said, "I showed the coaches that once I catch the ball I can make something happen."
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The IMG 7v7 Southeast Regional Tournament is typically one of the best 7-on-7 events in the country each year. With elite talent on almost every team in attendance, this year was no different. With all the talent on hand there were several trends that stood out. Here’s a closer look at the top five trends from the weekend event.
On Friday, the first-year Gators coach wasn't shy when asked about some of the depth issues facing his team this spring, especially those on the offensive side of the ball.
“You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt,” McElwain told reporters. “And right now, quite honestly, the hand we’re dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas.”
The main area of concern is on the offensive line, where Florida has just eight scholarship players and seven healthy enough to practice this spring, but it doesn’t stop there. Running back and linebacker also are dangerously thin heading into McElwain’s first season.
You can read more about McElwain’s comments and his team’s depth issues at GatorBait.net.
We haven't exactly come to the end of spring football for the SEC -- and a few schools have barely even touched their pads -- but we've already seen and heard some interesting things coming out of many spring camps.
Plenty of questions remain at key positions, and there have been a few surprises here and there. As we prepare for the final couple of weeks of spring ball in the SEC, here are five intriguing developments we've seen so far:
Not much separation in QB races
A handful of quarterback contests got underway this spring, but we don't have many answers in terms of leaders at this point. Vanderbilt ended the spring by watching its four-man race drop to three after Patton Robinette decided to end his playing career, citing health concerns and a desire to go to medical school. Jake Coker is improving at Alabama, but he hasn't exactly distanced himself from the pack. Will Grier and Treon Harris are neck-and-neck at Florida, while Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings continue to flip-flop for the top position at LSU. Brice Ramsey looked like the leader on paper at Georgia, but Jacob Park is turning heads with his arm strength and athleticism. Connor Mitch got off to a fast start at South Carolina this spring, but still has a long way to go. Chad Kelly may have arrived at Ole Miss this spring as the favorite to take the starting job, but coach Hugh Freeze has made it clear that the three-man competition will bleed into the fall. It sounds like most of these are headed for Round 2 after the summer.
Arkansas' offensive line shake-up
Last season, the Razorbacks' front five dominated the SEC's rushing defenses, with their runners averaging 218 yards per game. They also allowed the fewest sacks in the conference (14). So it's safe to say coach Bret Bielema got the improvement wanted from his offensive line last year. But there's always room to tweak things in this league and that's exactly what Bielema has done. With starting right tackle Brey Cook gone, the staff moved Dan Skipper from left tackle, where he started 13 games last year, to right tackle. Denver Kirkland, viewed as the team's most talented lineman, moved from right guard to left tackle. Frank Ragnow, who saw time at center in nine games last year, moved to right guard. From all indications, Bielema has found the exact combination he wants up front.
Austin Golson's new position
When Auburn secured Golson's services from Ole Miss, it appeared the Tigers were going to get a valuable guard who could even play some tackle if needed. But this spring, Golson has been working out at center for Auburn. That doesn't sound like too much of a big deal until you consider that Golson, a top-notch high school prospect at one time, is trying to replace All-American Reese Dismukes, one of the most successful centers in the history of the school. Golson hasn't played center before and he's been splitting reps with Xavier Dampeer, who played center in high school and junior college and saw time at the position in five games last season.
D.J. Chark's impressive spring
It's not like LSU needs more speed, but that's what the Tigers appear to be getting in Chark, a sophomore wide receiver. While he didn't record any stats at receiver last year, Chark has been turning plenty of heads this spring. The initial focus this spring fell on fellow receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre, but Chark has been stealing the spotlight of late, registering at least one touchdown catch in every scrimmage thus far. Coach Les Miles said Chark caught three passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's scrimmage. The emergence of Chark is big for a passing game looking for some sort of consistency this year, and the two quarterbacks vying for the starting spot have to be excited about Chark's progress.
Brandon Powell's emergence at Florida
The Gators had plenty of questions concerning its offense coming into this spring. Finding a quarterback topped the list of crucial needs, but getting some consistency at receiver was also a high priority. Most thought Demarcus Robinson, who led Florida in catches (53), receiving yards (810) and receiving touchdowns (seven) would reclaim his spot as Florida's top playmaker. However, this spring has given Powell new life. The former running back has moved to receiver, and the word out of Gainesville is that he's been the team's most dynamic playmaker. Powell played both running back and receiver in 11 games last year, registering 217 yards of offense. Before a foot flare-up sidelined him last week, the 5-foot-9, 181-pound Powell was lighting up Florida's practices. Powell, not Robinson, had been the Gators' most explosive and most consistent offensive threat this spring. Florida's offense still lags behind its defense, so it's critical to get Powell back on the field.
NEW ORLEANS -- At 6-foot-7½ and 314 pounds, Alabama defensive tackle commitment Raekwon Davis towered over the competition at Saturday's Opening Regional at Joe Brown Park in New Orleans. He also loomed large over his peers with his play.
Davis, who is from Meridian (Mississippi) High School and ranks as the nation's No. 243 player, earned an invitation to The Opening finals, which will be held from July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Davis took a little while to get going during drills, but by the time the one-on-ones arrived, he performed admirably, winning repetitions at defensive tackle, defensive end and even offensive tackle.
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Geoff Collins isn't a "swag stealer," he says. When he left Mississippi State to become Florida's defensive coordinator, he left the so-called Psycho Defense behind. That was their brand, he said, and in Gainesville under new head coach Jim McElwain, he's out to create a new identity with the help of creatures that may or may not live in a black lagoon.
One such example: The Cryptid, an award Collins and his staff hand out from time to time.
If there's one thing Florida fans need to know about Collins, who turns 44 in a few weeks, it's that he's not afraid to think outside the box. In order to connect with a younger generation, he hands out daily awards following each practice such as the "Apex Predator Award" for the most enthusiastic player or the "Swamp Beast Award" for the player who showed relentless effort. Unlike a lot of buttoned-up programs, he wants players to "play wild and fly around like crazy." He even encourages celebrating after big plays -- as long as it's not a me-first display.
At Mississippi State, that confident, aggressive attitude translated to the football field last season, when the Bulldogs finished second in the SEC in sacks (37) and tied for third in interceptions (13). Playing a bend-but-don't-break style, they finished third in the conference in third-down percentage (35.0) and red-zone touchdown efficiency (43.2 percent).
During Collins' first conversation with the entire Florida defense, he said players already knew of his reputation.
"They knew I had been a part of the great run that we had at Mississippi State, probably the best season in school history, a top-10 scoring defense and all those other things," he said. "So they knew what we’d done on defense at places I’d been before, and one of the big things I stressed to them was that even though they had played really good defense in the past, there was room for improvement.
"We talked about that 10 percent and working together to find that 10 percent improvement, whether it be tackling, situational football, improvements in the red-zone defense, improvements in third-down defense, points after turnovers, things that I thought we’d done really well at Mississippi State and bringing that and adding to how well they’d played in years past."
Eyeing a roster he says is deeper than any he's ever coached, Collins isn't out to make wholesale changes to the defensive schemes developed by former coach Will Muschamp. It's a lesson he learned years earlier when he left Georgia Tech to become defensive coordinator at his alma mater, Western Carolina.
Returning to his old stomping grounds a bit overzealous back in 2002, he attempted to install an entirely new defense without once looking at the previous defense or the terminology players had become accustomed to. Like a lot of young coaches, he had to come to grips with that "four- and three-deep is four- and three-deep regardless of where you go." Only the buzzwords are different.
So rather than dumping a new playbook on everyone's locker at Florida, he took the studying upon himself.
"I spent a lot of time during December and January learning what they called everything," he said. "I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s easier for one person to learn a lot of words than for 33 18-to-22-year-olds to learn a lot of new words. I try to put the hard stuff on me."
Outside of acclimating himself to a new environment, though, there's not a lot of hard stuff Collins has had to encounter with a solid system and a solid roster already in place. He inherited one of the most promising secondaries in the country, whether it's starters Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole or a reserve such as redshirt freshman J.C. Jackson, whom Collins says is "one of the most athletic kids I've ever been fortunate to be around." And where there's maybe not a lot of depth, Collins said there's certainly talent, whether it's Daniel McMillian and Alex Anzalone at linebacker or Alex McAlister on the defensive line.
It's a good situation all the way around, Collins says.
"I'm excited. We've got a lot of really good players. They're hungry. They're excited. They're competitive kids. Everything that Coach McElwain and the rest of the staff they've thrown at them, they're run with."
On defense, the front seven needs a good secondary just like the secondary needs a good front seven. It’s a team effort. Earlier today, we broke down the SEC’s best front-seven defenders, and there were some good ones. But now it’s time to take a look at the back end.
Whether it’s pulling down interceptions, breaking up passes or wreaking havoc in the backfield, this group can do it all. One look at this list and SEC quarterbacks should be concerned heading into the 2015 season. Good luck trying to throw against some of these guys.
So without further ado, here are the league’s top defensive backs, listed in alphabetical order:
Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss, Jr.: With Cody Prewitt moving on, it might have made sense to move Conner back to a more natural safety role, but the coaches love him at the nickelback or “Husky” position, where he was named second-team All-SEC by the AP last year. Conner is more physical than most defensive backs, which makes him great in run support. He led the Rebels last year with nine tackles for loss. But he still has the ability to cover, too. Most forget that on his first college play, he came down with an interception.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Florida, Jr.: There’s not a better cornerback in the SEC and there might not be a better one in the country. Hargreaves has finished among the conference leaders in passes broken up the last two seasons, and that’s with most quarterbacks opting not to throw in his direction. The All-SEC first-team selection will likely get more of that same treatment this fall, but it won’t be easy with Jalen Tabor emerging at the other cornerback spot and Brian Poole (see below) manning the nickelback position.
Jonathan Jones, CB, Auburn, Jr.: Auburn’s secondary took a lot of heat for its awful play late last season and rightfully so, but without Jones, it could’ve been much worse. The junior finished with 12 pass break-ups, one shy of the SEC lead, and was second in the conference with six interceptions. Given the lack of a pass rush, those numbers are remarkable. This season, it should be easier for Jones with Will Muschamp as the new defensive coordinator and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson returning from injury.
Jalen Mills, S, LSU, Sr.: It shouldn’t come as a shock that LSU has arguably the league’s best safety, but it was a mild surprise when Mills opted to return for his senior year. Sure, 2014 was a down year for Mills, who finished with just one interception and no sacks, but the talent was still there. Some have already tabbed him as a first-round pick in 2016. For now, the former cornerback-turned-safety will be asked to take on a bigger role in the LSU secondary with the departures of Jalen Collins and Ronald Martin.
Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee, Jr.: Sutton emerged on the scene as a freshman, doing a little bit of everything for the Volunteers’ defense, and he followed that up with a sensational sophomore campaign. The former three-star recruit started all 13 games, finished tied for the SEC lead with 13 pass break-ups and returned a punt for a touchdown in the victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt. If Sutton continues on the path he’s on now, it won’t be long before he’s considered one of the best defensive backs in college football.
Five more to watch
Here are five things to watch headed into the weekend.
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Before the Head Ball Coach moniker had taken hold and before his Hall of Fame coaching career had taken flight, Steve Spurrier once left a $30,000 raise sitting on the table.
That was more than 25 years ago when he was at Duke, where Spurrier was making around $75,000 in base salary when he was hired as head coach in 1987.
At the time, Spurrier's head-coaching counterpart at North Carolina was Mack Brown, who was making substantially more money than Spurrier was. So after the Blue Devils won seven games in 1988, and Spurrier won the first of two straight ACC Coach of the Year awards, he asked then-Duke athletic director Tom Butters if a bump might be in order. Butters knew what a commodity he had in Spurrier and offered to give him another $30,000, but only if Spurrier would agree to stay at Duke for an extended period of time.
"I never signed it and ended up going to Florida the next year," recalled Spurrier, whose 1989 Duke team won the ACC championship. "That was a lot of money in those days, too."
Fast-forward to the present, and Spurrier could pocket an extra $100,000 as South Carolina's coach for simply making the Capital One Bowl or even the Outback Bowl. A 10-win season would mean $100,000, and that total goes up to $200,000 for an 11-win season and $300,000 for a 12-win season.
Will Be Making My College Choice April 3rd! @ Ocean Lakes High School 6pm... Anyone Can Come, No Charge Decision, Decisions, & Decisions.=— Levonta Taylor (@iamlevonta) March 24, 2015
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It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!
- Florida's offense isn't exactly moving at the most appropriate speed this spring, but while that side of the ball continues to fall behind the defense, Geoff Collins' group is just out there fired up and having fun.
- At South Carolina, there's no more delegating ball plays by the Head Ball Coach.
- Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell says he "feels great" nearly five months after his gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rebels' home loss to Auburn.
- Former Alabama tight end Brian Vogler hopes to see more pass-catching opportunities for tight end O.J. Howard with the Crimson Tide this season.
- New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn't plan to change the Bulldogs' offensive philosophy this year, but he is changing the terminology.
- Fast riser Dontavius Russell is in position to start on Auburn's defensive line this season.
- LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings says he feels his confidence and ability growing this spring.
- Texas A&M returned to practice on Tuesday. Here are some notes and here's a little of what coach Kevin Sumlin had to say about the day.
- Former coaches believe in new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades.
- Head coach Butch Jones said the host of injuries is the biggest setback for Tennessee's football team this spring.
Tweet of the day
— Christina Long (@christinalong99) March 24, 2015
McElwain discusses new Florida football
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