NCF Nation: Jaye Howard

Big days for Cox, Ingram at NFL combine

February, 27, 2012
Two of the best and most athletic defensive linemen in the SEC last season were Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox and South Carolina's Melvin Ingram.

Therefore, seeing some of their impressive workout numbers Monday at the NFL combine shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody.

Cox, who gave up his senior season to turn pro, was on display for the first time for the scouts, and at 6-4 and 298 pounds, ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash, which was one of the fastest times at the combine for an interior defensive lineman. Cox also showed impressive strength by doing 30 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.

The 6-1, 264-pound Ingram also ran a 4.79 in the 40-yard dash and did 28 repetitions on the bench press. Ingram played defensive end at South Carolina, but also slid inside to tackle some during his career. Some NFL scouts think Ingram could be an outside linebacker in a 3-4. He actually started his career at South Carolina as a linebacker.

Both Cox and Ingram were projected as first-round picks even before the NFL combine.

Somebody else who helped himself Monday was Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard, who turned in a 4.82 in the 40.

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers didn't test as well as some had expected. He ran a 5.36 in the 40 and only did 19 repetitions on the bench.
Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”

Gators' offense gets worse in loss

November, 27, 2011
Things haven't been good in the Swamp for most of the year, and it looked about as bad as it could Saturday night.

For all the talk about how a win over Florida State would help re-energize this struggling Florida team, the Gators went backward against their archrivals, losing 21-7 in a game in which it seemed that neither offense got off of the bus.

In the winning effort, Florida State accumulated just 95 total yards of offense, while Florida finished with 184 yards and four turnovers.

It was an awful senior night for quarterback John Brantley, who has had a rough Florida career. He threw three interceptions and 104 yards before being knocked out of the game in the second quarter.

Brantley's last night in the Swamp couldn't have gone even worse as each one of his interceptions was the result of a bad throw.

But the rest of the offense didn't do much to help out Brantley. Chris Rainey and Hunter Joyer gained 72 total rushing yards, but the Gators netted just 54 yards on 33 carries behind an offensive line that was overpowered for most of the night by the Seminoles.

What must be extremely disheartening for this team is that the defense played arguably its best game of the season and had nothing to show for it. If not for a fumble forced late and a recovery by Jaye Howard deep in Florida State territory, Florida might have been shut out for the first time since the 1980s.

Florida felt the injury bug throughout the night, but Florida's performance in the home finale against the Seminoles was abysmal. Coach Will Muschamp said as much as he referred to his team as "soft" during his postgame news conference and vowed that Florida would get back to being mentally and physically tough in the future.

It all starts with bowl preparation. This is the first step to the second year under Muschamp. This is the time in which he will find out who is really invested and who isn't. This is a major time in the first-year coach's life at Florida, as he looks for the right players to turn the corner with.

Kicking it with Jaye Howard

November, 25, 2011
Florida senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard wouldn’t change much about his time in Gainesville.

While his final year hasn’t been great, considering the Gators’ 6-5 record heading into Saturday’s game with Florida State, he says he’s grown more as a person and a player in this one year than any of the years prior.

[+] EnlargeJaye Howard
Kim Klement/US PresswireGators defensive tackle Jaye Howard, 6, is third on the team with 55 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and three sacks.
Howard has been one of Florida’s most consistent defensive linemen and is third on the team with 55 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and three sacks. He was also considered to be a top defensive tackle draft prospect for next year’s NFL draft before the season. spoke to Howard to discuss his final year, the Gators' struggles and his career at Florida.

Edward Aschoff: How many emotions will be running through you this weekend in the Swamp with this being your last game and it coming against a rival like Florida State?

Jaye Howard: It’s huge. At this point, I can say that I don’t like them. But it really hasn’t hit me. Honestly, it won’t hit me until I hear my name called on senior day. It’s going to be very emotional, man. I just want to get a win for this program and for my senior class.

How important has this game been for you every year since you’ve been at Florida?

Very important. It’s always been a big one for me personally. Now, I have to go out there and play well in order to solidify myself for the next level.

Speaking of solidifying yourself for the next level, earlier in the season you said you were playing the best football of your career. Now that the season is almost over, where do you think you are?

This has been the best year of me being a Gator. The coaches have taught me a lot. Right now, I feel like when I’m out on the field I can play with anyone.

Stats are something that a lot of people harp on, but what do you think is the most impressive part of your game?

I still have a motor. I play hard every play that I’m out there. I play hard and I cause havoc. I haven’t put up big numbers as far as having sacks, or TFLs, but I’ve been causing havoc for offenses.

You said you’ve learned so much this year. What specifically have you learned from your new coaches?

The technique, man. The technique has been awesome to learn. Both coach Dan Quinn (defensive coordinator) and Bryant Young (defensive line coach) have taught me exactly what it takes to be effective.

Considering what this season has been like, how tough has this year been for you as a senior?

It’s been tough, but I try not to think about that. I try to go out there and win every week. Things haven’t gone as planned, but I know it’s a rebuilding year and these guys are going to be great for years to come.

Even with the struggles, do you still feel like this is one of the closest teams you’ve been on during your time at Florida?

Yeah, no question. When teams go through tough times, teams get divided, and we haven’t been divided. We’ve stuck together and we’ve been through the fire. My teammates have the utmost respect from me. A lot of teams would have already broken down.

Going back to your last game in the Swamp, what were some of your favorite memories there?

My first memory was my freshman year, coming out of the tunnel; I got trampled coming out. I can’t even remember who trampled me, it happened so fast, but I managed to get up before anyone saw me fall. My favorite memory is probably the 2009 Tennessee game. I made a bet with (former defensive end) Carlos Dunlap that if I made a big play I’d do the Daunte Culpepper (celebration), the “Roll on.” I made a big play against Tennessee and “rolled” for about 15 yards and got a penalty and got pulled out of the game.

Was it worth it?


So how would you sum up your career at Florida? You started off as a defensive end, now you’re a defensive tackle. You have some good times and down ones. It sounds like it’s been a wild ride.

Yeah, it has been. I came in as a defensive end, undersized, and blossomed and turned into a defensive tackle. It’s been good, man. I have no regrets about coming to the University of Florida and everything works out for the best.

Momentum on the line in Gainesville

November, 23, 2011
Quietly, Florida and Florida State will get together inside the Swamp Saturday.

For a rivalry that gained national notoriety during the 1990s and grabbed headlines with the Gators’ tremendous runs under former coach Urban Meyer, there hasn’t been much -- if any -- excitement around this game.

Outside of northern Florida, you aren’t likely to hear much talk about two unranked teams that have a combined 13-9 record.

This once proud rivalry is taking a back seat to the rest of the college football rivalries this weekend.

And it really isn’t a surprise considering Florida has its first losing record against conference opponents since 1986 and the Seminoles went from national title contenders to not making it to the ACC championship game.

Still, those on Florida’s side insist that this game means a lot to the season and the program.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/US PresswireWill Muschamp's Gators are fired up to face Florida State on Saturday.
Like the rivalry, Florida was once in the national spotlight, but is now treading water in an average SEC East. But that mess doesn’t matter Saturday. Florida can add a much-needed positive with a win over its archrival, and the same can be said for Florida State.

“It’s real big,” senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard said.

“It’s a battle of respect. The whole year we can talk about how we beat Florida State. We’re just playing for pride and it’s a big win for our program.”

It’s big for the program because in a season of misery, it would provide some hope for the future. Five losses will sting, but seeing a win against Florida State could cure everything heading into the offseason. It could provide a spark and momentum for this team heading into Will Muschamp's second year.

Florida’s coach, and even the players, have preached that they entertain each opponent as a nameless, faceless adversary. Things are different in rivalry games. They’re different to the fans and they should be different to those inside the football program.

Muschamp, who hasn’t had the same public excitement toward rivalry games like Meyer did at Florida, has just one win over Florida’s major rivals. That came in Week 3 when Florida beat Tennessee 33-23.

Since then, Florida has won just two more SEC games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

“This is a huge game,” Muschamp said. “There’s no question about that.”

At the beginning of the week, Muschamp described a win over Florida State as a “shot in the arm” for the team. It would boost Florida as it heads into bowl preparation and it would ensure that Muschamp’s first season wouldn’t end with a losing record.

Maybe it even gives Florida some recruiting momentum. While Muschamp insists that the outcomes of games don’t immediately have an impact on recruits, seeing a “W” at the end of the schedule is always a plus for recruits.

More importantly, the psyche of Florida’s players will be altered by Saturday's outcome. The entire state watches this game.

A lot of the players know people from both sidelines and major bragging rights are on the line. This might not have the national flavor that it once did, but it still means a lot to the players who must go home and face friends and family wearing the opposite color combination.

“There’s nothing like beating Florida State,” Howard said. “We can brag about it for a whole year.”

And Muschamp can brag about it too. He won’t publicly, but when he gets home and finds that time to relax, he can sit back and see that he’s 1-0 in this rivalry. Maybe he’ll even joke with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who happens to be a good friend and owns a beach house with him, about it.

For now, Muschamp won’t worry about how he’ll react to a win or loss. He’s more concerned about sending his players out the right way.

“I don’t worry about me. I worry about the players and our program,” he said. “That’s about all I worry about. I’ll be fine.”

He’ll be even better with a win Saturday.
Saturday is very important to Florida coach Will Muschamp.

And, according to him, it has nothing to do with him facing his alma mater in a heated rivalry game.

Muschamp has tried to distance himself from the game and make it all about his team, but when the head coach at Florida once lined up for hated rival Georgia, there is no avoiding the subject.

Plus, Muschamp has such an interesting story behind it.

Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier actually stood him up when he and his family drove down to Gainesville, where Muschamp spent some of the early years of his life, for a tryout. As Muschamp tells it, Spurrier played golf instead.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/US PresswireWill Muschamp's Gators come into Saturday's game against Georgia on a three-game losing streak.
So, Muschamp went on to star as a safety at Georgia in the early 1990s before going down the coaching path.

But Muschamp doesn’t want to hear about where he came from. He’s worried about getting his team on track after a three-game losing streak in which the Gators have been outscored 96-27.

“Wherever I played has no bearing on this game at all,” Muschamp said. “Every game is important. They’re all important games. It’s a SEC East opponent, it’s a big rival, it’s important to the University of Florida, so it’s important to me.

“This profession is different than a lot of professions. You do your job for the school that you’re working for. It’s my job to do a great job for the University of Florida, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t mean disrespect to anybody, but I’m loyal to people, not places.”

Florida is where he is and Georgia is his opponent, and this is huge one in Jacksonville, Fla. Intensity should be flowing when those team buses go over the Hart Bridge to greet one of college football's best venues. A Florida loss would eliminate the Gators in the East race. A loss for the Bulldogs would make it 19 losses to Florida in the last 22 tries and would destroy Georgia’s momentum from its five-game winning streak.

Muschamp insists he’s treating Georgia like any old opponent, but behind closed practice doors, that might not be the case.

“He’s the same ever week, but this week you could tell that he’s more fired up,” Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “He’s always yelling and screaming at us, but it’s 10 times more now.”

That could be because he’s anxious to make good on his promise earlier in the year that he would beat Georgia. It could also be because this game will make or break Florida’s season.

“We need a win for our program right now,” Howard said.

The significance of this game was felt during last week’s bye, when Howard said the Gators didn’t rest much. Sure, there were days off, but practice was fierce and Howard said it was the most physical bye week he’s ever had.

“It reminded me of two-a-days out there,” he said.

Georgia might not be fighting for its season Saturday, but this game means an awful lot to the Bulldogs as well. It means pressing forward in the East and winning the border war. Florida might be stumbling in, while Georgia is hot, but Bulldogs quarterback and Tampa native Aaron Murray said records mean nothing now.

“It’s Georgia-Florida. It doesn’t matter what the records are every year,” Murray said. “It doesn’t matter what team has a losing record and what team has a winning record, it’s going to be guys flying around trying to kill each other. It’s a heated rivalry.”

Winning would feel that much sweeter against Florida, but it would also keep Georgia on pace with South Carolina in the East. Georgia is tied at the top, but the Gamecocks own the tiebreaker in the head-to-head matchup.

"Our focus is the Eastern Division,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “That's all we really have been thinking about, talking about and aspiring to win. We know this game could set us back, but it wouldn't bury us. With the way things are happening in our league it doesn't count us out. We know if we win it, it doesn't count us in.”

It would make things a lot easier going forward, though.

As for Florida, winning out is the only option if the Gators want to get back to Atlanta. Vanderbilt and South Carolina still loom, but the first order of business is beating Georgia. Without that, the season is sunk.
Trent RichardsonSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesAlabama rolled behind Trent Richardson as the Crimson Tide topped No. 12 Florida.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The air had long since come out of Florida’s defense Saturday night, and the guy most responsible for the damage was wearing an approving smile.

Alabama junior running back Trent Richardson took turns bludgeoning the Gators and slicing and dicing them on his way to a career-high 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s 38-10 romp in the Swamp.

Afterward, he could not quit talking about the guys who paved the way to 226 rushing yards for the Crimson Tide against a Gators’ defense that was allowing just 56.5 yards per game on the ground coming into the game.

“I felt like I was running behind a legendary offensive line. They’re living legends right now,” Richardson gushed.

If they keep this up, it’s going to be hard to argue that assessment, at least in the realm of Alabama football.

But Richardson is not too shabby himself.

He runs the football the way Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar: full-speed, knocking heads along the way and with an artistry that nobody else can exactly duplicate.

He sees creases that seemingly aren’t there, and he has exquisite footwork for a 225-pound guy who can bench-press more than twice his weight.

And if there isn’t much of a hole, he’s the one that delivers the blow.

“He never gets tackled by arm tackles … ever,” Alabama senior center William Vlachos said. “That’s the luxury of having backs like that, and we’ve had them ever since I’ve been here. It makes your job as an offensive lineman a lot easier.”

The final score said plenty Saturday in this battle of unbeatens, but the way the Crimson Tide seized control with its running game after the quick touchdown by the Gators to start the game was vintage old-school Alabama football.

“Our goal is that we want to wear people down,” said Barrett Jones, who’s made the successful transition to left tackle after earning All-SEC honors at right guard last season for the Tide.

“You might be able to hang with us in the first half. But come the third and fourth quarter, we’re going to keep pounding, and that’s what happened tonight.”

The Gators jumped out front 7-0 on the first play from scrimmage when John Brantley hooked up with Andre Debose on a 65-yard touchdown pass.

But Alabama came right back down the field. And even though the Tide only got a field goal on that drive, the message had been sent.

“We set the tempo tonight on offense, and that’s what we needed to do,” said Richardson, who’s rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his past four games and is averaging 158 yards in his last three contests. “The defense fed off of us.”

The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) wound up scoring 35 unanswered points after the Gators took a 10-3 lead.

The way they did it was what was so impressive. They methodically pounded Florida, and while Richardson had been getting 5 yards here and 8 yards there for much of the night, he popped the big one to close the deal. He made a cut behind superb blocking up front and raced 36 yards for a touchdown.

“He’s a great player. It takes more than one person to bring him down,” Florida senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard said.

Even then, it’s not a sure thing.

“He’s an unbelievable football player, and the passion he plays with every time he touches the ball is something that elevates everybody’s game on offense,” Vlachos said. “You want to block for him.

“Our job up front ain’t always fun. But when you see a guy working like that, it makes you want to give it all you’ve got.”

Richardson called it a night by the midway point of the fourth quarter, and by that time, the only question was whether there were more Florida fans in the stadium or more of them spreading out across campus and heading to their cars.

“That’s probably the best feeling as an offensive lineman,” Jones said. “We know we’re running the ball. They know we’re running the ball. Everybody in the stadium knows you’re running the ball, and you still run the ball … and they can’t stop it.”

It’s a scene the Crimson Tide wouldn’t mind repeating more than a few times this season.

“I think we finally created our identity,” Vlachos said. “It’s coming together for us [on offense], but we’ve got to continue to work.”

Never a problem with this group.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Back when Will Muschamp was a young(er) assistant coach, he was giddy about stat sheets.

After every game he’d run off the field and toward the nearest SID for the numbers from the game. He wanted to know what the opposing offense’s rushing numbers were, what its passing numbers were.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackWill Muschamp's Gators are now 3-0 after their first conference win of the season.
He was a little stat happy and figured the better the stats looked, the better his team and his defense was.

Now, with a little bit of age and maturity under his belt, Florida’s head coach doesn’t really pay attention to those sheets of paper. He pays attention to scoreboards and the win-loss columns.

Something says he won’t look too hard at the stat sheet from Saturday’s 33-23 win over Tennessee -- a game that improved Florida and Muschamp to 1-0 in conference play and extended the Gators' dominance over the Vols to seven straight victories.

Through three games, Florida hasn’t been flashy on offense and hasn’t tried to throw a lot of plays and formations out on the field. The offense is methodical and the defense is animalistic. This team will rely on its defense to keep it in ball games, and it will do whatever it needs on offense to get points.

“We’ll line up and run the wishbone if we can win,” Muschamp said. “It’s all about winning to me.

“Do what you gotta do to win the game. You can’t take winning for granted. It’s hard.

“We need to do what we need to do to win games and it’s hard for me to sit there and not take the ball and put in Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey and Trey Burton’s hands to this point.”

Against Tennessee, those three touched the ball 45 times for 338 of Florida’s 347 offensive yards. Two wide receivers and a tight end combined for four touches.

It’s unconventional, but it’s working, and the Gators don’t seem bothered about who touches the ball as long as they’re productive.

“We’re not selfish,” Burton said. “[The media is] not in the locker room, so they have no clue.”

As long as Florida’s defense is playing like it is, the offense might not have to do much. In the Gators’ first two games, they were dominant but vanilla for the most part. Florida had zero interceptions and two sacks to its name, but was allowing 1.5 points and 174 yards per game.

Against Tennessee, Florida was more exotic, faster and much more intimidating. The Gators registered six tackles for loss, including three sacks, snatched two interceptions (but dropped five), had six quarterback hurries, and eight pass breakups. Tennessee had 279 yards of offense (288 passing, -9 rushing).

The pressure came early and often and Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, who was expected to have quite the show against Florida’s young secondary, was rattled for most of the afternoon.

“We went out and made a point,” Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. “They (the media) were talking a lot of crap all week long how this quarterback is invincible, so we had to go out there and show them that he can be taken down.”

He was taken down again, and again.

The Gators were aggressive, sometimes too aggressive as Florida was flagged for five pass interference calls and a late defensive holding call in the secondary. Muschamp was irate over some calls and agreed with others. He also wasn’t overly upset with them, saying he won’t punish someone for being aggressive.

The penalties might have helped Tennessee climb back into the game, but that won’t keep Muschamp’s players from lightening up.

“I don’t want a call, but we’re going to play aggressive,” Muschamp said. “We’re not gonna play soft, I can tell you that.”

There is no question that there are kinks to work out on both sides of the ball for Florida, but the defense will be a major factor in how far the Gators go this year. The Gators looked to stretch the field a couple of times, but outside of Rainey’s 83-yard catch-and-run, the passing game was pretty intermediate.

But maybe that’s the offense and flash will only come in spurts. One this is for sure, the defense has the mindset of carrying this team in 2011.

“We are going to,” Howard said. “There’s no question about it.”

Edward Aschoff interviews Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins.
Things will look a lot different for the Gators this season.

There will be a new coaching staff, which will feature the coordinators alongside the head coach on the ground instead of the booth, and there are a ton of new faces out there.

Monday, Florida released its depth chart for Saturday's opener against Florida Atlantic and there were a few surprises.

The first thing that stands out is that the Gators could line up with two true freshmen starters in the secondary. If that were to happen, it would be first time in school history that two true freshmen started in the secondary for the Gators during the season opener.

Coach Will Muschamp currently has De'Ante Saunders penciled in as the starter at free safety and Marcus Roberson at one of the corner positions. If Saunders starts, he would be the first true freshman to start for the Gators at safety on opening day. Saunders is also listed as the starter at the nickel.

Junior cornerback Jeremy Brown is questionable with a knee injury, so Moses Jenkins or Cody Riggs could start opposite Roberson.

Sophomore Sharrif Floyd is listed as a starting defensive end. Floyd began his career as a defensive tackle, but Muschamp wants to get the best players on the field and Floyd is versatile and strong enough to play outside. Senior William Green is behind him on the depth chart.

Sophomore Dominique Easley is set to start next to Jaye Howard inside.

On offense, Matt Patchan is listed as the starting right tackle. He's dealt with a handful of injuries through the years, but if he's healthy, he could be the Gators' top lineman.

Notre Dame transfer Dan Wenger, who had his Irish career cut short by concussions, came in as a center, but is listed as the starting left guard. Former guard Jonotthan Harrison is the starting center.

Quinton Dunbar is listed as the starting receiver at the X position. Dunbar has been one of the coaches' favorite players to watch this year and the thought is he could be a big-time deep threat this fall.

One other interesting note is that tight end Jordan Reed is also listed as the backup punt returner behind Chris Rainey. Reed isn't the shiftiest player, but he's very athletic and tough to bring down. Still, you'd think Florida would want to get one of its faster, more elusive players in the open space.
Will MuschampKim Klement/US PresswireSince taking over as head coach, Will Muschamp has brought the Gators closer together.
There’s no getting around the divide that emerged in the Florida football program last season.

The Gators brought in a signing class that some of the analysts hailed as the most talented in college football history.

There was enough hype to fill the Swamp, not to mention a sense of entitlement that nearly drained the Swamp.

The mix of some of the new guys and some of the veterans had that oil-and-water feel, dealing a serious blow to the Gators’ chemistry.

What ensued was an utterly forgettable 2010 season by Florida standards, one that saw the Gators go belly-up offensively and lose five football games, including an unheard of three at home.

“I know I never want to go through anything like that again,” Florida sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins said.

When the smoke had cleared, Urban Meyer was no longer the Gators’ coach, stepping aside for good this time to address his health concerns.

And after a pair of national championships and three BCS bowl appearances in a dizzying four-year span, Florida’s program all of sudden looked mortal.

“I think we kind of relaxed, thinking teams were just going to give us the game because we were Florida,” senior running back Jeff Demps said.

The Gators weren’t necessarily in need of a talent makeover.

But an attitude makeover? The more you hear the players talk, the more it sounds like that was Will Muschamp’s most pressing order of business in taking over for Meyer.

“Last year, you could definitely tell that there was an older guy and younger guy thing going on in this football team,” sophomore guard Jon Halapio said. “This year, you don’t see that separation in classes anymore. We’re becoming one.”

The “older guys” agree, and they say Muschamp’s in-your-face approach and the way he pushes everybody has had a galvanizing effect on the team.

“The young guys had their issues, and the old guys had theirs,” Demps said. “That’s behind us now. We need everybody. It’s not a one-man show. In order for us to win, we’ve got to have everybody.

“That’s the only way with Coach Muschamp.”

As much as anything, some of the immaturity issues that plagued the freshmen a year ago have dissipated.

Muschamp also saw to it that the players spent more time with each other off the field this offseason. An old locker room at the stadium was turned into a state-of-the-art players lounge with a pool table, flat-screen television sets, Xbox game systems, computer access and comfy couches.

“You can see the outcome now,” Demps said. “It’s turned around like night and day. Everybody’s so much closer now, and guys are playing for each other.”

Sophomore defensive end/outside linebacker Ronald Powell, the top prize in that freshman class a year ago, concedes that he’s made more of an effort to get to know all of his teammates.

“A lot of times, to be honest, I was the type of guy who stayed to myself,” Powell said. “If a guy didn’t talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to him. Now, it’s like, “I’ve got to step in and be a leader and still be me.’ I’ve tried harder to get to know guys and what they go through, stuff like that.”

Muschamp has been around enough championship teams to know what they look like from a chemistry standpoint.

He said the true test is yet to come.

“I think we’ve made some tremendous strides, but I think we’ll truly test that in practice 17, 18 and 19 of training camp and when we face some adversity during the season,” Muschamp said. “I’ve had a lot of players come to me and say, ‘We’re a lot closer football team that we were at this time a year ago.’ I think that’s great, but actions are louder than words.”

Senior defensive tackle Jay Howard said several players have cashed in on the clean slate provided by Muschamp and the new staff, and it’s made the competition on the practice field that much more intense.

“You’re going out and having to prove yourself every day,” Howard said. “The coaches are going to play the best players. There aren’t going to be any politics involved, and I can tell you that there’s not anybody out here anymore feeling like they deserve to be with the 1’s.

“That’s got to be earned. These coaches have pretty much humbled all of us. You don’t take anything for granted and better work hard every day.”

It’s what Muschamp calls being a “blue-collar football team,” which has been his calling card everywhere he’s been.

“That’s what I am, and I think players are a reflection of their coach,” Muschamp said. “We’ve recruited good enough talent. We’re going to continue to recruit good players, and if we’ll get them to buy into that work ethic and lunch-pale attitude, then we’ll achieve some special things.”
Florida's Jaye Howard has seen the evidence on tape. He's also seen the blank stares on the faces of his coaches.

How could a guy be so dominant on one play, or a series of plays, and then go the rest of the quarter and be non-existent?

It's a question that has hounded Howard for much of his career, and it's a question he plans to put to rest once and for all this season.

"That was one of my biggest drawbacks last year, and I admit that," said Howard, the Gators' 6-3, 303-pound senior defensive tackle. "I'd have sparks where it was like, 'Man, this guy is an All-American.' But then I'd take plays off.

"That's the biggest thing coming back for my senior year, proving to everyone that I can play every down as hard as I can 100 percent."

Howard was slowed by an ankle injury toward the end of last season. He underwent ankle surgery and was kept out of spring practice.

But healthy again and moving well on his surgically repaired right ankle, Howard is committed to establishing himself as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the SEC.

"With the help of my coaches, coach [Dan] Quinn and coach [Bryant] Young, I'm going to get there this year. There's no doubt in my mind," said Howard, who had 10 tackles for loss last season. "They've pushed me probably harder than anyone, every practice and every play. Effort won't be the problem this year."

The Gators could sure use an All-SEC season from Howard. Sophomore tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley also have a world of talent, but the only other scholarship defensive tackle on the roster who's played in a game is junior Omar Hunter.

"It's not about how talented you are. It's about how productive you are," Howard said. "If you take plays off with these coaches, you're not going to be playing."
We take a look at the interior players on the defensive line next. The frightening thing about this area is that there is a lot of young talent that could be just as good as the veterans around the league.

That just goes to show you how good the recruiting is in this league. There are a couple of junior college players who could also make instant impacts on SEC lines in this league.

Here’s a look at some of the big fellas in the middle:

1. Jaye Howard, Florida, Sr.: Howard has never wowed people with his stats, but when he’s playing to his potential, he’s one of the toughest interior linemen to stop in this league. The athletic 300-plus-pounder is already a top NFL draft prospect at tackle. He had just 29 tackles and three sacks in 2010, but would have added to that had he not suffered a nagging ankle injury. He had his ankle cleaned out this spring and should be back to full strength for two-a-days.

2. Malik Jackson, Tennessee, Sr.: Jackson will be the center of attention on Tennessee’s line. He’s not only talented but he makes those around him better, and the Vols’ line should greatly improve around him. Jackson had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago after transferring from USC and making the switch from end to tackle.

3. Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State, Jr.: Cox started four games as a freshman and was a staple on the defensive front last season for the Bulldogs. He managed 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks and improved even more during the spring. Cox had a solid spring and looks to be even more of a force in the middle this fall.

4. John Jenkins, Georgia, Jr.: Jenkins has resided in the JUCO world for the past two years, but he arrives at Georgia as someone expected to have a profound influence on the Bulldogs’ defense. He’s perfect for Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and will be immediately thrown into the noseguard battle. At 6-foot-4, 340 pounds, Jenkins will be a player who stuffs the run and collapses the pocket.

5. Josh Chapman, Alabama, Sr.: He’s the anchor on the line and started 12 games a year ago after backing up and learning a lot from Terrence Cody in 2009. He’s not as big, but he’s more athletic than Cody and improved his strength this spring. Chapman enters the fall as the Tide’s most-experienced lineman.

6. Travian Robertson, South Carolina, Sr.: Robertson returned in 2010 after a season-ending knee injury cost him most of 2009. All Robertson did was record 42 tackles, including 10 for loss and four sacks. He’s become more of a leader on defense and should improve on his solid numbers from a year ago.

7. Josh Boyd, Mississippi State, Jr.: Boyd is the second part of Mississippi State’s talented duo in the middle. He was right behind Cox with 24 tackles and also had 2.5 sacks. Boyd has been a tremendous player since his freshman year and seemed to grow even more throughout the spring.

8. Sharrif Floyd, Florida, So.: Floyd was the most consistent of Florida’s much-heralded freshmen defensive linemen last season. The thing is that he could have been even better, but it took him some time to adjust to the college game. He’ll battle for time at noseguard when Florida is in the 3-4 and will be a regular on the line when the Gators go back to the 4-3.

9. Ego Ferguson, LSU, Fr.: He redshirted last season, but people on the Bayou expect him to be a big-time player this fall. He has tremendous size and strength and should be an excellent run-stopper in the middle. His spot in the middle hasn’t been guaranteed, but it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup.

10. Robert Thomas, Arkansas, So.: Sure, Thomas has yet to play a down of SEC football, but coach Bobby Petrino said this spring that Thomas might be the most-talented player in the middle for the Hogs. Thomas had 48 tackles, including 15 for loss, and 4.5 sacks as a JUCO standout last year. The coaches gushed over his athleticism after he took advantage of the reps he got with Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones injured this spring.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.
Omar Hunter knows his time is running out.

Florida’s redshirt junior defensive lineman fought early hype and nagging injuries during his first three years with the Gators and now sees that he’s got to step up or sit and watch.

Hunter doesn’t want to do the latter. He had all the right to that this spring when a nagging injury returned. While he was listed as limited on Florida’s pre-spring depth chart, he pushed through the pain and competed as much as he could with a new coaching staff watching.

“It was tough, but they [the coaches] realized that I was injured and I was still trying to fight through some things,” Hunter said. “They let me off a few times on some things that they could have easily gotten on me for, but they understood I had an injury and took it easy on me a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeOmar Hunter
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJunior Omar Hunter (99) fought through injuries this spring and is looking forward to making an impact in the fall.
Hunter, who is down to 300 pounds after working at 307 this spring, decided that participating would help him learn defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s new system and get him more familiar with defensive line coach Bryant Young’s new philosophy. If he was going to show the new staff he was ready to take his game to a new level, he had to do it -- hurt or not.

Hunter’s ability to stay on the practice field this spring also helped him gain more respect from his teammates. With depth issues and a gang of youngsters pushing for time on Florida’s line, Hunter wanted to not only show he wasn’t going to just hand his spot over, he wanted to prove that he was going to be a leader for the line.

“The message I tried to send was that I was going to be there whether I was hurt or not,” he said. “I’m always going to have their backs and I’m always going to push through injuries for them.”

The young talent certainly motivated Hunter. Regardless of how he felt physically, Hunter knew he’d have to fight off some pups this spring.

Leading the underclassmen charge is sophomore Sharrif Floyd, who will compete with Hunter for time at nose tackle when the Gators go into the 3-4. Dominique Easley, who blossomed this spring, and Leon Orr are also pushing for time on the interior.

Hunter is looking over his shoulder at those players, but he’s also helping them. While his goal is to be the disruptor in the middle, he wants what’s best for the team, and development of the younger players will be key to keeping Florida’s line fresh.

“I keep pushing them, they push me,” Hunter said. “We’re all getting better because of that.

“Last year, we were a close group, but we could have been closer. If we would have been closer, we would have been even better.”

The unit could be special, really. There is talent oozing at each position. Senior Jaye Howard, who ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked as the fourth-best draft-eligible returner at defensive tackle, missed all of the spring because of surgery on his ankle, but is expected to be full-go for two-a-days. Senior William Green will maintain one of the end spots, and while he hasn’t truly broken out, he’ll fit nicely into Florida’s multiple defense.

Sophomore Ronald Powell will play the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position known as the Buck. He’s got all the athleticism and speed to be a menace in the pass rush, but he’s got to continue to mature. Cal transfer Chris Martin and junior Lerentee McCray will also get time at end.

Florida’s line is young, but the ceiling appears high for the unit. Barring injuries, this could be the strength of Florida’s defense in the fall.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 1

September, 2, 2010
Are you ready for some football?

SEC fans won’t have to wait until Saturday to kick off the 2010 season. South Carolina gets it started Thursday night against Southern Miss in Williams-Brice Stadium.

Questions abound about Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks. Who’s going to play? Who’s not going to play? How’s the quarterback situation going to shake out? Is this legitimately an SEC championship-caliber team?

We should start to receive answers soon enough. I can already see smoke billowing and hear the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey” playing in the distance.

Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 1:

1. Catching a break: It appears that LSU will be facing a North Carolina team on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game that will be depleted. As many as seven defensive starters for the Tar Heels could be missing and up to 16 players total, according to ESPN reports. Star defensive tackle Marvin Austin has already been suspended for the game for violating team rules. Several more could follow as NCAA and school officials continue to look into agent-related allegations and possible academic fraud. The Tigers insist they’re worried only about themselves, especially with this being such a critical game in setting the right tone for the season. We’ll find out a lot more about this LSU team's maturity come Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.

2. Rebel Yell: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt conceded that he was “devastated” upon hearing the news Tuesday that the NCAA had ruled quarterback Jeremiah Masoli ineligible to play this season. There’s still an appeal out there, and Ole Miss could hear something by Friday. The Masoli news was just the first blow this week for the Rebels. Later Tuesday, it was learned that senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett was out indefinitely while he undergoes tests to determine what’s causing a rhythmic heart condition. Both players were going to play key roles this season for the Rebels, who will be counting on the likes of Nathan Stanley, Randall Mackey, Gerald Rivers, Jason Jones and Carlos Thompson more than ever now.

3. Missing in action: There are more than a few anxious coaches and players at a number of SEC locales thanks to all of the NCAA investigations hovering out there. South Carolina could be without as many as five players Thursday night. Safety Akeem Auguste, cornerback C.C. Whitlock, offensive tackle Jarriel King, guard Terrence Campbell and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye all face possible suspensions stemming from the Whitney Hotel probe. South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders has already been suspended for violating team rules. Alabama is waiting to hear something on defensive end Marcell Dareus, and Georgia is waiting to hear something on receiver A.J. Green. Georgia running back Washaun Ealey was suspended following his arrest last week, joining teammate Tavarres King, who was already suspended for this game following his July arrest. Injuries have also wreaked havoc, forcing Alabama running back Mark Ingram, South Carolina linebacker Shaq Wilson, LSU linebacker Ryan Baker and Florida offensive tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan to the bench for this first game.

4. Starting from scratch: Exactly half of the SEC teams will trot out a first-time starter at quarterback. That is, a first-time starter while playing in this league. Making their starting debuts will be Florida junior John Brantley, Georgia redshirt freshman Aaron Murray, Auburn junior Cameron Newton, Tennessee junior Matt Simms and Stanley at Ole Miss. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has yet to name a starter, but neither of the two quarterbacks who will play for the Bulldogs (junior Chris Relf or redshirt freshman Tyler Russell) has ever started a college game. Murray and Russell have never even played in a college game. One way or another, it ought to be interesting when the ball’s snapped this season in the SEC.

5. Passing fancy: It’s the first time we’ve seen Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett in live action since breaking a bone in his foot back in the winter during conditioning drills. At the top of his priority list this season is improving his accuracy and staying fundamentally sound when he is flushed out of the pocket. Now in his third year in Bobby Petrino’s system, Mallett isn’t one to talk about individual goals. His goal is to bring the Hogs an SEC championship. But with the talent surrounding him at all the skill positions, he could certainly make a run at a few SEC single-season passing records. Kentucky’s Andre Woodson has the touchdown record with 40 during the 2007 season, while another Kentucky quarterback owns the record for most passing yards in a season. Tim Couch threw for 4,275 yards during the 1998 season.

6. Rainey to the rescue:Florida coach Urban Meyer sounds excited about seeing Chris Rainey at the slot position, which was Percy Harvin’s old spot when he was scoring touchdowns on a weekly basis for the Gators. Meyer said Rainey was up to 178 pounds and poised for a big year. “He’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s now focused on a position that really his body is more trained to be,” Meyer said. “He has to give us the home-run shot. He’s got the ability. There’s really not an offense that can function without a home-run hitter, and he’s either 1 or 2 on our list of guys who can take it the distance.”

7. Big Orange firsts: Not only will it be Derek Dooley’s first game as Tennessee’s coach this Saturday against Tennessee-Martin, but he estimates that two-thirds of the Vols’ roster has never taken a snap in Neyland Stadium. Dooley said 18 freshmen are on his two-deep, and Tennessee also has a new playcaller on offense (Jim Chaney) and a new defensive coordinator (Justin Wilcox). Chaney was on the previous Tennessee staff with Lane Kiffin, but Kiffin called the offensive plays. What's more, seven of the nine players slated to start on the offensive and defensive lines will be making their first career starts for the Vols in their current positions.

8. Coaching debuts: It wouldn’t be the SEC without at least one new head coach taking the field for the first time. This season, there are three -- Joker Phillips at Kentucky, Robbie Caldwell at Vanderbilt and Dooley at Tennessee. Just in the past 10 years, there have been a staggering 22 head coaching changes in the SEC. The dean of SEC coaches at his current school is Georgia’s Mark Richt, and he came aboard in 2001. Florida’s Meyer, LSU’s Les Miles and South Carolina’s Spurrier are tied for second on the list, and they’re all entering their sixth season in the league.

9. Many happy returns: There’s been a lot of chatter among coaches about allowing key players to participate in the return game on special teams. It will be interesting to see how many of those players we really see back deep this first week. It’s a star-studded list. Some of the possibilities: LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, Georgia's A.J. Green, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Alabama receiver Julio Jones, Florida running back Jeff Demps, Arkansas receiver Joe Adams, Tennessee receiver Gerald Jones, Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb and Kentucky running back Derrick Locke.

10. Emerging stars: We’re all eager to find out who those players are that will emerge from the shadows this season. Picking them out after just one week is tricky, too, especially when you consider some of the mismatches on tap in Week 1 in the SEC. But here’s a quick checklist of players to keep an eye on: Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard, Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward, Georgia nose tackle DeAngelo Tyson, LSU defensive tackle Drake Nevis, Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Auburn running back Mario Fannin, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford and LSU receiver Russell Shepard.