NCF Nation: Ronald Powell
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:
2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.
Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs
Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III
Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe
Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.
Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.
Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?
Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.
Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.
ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins
Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins
Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.
Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.
This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).
Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.
In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.
Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.
Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez
Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.
Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey
Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.
Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler
McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.
Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat
Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.
Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan
Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.
Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts
Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.
Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley
Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.
Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman
Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.
Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam
Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.
Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd
Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White
Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.
Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon
The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.
Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher
Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.
Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler
Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.
Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson
Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.
Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III
A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.
1. Alabama's offensive line needs work: We knew replacing three NFL draft picks would be tough for Alabama, but Saturday night showed that this unit will certainly need the bye week to get things ready for Texas A&M. There were communication issues and players weren't comfortable with the actual game speed. It didn't help that Virginia Tech surprised the Tide with some of their defensive sets. Still, the kinks really need to be ironed out up front. Alabama failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time since 2011 and quarterback AJ McCarron never really looked comfortable with all the pressure he faced. These issues can be fixed, and they'll need to be before the A&M game.
3. Suspect defenses: It's obvious that Georgia and Texas A&M both need to see a lot of improvement on the defensive side of the ball. We knew we'd see a lot of points this weekend, but Georgia's defense was too sloppy at times. There were protection breakdowns, the line was pushed around and tackling was a major issue in the Bulldogs' 38-35 loss to Clemson. Outside of the poor tackling, what really had to frustrate defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the fact that Clemson ran for 197 yards. Stopping the run was a major issue for this defense last year, and it was a problem Saturday night. As for the Aggies, Texas A&M's rebuilding defense had a rough day against Rice. Granted, the Aggies were missing five starters, but they gave up 306 rushing yards and 31 points. Even with guys out, you just can't allow that to happen. Key guys will come back next week, but this defense won't be at full strength until the Alabama game in two weeks. This defense has a lot to work on until then.
4. Kentucky's road is longer than expected: Mark Stoops has brought some excitement back to Kentucky's football program, but Saturday's 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky proved that the Wildcats still have a ways to go when it comes to development and talent. The defense struggled against Bobby Petrino's offense, surrendering 487 yards and 22 first downs, while the offense showed it is in serious need of playmakers in the passing game. The "Air Raid" offense was nowhere to be seen, while the defense didn't register nearly enough pressure to slow down Western Kentucky's attack. This wasn't going to be an easy first year for Stoops, but this was not the start he needed, especially with the way the defense played.
5. Happy returns: It was good to see some players return to the field after injuries affected them in 2012. Missouri had to be pleased with quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey getting off to a fast start. Franklin, who dealt with shoulder, knee and head injuries last year, threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another 44 in the Tigers' blowout win over Murray State. Josey, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, carried the ball 13 times for 113 yards and a 68-yard touchdown. Forget the opponent -- these two looked up to speed after a trying 2012. Florida also got good production out of linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell, who missed all of last year with two ACL injuries. Powell was very active Saturday, finishing with a sack and three quarterback hurries. Also, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw made it through Thursday's game without injury. He passed for only 149 yards and touchdown, but he ran 12 times for 43 yards. It's clear these guys are back to their old healthy selves.
Ask any coach out there to describe the biggest difference and "defensive line" is bound to be one of the first things that slip out of his mouth. It truly is all about the trenches in the SEC, both defensively and offensively. The offensive lines deserve some love for just putting up with their burly counterparts, but the defensive lines really do get all the attention.
So it should come as no surprise that when Phil Steele ranked his top 15 defensive lines in college football that the SEC was represented by five teams -- the most of any conference.
That's pretty good when you consider that Florida lost first-rounder Sharrif Floyd and Mr. Solid Omar Hunter in the middle, while LSU pretty much lost its entire starting defensive line from a year ago.
The SEC truly does just reload up front.
South Carolina's ranking isn't surprising because there's more than just Jadeveon Clowney to work with. Sure, Clowney might be the best player in the country, but he has help from Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt inside and Chaz Sutton on the other side of him. Quarles was pretty consistent for the Gamecocks last year, while Sutton grabbed five sacks as a backup. The departure of starters Devin Taylor and Byron Jerideau shouldn't shake this lineup too much.
Getting Ronald Powell back should help the Gators with Lerentee McCray gone on the outside. Powell will play that hybrid linebacker/defensive end "Buck" position, where he'll get help from freshman All-SEC player Dante Fowler Jr. Dominique Easley is moving back to defensive tackle, where he was very disruptive during his first two years on campus. He can still move outside if needed. End Jonathan Bullard is coming off of a solid freshman season, while more is expected out of tackle Damien Jacobs, who came from the junior college ranks last year.
Ole Miss still has depth issues at defensive tackle, but has plenty to work with at end. C.J. Johnson should be healed from the leg injury he suffered this spring, while Cameron Whigham is coming off of a season in which he started 11 games. Rising sophomore Channing Ward should be fun to watch, and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is expected to see the field very early. Tackle Issac Gross should be back from his groin injury this fall and he'll get help from juco transfer Lavon Hooks, who had a very good spring.
Alabama might not have the elite players it's had in the past up front, but defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson could have big years. Pagan has a lot of potential, while Stinson recorded 30 tackles last season, including 8.5 for loss and three sacks. Stinson is versatile enough to play both inside and out. Then there's Brandon Ivory at noseguard, who has to replace the talented Jesse Williams. Alabama still needs players to step up more as starters and reserves because the line as a whole has a ways to go before the season starts.
You can tell how well Les Miles has recruited along the defensive line when the Tigers can lose so much but still have a line that's considered one of the nation's best. Tackle Anthony Johnson has so much potential and it sounds like he's ready to unleash his talents on the rest of the league. Miles raved about end Jermauria Rasco this spring and doesn't think the Tigers will miss much of a beat with him outside. True freshman Christian LeCouture played his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle this spring, while Miles expects to get more from tackle Ego Ferguson and ends Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen.
The two ACL injuries that ended his 2012 season took away his passion, but he also admits it improved who he was as a person.
“It was like God did this to make me a stronger person, a better person,” Powell told ESPN.com earlier this week.
“I’m a better person and a stronger person because of what I’ve had to endure with going through both of these ACL [injuries].”
It’s no secret that Powell, who led Florida with six sacks at Buck linebacker (linebacker/defensive end) in 2011, wasn’t the most personable guy around Florida’s football facility when he first arrived as the nation’s No. 1 high school player in 2010. He was sometimes standoffish and had attitude issues.
There were transfer rumblings after locker room spats with veterans and he wasn’t always receptive to coaching. Powell was a hotshot whose talent did everything for him in high school.
Powell’s mental transformation was already beginning, and it was paying off on the field. It would have been easy for Powell to sulk, and it would have been hard to blame him.
“I saw a guy who handled hardship much better than I would have,” coach Will Muschamp said. “I saw a young man grow up. I saw a young man handle adversity better than I would have ever handled what he went through.
“There were people in the organization that didn’t handle it as well as he did.”
Powell said his ACL injury finally gave him something to get up and attack daily. He wasn’t only learning how to walk again or fire his quads up again for leg exercises, he was learning to have a more positive attitude. His goal was to find a way back on the football field, but he ended up finding more of his human side.
“I had to overcome that stuff and be positive when I wasn’t feeling up,” he said. “I still came in and showed smiles and was positive to my teammates. Still come in here and not be an [expletive].”
But those smiles quickly faded after he re-tore the ACL in his left knee cutting during rehab with his personal trainer before last year’s season opener against Bowling Green. He envisioned playing against LSU on Oct. 6, but that goal vanished in late August.
“After that, it was hard at first because you were at a point where you think you’ve made it out and you see the light at the end of the tunnel and all of a sudden, it’s gone,” he said.
Powell said he didn’t really lean on any specific person after each of his injuries. He felt it was something he had to overcome so he didn’t “cry or complain” to people. He was more motivated to get back on the field.
What helped him stay up after his second injury was interacting with teammates. It was hearing their laughter in the locker room and finding humor in their words, he said.
Even though he couldn’t play, Powell said he took to coaching up freshmen, like fellow Buck Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive end Jonathan Bullard, and admits both are way ahead of where he was at their age.
He also became a role model. When true freshman linebacker Matt Rolin arrived in Gainesville recovering from his own ACL injury, Powell went right to him, Muschamp said. He kept his spirits high, pushed him through training and made sure he wasn’t alone.
“That’s what it’s all about; it’s when you’ve got a peer, a teammate, a friend helping another young man through a tough situation,” Muschamp said. “That’s special.
“I don’t know if he would have done that three years ago. He’s doing it now.”
What Powell hopes to be doing in a few months is putting his pads back on. He’s expected to be cleared by doctors to resume practice on Aug. 1, when the Gators report for fall camp.
Muschamp also wants to make sure Powell, who ran this spring but still isn’t cutting, gets the most out of his future field time. Powell will play Sam linebacker in Florida’s base defense, but Muschamp will have Powell and Fowler (eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) on the field at the same time in “Rabbit” and pass-rushing formations.
“I tell you, with me and him on the field that’s going to be scary,” Fowler said. “It’s not fair. I feel sorry for the quarterbacks.”
Powell calls playing again “a blessing” but he admits to being impatient. Fowler even said Powell rarely stays still during film sessions because he’s so anxious to play.
But Powell’s return will bring lofty expectations. However, he’s not concerned with hype or production. When asked about his future role, a humbler Powell could only grin and release a boyish giggle before answering.
“I just appreciate being on the depth chart,” he said.
Colleague Travis Haney took a look at which conference has the best playoff path starting next year. He makes a pretty good case for the SEC, which should be able to get its conference champion in every year.
But who can wait for 2014 title talk? Yeah, me either, so why not take a look at SEC teams with the best BCS title paths in 2013? Spring practice begins this month, so we might as well throw out some very, very early thoughts on teams' championship hopes.
Let's take a look at which SEC teams have real BCS title shots in 2013:
Pros: The Crimson Tide still have Nick Saban. That should be reason enough to make Alabama the odds on favorite to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. But there are many other reasons why Alabama tops our list. The offensive line might have to be rebuilt, but Alabama returns the nation's most efficient quarterback in AJ McCarron, who could have easily opted for the NFL after his junior year, a beast at running back in rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon, a host of talent -- and explosiveness -- at wide receiver, and most of the pieces to last year's top-ranked defense. Some big names have to be replaced on both sides, but this team really is reloading in 2013. Also, if the Tide can escape Virginia Tech (in Atlanta) and Texas A&M (in College Station) early, Alabama could go through the year unscathed, with road games coming against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn.
Cons: Forget the pressure. Saban doesn't allow pressure to eat at his players. What Alabama has to do is replace three studs on that offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are all gone. Winning the battle in the trenches is essential to competing in the SEC, so Alabama's less experienced linemen have to grow up in a hurry. Also, no team can do it three times in a row, right?
Pros: Johnny Manziel is back and last year proved that the Aggies are tough enough to compete in the big, bad SEC. Kliff Kingsbury might not be calling the plays anymore, but there is a lot of young talent on offense, including wide receiver Mike Evans and running backs Brandon Williams and Trey Williams, that should still give SEC defenses fits. A&M gets Alabama at home in Week 3 and trade Florida for Vanderbilt.
Cons: The Aggies lost a lot from their 2012 team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel is gone, along with receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who combined for 98 catches for 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns. The front seven has a lot to replace, including All-American defensive end Damontre Moore and linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Kingsbury's sideline work with Manziel will be missed, and the Aggies have to play LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road.
Pros: Georgia will be down wide receiver Tavarres King on offense, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone to help make up for the loss of his production with all those talented receivers. "Gurshall" returns and so does quarterback Aaron Murray, who could become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in each of his four years on campus. Bringing back the entire starting five on offense will also keep this offense trending upward.
Cons: The Bulldogs lost 12 players who either started or saw significant time on defense. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo are just a few of the big names that are gone. There certainly is talent remaining, but replacing all those players would be tough for anyone. Also, look at that schedule. The Dawgs start the year with Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before September even arrives. Losing more than one game during that stretch could all but end Georgia's title hopes.
Pros: The Gators lost some key players on defense, but coach Will Muschamp is bringing back a host of defensive talent that should do just fine in 2013. Marcus Roberson could be an All-SEC performer at cornerback, and incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the talent to start opposite him immediately. Ronald Powell returns to help out a young but very talented front seven that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Also, the Gators should be very deep at running back and have a more complete offensive line in 2013.
Cons: No one is quite sure what to make of that offense. Sure, the Gators should be able to run the ball, even without workhorse Mike Gillislee, but what about throwing it? Jeff Driskel really struggled last year, and the Gators lost their best receiving option in tight end Jordan Reed. Florida will have to rely on five true freshmen to help at receiver, but Driskel has to increase his confidence and become a better presense in the huddle for this offense to improve at all. Florida also takes on Miami, LSU and South Carolina on the road.
Pros: The Gamecocks might be without Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, but they should be very balanced on offense in 2013. South Carolina has two very capable quarterbacks to work with in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson, a talented group of running backs returning, led by rising sophomore Mike Davis, and more experience at receiver. One-man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney is back, and could be a legit Heisman candidate. South Carolina also spends the final month of the season at home.
Cons: Replacing Sanders will be tough because he did so much on offense and special teams. Clowney will have help up front, but South Carolina must replace its two-deep at linebacker. That's going to be quite the chore. Also, stud safety D.J. Swearinger, Spur DeVonte Holloman and cornerback Akeem Auguste all have to be replaced. Right now, this staff will have to rely on a handful of youngsters to help out this spring. The Gamecocks must also go to Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Pros: The offense has to be more well-rounded in 2013. Cam Cameron is in at offensive coordinator, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger made major strides during the last month of the season. All of his receiving weapons are back, the offensive line should be better and there is a wealth of talent still at running back. The Tigers also get Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home.
Cons: The defense was gutted after the 2012 season. The defensive line has to be rebuilt, someone has to step in for Kevin Minter at middle linebacker and the secondary must fill in the holes left by Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There is a lot of young talent on defense, but guys have to grow up quickly in Baton Rouge this year. Playing Alabama and Georgia on the road will be very tough as well.
Now, we're taking a stab at breakout defensive players to watch out for this fall (in alphabetical order):
Caleb Azubike, DE, Vanderbilt: With a defensive end spot up for grabs, Azubike has a chance to make a real name for himself in 2013. With limited snaps last fall, Azubike finished the year with 21 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks. He's athletic and fast and with even more snaps this year should grow into a fine player for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. The Commodores will need Azubike to step up and take some pressure off of other end Walker May.
Randy Ponder, CB, Missouri: With Kip Edwards departing, Ponder has a chance to start opposite E.J. Gaines at the other cornerback position. Ponder, who showed a lot of potential with some nice plays in the win over Tennessee, logged 29 solo tackles and broke up two passes with an interception. Losing Edwards hurts, but Ponder, a former walk-on, has promise and learned a lot from watching his teammates the past couple of years.
Ronald Powell, DE/LB, Florida: Last year was supposed to be Powell's breakout year, but he tore his ACL during Florida's spring game and had a setback during the fall. But Powell will sit out the spring and should be healthy for the upcoming season. With the Gators losing some quality talent on the defensive side of the ball, Powell's return is very important. He had a tremendous spring last year and if he returns to that form, he could be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC. He arrived in Gainesville with a ton of hype, but has yet to live up to it. He's much more invested now, and that's a good thing for Florida.
Brian Randolph, S, Tennessee: Another player who is returning from an ACL injury. He suffered his early last fall, and should be ready for next season. Randolph had a big freshman year and was set up to have a big second year, but his injury stopped that. If Randolph comes back at full strength, he could cause a lot of problems for opposing quarterbacks. He's extremely smart in the defensive backfield and covers a ton of ground for the Vols. He has a ball-hawk mentality and isn't afraid to get in the box and make plays.
The fifth-year senior linebacker/defensive end has seen the highs of winning a national championship and the lows of the school’s first losing record in conference play since the 1980s.
As he prepares to suit up for his final season in Gainesville, McCray wants to be a major component in what he hopes is a revival for the program in 2012.
“Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready to do it,” McCray said.
He’ll certainly get his chance, as he fills in for the injured and ever-popular Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Powell, who was the nation’s top recruit two years ago, had his best spring as a Gator this year before suffering an ACL injury during the spring game that should keep him out for most of the fall. While McCray missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Florida’s coaches didn’t hesitate to name him as Powell’s replacement.
He doesn’t have the name or hype Powell does, but McCray might have a little more fire and hunger, considering the up-and-down career he’s had in his four-plus years at Florida.
The former U.S. Army All-American participant and ESPN 150 member made the 50-plus-mile journey from Dunnellon, Fla., to Gainesville with lofty expectations. Along with just about everyone in his hometown, McCray expected to immediately compete for a starting spot and certainly expected a healthy amount of playing time as a freshman. But things didn’t exactly work out, as the 202-pound frosh played in just eight games, mostly on special teams, during the Gators’ national championship run. He played in just three games in 2009, receiving a medical redshirt.
Even with frustration mounting, McCray took time to learn from veteran playmakers such as Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Jermaine Cunningham. Sitting and watching motivated him and created a fierier attitude when it came to working out and practice.
But to make the kind of impact he wanted, McCray had to get bigger, so he was placed in Florida’s famed “Breakfast Club” where he turned into a real eater, inhaling as much steak, lobster and shrimp as he could during team feeding hours.
“I wasn’t a big eater before I got here, but they made me eat,” said McCray, who is at a comfortable 253 pounds that he hopes to maintain this fall.
Now that McCray has the will and the size, he’s looking to make a statement. He’s enjoyed a national championship and has seen Florida defenses rack up accolades, but he feels empty knowing he hasn’t been a tremendous help to his team yet.
“It’s been a high and low experience,” McCray said. “That’s life.”
That could change this fall, as McCray, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, sees his role increase. He’s only appeared in 30 career games with just five starts, but had his best season yet in 2011, recording 24 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, giving coach Will Muschamp the impression that McCray could shine in 2012.
“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Muschamp said. “I really am.”
Senior linebacker Jon Bostic feels the same way, but he’s always expected McCray to be a star. The first sign was during his freshman year, when Bostic recalls watching a scrawny McCray consistently put offensive linemen on their backs in practice.
“Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Bostic said. “He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that’s going to run right down the middle at people.
“He makes somebody feel the pain before he does.”
McCray hopes to inflict even more pain this fall. And he isn’t concerned about any added pressure that will come with replacing Powell, who led Florida in sacks last year. He embraces the test and plans to finally make a name for himself.
“I’m a person who likes to take on challenges,” he said. “I came from the bottom. I’d like to get to the top. That’s what I’m looking to achieve, so I really don’t feel any pressure because I’m already the underdog.”
Despite the rising junior defensive end/linebacker undergoing ACL surgery on April 23, Muschamp said he's still holding out hope that Powell will return at some point during the fall.
“I think so. I really do," Muschamp said during the 2012 SEC spring meetings Tuesday. "I’m not going to bet against him. He’s working extremely hard. His range of motion is way ahead of where it should be at this time. His strength levels are good. Everything points really good."
By all accounts, Powell, who led the Gators with six sacks and recorded nine tackles for loss in 2011, had a tremendous spring and showed a lot of improvement in the maturity department before his injury during Florida's spring game.
Earlier this month, Muschamp said that Powell was off crutches and appeared to be ahead of schedule, but he's still in wait-and-see mode.
"Like I’ve said, I think the last 30 percent of an ACL is the hard part," he said. "That’s when you start cutting, that’s when you start to take on people, the weight, all of that that you’ve got to deal with. Those are the things that I think will decide (when he returns) as we move closer and when we get into August and September and that four-month timeframe. Our (medical) people do a great job and the surgery went very well. We’re pleased with how the surgery went and how the swelling and all things hold up.”
Redshirt senior Lerentee McCray backed Powell up at the Buck position last fall, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Muschamp also said that sophomore linebacker Neiron Ball could compete at Buck or the Sam linebacker position this fall if he's medically cleared to play. Ball missed all of the 2011 season because of the arteriovenous malformation found in his brain in February of 2011, but Muschamp said Ball has recently started lifting and running again.
“He’s got one more appointment with the doctor,” Muschamp said. “I think he should be fine. He’s in Gainesville.
“You never know, something might pop up at the end. But he’s going back for one more deal to make sure he’s really cleared. Our medical people would not clear him if they thought there was an issue of any sort.
“I totally trust their opinion. Nor would he want to play if there was any chance for anything happening.”
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs, as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
2. Alabama: While the defending national champs saw a lot of "new" faces on defense this spring, coach Nick Saban left happy with where his players were -- but not satisfied. There is still work to be done, especially in the secondary, where the Tide must replace three starters. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at linebacker, but the coaches were impressed with how Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard played this spring. Some think Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, could be Bama's top pass-rusher. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron is back, more mature and surrounded by a very veteran line. He has a group of younger receivers to throw to, but has at least four quality running backs. Alabama's road to repeating is tougher, with games at Arkansas and LSU.
3. South Carolina: A healthy Marcus Lattimore (knee) at RB makes South Carolina an even better contender for the SEC East crown. His status is uncertain, but the pieces around him are pretty impressive. Quarterback Connor Shaw had an impressive spring, and looks ready to be the passer coach Steve Spurrier wants him to be. The defense is once again stacked, especially up front with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. There are questions in the secondary, with two new, young starters in Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety), while senior Akeem Auguste returns after missing last season with a foot injury. Still, Spurrier is chirping about his SEC counterparts, so you know he thinks he's got a good team this year.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs should be higher on this list, but when you take into account the suspensions of four defensive starters at the beginning of the season, they slide a little. Georgia returns nine defensive starters, including one of the nation's best linebackers in Jarvis Jones, and some firepower on offense, led by veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, who could get some early Heisman love. It also sounds like enigmatic running back Isaiah Crowell is slowly turning things around. Yet again, the Bulldogs have a favorable SEC schedule, with no games against Alabama, Arkansas or LSU, so their road to the SEC championship is easier than South Carolina's, but keep an eye on that inexperienced offensive line.
5. Arkansas: If not for Bobby Petrino's embarrassing dismissal, the Razorbacks might be ranked higher. Offensively, it doesn't get much better than what Arkansas has. Tyler Wilson returns as arguably the league's best quarterback, and he'll get to work with one of the most complete backs around, Knile Davis, who is returning from a devastating ankle injury. An older and more improved offensive line returns, and so does a talented receiving corps led by Cobi Hamilton. But there are questions. How effective will interim coach John L. Smith be, especially if something goes wrong? Will Marquel Wade's suspension leak into the fall after his spring arrest? And will the defense improve and be more aggressive under new coordinator Paul Haynes? The good news is that Alabama and LSU play in Fayetteville this fall.
6. Florida: The chemistry is much better in Gainesville. Florida returns 10 starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. Matt Elam looks like a budding star at safety, and Florida's linebacking group is solid. Buck/defensive end Ronald Powell could be out after tearing his ACL this spring, but coach Will Muschamp recently said Powell is off crutches. Stud defensive tackle Dominique Easley is also walking fine after tearing his ACL in last year's season finale. The Gators have their third offensive coordinator in three years, and unproven sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are still battling. Florida has unproven running backs and receivers, but the offensive line toughened up tremendously.
7. Auburn: The Tigers welcomed two new coordinators, Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, this spring, and by all accounts players were very receptive. Coach Gene Chizik is still dealing with a lot of youth, as close to 70 percent of his roster is made up of underclassmen. One of those underclassmen is quarterback Kiehl Frazier, who made strides as a passer this spring and seems to have the edge in the quarterback race with Clint Moseley, who missed some of the spring with a sore shoulder. The defensive line will be the team's strength, with end Dee Ford exploding this spring and Corey Lemonier returning. There is a lot of depth up front on defense, which will go a long way for the Tigers.
8. Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel and his players have made it clear they aren't intimidated by the move to the SEC. These new Tigers return solid offensive firepower, but there has to be some concern about quarterback James Franklin, who missed most of the spring after having surgery on his throwing shoulder. Plus, Mizzou's backup QB could miss games this fall after his recent arrest, so the Tigers' offensive success will be riding on Franklin's health. The Tigers are replacing a few starters on both lines, but feel confident about both areas. Mizzou will face a Georgia team down a few defensive players in Week 2, but must travel to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
9. Tennessee: A lot is different in Knoxville, as the Vols welcomed seven new assistant coaches. Coach Derek Dooley insists the changes were for the best, but there's still going to be some adjusting to do this fall. The good news is that Tennessee returns a lot on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. A healthy trio there makes Tennessee's passing game one of the best in the league. Questions remain on the offensive line and at running back, but improvements were made this spring. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri would like to run more 3-4 this fall, but players aren't totally comfortable, leaving some concerns.
10. Mississippi State: Quarterback Tyler Russell finally looks ready to take over as the guy in Starkville, and he'll have a veteran receiving corps to work with. However, that group still has a lot to prove, especially senior Chad Bumphis. The running game looks solid with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, and the offensive line got help from the junior college ranks. Defensively, there are a few holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield are a solid cornerback tandem and linebacker is set with a few vets back, including stud Cameron Lawrence. Junior college defensive end Denico Autry has to perform early to help a line with a couple of holes.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have some holes to fill this year, but the offensive line will be a strength. Left tackle Luke Joeckel, a future first-rounder, leads a line that returns four starters. Star wide receiver Ryan Swope is back, and running back Christine Michael should be healthy (knee) this fall, but quarterback is an issue. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the edge right now, but like all of his competitors, he lacks experience. The defense will lean on linebackers Sean Porter, Steven Jenkins, Jonathan Stewart and converted end Damontre Moore, but the secondary has depth and experience issues, and the team will still be adjusting to a new staff led by coach Kevin Sumlin.
12. Vanderbilt: There is some solid offensive talent in Nashville, starting with running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but coach James Franklin is still waiting for quarterback Jordan Rodgers to be more consistent. The offensive line is very thin and could barely get through spring. The defense must replace a handful of starters and leaders, but Franklin felt better about guys like linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and cornerback Trey Wilson. Vandy's schedule will be tough this fall, and if that offensive line doesn't hold up, getting back to a bowl will be tough.
13. Kentucky: Coach Joker Phillips was pleased with how spring practice ended, especially when it came to finding offensive playmakers, like receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Quarterback Maxwell Smith had a solid spring, but struggled during the spring game, meaning the battle with Morgan Newton and freshman Patrick Towles should go into the fall. The offensive line is still trying to get by after losing three starters, and the Wildcats must replace six starters at linebacker and in the secondary. Given the Wildcats' schedule, they will need to sweep their nonconference games to be in bowl shape.
14. Ole Miss: The arrival of coach Hugh Freeze brought a lot of positive change to Ole Miss, especially off the field, but there are still a lot of concerns. There are depth issues at just about every position, especially running back and defensive tackle. Even one of the most experienced groups, the offensive line, has struggled mightily with picking up Freeze's spread offense and is the team's biggest weakness. Academic issues are also worrying Ole Miss' staff, and top running back Jeff Scott and cornerback/receiver Nickolas Brassell are in that group. Quarterback is still up for grabs, but progress was made on defense, especially in the secondary.
12:00 p.m.: A host of former players get together for a flag football game dubbed the "Battle of the Decades," with players from the 1980s, '90s and 2000s participating. Thankfully, none of the old guys is hurt from all that running.
12:10: The quarterbacks come out and SI.com's Andy Staples and I try to meticulously dissect every single part of Jeff Driskel's and Jacoby Brissett's games to figure out which one is better. Like everyone around Florida's program, we're unable to.
12:20: I walk over to punt-return drills, nearly getting clocked by a ball the wind carried over toward me. Marcus Roberson, Trey Burton, Loucheiz Purifoy and De'Ante "Pop" Saunders are taking reps.
12:29: One-on-ones between receivers and defensive backs begin. It's light, but it's something to look at and we still can't figure out which quarterback is better, but tight end Jordan Reed impresses with a one-handed catch and true freshman receiver Latroy Pittman out-muscles his opponents for a few tough catches.
12:35: The offensive line goes through drills which incorporate a lot of spinning, slapping, pulling and pushing. It's humorous, until you realize how much bigger they are than you. Then you just think it's dangerous. Offensive line coach Tim Davis screams "Spin, spin, spin," until he's blue in the face and his voice is hoarser than before.
12:51: We're in the locker room and the fun begins. After the team splits up by position, the coaches start going over last-minute game plans and emphasizing technique. "Stay under control!" running backs coach Brian White yells. "Let's get this crowd jacked up! Have people leave this (game) knowing we're going to flat-out dominate up front!" Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn preaches mental toughness in loud, quick bursts. He doesn't want to see any walking around or hands on hips. He wants energy and aggression on the field. "Ball Out U!" he screams. "Put out great (expletive) tape! When we turn on the tape I want to make sure I can't wait to watch you."
12:57: The excitement is growing inside the locker room. An animal is waiting to be unleashed. Players are hyped, as White walks around with a smile on his face saying, "Lotta nervous faces in here today," over and over. He's followed by verbose defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, who constantly taunts the receivers and pretty much every offensive player. "Let's get to those quarterbacks today and get in their faces!"
12:59: Floyd sits and stares at the floor, like he's ready to destroy it. The person giving bear hugs and high-fives at the Gator Walk is ready to rip someone apart like a bear. He sits in silence as a coach tosses him smelling salt. He sniffs and doesn't flinch. He's ready.
1:04: Defensive end/Buck Ronald Powell shoots up out of his chair and starts dancing around, yelling inaudible words of encouragement to his teammates. He's pushing guys and slapping their pads. "Play yo game, baby! It's just practice! Everything you do, you've done before!"
1:05: Floyd stands and walks to the center of the locker room. His teammates huddle around him. Players go silent when he speaks. "Do your job, not the man next to you!" His voice is deep, loud and haunting. He keeps shouting "aggressive" over and over, which fuels his teammates even more and incites a frenzy before head coach Will Muschamp arrives.
1:07: Following the Lord's Prayer, Muschamp delivers a short pregame speech. "Fast and physical. Offense, run the ball down their throats!" The place explodes as players exit the locker room, tapping the orange "GRIND" sign above the locker room door on the way out.
We didn't get to actually coach or call plays, but here are some observations from the sideline:
- Davis was very hands-on with linemen when they made mistakes. He made them verbally repeat their mistakes and asked them what they had to do to correct them. He was extremely thorough with players and took time to teach between plays.
- Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was really concerned with clock management. He was constantly telling the quarterbacks not on the field to make sure that the one in the game knew about the clock and knew when it was running out, even though there was no delay-of-game penalty. That communication failed early in the scrimmage.
- Even though Pittman had a pretty impressive day, receivers coach Aubrey Hill and receiver Andre Debose were coaching him on his routes, helping him get out of his breaks faster on the sideline.
- Driskel and Brissett looked like old fishing buddies out there. They were joking with each other after plays and helping each other when they made mistakes. Competition didn't stop them from cooperating.
- Tyler Murphy appears out of the quarterback race, but he showed some excellent coaching skills. He was spouting terminology and trying to help as much as he could. He was by Pease's side almost the whole time and was able to find a lot of the little things the other QBs missed. He might know the offense the best, but isn't as skilled as the others.
- Running back Mack Brown after getting popped during his touchdown run: "He picked me good. He Goldberged me."
- Receiver Solomon Patton after Chris Johnson's 15-yard run in the fourth quarter: "Man, we got some backs."
- Debose to walk-on Michael McNeely after his 52-yard catch: "I bet you thought that ball was in the air forever, huh?"
Granted, this is the first game of the season and Florida Atlantic is way overmatched in this game, but Florida's defense has been very impressive tonight.
During the first half, the Owls had 62 yards on 24 plays. If not for back-to-back interceptions by FAU, the Owls would likely have had a goose egg in the score column.
FAU ran the ball 11 times for negative 1 yard and the Owls' two quarterbacks combined to complete 8 of their 13 passes for 63 yards.
Florida's front seven, which is without defensive end Sharrif Floyd, is blowing up FAU's offensive line and the defense is mixing things up as a whole, creating a lot of confusion out there for the Owls.
When Dominique Easley wasn't dancing in the huddle or on the sideline he has been busting through the Owls' offensive line with ease. He is looking like a special player out there.
The Gators have two sacks, one by Ronald Powell, but have yet to force a turnover, something they were very good at under Urban Meyer. Let's see what the defense does this half.
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.”
That’s a perfect segue to picking the teams in the league that have the best young talent. And in young talent, we’re talking about players who will be sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen in 2011.
No. 1 on our list is an easy choice -- LSU. The Tigers might have as much talent in their freshman and sophomore classes as any team in America.
Here’s a look at how our top 5 teams stack up:
2. Florida: It’s hard to beat the Gators’ young collection of talent in both the offensive and defensive lines. On offense, sophomore guard Jon Halapio is one of three underclassmen who could wind up in the starting lineup or at least be in the rotation. And on defense, the second time around for Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley should be a lot better. All three are supremely talented. Sophomore safety Matt Elam leads a secondary that is full of promising newcomers. Coach Will Muschamp thinks true freshman cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson both have a chance to be special, and watch sophomore Jelani Jenkins take off this season and become an All-SEC caliber player at linebacker. Redshirt freshman receiver Quinton Dunbar has had an excellent start to camp, and true freshman Ja’Juan Story is another receiver the Gators think will provide more plays down the field. Sophomore tight end Jordan Reed and sophomore running back Trey Burton have already proven that they have what it takes to make plays in this league (at a number of different positions), and true freshman Jeff Driskel was the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country last year.
3. Auburn: The Tigers’ past two recruiting classes have ranked among the top 5 nationally, and you’re going to see a ton of those players on the field this season. The sophomore class will be especially important. Guys like defensive ends Nosa Eguae, Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders, defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker and running back Mike Dyer will be the heart and soul of this team. Redshirt freshman receiver Trovon Reed would have made a big impact last season had he not had the knee problems, and coach Gene Chizik is already on record as saying the true freshmen would be playing and not watching this season. The ones who might play the quickest are Reese Dismukes and Christian Westermann in the offensive line, Jermaine Whitehead at cornerback, Robenson Therezie at safety and Kiehl Frazier at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Chad Slade and sophomore Blake Burgess have been working some with the first-team offensive line, and true freshman Quan Bray is one of those guys who just makes plays no matter where he lines up.
4. Tennessee: The Vols were one of the youngest teams in the SEC last season and will be again this season. They started three true freshmen in the offensive line – tackle Ja’Wuan James, guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone – and then added to that base with Notre Dame transfer Alex Bullard, a sophomore, and true freshmen Marcus Jackson and Antonio Richardson. Second-year coach Derek Dooley thinks it’s an offensive line that has a chance to be dominant. There’s also sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who threw 18 touchdown passes as a true freshman, and his top two targets are sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Already immensely talented, Rogers was one of the Vols’ most improved players in the spring. The Vols brought in several reinforcements on defense. Junior college nose guard Maurice Couch will be just a sophomore. The same goes for junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. The guy the Vols’ defensive staff thinks might really break out this season is sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith, and true freshman running back Marlin Lane could be that breakaway threat Tennessee was missing a year ago.
5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide probably deserve to be ranked even higher. But they’ve been so talented over the past few seasons that the younger players simply haven’t had a chance to play. We’ll see more of them this season, guys like sophomore cornerback Dee Milliner, sophomore running back Eddie Lacy, sophomore defensive end Ed Stinson, sophomore safety Jarrick Williams, sophomore safety Nick Perry and redshirt freshman receiver DeAndrew White. Sophomore offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was a starter last season, and so was sophomore linebacker C.J. Mosley. Coach Nick Saban has yet to make a decision at quarterback, but the thinks he has two he can win with -- sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. True freshman Cyrus Kouandjio was the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country last year, and even though true freshman running back Dee Hart was injured this offseason, he’s certainly going to be heard from in the future. On defense, true freshman end LaMichael Fanning has been impressive to this point in camp, and that’s a position the Tide could use some help at this season.