When you look at John Brantley and Florida’s passing game this season compared to last season, it’s pretty clear that improvements have been made.
The often-criticized senior quarterback has looked more comfortable in Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense and his numbers are better than they were at this point last year. They aren’t tremendously better, but they are better.
He has 52 more passing yards than he did after four games last year, but two fewer touchdowns. Most of his production has come on swing passes and check downs and his best friends have been running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, who have the highest catch totals on the team.
We’ve heard ad nauseum that Brantley is taking what defenses have given him. If the deep ball isn’t there, go underneath. If the receivers are blanketed, toss to a running back. None of Florida’s receivers currently has a touchdown reception and only Deonte Thompson is close to 100 yards, with 93.
Florida has relied heavily on one of the best running games in the country (averaging a league-high 259 yards a game) that is coming off a 405-yard performance against Kentucky. The Gators might lead the league in total offense (461.8), but most of it has come from the running game.
Can it continue? And will the run-first, throw-short strategy work this weekend against an Alabama defense that smothers short games with ease?
According to Gator coaches and players, they won’t change until the defense makes them. It might sound hardheaded and cliché, but it’s the way this Florida team operates and the coaches are smart enough to know what works and what doesn’t.
“You have to wait to see how they play the game,” Weis said.
“You have to have a plan to where if they stop this you have another way of getting to the same means to an end.”
And the Tide will be looking to gobble up the run. Alabama is giving up 1.8 yards per carry and 45.8 yards per game.
Florida’s rushing duo of Rainey and Demps ise quite possibly the fastest rushing pair in the country, but it certainly isn’t the biggest. Rainey and Demps barely stand 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-8, respectively, and hover around 180-plus pounds.
This isn’t exactly a wrecking crew of a backfield, and Alabama should load the box to test their strength.
“You’ve got to be multiple against Alabama,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “You can’t be one-dimensional and have success. You've got to stay balanced in what you do in both the run and the pass and be effective in being efficient in both areas.”
As for those pesky passes to the flats, don’t think the Tide won’t be keying in on them. Florida has yet to face a defense with the speed of Alabama’s, so those throws likely won’t be as open.
So what does that mean for Florida’s offense? It means Florida might actually have to establish a more threatening deep game, something Brantley says is possible … with some help from Florida’s opponent.
“Anytime we can throw the ball downfield, we will,” Brantley said. “Like I’ve said, we’re just going to take what the defense gives us and try to protect up front.”
While Brantley took a few shots against Kentucky -- leaving for the locker room just before halftime -- he said he’s fine and healed for Alabama. The fifth-year senior hasn’t been spectacular this season, but Alabama coach Nick Saban said he sees a different, more confident Brantley on film.
He also sees a team that has properly and successfully utilized its top playmakers, but notices that Florida has other weapons adept to making big plays when given the chance.
“I do think that they have capable receivers, good athletic tight ends and John Brantley is certainly capable of throwing the ball downfield,” Saban said.
“There’s not a lack of respect for their ability to do that on our part.”
Regardless of what Florida’s offense has looked like to this point, Weis assures that Alabama will witness new things. He wouldn’t dive too deep into the game plan, but Weis does plan to “throw the kitchen sink” at the Tide Saturday night.
“You guys have been writing about holding things back. Well, you won’t have to worry about that this week,” he said. “They’re going to get plenty.”