SEC: Alex McCalister

Florida must start finding some answers

September, 29, 2014
9/29/14
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After barely escaping Kentucky's upset bid in Game 2, Florida coach Will Muschamp said his team's problems were correctable.

That tune changed after the Gators were blown out by Alabama the following week. During the bye week UF went back to the drawing board and back to basics with some training camp-like practices to address fundamentals.

Make no mistake, time is running out for Florida to show the progress that is expected after its 4-8 season in 2013.

Here's what's wrong and how to fix it.

Subpar quarterback play
[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SportswireThe Gators could look to freshman backup QB Treon Harris to spark the offense.
The problem: Patience is running thin with fourth-year junior Jeff Driskel. He has consistently failed in the passing game, whether it's reading defenses or giving his receivers a chance on deep throws.
The solution: No one should think true freshman backup Treon Harris, a teenager who has thrown all of two passes in his short career, is ready to replace Driskel as the starter. But a two-quarterback system is Florida's best chance at minimizing the damage that comes with Driskel's shortcomings. It should also be noted that Harris' two passes were completed for long touchdowns. He offers more accuracy and better vision. It's up to Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to develop Harris now, because he'll be needed this season.

Push from the offensive line
The problem: After giving up 66 sacks the past two years, Florida's offensive line has shown improvement in pass protection (just two sacks allowed this season). But the Gators need more from their retooled offensive line, which is benefiting from a new scheme that has the ball coming out quicker in the passing game. Florida ran for big yardage against Eastern Michigan and Kentucky but was held to 107 yards by Alabama. In order for the Gators to win games without putting too much in the shaky hands of the quarterback, the running game must step up.
The solution: The pieces are there. Senior guard Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, has improved significantly in his second season at UF and is a road-grader at 6-foot-8, 344 pounds. Redshirt freshman right tackle Roderick Johnson has been one of the Gators' biggest surprises, playing very well in two starts when left tackle D.J. Humphries was hurt. Even with Humphries expected back for the Tennessee game, Johnson should stay in the starting lineup. Moving senior tackle Chaz Green to guard would improve Florida's starting lineup and its bench.

Lack of a pass rush
The problem: The Gators have struggled to pressure quarterbacks ever since tackle Dominique Easley was hurt early last season. But with a year to improve and one truly dangerous edge-rusher in Dante Fowler Jr. to play off of, Florida should be able to muster more than two sacks a game. What's worse, the inability to consistently generate a pass rush has exposed Florida's young secondary to big plays.
The solution: The Gators have gotten almost nothing from their defensive tackles, which means Muschamp is likely to move junior end Jonathan Bullard inside more often. Bullard at least has the quickness to make a play or two. At the other end position, Florida must utilize third-year sophomore Alex McCalister, who had the team's only sack against Alabama. Senior OLB Neiron Ball has also shown some ability to get around offensive tackles. Overall, it doesn't look like there are enough pass-rushers emerging this season, so Muschamp will have to get creative with his blitz packages. It's more risky, but nothing is worse than giving a quarterback time to pick apart your secondary.

Gaping holes in the secondary
The problem: After the last three seasons of defense under Muschamp, this year's drop-off has been stunning. Busted assignments, lack of communication, missed tackles and poor coverage have led to a plethora of big plays by UF opponents. Florida saw all four of its starters in the defensive backfield depart after last season and lost both of its starting safeties to the NFL the season before that. There's no doubt a lot of the errors this season can be chalked up to youth. But aside from stalwart corner Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators' few veterans are also making big mistakes.
The solution: Play the young guys. If the experienced players keep making mistakes, there's nothing to lose. Muschamp said as much last week: "What you’re doing is not working so you might as well try somebody else. That’s where I am right now." The Gators have some very talented true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor and four-star DB Duke Dawson had the benefit of enrolling in January and participating in spring practice. Along with four-star DB Quincy Wilson, Florida has options. More playing time will only help speed their development.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Coming off an ignominious 4-8 season that lit a fire under his seat, Florida coach Will Muschamp has reassessed every aspect of his program. Even himself.

"Based on the record last year, I haven't [improved as a coach]," he said on Sunday in addressing the media just hours before the Gators were to open preseason camp. "That's the way you look at it. You are what your record is."

Muschamp has not dodged nor shrunk from talk of the hot seat and the accompanying speculation about his job security. Instead he has steadfastly insisted the Gators will rebound in 2014.

"I think all of the components are there," he said. "... We need to go do it now."

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Will Muschamp
Jeff Barlis/ESPN.comWill Muschamp addresses the media on Sunday before his Gators report for preseason camp.
The first tests take place in camp. Here are five things to watch as the Gators take the field on Monday.

1. The injury bug has been squashed: What difference does a year make? In 2013, Florida started camp without its starting quarterback and starting running back, among several others. QB Jeff Driskel had an emergency appendectomy, while RB Matt Jones came down with a serious viral infection. Those fluky ailments set an ominous tone for a season littered with key injuries.

On Sunday, Muschamp announced no new injuries. In fact, only one scholarship player is out -- true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher, who had back surgery in the spring and will redshirt.

Muschamp also said the Gators will dramatically cut down on mid-day practices and "go later at night and a little lighter than we had been doing before, so it won't be as taxing for the players."

2. Playmakers returning to offense: Jones, who missed most of the 2013 season with a torn meniscus, pronounced himself "110 percent" and ready to claim a significant role in the offense. He's added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, which has Muschamp envisioning a role as a late-game battering ram.

"He's a 230-pound back that about midway through the third and fourth quarter you get tired of hitting," the coach said. "He's got extremely good hands, he's very good at protection, very smart player."

Another potential boon for the Gators' hopes of an offensive revival comes with the return of sixth-year senior wide receiver Andre Debose, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason camp.

"I feel great," he said on Sunday after jumping over the interview table to get to his seat. "I'm feeling real good. ...

"Heading into this last year I just want to be productive. I want to help the team in any way I can. I'm just happy to be back, running around and being a part of the team."

Although Debose's production at UF has never quite matched his prodigious talent, the 6-foot, 190-pound speedster is one of the Gators' most experienced pass-catchers and is a proven weapon as a kickoff returner as well.

3. Depth charge on both lines: Starters on the offensive and defensive lines are well entrenched and well seasoned. Florida's first-team O-line has a combined 67 career starts. The D-line has 37. The problem, which Muschamp harped on throughout spring practice, is that there is a significant drop-off when the second units step in.

"Got to continue to build depth on both lines of scrimmage," he said. "I think the talent level is there."

Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Rod Johnson has always been held in high regard by his coaches, but he missed the entire spring with head and knee injuries. Muschamp also singled out redshirt freshman guard Antonio Riles and true freshmen David Sharpe and Andrew Mike.

On defense, Muschamp listed a host of young players who will get opportunities in camp. The most advanced of them are ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister

4. Backup quarterbacks will battle: Because Driskel missed most of last season with a broken bone in his leg, there is a greater emphasis on quarterbacks.

"We need to find a backup quarterback," Muschamp said. "That's someone that will play in the first ballgame at some point. That's going to be important for us to develop at that position."

There is great anticipation for the long-term QB battle brewing between true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris, two of the nation's top prospects in the recruiting Class of 2014. But third-year sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg isn't about to concede the No. 2 job.

The son of New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg started the final three games of last season, gaining valuable experience on the road against South Carolina and in facing eventual national champion Florida State.

"I learned a lot last season," Skyler Mornhinweg said. "Being able to get in there and play at this level, in terms of developing, that's the best you can do right there. You can be in the film room, you can practice, but actually getting out there and playing is great experience."

Mornhinweg concedes that Grier and Harris are better at running the ball, which could give them an advantage in Florida's new spread offense. But Mornhinweg's starting experience gives him an air of authority.

"I expect to be the backup in my mind, yeah," he said. "I'm confident. I'm ready to have some fun with it."

5. Last season is history (sort of): Much has been made about Florida's 4-8 record in 2013. The fans, the media and especially opponents have issued reminders throughout the offseason. Eager to move forward and change the subject, the Gators say they've had enough of talking about last year.

But the painful memories do serve a purpose.

"We put that behind us, but we're not going to forget that," Jones said. "We've definitely got a chip on our shoulder that we've got something to prove, but we're not going to keep it over our head that we went 4-8. We just know that we've got to come back strong."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.

Muschamp thinks this is the year his Gators get to the quarterback, and his reason for optimism is the emergence of junior Dante Fowler Jr.

"Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough," Muschamp said. "He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and competes."

The key to a good pass defense, Muschamp likes to say, is rushing the passer. Yet somehow his Gators have ranked among the nation's best against the pass without anything resembling a fierce rush.

It's been the great missing link on an otherwise sterling defense.

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators believe Dante Fowler Jr. could be a special player when it comes to rushing the passer.
Since Muschamp's first season with the Gators in 2011, when a sophomore named Ronald Powell led the team with six sacks, the pass rush has been anemic. Dominique Easley led the team with four sacks in 2012. Powell led UF last season with four as well.

In that span, Florida has had the nation's No. 7 pass defense in 2011, No. 17 in 2012 and No. 7 last season.

Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.

He cites his past experiences building defenses around dominant pass rushers like Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins or Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo of the Texas Longhorns.

"I think we have a special rusher in Dante," Muschamp said. "There's no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him. …

"You find out where you're going to get the matchups on him, whether it's inside or outside. We started the latter part of the season, actually against Florida State we put him at nose guard to get him in a one-on-one matchup. Those are things you do with a special rusher and then you build off of that."

Throughout the spring, Fowler has menaced UF's offensive linemen and won a lot of believers.

"It’s kind of starting to get freakish," senior defensive tackle Darious Cummings said last week. "He’s a hell of an athlete. If he’s on and everybody else is on too, it’s kind of like the defensive line is hard to stop. That helps everybody else, the linebackers and the secondary."

Indeed, everyone is hoping Fowler breaks through with double-digit sacks in 2014, but there's only so much he can do without teammates dragging down a few QBs as well.

"We need a little more pass rush," Muschamp said. "Dante's a guy that can win a one-on-one rush on the edge right now. I don't feel totally comfortable that there's another guy out there. [Senior linebacker] Neiron Ball may be another guy that will figure into that, who has done those sort of things before.

"I think there's some potential, but potential can be a bad word there for you at times."

Unfortunately for Florida, Ball sprained his MCL in one of the early practices and will miss the rest of the spring. So who else is there?

Muschamp also cited Alex McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound sophomore, as a pass rusher with potential. But McCalister only played two years of high school football and is still raw.

"Alex McAlister is a guy that needs to continue to develop to be that, Muschamp said. "He's about on track time-wise of what we thought. … He's starting to understand about leverage. He's got natural pass-rush ability to flip his hips in the rush. So he has the things we saw. And we knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they're going to take off and go."

The search for what Muschamp calls "some juice" continues. Lately he has turned his attention to junior defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard, who has moved inside from strong-side end in order to make room for Bryan Cox Jr.

"Bryan Cox, I’ve been very pleased with his production," the coach said. "It’s allowed us to do some different things with Jon Bullard to allow us to get our best players on the field. Jon can play end and tackle. It creates depth."

Like the coaches, Bullard has been impressed with Cox, a sophomore who is often pointed to as an example of relentless effort during film study.

"He's doing real good," Bullard said. "He embraces it. He works hard. He has a motor, so he's constantly running. Effort will get you a long ways right now, so he's doing it. He's doing what they're asking him to do. With me bumping inside we need somebody who can do that, and he's been the guy."

Cox knows a starting job won't be won in the spring, but he's pushing.

"I just try not to stop running no matter what," he said last week. "Sometimes I may bust something or do something like that, but I try to keep going and never give up on the play. It can always turn completely around. He could break back the other way. Anything could happen."

Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.

Muschamp: Bigger is better at UF

August, 16, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida fans better get a good look at senior wide receiver Solomon Patton this season because guys like him are going to be hard to find around here from now on.

Small guys.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.

[+] EnlargeJon Halapio
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackGuard Jon Halapio, at 6 feet 3 and 321 pounds, meets Will Muschamp's size criteria to compete in the SEC.
Size does matter at Florida now. Muschamp believes it’s the best way to have success in the Southeastern Conference.

"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.

"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."

Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.

This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.

Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).

Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).

It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.

And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.

"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.

"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."

Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:

Offensive line

Ideal number: 15-17

Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.

Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.

Defensive tackle

Ideal number: 8-10

Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.

Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.

Defensive ends

Ideal number: 6-8

Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.

Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.

Bucks

Ideal number: 4-6

Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.

Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.

Linebackers

Ideal number: 9-12

Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.

Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.

Tight ends

Ideal number: 3-5

Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.

Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Defensive line coach Brad Lawing couldn’t bring Jadeveon Clowney with him when Florida coach Will Muschamp hired him away from South Carolina in January.

But Lawing did bring one of the things that helped Clowney become one of the country’s most feared pass rushers.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp and his defensive staff are tinkering with the rabbits package, in hopes of improving the Gators' D-line pressure.
It’s called the rabbits package, so named because it was designed to get as many speed rushers on the field as possible. Lawing and South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward developed it during spring 2012 and the Gamecocks used it successfully, racking up 40 sacks during the regular season.

Now Lawing, Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin are tinkering with it as the Gators continue their preseason practices.

"Who will that package be?" Muschamp said. "We’re searching for the right guys. We think we have a pretty good handle on who they may be, but you never know. We’ve got to continue to search through those guys and find your best four rushers, and then who’s five, who’s six, who’s seven?"

Even though Florida’s pass rush was better last season than it had been the previous two (the Gators recorded 30 sacks in 2012, the most since it had 40 in 2009), there’s plenty of room to improve. The Gators appear to have the personnel to be better, especially with the return of redshirt junior buck Ronald Powell, and adding the rabbits package will certainly help.

It’s easy to identify UF’s top four pass rushers: Powell, sophomore Dante Fowler Jr., sophomore Jonathan Bullard and senior Dominique Easley. Powell and Fowler are hybrid defensive ends/strongside linebackers. Bullard is an end and Easley can play both end and tackle. The group, which has a combined 16.5 career sacks, are all starters but also will likely comprise the rabbits package, with Easley moving over to nose tackle.

Bullard and Fowler played key roles as freshmen last season, helping pick up the slack in the rush that was created when Powell (seven career sacks) suffered a torn ACL in the spring game and missed the entire season. Bullard led the team with seven quarterback hurries, while Fowler had 2.5 sacks.

Muschamp said Powell has looked very good in camp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said the pass rush has given the offense trouble.

"They’re very athletic," Pease said. "When you have Easley and Bullard and then you throw in Dante. Now Dante, depending how they use him, he’s such a weapon because he’s a down guy, pass rusher, pass coverage guy, very physical, he’s so heavy-handed. He’s a tough kid to block.

"And then when you throw Ronald in there ..."

Muschamp isn’t sure how much he’s going to use the rabbits package. He said the Gators did a solid job with the pass rush last season and the addition of Powell and the maturation and improvement of Fowler and Bullard should automatically make them better.

Plus, Florida plays mostly man coverage and offenses counter that with six- and seven-man protections to give quarterbacks extra time to throw the ball.

"I think we gave up less explosive plays in the passing game than anybody in the country [last season]," Muschamp said. "I think we gave up less touchdowns than [all but four] teams in the country. So I think we were very efficient in the passing game. And that's not just from a coverage standpoint, that's from a rush standpoint."

But it’s nice to have the package available, especially if it allows the Gators to begin to develop younger players like redshirt freshmen Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister.
GatorNation's Rankings Week concludes with a list of the Gators’ top needs in recruiting for the class of 2014, as well as a list of the top players the Gators are pursuing at those positions.

Ranking UF’s needs for 2014

1. Offensive line

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