SEC: Antonio Morrison
Around the SEC
- Kevin Sumlin officially added former Missouri and Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to the Texas A&M staff as its offensive line coach and running game coordinator. Speaking of the offensive line, draft-eligible redshirt sophomore Germain Ifedi announced he'll return for his junior season.
- Missouri defensive end Shane Ray postponed his draft announcement until Wednesday. He's still expected to announce he's entering the NFL draft.
- Former Mizzou receiver Dorial Green-Beckham never played a down for Oklahoma after transferring there; he's headed to the NFL draft.
- Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is bypassing the NFL draft and returning to the Tigers for his senior season.
- Gerald Willis III is transferring out of Florida's program and was reportedly dismissed from the team. Meanwhile, linebacker Antonio Morrison announced he's returning to school and bypassing the draft.
- Everett Golson denied, via Twitter, rumors he is transferring to LSU.
- Penn State's Bob Shoop is expected to interview for the LSU defensive coordinator vacancy.
That awkward moment if DGB gets drafted when the announcer says "Oklahoma" but all video of him is in Mizzou uniform.— Ashley Zavala (@ZavalaA) January 6, 2015
But maybe there’s hope.
On Tuesday, two of those first-year coordinators received good news when Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison both decided to return to school for their senior seasons.
McKinzy, who finished second on the team with 91 tackles and led the Tigers with 11 tackles for loss, flirted with the possibility of leaving early for the NFL but ultimately decided it was in his best interest to come back.
The auburn family means to much to me to not take advantage of the time I have here. I'm looking forward to helping us build the best— Cassanova McKinzy 30 (@McKinzy30) January 6, 2015
Defense in college football. Can't forget my brothers an that grind we embrace. I love you all. Couldn't ask for a better back bone.— Cassanova McKinzy 30 (@McKinzy30) January 6, 2015
The return of McKinzy is a huge coup for newly hired defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. The former Florida head coach is expected to run more of a 3-4, 4-3 hybrid defense at Auburn, and McKinzy’s versatility should make the transition that much easier.
Meanwhile, the Gators welcome back the team’s top linebacker in Morrison. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound junior led Florida with 101 tackles and was voted second-team All-SEC by the coaches after the season.
"I'm returning to Florida and I will be getting my degree in 2015,” Morrison said in a statement. “That plays a big role in why I'm returning. And as a leader of this team, I want to lead my team to Atlanta and possibly a national championship. Coach [Jim] McElwain has put together a great staff and I'm looking forward to working with them this year."
Morrison’s decision might have also been affected by what appeared to be a significant injury to his left knee in last Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl. He was carted off the field in obvious pain, but the school has yet to release word on the severity of the injury.
After the game, interim coach D.J. Durkin addressed his linebacker.
"I can’t say enough about that kid," Durkin said. "He’s very special to me. We’ve been here together the whole time. Whatever it is, however serious it is, I know one thing -- there’s not a tougher guy in this country than Antonio.
“So whatever it is, he’ll bounce back from it and be back playing 100 percent somewhere sometime soon."
That somewhere will be Florida. How soon? We don’t know.
Regardless, Tuesday was a good day for SEC defenses with two of the top 15 tacklers in the conference announcing their return. Will that be enough to buck the current trend and make a once proud defensive league respectable again? Maybe not, but at least it’s a start.
Defense: Florida's secondary returns the most talent for McElwain's staff to work with. The Gators only lose senior safety Jabari Gorman, but return a solid contingent of cover cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Sophomore Keanu Neal returns as the Gators' top safety, and freshman Duke Dawson can play safety and cornerback. Marcus Maye and Brian Poole, who improved greatly this season, return to the nickel spot. Expect to see more from redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris, a special teams beast, and Nick Washington. Also, true freshman J.C. Jackson returns from a season-ending shoulder injury. The Gators lose seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor, but could return senior-to-be Antonio Morrison, who is coming off his best season with the Gators and is considering a jump to the NFL. Florida returns good depth, starting with sophomores Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin could also have a bigger impact on the defense next fall. The defensive line will lose the defense's best player in end Dante Fowler Jr., along with starting nose tackle Darious Cummings, but could return junior tackle Jonathan Bullard, who is also flirting with the NFL. Ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. have the potential for bright futures, as do young tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie.
Special teams: The Gators went back and forth with their kickers, but lose senior Francisco Velez, who hit 12 of 14 field goals this fall. That means sophomore Austin Hardin (7 of 10), who finished the season as the starter, will have all eyes on him. Incredibly efficient punter Kyle Christy will be gone, but Johnny Townsend returns after starting ahead of Christy in 2013. Finding a return man to replace Andre Debose won't be easy. He had four kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown in his career.
Fan base: Gator Nation isn't happy. There was a toxic atmosphere within the fan base for the past couple of seasons because the product on the field just wasn't adequate. Is this fan base excited about McElwain's hire? That is to be determined, but fans have to be happy about the prospect of having some sort of real offensive pulse going forward. Obviously, fans want wins, and the Gators didn't deliver enough of those during Muschamp's tenure. These fans also want a competent offense, and that was clear when there wasn't a ton of buzz around the program during an 11-win 2012 season that featured a run-heavy, defensive Florida team.
Administrative support: Athletic director Jeremy Foley is one of the most loyal athletic directors out there. He stuck with Muschamp after an embarrassing 4-8 season for crying out loud. But he also knew exactly the direction his program needed to go in 2014, and it never went the right way. Foley isn't afraid to stand up for his coaches publicly, and he's always willing to work with his coaches to find ways to improve everything around them. He's one of the smartest athletic directors around, and Florida's athletic program isn't short for cash. The program has been incredibly successful under Foley's watch, and he will make sure his new coach is taken care of and put on the right path for success.
Recruiting: Florida's current recruiting class only holds nine players. Four are offensive linemen, who have to stay committed to the Gators going forward because of how thin that line will be in 2015. Two of those linemen -- Mike Horton and George Brown Jr. -- have visited other schools. The Gators also only have a couple of offensive skill players committed. Dual-threat quarterback Sheriron Jones is committed and will have to see if he works within McElwain's offense. McElwain has to snag some solid offensive talent to help the Gators in 2015, because Florida has somehow failed to sign elite offensive talent for years now. With Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris taking the SMU job, the Gators could get in on Clemson athlete commits Deon Cain and Ray Ray-Ray McCloud III, who have interest in Florida. Miami running back commit Dexter Williams has flirted with Florida before, and his family likes what Florida has to offer, so keep an eye on him. Uncommitted five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey is still high on the Gators, and Florida is still looking at receiver Antonio Callaway, who was a teammate of Treon Harris' at Booker T. Washington High. Defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart are also high priorities for McElwain.
Will Muschamp made one thing abundantly clear during his news conference Monday: He's leaving Florida's program in better shape than he found it.
"We've got a deep and talented roster, so don't let that new guy tell you he ain't got no good players," said Muschamp, who will not return as the Gators' head coach in 2015. "Tell you that right now. They got some good football players in that locker room."
Despite what the stats and this year's 5-4 record might say, he's right. The Gators are losing a star in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., but the defense is still loaded with quality depth and talent to help any new coach for a couple of years. And even though the offense is riddled with holes, the quarterback position is better than when he arrived, there's depth on the line and there could be promise in a group of young receivers that includes Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood.
I'm not saying Florida's next head coach has a group of world beaters on his hands, but he has a much better foundation to work with than Muschamp did when he took over for Urban Meyer in 2011.
Florida will lose four senior starters on both offense and defense, and there are still a couple of juniors, such as linebacker Antonio Morrison and running back Matt Jones, who could depart early for the NFL draft. But the core of this team will be back, including most of the defensive line and a secondary that houses star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
All in all, the Gators could potentially return 20 players who have played in at least 14 collegiate games and 14 who have played in 20 or more games. So there's experience to work with, and players who have gone through the toughest parts of their development stages.
Now, this isn't to say Florida has a complete roster full of elite talent. Upgrades need to be made, especially at wide receiver, and more quality bodies need to be brought in on the offensive line. The Gators might have to replace all three starting linebackers, as well. There's work to be done across the board, but there's a good base for the next coach to build off of.
Muschamp also left that locker room in a more stable condition, too, after walking into an absolute mess when he arrived in 2011. Even Meyer relented he left him a broken program. So it took awhile for Muschamp to gain power in that locker room, but looking at the state of what's happening away from the field, he did a heck of a job bringing order, even if the wins didn't come.
Head cases and trouble-makers were booted, as the off-field incidents decreased exponentially under Muschamp and the team's GPA rose. The team's Academic Progress Rate (APR) this spring was 979, which is 10 points higher than the national average and the highest it's been at Florida in the past decade. Muschamp has had 68 players make academic All-SEC and 44 graduate with degrees. And the composite team GPA this past spring was the highest in the history of the football program.
"He was asked to come here and build a program, a program built on character and on good academic values," university president Bernie Machen said. "He was asked to develop young men that would be a credit to the Gator Nation. He has done that."
This team isn't going to be thrown right at the top of a wobbly SEC Eastern Division when the next coach arrives, but he'll have the internal advantages Muschamp didn't. It certainly won't be a bad way to start a new life in Gainesville.
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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.
1. Florida's offense is already better than it was at any time last season. That's a low bar to clear, but new coordinator Kurt Roper made coach Will Muschamp happy by designing a run-heavy offense that can spread out opponents and get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space.
2. The defense has work to do. There are two rising stars in CB Vernon Hargreaves III and DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr. There are solid veterans at key positions such as S Jabari Gorman, DL Jonathan Bullard, and LBs Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor. The rest of the D is loaded with inexperienced talent.
3. After a 4-8 season in 2013, this is a team with a lot to prove. Everywhere you look there are chips on shoulders. The entire offense is determined to carry its weight, especially QB Jeff Driskel and the receivers. The kickers are looking to bounce back. No one wants to repeat the pain of last season.
Three questions for the fall:
1. Will Driskel finally break through? The Gators don't need brilliance from their quarterback in order to have a decent offense. But he must improve his accuracy, pocket awareness and ability to read defenses. Roper has built his scheme around Driskel's strengths, so look for lots of running and quick passing.
2. Will a true freshman start at cornerback opposite Hargreaves? It's looking that way for a program that has had a lot of similar success stories with Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Hargreaves. Next up are Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, who didn't look out of place in spring ball.
3. Who are the playmakers on offense? Roper's scheme promised a clean slate and a lot of opportunities, as he typically uses a lot of players. Florida's most reliable options are RBs Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown. At receiver, there's Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. The rest still have much to prove.
One way-too-early prediction:
Florida will pass the eye test with fans by producing more offense and fewer cringe-worthy moments. But the schedule will prove difficult to navigate, and Gators fans will continue their debate over Muschamp's status throughout the season. Eight wins signals progress to many, while four losses stokes the flames of others.
- Georgia's director of on-campus recruiting, Daryl Jones, discusses the program's use of junior graphic design major Lisa Rader's unique drawings that it has recently begun sending to recruits, showing them half in their high school uniform and half in one from UGA.
- The Advocate's Ross Dellenger spoke with LSU's football scheduling head honcho Verge Ausberry about how the program approaches modern-day scheduling. The Tigers recently announced home-and-home series in upcoming seasons against UCLA and Arizona State.
- Alabama's Blake Sims calls the team's quarterback competition a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
- The Sept. 6 game between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss could be moved to Nashville's LP Field.
- Kentucky's coaches say their team is in a much better place at quarterback after a tumultuous 2013 season.
- Linebackers like Antonio Morrison and Daniel McMillian delivered strong play in Florida's spring practice on Wednesday.
- South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney has stated his case on why he should be the No. 1 overall pick in next month's NFL draft.
- Auburn center Xavier Dampeer's strong spring continues as he stakes a claim on becoming Reese Dismuke's heir apparent at center.
- Missouri is hoping for another dominant season from its defensive line.
- Arkansas' Korliss Marshall is adjusting to a full-time role in the backfield after playing defense most of last season.
- Texas A&M sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni is settling in at middle linebacker, a position group that could enjoy better depth in 2014.
- Former Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio Richardson proclaimed that he is finally healthy at the Vols' NFL pro day on Wednesday.
Sure, the Gators had a top-five defense overall. But the run defense, which gave up 94.9 yards per game to rank fourth in the nation in 2012, slipped to No. 33 in the country last fall and gave up 142.4 yards per game.
Those concerns carried over to spring practice, as the run defense had some struggles last weekend in scrimmaging against the team's new uptempo spread offense.
"Atrocious tackling for leveraging the ball, being in the right spots. So those are all things we need to improve on."
Florida has lost plenty of reliable veteran starters from the middle of its defense in the last two offseasons. Last year, the Gators had to cope with the departures of defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. All were drafted in the first six rounds of the NFL draft.
The defense started strong last fall but slumped noticeably after star defensive tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season to injury, which had a cascading effect on the rest of the unit.
"Some other guys' production went down a little bit when Dominique wasn't in there anymore," Muschamp said. "It affects you tremendously. ...
"You get blocked a lot more when you lose a guy like that."
As a result, Muschamp said, the linebackers weren't as productive as he expects.
"It was tough," junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison said. "We lost some of our best players to injury, not to use that as an excuse. It was a tough year, but that’s behind us. We learned from it and we’re ready to get on with it.
"We just know that’s unacceptable. We’re not trying to put that on the field anymore."
This spring the Gators are counting on experienced linebackers such as Morrison and Michael Taylor to turn things around.
"They need to be able to calm the defense down at times," said Muschamp, calling his middle linebacker the quarterback of the defense. "I think Jon Bostic was as good as I've been around as far as handling and managing our front and back end with communication. Just did an outstanding job of that, and Jelani did a great job as well.
"We need to do a better job from a communication standpoint at that position, and I think we've made some strides."
Muschamp acknowledges that his defense puts a lot of pressure on its linebackers. Leadership and communication are not optional.
Perhaps no player has been under more scrutiny than Morrison, who was impressive as a freshman outside linebacker but struggled at times last fall in the middle. It didn't help that two arrests last summer undermined Morrison's ability to be a vocal leader, but Muschamp sees signs of progress.
"I think each year you mature a little bit, and sometimes you have to learn from your mistakes publicly to take steps forward, and I think he's done that," Muschamp said. "I've been pleased with his production as a player on the field; I've been pleased with how he's handled himself off the field.
"We all mature at different levels and different times, and certainly he is a guy that needed to mature, take that next step. I think he's done that."
Florida is looking to its interior defensive linemen to grow up as well. Muschamp has cited the talent level of redshirt freshman defensive tackles Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jay-nard Bostwick. But he has also repeatedly expressed how much work they still need.
"The hardest thing for a young defensive lineman is disengaging from blocks," he said, "because they've been so much better than the other guys in high school, they haven't had to disengage from blocks. A lot of the time, the guy blocking them wasn't good enough to get a hat on them.
"Well now you've got to take on the block, understand how to defeat the block and then go to the ball carrier and do it over and over again, which sometimes is a little bit of a challenge for some of our guys."
With senior defensive tackle Leon Orr out this spring with a broken wrist, the onus has fallen on senior Darious Cummings and junior Jonathan Bullard, whom Muschamp praised for his work in moving inside from defensive end.
"I’ve seen some positive things, just very inconsistent once we get past that first group," he said. "The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."
Taylor, who prefers to lead by actions instead of words, is confident the run defense will improve after identifying the problems.
"[We] saw what we needed to work on," Taylor said, "saw how we were getting blocked, saw how teams were trying to run on us and simplified some things, cleared some stuff up, and we worked on what we needed to get better on. And that's what we've been doing."
What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.
On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.
New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.
Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.
Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.
Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.
Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.
Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.
All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring is the season of growth, renewal and rebirth. Sounds like a good wish list for the Florida Gators, who are just days away from starting spring practice.
Coming off a surprising 4-8 season that ended with three coaches and a couple dozen players departing, UF is turning the page and looking forward to the clean slate that comes with a new season.
This is a program that has been thoroughly humbled, and it needs a completely new approach in 2014.
The Gators have had some lows over the past four seasons with a 30-21 combined record, but they reached new levels of misery last year. The injuries piled up and the losses followed suit. It got so bad late in the season that it appeared some players were mailing in the season.
On more than one occasion last year, head coach Will Muschamp said, "If we keep doing the same things, we'll get the same results." He's expecting the results to be different in 2014, with the biggest change being a new offense led by former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper that features a faster tempo and some spread elements.
Roper and some new schemes ought to breathe life into a moribund offense and bring out the best in several talented players who were underutilized in recent years. But the problems at Florida run deeper.
Muschamp complained openly about his team's "woe-is-me mentality" and how it would snowball when things went wrong in games. That was a leadership problem.
A lot of players addressed the media with slumped shoulders and looks of resignation and confusion. There were few answers for how a team with the talent to win 11 games in 2012 could fall so far in one year.
But some players spoke defiantly, insisting Florida will bounce back in 2014. They made mental notes of all the embarrassments suffered last season and are coming back with something to prove.
These are Florida's leaders now -- upperclassmen like Max Garcia, Jonathan Bullard, Quinton Dunbar and Dante Fowler Jr. Along with the coaching staff, they have to push their teammates and use the painful memories of last season to forge something stronger.
It starts with belief.
This will be one of the most important spring practice sessions at Florida in the last decade, and fans can expect to see a level of urgency unlike anything they can remember.
The Gators will have a very young roster again, so it's critical to find new leaders this spring. There are just 16 seniors and 13 juniors on scholarship, tiny numbers considering the 53 underclassmen who are expected to be on the final roster this fall.
It happens every year. Whenever one senior class leaves, there is a void that must be filled. But this spring is different. This is a team that desperately needs strong, respected voices.
Florida appears to be in good shape on defense with vocal leaders like Fowler and Vernon Hargreaves III playing at a high level. It would also be a big help if middle linebacker Antonio Morrison returns to the level of play he showed as a true freshman starter. Morrison wanted badly to be a leader last season, and the team needed his voice, but two offseason arrests and a decline in play hurt him in that department. If Morrison cannot deliver this year, senior Michael Taylor will be waiting to take over at middle linebacker and will be needed as that vocal leader the defense can rely upon.
Offense, as always, revolves around the quarterback. Sure, it would really help the Gators if Dunbar takes the young receiving corps under his wing and holds his teammates accountable. And Florida could use a leader in a crowded backfield that features sophomore Kelvin Taylor.
But really, it's all about the quarterback.
Muschamp has a lot of faith in starter Jeff Driskel and has seen the fourth-year junior grow as a leader. But the challenge facing these Gators is greater than what these players have seen before.
Driskel has to set the tone this spring. More than any other player, he needs to show an understanding of Roper's offense and be responsible for the progress his teammates make in these 15 critical practice sessions. He must speak up and show everyone that this is his team.
One voice from one primary leader can work wonders, especially on a young team. The prediction here is that Driskel will not shy away from that spotlight.
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.
Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.
Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.
It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.
The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.
"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.
The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.
And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.
Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?
A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.
"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."
"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...
"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”
On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.
Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).
Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.
"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."
It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.
Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.
But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.
"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."
The same cannot be said of Florida.
The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.
"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."
Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.
"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."
Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.
Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.
"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.
"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."
Perhaps this was to be expected because Florida lost seven starters from last year's defense, which ranked fourth in the nation against the run. Defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter; the entire linebacker unit of Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray; safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- all were solid run-stoppers who played up the middle.
The numbers tell an incomplete story, as Florida ranks No. 15 in the nation in run defense, giving up 109.7 yards a game. But Muschamp is ever the perfectionist when it comes to his defense, and lately it hasn't done a good job of stopping the run when it matters the most.
"I think that just playing blocks up front, we’ve been inconsistent and inconsistent across the board," he said. "We’ve done some nice things at times, but not enough to be able to stop the run consistently, especially when we’ve needed to in critical situations."
The lack of clutch stops has become obvious during the Gators' four-game losing streak. In a critical loss to Missouri, after Florida's offense scored a TD late in the third quarter to claw back to within six points, the UF run defense gave momentum right back. Missouri rushed for 59 yards, including a 50-yard run by Henry Josey, to set up a field goal and ice the game.
In the next game in Jacksonville, Florida allowed Georgia's Todd Gurley to salt away the clock with 19 of his 100 yards on a fourth-quarter drive. And in last week's 34-17 home loss to Vanderbilt, the Commodores completed just six passes en route to scoring 34 points.
This week, the challenge of fixing the run defense became tougher when Muschamp announced starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison is out for the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Morrison led the Gators with 56 tackles.
But the leaky run defense might be more precisely be traced to the season-ending injury of senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley. He was perhaps the Gators' best overall player, an emotional focal point who led the team off the field and was a wrecking ball on it.
Florida's defense allowed 55.3 rushing yards per game in the first three games of the season. Since Easley's injury, the Gators have allowed 136.8 per game.
"I said it when it happened, you don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team. So it's tough. But we certainly have capable players to come out and play well, and play better than we've played in some situations. And I think you don't put your finger on one thing and say it's because of this. It's the cumulative effect of different things that have occurred, and you've just got to overcome it."
UF defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin agreed, saying the problem is less about personnel or physicality than it is a mindset the remaining players need to cultivate.
"We've played good at times with the guys we have," he said. "We can't allow things to affect us, whether it's a guy being out, whether it's we're back on the field because of a sudden-change situation. None of that should affect how we play, and at times I feel like it has. That's the learning process we need to take from all this. We need to play our style the way we play defensively at all times regardless of what the situation is. So, it's a continuing learning process."
That's both a good thing and a bad thing for No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC). The good news is that the defense has been stellar thus far, ranking first in the SEC and third nationally in total defense (235.3 yards per game). Even after losing wealth of talent to last spring's NFL draft -- and potential All-American defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending ACL injury -- the Gators' defense has been clicking each week.
Florida's defense is also first in the SEC in rushing defense (83.3 yards per game), passing (152 ypg) and second in scoring (13 points per game). After losing to LSU 17-6 this past weekend, the Gators have gone 13 straight SEC games without allowing 20 or more points. The Gators have an all-star cast in their secondary, headlined by corners Vernon Hargreaves III (a true freshman) and potential first-round draft picks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. The defensive line is headlined by Buck end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., while Antonio Morrison leads a talented linebacker corps.
While Florida has given up more than 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games, no one produced more than 66 rushing yards through the first four games of the season.
Then there's the offense. Like last year, it's a major issue again. Florida lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken fibula against Tennessee in Week 4 and have had to throw longtime backup Tyler Murphy into the fire. After three solid outings, Murphy crumbled under the pressure forced by LSU's defense last week. What didn't help was the lack of a consistent running game. In losses to Miami and LSU, Florida averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.
The weird thing is that Florida is one of three SEC teams to have three players with more than 300 receiving yards, but if the Gators are going to make any sort of push toward Atlanta for the SEC championship, the offense has to get going. The problem is that with running back Matt Jones out for the season, the Gators are still looking for that hammer-type running back like Mike Gillislee was last year.
Offensive MVP: Solomon Patton, WR, Sr.: After spending three years as more of a jet-sweep guy, Patton leads the Gators with 380 yards and four touchdowns on 22 catches. He has become a deep threat, an underneath threat and a threat out of the backfield.
Defensive MVP: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Soph.: After a slow start, Fowler has been one of the Gators' best players, registering a team-high seven tackles for loss and three sacks. He also has three quarterback hurries, 22 total tackles and has forced two fumbles.
The game of the week takes place in Athens, Ga., as No. 11 Georgia (0-1) hosts sixth-ranked South Carolina (1-0) at 4:30 p.m. ET in a game that will have major implications on the SEC Eastern Division race. The Gamecocks have won three straight against the Bulldogs, but that hasn't stopped Georgia from winning the East and making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game the last two seasons.
Last week, these two teams went in opposite directions against ACC teams. The Gamecocks overwhelmed North Carolina at home with a 27-10 win, while Georgia suffered a heartbreaking 38-35 loss at Clemson.
The key for both teams will be controlling the line of scrimmage. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney looks to improve upon a lackluster Week 1 start, while the Bulldogs' offensive line has to tighten up after giving up four sacks last week.
As far as the East is concerned, this is an important game for both teams, but a win or loss for either won't crown or crush anyone. Remember, Georgia made it to the SEC title game in 2011 after an 0-2 start that included a loss to South Carolina.
The other big game on the docket takes place in South Florida, as No. 12 Florida (1-0) faces rival Miami (1-0) at noon ET. This could be the last time we see these two teams play against each other during the regular season for a while. They'll have to make it count, and something tells me they will.
Both showed strong running games in Week 1, as a Duke Johnson-led Miami team rushed for 303 yards in a blowout win over Florida Atlantic, while the Gators put up 262 yards in the opening win over Toledo. Adding to Florida's running game is the return of starter Matt Jones, who missed the opener as he recovered from a viral infection. Everyone knows Johnson is an elite back, but Florida should have the defensive advantage, especially with starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Antonio Morrison returning.
For the Gators, the passing game still has a lot of questions. Florida opened things up a little bit more with Jeff Driskel and his receivers, but it still doesn't really feel like this passing game is very explosive yet. Time will tell.
Then there's Tennessee's home game with Bobby Petrino-led Western Kentucky. The Vols (1-0) demolished an overmatched Austin Peay team last week, but now they have a tougher matchup with the Hilltoppers in town. Butch Jones takes on the coach that the Vols said no to. And last week Petrino walked into Lexington, Kent., and beat Kentucky. Will Petrino take down back-to-back SEC first-timers?
Here's entire SEC lineup for today:
- Miami (Ohio) at Kentucky, 12 p.m. ET, FSN
- No. 12 Florida at Miami, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
- Western Kentucky at Tennessee, 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network
- Toledo at Missouri, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
- Alcorn State at Mississippi State, 3:30 p.m. ET, CSS
- No. 6 South Carolina at No. 11 Georgia, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
- SE Missouri St. at Ole Miss, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
- Sam Houston State at No. 7 Texas A&M, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
- Samford at Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, PPV
- UAB at No. 9 LSU, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
- Arkansas State at Auburn, 7:30 p.m. ET, FSN
- Austin Peay at Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. ET, CSS