SEC: Jonathan Bullard

State of the team: Florida

December, 5, 2014
12/05/14
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Florida hasn't exactly been the titan of college football that we were used to seeing in the not-so-distant past, and the better part of the past four years hasn't been great for the Gators. The firing of Will Muschamp, who went 10-13 in his last two seasons, brings new order to Gainesville. That order starts with former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, who will be working with a lot more than Muschamp first started with:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesQuarterback Jeff Driskel's future is uncertain as Florida brings in a new coaching staff.
Offense: The Gators have lacked any sort of substantial production at the quarterback spot, but could return as many as three quarterbacks with collegiate experience in Treon Harris, Skyler Mornhinweg and Jeff Driskel. Driskel is an interesting piece to the puzzle, because with an extra year of eligibility, he could transfer or pursue a Major League Baseball career. There is also redshirt freshman Will Grier, who arrived at Florida as the No. 3-rated dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation. With Matt Jones declaring for the NFL draft and Mack Brown graduating, Florida returns junior-to-be Kelvin Taylor and sophomores-to-be Brandon Powell and Adam Lane. Taylor improved drastically from his freshman season, rushing for 565 yards and six touchdowns. Powell made an impact at both running back and as a receiver, and Lane should see an increased role at running back. Receiver needs a lot of development. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (team-high 47 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns) is Florida's best offensive weapon, but he has to be more consistent, and he needs help. Youngsters Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson have potential, but neither made much of an impact this season. Florida will lose senior Quinton Dunbar, the Gators second-most productive receiver, and will have to see vast improvement from freshmen C.J. Worton, Ryan Sousa and Alvin Bailey. The offensive line takes a big hit, losing seniors Trenton Brown, Max Garcia and Chaz Green, and junior Tyler Moore, who declared for the NFL draft. Junior D.J. Humphries is also contemplating an early move to the NFL. Guys like Roderick Johnson, David Sharpe and Trip Thurman return with adequate experience from this season, but Florida's depth is lacking.

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.

Florida must start finding some answers

September, 29, 2014
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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.

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
8/07/14
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

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

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDante Fowler Jr., a preseason All-SEC first-team player, hopes to lead the Gators back to respectability.
Projected starters: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Jake McGee, LT D.J. Humphries, LG Tyler Moore, C Max Garcia, RG Trenton Brown, RT Chaz Green, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DT Leon Orr, DT Darious Cummings, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Jalen Tabor, S Jabari Gorman, S Marcus Maye

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.

Preseason predictions:

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.

Stock watch: Florida Gators

May, 2, 2014
5/02/14
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With spring practice fully digested, let's take a look at which Florida Gators' stock is up and who's on the way down.

RISING

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. looks ready to terrorize SEC quarterbacks after a strong spring.
Dante Fowler Jr.: The hybrid defensive end/linebacker altered his diet and dropped some body fat before spring. He quickly proved to be Florida's most consistent pass-rushing threat and showed flashes of dominating offensive linemen. While Fowler became an obvious team leader off the field, it appeared that many of his teammates were in awe of his talents on the field.

Starting O-line: Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries shook off last season's struggles and looked more like the prospect who arrived at UF with elite status. Junior Tyler Moore looked comfortable at left guard and was largely recovered from a broken elbow. Senior Max Garcia consistently earned praise despite struggling with shotgun snaps in his transition to a new position. Senior Trenton Brown played well enough to force the coaches to find a starting spot for him at right guard. Senior right tackle Chaz Green held off Brown's challenge and showed that he's finally healthy after missing last season with a torn labrum.

Demarcus Robinson: The sophomore receiver was in the doghouse and suspended twice last year but came back with more maturity and focus this spring. His talent was so obvious in practice one teammate called him "a freak." A physical presence at 6-foot-2 with speed and vision, Robinson looks like UF's best chance for a breakout star in the passing game.

Bryan Cox Jr.: Going into spring, Florida didn't have much at the defensive end position beyond Fowler and junior Jonathan Bullard. Cox opened his coaches' eyes with a non-stop motor that always showed up in film review and allowed them to experiment with Bullard at tackle. Cox might not be a starter in the fall, but the sophomore assured himself a lot of playing time with his spring performance.

Adam Lane: The redshirt freshman isn't high up on the running back depth chart, but he excited coaches and teammates with his running style. At 5-7 and 222 pounds, Lane is built like a bowling ball. He doesn't have breakaway speed, but always seems to bounce off defenders and fall forward.

FALLING

Brian Poole: As one of the few upperclassmen in UF's secondary, Poole had an opportunity to grab the coveted starting job opposite Vernon Hargreaves III. Instead of standing out, however, he blended in with two true freshman competitors and could wind up back at the nickel cornerback position where he played last fall.

Caleb Brantley: Much is expected of the redshirt freshman who was one of the nation's top Class of 2013 prospects. Florida is urgently trying to develop some difference-makers on the D-line, but Brantley doesn't always respond well to coaching and his motor runs hot and cold.

Valdez Showers: It has been an adventurous few months for Showers, who converted from safety to running back last August and spent all of spring as a slot receiver. He showed he still needs to work on his hands and fell behind Latroy Pittman, but Showers can expect more chances and playing time this fall.

Antonio Riles: Position changes are rarely a good sign in college football, but it's still early for the redshirt freshman who moved from defensive tackle/end to offensive guard. Coaches and teammates say he's got natural ability to play the O-line, but this move might have more to do with Florida's incoming D-line talent.

Raphael Andrades: Already a junior despite hardly playing in 2013, the wide receiver surprised many by playing as a true freshman and even starting three games. But he has just two career receptions and is now buried deep on an expanding depth chart.

REBOUNDING

Austin Hardin: The sophomore kicker showed that he's not giving up his job without a fight. After working on his mechanics throughout the offseason, he was consistent in practice and hit all four of his field goals in the spring game. Hardin will have to fend off more competition in fall camp.

Florida spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
4/30/14
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida Gators:

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.

Florida's spring standouts

April, 16, 2014
4/16/14
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fresh faces were everywhere at Florida this spring.

A poor season in 2013 brought a clean slate. A new offense brought opportunities at every position. A large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen brought a much-needed infusion of talent.

Going into spring practice, our list of players to watch consisted of quarterback Jeff Driskel, cornerback Jalen Tabor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, and running back Adam Lane.

Now that football is finished for a few months, we'll take a look at the spring results and see who else stood out.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel is healthy again and it showed in the spring game.
Driskel: The fourth-year junior had a very good spring in terms of health, leadership and command of the offense. He capped it with a solid spring game, going 18-for-32 for 167 yards and a touchdown.

Tabor: It says a lot when a true freshman is thrown right into the competition for a starting cornerback job. At 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, Tabor used his long arms to make plays in coverage. He still needs to work on his press technique and where to keep his eyes, but it's easy to see that he has great athleticism and natural instincts.

Robinson: He came in with a lot of hype last season as a true freshman and didn't respond well to the rigors of college life, but this spring Robinson lived up to expectations. He is clearly Florida's most complete receiver and best hope for a star in the passing game.

Goolsby: The true freshman has the talent to become Florida's top pass-catching tight end. He drew the attention and praise of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. But most young tight ends struggle with inline blocking, and Goolsby was no exception. He still has a lot to learn before he gets regular playing time.

Lane: Out of 12 redshirt freshmen, Lane made the biggest splash this spring. He proved to be very tough to tackle because, at 5-7, 222 pounds, he's built like a fire plug and never stops moving his feet. The Gators rode the "Lane Train" to a team-leading 12 carries for 67 yards (5.8 yards per carry) in the spring game.

Dante Fowler Jr.: Not enough can be said about the junior buck linebacker's importance in Florida's defense. The Gators simply need him to become a pass-rushing menace. He showed up in better shape this spring, commanded the respect and attention of his teammates and delivered on the field with consistency.

Trenton Brown: The mammoth senior began the spring looking like a backup at right tackle, but by the spring game Brown convinced his coaches that he was among Florida's five best offensive lineman and started at right guard. At 6-8, 361, Brown is easy to spot, especially when he's clearing running lanes.

Jarrad Davis: As a true freshman last year, Davis made a late-season breakthrough and followed that up with a very good spring. He consistently earned first-team reps and the praise of his coaches and teammates. Davis has quickly become a leader and clearly has a very bright future.

Hunter Joyer: After very limited offensive contributions over his first three seasons, the senior fullback was something of a revelation at the B position. He showed good hands, even on intermediate routes. Joyer sustained a minor knee injury in the spring game but earned praise afterward. "[He] did a great job this spring," Muschamp said.

Bryan Cox Jr.: It's unclear if the third-year sophomore was just a spring starter or if he can stick with the first unit this fall, but there's no denying that Cox stood out. With a nonstop motor, he forced coaches to experiment with moving junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle. At the very least, Cox stepped forward to show that he can provide quality depth.

Duke Dawson: The "other" true freshman cornerback on the roster came in with less acclaim than Tabor but had just as much success this spring. Dawson is solid in coverage and plays with more of a physical edge than Tabor. "We’re excited about him, too," said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.

Veterans who performed up to their coaches' expectations included sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, junior left tackle D.J. Humphries, sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor, senior safety Jabari Gorman, senior running back Mack Brown, senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and senior right tackle Chaz Green.

Several other players developed well enough to win consideration for playing time this fall. They were: junior slot receiver Latroy Pittman, junior guard/center Trip Thurman, sophomore safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshmen defensive backs Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, and true freshman defensive end Taven Bryan.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jonathan Bullard expected to be one of the Gators' best players last season. Wanted it badly.

He came to Florida in 2012 as the No. 4-ranked defensive end prospect in the nation and put pressure on himself to produce even more after a solid freshman season.

But injuries forced him to play part of last season at defensive tackle, a position he had never played before.

[+] EnlargePeterman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida's Jonathan Bullard has embraced a move to DT and is ready to wreak havoc on opposing offenses this fall.
He was lost amidst 600-pound double teams.

"If you know how to do something, you can do it full speed," he said. "But you're second-guessing yourself at something you haven’t done. You’re not moving as fast as you can. If you’re thinking too much, the ball is snapping and you’ve got a 300-pounder in front of you. You ain’t got time to think. So it was just different."

It showed in his production, on his face and in his body language.

"The coaches knew that I was kind of frustrated moving inside," he said. "I figured most people could tell that it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do."

Teammates tried to encourage Bullard to follow in the footsteps of former Gators Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, who had played both positions before him.

"I talked to him about it most of the time," offensive lineman Trenton Brown said. "But I just try to tell him, 'Try to do what's best for the team. I know you didn't see yourself coming here to play three-technique, but it's best for the team and it'll show that you're versatile.'"

That is the personal impetus for Bullard. Floyd was a first-round draft pick, and Easley is looking to be selected early in the NFL draft in May. The benefits of playing inside and out, of showing that versatility on your game tape, led Bullard to seek the advice of Easley, who has been in town to prepare for his personal pro day in a few weeks.

"Actually, Ease has been around lately and it kind of happened to him," Bullard said. "He bumped outside and wanted to stay inside. I’m the opposite. I'm going from the outside and really not wanting to go inside. He just talked to me, told me to embrace it and work at it hard."

Bullard did just that in the offseason after head coach Will Muschamp called him into his office to discuss the move and why it was necessary.

"All offseason I’ve been working at it because I know we’re kind of light there now and had a couple of players out, so I was going to play a lot of it," he said. "Now I’ve got the hang of it and I can read things better at D-tackle like I could at end. Now it’s kind of even.

"To be honest, I’m actually trying to embrace it and enjoy it rather than last year, not wanting to but knowing I had to. So now I'm trying to embrace it and do it at a high level."

Muschamp believes the high-level results are already there.

"Jon Bullard I think is playing his best football," he said on Tuesday. "He's playing really well inside. ... I think Jon is a very good nickel rusher inside and he can really match up on some of the guards in our league."

The offensive linemen he goes up against in practice have certainly noticed.

"It's definitely a challenge," said junior OT Tyler Moore. "He's definitely stepped up his game this year. He's one of our better D-linemen, and he's showing that every day."

It didn't take long for Bullard to see the advantages his size and quickness would allow on the interior. Now he loves going up against guards and centers.

"You can definitely tell that they’re slower than the tackles," he said. "And also you’re closer to the ball, so you can read it better. Now I’ve gotten real good at it. At end, I just look at the tackle, but now that I'm inside I try to look at the two guards and the center. Sometimes you can kind of tell what’s about to happen before it happens. If you get that right, you can disrupt the play."

Since Floyd and Easley moved on, the Gators have searched for that disruptive presence inside. Bullard says he's the one to bring it back.

The smile has returned to his face. He says with a wink that he's got the defensive tackle position down. Bullard's body language is as easy to read as ever. He knows he's having a productive spring despite not taking a single snap at defensive end.

"This spring," he said, "I’ve been all inside."

And all in.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ever the perfectionist, Florida coach Will Muschamp was not happy with his run defense last season.

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.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison is trying to mature in his role as the QB of Will Muschamp's defense.
"Our defense needs to handle and respond better to the tempo, especially our young defensive linemen understanding getting aligned, getting the call," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "All those things that a hurry-up offense creates angst with, we did not handle very well defensively.

"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."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators have completed seven of their 14 practices, and the spring game is less than two weeks away.

Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.

Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.

Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.

"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp's future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement.
Head coach Will Muschamp, whose future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement, has noticed the difference and says he's very pleased.

"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."

Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.

Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.

Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.

"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."

D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.

Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.

Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.

Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.

"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."

Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.

Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.

"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."

Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.

Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.

This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.

Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.

So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.

"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."

The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.

"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

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.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxAfter a 4-8 record in 2013, Florida desperately needs quarterback Jeff Driskel to return strong from injury and set the tone this spring.
But that page won't turn itself.

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.

Muschamp says he can change

December, 2, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis have been sacrificed as a way to wash away the sins of Florida's 2013 offense, the spotlight shifts to head coach Will Muschamp.

For such a strong-willed leader, for such a defensive-minded coach, the obvious question in regards to his offensive philosophy is, "Can Muschamp change?"

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesThe Gators' inability to score points became a weekly post-game complaint from Will Muschamp.
After his team was drubbed one last time last Saturday in a 37-7 loss to Florida State that saw his Gators generate just one score, eight first downs and 193 yards, Muschamp was quick to answer that question.

"Perception is not always reality," he said and then repeated himself for emphasis. "Perception is not always reality. So, I'm willing to do what we need to do to score points and win games."

It's doubtful that portends a complete shift to another style of offense, however. Since Muschamp arrived in December 2010, he has recruited for the pro-style offense. He installed it on the heels of Urban Meyer's spread-option, and it has taken years to usher in the personnel required for such a drastic change. It's extremely unlikely a head coach on a hot seat would scrap the base offense and start over.

What is more likely to change is the heavy emphasis on a downhill running game that was designed to shorten games by hogging time of possession.

That approach worked to perfection with Florida's stout defense and strong special teams in 2012. Even with one of the nation's worst passing games that averaged 146.31 yards and ranked 114th out of 123 FBS schools, the Gators won 11 games and defeated four top-1o teams on their way to a BCS bowl.

This year, injuries on defense and new faces on special teams conspired to spotlight the shortcomings of Muschamp's offensive philosophy. The Gators' margin of error had always been small, but without a reliable defense and kicking game, it shrunk to a level of absurdity.

By the end of the dismal 2013 season, one interception, one sack-fumble, one drive that ended in a missed field goal was enough to torpedo the entire team's fragile psyche. Muschamp started calling out his "inept" offense, saying it had "infected" the rest of the team.

The need to change was obvious to Muschamp, the players, the fans and most importantly to Muschamp's boss, athletic director Jeremy Foley.

"Will is going to figure those things out," Foley said to reporters in giving his embattled coach one more vote of confidence before the FSU game. "I do think in this league playing good defense is important, and that's why I hired Will. I think he's done that. But we do have to fix that side of the ball.

"No disrespect to anybody. That's just reality. You look at the stats and some of the scores that have caused us problems. We'll get that fixed. We're going to have to get that fixed, and I think we can."

An offense that was built to do more than run could have pivoted this season, taken on more of the burden to win games and help salvage a passable season instead of the 4-8 quagmire that resulted.

The final outcome -- 112th in the nation and last in the SEC in total offense, 107th in the nation in passing offense, last in the SEC in scoring -- forced Muschamp's hand.

"We need to take a look at ourselves schematically with what we’re doing," Muschamp said. "There have been some things that have happened that are very difficult to overcome, but schematically, there’s no question we need to take a look at ourselves."

Yes, the injuries were difficult to overcome. Any team that loses its top two quarterbacks, top running back and top three offensive tackles is in for a turbulent season. But this is Florida, where quality depth is more than just expected -- it's practically a birthright at a school surrounded by such fertile recruiting turf.

The offensive line was unable to pass-block in 2012 or before it suffered all those injuries this season. And when those injuries struck, there were no sophomores or redshirt freshmen ready to compete for starting jobs. It's no surprise Davis was fired.

The offense's inability to generate points became a weekly complaint from Muschamp in his recent post-game assessments. So much so that it was no surprise Pease was fired.

In replacing him, Florida will need an offensive mind that can devise multiple ways of attacking a defense, employ varying tempos and do a better job of developing skill-position talent.

It starts with Muschamp, who will hire his third offensive coordinator heading into his fourth season.

"I think obviously the first person you look at is yourself," he said. "That’s what you’ve got to be able to do and see where we are. I think as a coach, you’ve got to do what your players can do. That’s something I’m looking at."

No doubt the players will welcome a change. Even Muschamp's defensive players say they want the same thing.

"Right now, whatever they do hopefully is changed for the best," sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard said once the season was over. "Give us 21 [points] a game. If they can do that, then I would put the blame on us if they score 21 points or over. Hopefully change for the better, because what we're doing right now just ain't working."

SEC lunchtime links

October, 3, 2013
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We're closing in on Week 6 in the SEC. Find out the latest rumblings in Thursday's sampling of news and notes from across the league.

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.

Florida season preview

August, 14, 2013
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Today we're looking at Florida as the Gators try to follow up a surprising 11-2 season in 2012.

Florida

Coach: Will Muschamp (18-8)

2012 record: 11-2

Key losses: RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, S Matt Elam, K Caleb Sturgis

Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Matt Jones, DT Dominique Easley, buck Dante Fowler, DE Jonathan Bullard, buck Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy

Newcomer to watch: LB Daniel McMillian

Biggest games in 2013: at Miami (Sept. 7), at LSU (Oct. 12), vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. (Nov. 2), at South Carolina (Nov. 16), vs. Florida State (Nov. 30)

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesWith a passing offense that ranked near the bottom nationally last season, RB Matt Jones will be a key for Florida in 2013.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: As it has been the past three seasons, the team’s biggest issue is the production from the receivers. The position has woefully underperformed and last year the passing offense ranked 114th nationally. Redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar has supposedly had a good camp and senior Trey Burton has found a home in the slot, but the key will be the development of the five freshmen. So far, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood have been impressive and they give the Gators something they haven’t had in a while: the ability to make big plays down the field.

Forecast: Florida is coming off a surprising 11-2 season that was made possible by elite defense and special teams. That will have to be the formula again in 2013 because there are still too many questions about the offense -- and not just at receiver.

Even though they lost three elite players up the middle of the defense in Floyd, Bostic and Elam, the Gators have the potential to be just as good on defense this season as they were in 2012 (fifth nationally in total and scoring defense; fourth in rushing; 17th in passing). An improved pass rush and a secondary that is one of the nation’s best are the top two reasons.

Sophomores Bullard and Fowler played well as freshmen and now have a full season in the weight program behind them. The return of Powell from a torn ACL gives the Gators probably their best pass-rusher back (he led UF with 6.0 sacks in 2011).

But can the defense again carry an offense that lost the two best players from a unit that finished 114th nationally in passing and 103rd overall? The lack of playmakers at receiver has been an issue for the past three seasons and the Gators will need help from several freshmen in 2013. The offensive line is significantly better, especially on the left side with the addition of guard Max Garcia and tackle D.J. Humphries.

The biggest key will be how much Driskel has improved in his second season as a starter and how quickly Jones can recover from a viral infection.

The Gators are struggling to replace Sturgis, the school’s third all-time leading scorer. Not having the luxury of a reliable kicker on a team that struggles to move the ball consistently is an overlooked issue that may cost the Gators games.
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.

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