SEC: Jonotthan Harrison
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It started with some innocent ribbing when Florida players watched their game tape after losing to Georgia Southern in late November of last season.
The play that caught everyone's eyes and tickled their funny bones revealed Gator wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and center Jonotthan Harrison accidentally blocking each other.
Within days the media got hold of the story and it went viral.
"I looked down and I've got text messages from friends joking," Dunbar recalls, "and then it blew up from there."
The Gator-on-Gator block became a symbol for everything that went wrong for Florida during its 4-8 season in 2013. It was the insult piled on top of a heap of injuries.
But the notoriety was just getting started. For weeks, the play held the top spot in SportsCenter's "Not Top 10" list, as voted on by viewers. It lived in infamy well into the spring.
"Yeah, it was everywhere," Dunbar said. "It was crazy because I remembered that play, but I didn't expect it to get that big."
It was hard to miss. Even Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who coached at Duke last year, had to laugh when asked recently if he had seen it.
"Aw yeah, I've seen it," he said, looking to soften the blow. "Things like that happen.
"So last year we were 10-2, a pretty good team. We're playing North Carolina to win the Coastal [Division] outright. We're down 25-24. We've got the ball on the 6-yard line. We've got second-and-goal, so a touchdown's big, a field goal puts us ahead. We're running down about three minutes to go in the game. I call a play and both our guards pull. One of them was supposed to pull and the other one wasn't. Well, they messed up. Both guards pulled and ran right into each other. That doesn't get mentioned because we went 10-2 in the regular season. Nobody sees it.
"How many times do defensive linemen run twist games up front and they run right into each other? I think it's just a product of the season, because you could watch any game and see those type things all the time."
Several months later Dunbar flashes a smile and laughs easily at the memory.
"I was going down to crack the safety and when I looked up I happened to be latched on with Harrison," he said. "I don't know what happened, but that's football."
Harrison didn't find much humor in the situation last year. Teammates say he was bothered every time "his play" popped up on TV. He refused to talk about it publicly.
Now fighting for a roster spot with the Indianapolis Colts, Harrison admits he was frustrated. It's clear the normally jovial lineman still bristles at the thought of it.
"I don't want to dwell on it to be honest," Harrison said. "I'm just over it."
So is Dunbar, who is on the verge of a fresh, new season -- his last in the Gators' orange and blue uniform.
"I'm just glad [the play's run on SportsCenter] is over," he said. "I'm ready to move on."
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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.
UF has been one of the most consistent talent pipelines in the past two decades, as evidenced by 23 first-round picks since 1995. The Gators have had at least one first-rounder in all but one (2012) of the past seven years. But the 2014 draft could very well be another exception.
Friday night's second and third rounds could be slim pickings as well for Florida. But Saturday? Hold on tight, because as many as seven former Gators could be selected in Rounds 4-7.
Here's a breakdown of each of this year's prospects and a prediction for where he'll end up.
6-foot-1¾, 288 pounds
No. 5-ranked defensive tackle
One of the best pass-rushing tackles available, Easley's stock has been hurt by torn ACLs in both knees. He's just over six months removed from surgery to repair his right knee and suffered the left knee injury less than two years prior. Still, there's no questioning Easley's game tape and the way he played after recovering from his first knee injury. Easley uses a lightning-quick first step to shoot gaps and disrupt the pass and run games. His camp is hearing some draft buzz about climbing into the first round. Prediction: Second round
Marcus Roberson, 6-0¼, 191
No. 11-ranked cornerback
Like Easley, Roberson has some skills and attributes in high demand but has to deal with teams' concerns about his history of injuries. Roberson is the perfect size for today's cornerback -- long and rangy. Throughout his three years at Florida, he consistently displayed good instincts, especially in the man coverage that UF plays so much. But Roberson missed three games in his freshman season when he fractured a vertebra in his neck. He missed five games last fall with knee and ankle injuries. Running a 4.61 40-time didn't help, either. Prediction: Third round
Jaylen Watkins, 5-11½, 194
No. 15-ranked cornerback
The brother of Sammy Watkins, the draft's top wide receiver prospect, Jaylen is less well-known to casual observers. But a rock-solid career for the Gators and the versatility to play corner and safety has made this Watkins a draft sleeper. Jaylen improved each season and became a quiet leader at Florida. Head coach Will Muschamp also called him "a core special teams guy." Watkins really boosted his draft stock when he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, just a hair faster than his already famous brother. Prediction: Fourth round
Ronald Powell, 6-3[, 237
No. 18-ranked outside linebacker
Once the No. 1 overall high school recruit in the nation, Powell's career at Florida never matched that lofty status and was largely derailed by a torn ACL that required two surgeries and more than a year off. Before the injury, he spent a lot of time at defensive end but didn't turn into the pass-rusher everyone envisioned. Afterward, he began to transition to linebacker and showed promise. Powell's measurables are the biggest reason he'll get drafted. His 4.65 time in the 40 was fourth-fastest among linebackers at the combine. Prediction: Sixth round
Loucheiz Purifoy, 5-11½, 190
No. 26-ranked cornerback
How far will he fall? All the way out of the draft? Those are the questions after Purifoy's disastrous offseason. Once a projected first-round pick, Purifoy's stock started dropping when game tape revealed a lack of coverage instincts. Then his official combine time of 4.61 in the 40 dropped him further. Finally, a Gainesville drug arrest that was quashed raised serious concerns about Purifoy's off-the-field behavior. Despite all of that, he's an elite athlete who could develop and still has a good chance of being picked. Prediction: Sixth round
Jonotthan Harrison, 6-3½, 304
No. 8-ranked center
A three-year starter at a demanding position, Harrison has good height, weight and speed for a center and has worked hard to improve his technique in run- and pass-blocking. He did a good job making pass protection calls for the offensive line and became a respected leader for the Gators. Prediction: Sixth round
Jon Halapio, 6-3½, 323
No. 15-ranked guard
One of the toughest players at Florida in the past four seasons, Halapio regularly played through injuries and started 43 of 51 games across a solid career. He's better as a run blocker than he is in pass protection, but Halapio has the size, strength and intelligence teams are looking for. Prediction: Sixth round
Solomon Patton, 5-8½, 178
No. 42-ranked wide receiver
After a quiet three years, Patton had a standout senior season in which he combined great speed and playmaking ability to be the Gators' best receiver. Also a special-teams ace with return skills, Patton hopes to be drafted by a team that needs all of those things. Prediction: Seventh round
Trey Burton, 6-2[, 224
No. 13-ranked tight end
Burton played every skill position on offense in his four years at UF. He ran well (4.62) as a tight end at the NFL draft combine, but at his size he's just not going to be considered for that position. Versatility and competitiveness are Burton's calling cards, which could earn him a look as an H-back. Prediction: Seventh round
So what else would you expect but heavy rainfall throughout Monday's pro day with more than 50 representatives from all 32 NFL teams in attendance?
After lifting in the weight room, the event shifted to the track inside the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The three cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- drew a lot of attention.
Roberson and Purifoy, two of UF's top prospects, each posted disappointing 40-yard dash times of 4.61 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. They were able to show slight improvement Monday with unofficial times of 4.59 and 4.53 seconds, respectively. Watkins, who is still recovering from a sprained Achilles tendon, did not run the 40-yard dash (he posted a 4.41 at the NFL combine) but did participate in drills.
"I think all three will translate very well to the next level,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Jaylen's a guy that can play multiple positions. He can play safety, he can play nickel, he can play dime, he can play corner. He's a core special-teams guy for us over the years. So, a guy that can do a lot of things for you. Marcus is a guy that's got really good instincts in coverage, especially in man coverage. He can get his hands on people, which in the NFL the rules are a little different. But you've got to win on the line of scrimmage, and he can do that. He's a guy that's got really good ball skills down the field. Loucheiz is a guy that can give you some special teams, a really good kickoff coverage guy, a guy that's got some return skills, but another guy that can win on the line of scrimmage and has got great, long speed down the field. So I think each player gives you a little something different of what you're looking for."
Another Florida prospect who could be selected in the early rounds, defensive tackle Dominique Easley, was on hand but did not participate as he continues to rehabilitate a torn ACL he suffered early last fall.
"He's going to work out [at UF] on April 18," Muschamp said. "Now we've not set that date. He and I talked this morning and didn't feel like he was ready. I told him, 'If you're not ready, don't work. You wait until you're ready to go cut it loose and give them a good day's work.' So I want to say April 18, but that's not been totally decided yet."
DE/LB Ronald Powell, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, TE Trey Burton, DL Damien Jacobs, OL Kyle Koehne and LB Darrin Kitchens also took part in the drills.
Halapio, who missed the first two games of his senior season with a torn pectoral muscle, said he is healthy and proved it in front of scouts by benching 225 pounds 32 times, which would have ranked among the top 10 for offensive linemen at the combine.
"People really underestimate what he did this past year," Muschamp said. "There's a lot of young men that would have probably taken a redshirt and had surgery. We gave him several options and he just said, 'I'm going to tape it up and play.'”
Patton is a prospect who might be slightly off of the radar of some teams, as he wasn't invited to the NFL combine. Monday at UF, he ran an unofficial best of 4.31 in the 40 and performed well in drills, catching most passes in the rain away from his body.
Muschamp believes Patton will make an NFL roster.
"There's no question he's going to find a role," Muschamp said. "[He's] a guy that can play in the slot and has return skill, big-time kickoff return and great special-teams guy -- one of the better kickoff cover guys I've been around."
Overall, the soggy conditions did not put too much of a damper on Florida's pro day.
"We play football in the rain," Muschamp said with a grin. "I think those guys got a lot of comments from coaches and scouts about how our guys going out and competing. They didn't bellyache about it. They go out there and compete, and that's what you want to see."
He sighs deeply, painfully.
"What's the gist of the story about?" he asks warily and listens as the reporter says he wants some perspective on what Muschamp is going through now that Florida's season has gone south and fans are calling for his head.
He coughs a staccato burst of a laugh. "Heh, I don't know if you can call it an experience," he says and counts the number of times in the last week he's been asked this very same question.
He pauses to collect himself, then he answers.
"Let Will do his job," he says.
That's Zook's message nine years after he was fired by Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, and he says it with a measure of exasperation, as though he has been given one more chance to speak directly to the fans who compose the proud Gator Nation.
Zook never got much of a chance to do his job. There was too much "noise in the system" as he called it. Many of those outspoken fans turned on him, just as they turned on Muschamp this season. Only for Zook, the honeymoon lasted a matter of hours.
Muschamp was given a mulligan in his first season after being handed a program that Urban Meyer admitted was "broke a little bit." What's followed has been more like a roller-coaster ride with the sugar-rush high of Muschamp's superlative second season followed by the sudden crash of 2013.
There are enough similarities between these two coaches that it's understandable how often they are compared. Both were defensive coordinators and recruiting whizzes with no head coaching experience who followed national championship-winning coaches at UF.
Zook went 23-14 with a 16-8 record in the SEC from 2002 to 2004. Muschamp has steered the Gators to a 22-16 record, 13-11 in the SEC over the last three seasons.
But the lows of 2013 are unlike anything Zook ever experienced: Florida's first losing season since 1979, the first loss to Vanderbilt since 1988 (first at home since 1945), the program's first loss to an FCS team, and the end of a 22-year bowl streak that dated back to 1991 when Steve Spurrier led the program out of the darkness of probation into an era of unprecedented heights.
"Obviously there's a lot of negativism going around right now," Zook said. "That's college football. That's part of it. That's one of the things that makes Florida a great place. It's is also one of the things that makes it tough. They want to win, and they want to win now."
Off the field, both coaches had some low moments in wrestling with the realities of their fans' expectations.
After losing this season to Georgia -- his alma mater -- for the third straight year, Muschamp got into a shouting match with a Florida fan as he walked off the field. A week later he acknowledged his emotions got the best of him.
"I made a real mistake over a very passionate, passionate Florida fan telling me his opinion of me," he said. "You know what, that’s fine, that’s fine. They pay their ticket, they can boo all they want."
A couple of weeks later, Muschamp boiled over again, saying, "there's a lot of negativity out there. Some of our fans need to get a grip."
In contrast, Zook took more heat from fans from the moment he was hired. He famously inspired a Florida fan to launch the website FireRonZook.com one day after he got the job. But nothing was worse than apologizing for his role in a late-night verbal altercation with an antagonistic fraternity on campus. Less than two weeks later, Zook was fired.
By the time Muschamp finished his third season, something Zook was unable to do, the pressure had risen to a feverish level. But let the record show that FireWillMuschamp.com is merely another placeholder website for sale.
With the benefit of hindsight, comparing Muschamp and Zook is on the minds of many irate fans. But is it fair?
Foley says it is not, and his opinion is the only one that matters.
"Zooker and I are friends, but it’s just not apples-to-apples," he said last Saturday before Florida finished its season with an expected blowout loss to unbeaten archrival Florida State. "It’s my job to evaluate and see where the program is headed. At that point in time, I didn’t think it was headed where we wanted it to be. This time, I think it’s headed where we want it to be. The proof is going to be in the pudding, but I don’t think it’s apples-to-apples.
"I'm like anybody else, I want to be successful for the University of Florida. The only thing that we want to do is to take care of the Gators. I've been doing that for 38 years. I've been doing it for 22 as athletic director. [It's not a matter of being] patient or impatient or wiser or older. I want to be successful. I'm very confident we're going to be successful moving in the direction we're moving in. That's where it's at."
"I strongly disagree with that," he said. "I'll go to battle with that coach any day, his whole coaching staff. I see the grind in his eyes every day. I see what he does every day, the passion he has for this team, and I'll go to war with him any day. He has our backs and I have his back, win or lose."
Senior center Jonotthan Harrison elaborated on why Muschamp won his enduring loyalty, why the players still believe in their coach.
"Because he is down to earth, as down to earth as it comes. He's as real as it comes," he said. "There's no sugar-coating anything. There's no BS. He's as black and white as it comes. He's going to tell you exactly how it is. He's going to treat you like you deserve to be treated. So if you're a hard worker -- no matter if you're a scholarship athlete, a third-string, no matter what your position is on the team, as long as you're a hard worker -- you have all of his respect. But if you go out there and you're a scumbag and you really don't want to work hard or whatever, then you're not going to have his support. That's just how it is. He's black and white. He's down to earth. He's a real guy."
The passion with which Muschamp's player support him is obvious. It's something Zook has seen and appreciated from afar.
"I think the fact that the players have circled the wagons for him, now they've got to come out and play for him," said Zook, who is two years removed from being fired as head coach at Illinois and is now a business development officer at Gateway Bank, back in Gator country, just 45 minutes south of Gainesville in Ocala. "I can tell ya he's on the right track. People say they've quit on him, but I do know that all of the negativism just zaps the energy out of your football team.
"Hopefully Will will get it turned around. I think he will."
In other words, let the man do his job.
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
It was another rough outing for the Gator O-line, which gave up five sacks and a total of nine tackles for loss for a whopping 67 yards. Losing at home to the Commodores was just the latest insult upon a season of injury.
"I've never seen or heard of anything like this, but this is the game we play," Halapio said of the injury bug that Florida just can't shake. "We've just got to move forward."
The senior guard, who tore his left pectoral muscle just before training camp and missed two games, has embodied the season-long struggles of his offensive line, as injuries and ineffectiveness have eroded any cohesion and consistency the UF offense has been able to muster.
Just when Florida made some personnel adjustments that seemed to click in the Nov. 2 loss to Georgia, another devastating injury struck.
That was sophomore tackle Tyler Moore, who is out for the season after falling off his scooter and suffering a compound fracture of his elbow last week. Offensive tackle was already a particularly sore spot. The Gators lost junior starter Chaz Green (torn labrum) for the season in fall camp, and sophomore starter D.J. Humphries (sprained knee) missed his second consecutive game on Saturday.
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators used their sixth different offensive line alignment of the season. Senior center Jonotthan Harrison is the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.
Despite how often they have to talk about injuries, Halapio, his teammates and their coaches bristle at the thought of using them as an excuse.
"[Moore's injury] shook things up, but we practiced [last] week," Halapio said. "We prepared for Vanderbilt like they prepared for us. There's no excuses about the injuries."
But losing three starting tackles clearly has had a musical-chairs effect on the line. Against the Bulldogs, Moore replaced Humphries by moving from right tackle to left. Trenton Brown, a juco transfer, got his first start, and the line had its best game in the last month.
“Well, we felt very good about a combination of Tyler Moore and Trenton Brown at tackles. We lost Tyler on Tuesday night. It hurt us in the [Vanderbilt] game," head coach Will Muschamp said on Saturday. "So you move Max [Garcia] from left guard, where he's been playing all year, to left tackle. Then you have a new left guard coming in in Ian [Silberman], who was really -- going in the Georgia game, until he had another injury -- was going to play tight end for us. It's hard.”
Hard to keep up with, too.
The results this season are about what one might expect of such a banged-up unit. Florida has allowed 26 sacks, tied for 105th among 123 FBS schools. The tackles for loss statistics are even worse, as the Gators have given up 67 in nine games, which ranks 110th.
And there are few answers on a roster so depleted. It's no wonder Halapio feels the answers can only come from within.
"We've just got to look ourselves in the mirror individually, especially through this time," he said. "I've never been through this really like this, adversity like this. So we've just got to correct this and move forward with the guys that want to win."
At least the ones who are still standing.
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.
"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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The SEC has eight representatives on the watch list and here they are:
The Rimington Trophy is awarded each year to the top center in college football, and nine of the 44 players on the preseason watch list are from the SEC -- which is the most in the country.
Alabama's Barrett Jones won the award last season.
Here's a look at the nine SEC centers on the 2013 list:
Ranking UF’s needs for 2014
1. Offensive line
The Gators’ offensive line had a very schizophrenic identity last season, so Florida’s second-year offensive line coach decided to show them all the horrors of the up-and-down play in pass protection.
Davis showed his linemen every one of the 39 sacks Florida’s line surrendered in 2012. The ugly sack reel was meticulously studied over and over for two or three days, but the torment didn’t stop there.
Once the Gators got on the field, Davis had Florida’s film crew capture video of each lineman’s one-on-one sessions with defenders.
Needless to say, things weren’t pretty for Florida’s big boys.
“Oh man, it was ugly,” left guard Max Garcia said with a laugh. “It was ugly in the beginning.
“We understood that we needed to improve in that area.”
And if this offense, which had a mediocre passing game, was going to improve this spring, the line had to turn things around.
Now, there were factors working against Florida’s line. Seasoned starters Xavier Nixon and James Wilson were gone and the line was so banged up that the Gators finished spring with six healthy linemen.
But that didn’t stop players from learning and evolving. The education started with the sack reel, where blame wasn't the goal but improvement was. Davis showed all of the mistakes, but instead of singling out players, he discussed what to fix and how to fix it.
The biggest thing linemen took from the film sessions was the lack of communication in pass protection last season. Florida ran the ball so well, averaging 188 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, but were last in the SEC in passing (146.3 yards per game).
Talking just wasn’t there.
When blocking for the run, communication combinations usually take place with a lineman and another player for a certain defender. In pass block, that communication might have to go through four or more players.
To improve communication, linemen simply talked more in and out of the film room, center Jonotthan Harrison said. They also became more vocal with the running backs, tight ends and quarterback Jeff Driskel during practice. Having another spring to digest Brent Pease’s offense also helped.
“Now that we’ve developed this communication,” Harrison said, “our pass protection is going to be much more successful.”
Injuries hurt, but coach Will Muschamp should have 15 scholarship offensive linemen this fall -- eight or nine of which that will be game-ready. And those game-ready bodies have a lot of experience, including new transfer players, like Garcia and tackle Tyler Moore, who started for the injured Chaz Green at right tackle this spring.
Garcia (Maryland) and Moore (Nebraska) have 16 combined starts. Other potential starters -- Green, Harrison, Jon Halapio and D.J. Humphries -- have 81 combined starts.
“We’re much better up front right now,” Muschamp said.
“There are a lot of guys that have had a lot of at-bats. “I really feel comfortable about our depth and talent at the position.”
But it isn’t just the numbers and physical improvement from the line that have people in Gainesville more excited about this front. This crew is fueled by media criticism hurled their way last year.
“It always eats at us because O-Line is one of those positions that’s all work no credit,” Harrison said. “So as we do badly, it’s pointed out, but when we do the good things they really just underplay the efforts that the offensive line gives.
“We’re looking forward to proving everybody wrong, come season time, and prove that we can pass protect and we have worked on it.”
Despite low spring numbers, the coaches and teammates were happy with the line’s play. Obviously, real improvement won’t be made until the games begin, but people seemed convinced that a stronger line will take the field for the Gators this fall.
“They just want to be known as a nasty offensive line that can be able to run and power down your throat and can pass block,” Buck defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. “They want to be an offensive line that when a defensive line has to play against team they’re going to be like, ‘Well, we’re going to have a tough day today.’
“They take pride in that.”
2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (2nd Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RB/WR Trey Burton, DE/DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, S Jaylen Watkins, P Kyle Christy
RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards)
Passing: Jeff Driskel* (1,646 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Reed (559 yards)
Tackles: Josh Evans (83)
Sacks: Dominique Easley* (4.0)
Interceptions: Matt Elam (4)
1. Back in business: Sophomore Matt Jones running back had a fantastic spring and the coaching staff is convinced he’ll be a more than capable replacement for Gillislee. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Will Muschamp’s power-run offense. He’s a straight-ahead, downhill runner, who runs through contact and gets tough yards. The offense will be built around him, especially with the questions surrounding the passing game. Redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor, give the Gators solid depth at the position.
2. Lined up: UF’s offensive line made strides in 2012 and it will be even better in 2013. The addition of transfers -- Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) -- gives the Gators a pair of former starters to add to an already solid base with Harrison and Halapio. Plus, sophomore D.J. Humphries is an immediate upgrade from Xavier Nixon at left tackle. Garcia will start at left guard and pair with Humphries to give Driskel better blind-side protection than he had a year ago.
3. The middle is settled: With the loss of Bostic and Jenkins, the Gators needed a middle linebacker. The staff moved sophomore Antonio Morrison from weakside linebacker, and Morrison showed pretty quickly he was up to the task. He’s not the biggest middle linebacker the Gators have had (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), but he is certainly one of the most physical. Morrison hits like he weighs 260 pounds -- just ask 245-pound former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Morrison leveled last season. Morrison proved he could handle making the defensive calls and he should easily step into the role Bostic held for the past two seasons.
1. Receiver issues ... again: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will again struggle. That’s been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. He has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage. Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.
2. Safety dance: There’s some concern about the Gators’ safeties because some of the younger and less experienced players haven’t developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF’s two starting safeties. They have both played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman. Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Roberson, Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.
3. Just for kicks: Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis was, but it’s the first part that’s more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don’t get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball. Sturgis was able to bail the Gators out because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark may have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.
While the senior had a legitimate MVP-like year with the best season by a Gators running back since 2004, away from the field he’s your typical boring college student -- go to class, eat, sleep, play video games.
The 5-foot-11, 209-pound bruiser would rather keep to himself before talking with his pads on Saturdays.
According to redshirt junior center Jonotthan Harrison, who was a part of Florida’s 2009 recruiting class with Gillislee, Gillislee is a homebody who prefers eating on campus rather than going out in public. He’d rather play "Madden" or "NCAA Football" with his teammates or in the comfort of his own home instead of hitting the bar. The most excitement in his life usually takes place on either the practice field or on game day.
“He doesn’t do much outside of that,” Harrison said.
And while it might seem like Gillislee is wasting prime social time with his peers, his teammates and coaches couldn’t be happier with his uneventful social life.
He truly has taken on the nature of second-year coach Will Muschamp. His cliché mantra of actions speaking louder than words really took hold for Gillislee, who spent his first three years playing backup to Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. And Muschamp loves that about Gillislee.
He’s quiet, but speaks volumes with his play. His hushed demeanor, coupled with an extremely unselfish attitude and an unquestioned thrust for yardage are main reasons he rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns this fall, after he accumulated just 920 rushing yard and 10 touchdowns in the three previous seasons combined.
“I think any time in our society we suffer from the disease of me,” Muschamp said. “How does it affect me? And most people suffer from that. And Mike doesn’t. He’s a team guy. He’s a consummate team guy. He’s one of my favorites of all-time. He’s a guy that’s a great example.”
Harrison said he really admires Gillislee’s game and, while he’s known more for bullying his way to extra yards, his vision and intellect are two often-overlooked qualities in Gillislee’s arsenal. Harrison said there were numerous times when linemen would be blocking zone to the right and out of nowhere they’d see linebackers chasing Gillislee left because he’d found another hole.
Harrison said it’s a pleasure blocking for Gillislee because he understands how to read blocks and he’ll make a hole by lowering his shoulders and punching his way through when needed.
“It’s a real good deal this season that we have such a determined back in the backfield,” Harrison said.
That determination paved the way to 1,000 yards, but Gillislee had much more in mind before the season. He stunned media members during July’s SEC media days when he confidently stated that he wanted 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.
While he fell short, Gillislee will gladly take the season he had.
“It’s a great feeling [to rush for 1,000 yards],” he said. “It’s something that I always wanted to do. I always wanted to be remembered and getting 1,000 yards I think I’m going to be remembered.”
He’ll be remembered for a lot of things. He’ll be remembered for the 148-yard opener that had fans buzzing about his potential. He’ll be remembered for the 12-yard, game-winning touchdown run against Texas A&M in Week 2, a play on which he was clearly injured. No one will forget him churning out 146 yards and two touchdowns on 34 demanding carries in Florida’s 14-6 win over LSU in October.
(No wonder he wore that “Damn I’m Good” T-shirt afterward.)
And his 140-yard, two-score performance in the win over archrival Florida State in Tallahassee won’t escape Gators fans’ minds for years.
It’s been a heck of a season for Gillislee, who went from quiet reserve to ranking fourth in the SEC in rushing yards and helping Florida ascend to No. 3 in the BCS standings, but he isn’t done.
Gillislee will walk into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with the usual restrained look on his face ready for business against No. 21 Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Wednesday. That look will galvanize his teammates, especially his offensive line, as they look to send him out with one last unforgettable performance.
“When the whole offense works together, it’s really difficult to stop him,” Harrison said.
“He’s great at what he does.”
Final Eastern Kentucky 3 Florida 52 Final Charleston Southern 9 10 Georgia 55 Final South Alabama 12 South Carolina 37 Final 8 Ole Miss 0 Arkansas 30 Final Western Carolina 14 1 Alabama 48 Final Samford 7 14 Auburn 31 Final 20 Missouri 29 Tennessee 21 Final Vanderbilt 0 4 Mississippi State 51