SEC: Marcus Roberson

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
10:30
AM ET

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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

[+] 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.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- An NFL draft with no Florida Gators picked in the first round has become a pretty rare occurrence, but that's exactly what most are expecting on Thursday night.

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.

[+] EnlargeDominique Easley
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida's Dominique Easley's draft stock has been hurt by injuries, but he could still go in the second round.
Dominique Easley
6-foot-1, 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, 6-0, 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, 5-11, 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, 5-11, 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, 6-3, 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, 6-3, 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, 5-8, 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
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's a short list of true freshmen cornerbacks who have made instant impacts at Florida in recent years. And the success that Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins have had in the NFL has become a source of tremendous pride for the Gators.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star cornerback Jalen Tabor has an opportunity to play immediately for the Gators.
Last season, Vernon Hargreaves III topped all of their accomplishments when he was named first-team All-SEC as a freshman.

Could another star be around the corner (pardon the pun) in 2014?

Coach Will Muschamp set the stage when he recruited two talented cornerbacks in the Gators' 2014 class and got them on campus as early enrollees. Now that spring practice is in full swing, they're already competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves.

Jalen Tabor made a late switch to Florida from Arizona just before he arrived in January. Ranked the No. 11 overall prospect in the nation, Tabor came to the Gators with the same kind of elite pedigree as Hargreaves.

Duke Dawson had been committed to the Gators for a year when he showed up. And while he was ranked lower than Tabor in the ESPN 300 (No. 207), Dawson is no less a prime prospect in the eyes of his college coaches.

"[Tabor] and Duke Dawson both have been a quick study as far as the corner position is concerned," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "Both of them are going to be really good players. They've got to just continue.

"The willingness is there and the coachability is there with both guys. They're willing to be in the film room extra. They're willing to come up here after hours and meet with our coaches and go over things and go over schemes and watch film and learn from it. The one thing that I would say [is] that they both have a very similar ability as Vernon -- when you tell them once they get it. They don't make that mistake again."

After five practices, neither of the freshmen has looked out of place. They've won their share of battles and have been singled out for praise as well as criticism.

"Jalen's got really good length on the line of scrimmage," Muschamp said. "[He] needs to do a better job in his press technique staying on the line of scrimmage, getting his hands on people -- that's his strength. And Duke's a guy that's playing corner and nickel and right now is battling Brian Poole for the starting job at nickel."

Florida employs a lot of nickel defense using three cornerbacks. It's how Hargreaves and Poole were able to combine for 16 starts last season despite the presence of veteran cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. With those two skipping their senior seasons for the NFL draft, there are spots to fill.

Naturally Poole wants to take the next step in his career.

"Of course I want to start," said Poole, a junior who came to Florida with four-star status of his own. "I don't want to just say it's mine, but I'm working for it. It's pretty important to me because I just want to play every snap. I don't want to come on and off, on and off."

After missing just two of 25 games in his career, Poole says he's more comfortable than ever: "I don't have to learn what to do. I know what to do. Now it's just executing."

He expects his experience will give him the edge in the competition with Tabor and Dawson, but Poole still can't help being impressed with the newcomers.

"They're going to be really good," he said. "They're really learning the defense and starting to execute it well."

Well enough to start? Well enough to follow in the footsteps of Haden, Jenkins and Hargreaves?

Those are questions that will take several more months to answer.

Rain drenches Florida pro day

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
4:30
PM ET
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There hasn't actually been a dark rain cloud hovering above the Florida program for the last year. It's only seemed that way as the Gators slogged through more injuries and losses than they've seen in decades.

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?

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLoucheiz Purifoy was one of several defensive backs drawing attention at Florida's pro day.
"You kind of feel sorry for these guys working out in these conditions," said Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, who was there to watch three Florida cornerbacks who are expected to be picked during the NFL draft on May 8-10.

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."

Florida's Watkins impresses at combine

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Jaylen Watkins was Florida's most versatile defensive back last season, and he was also the Gators' most impressive defensive back on the final day of the NFL combine.

Watkins ran a 4.41 in the 40-yard dash and also did 22 reps on the bench press. He played both cornerback and safety for the Gators and also worked some as their nickelback. He doesn't have ideal size to play safety in the NFL (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) but certainly helped himself with his impressive 40 time. When you take into account that he's moved around and played different positions in the secondary, his draft stock coming out of the combine is probably a lot better than anybody would have expected.

On the flip side, his two more heralded cornerback colleagues at Florida -- Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson -- didn't fare as well at the combine. They both ran surprisingly slow 4.61 times in the 40-yard dash. The 5-11, 190-pound Purifoy only did six reps on the bench press, although he did have a vertical jump of 35.5 inches. At one point, Purifoy was thought to be a potential first-round selection. But with a shaky combine performance, he will likely slip into the middle rounds.

Roberson's stock took a hit as well. He did just eight reps on the bench and posted a 37.5-inch vertical leap. The other big question with Roberson is injuries. He missed four games last season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the last decade, more than any other time in its history, Florida's status as a recruiting juggernaut has been proven.

Once head coach Steve Spurrier established his alma mater among college football's elite, blue-chip talent started flocking to UF. The Gators also recruited well under Spurrier's replacement, Ron Zook. Then Florida won two national championships with coach Urban Meyer.

The fact that Florida has thrived on the recruiting trail despite Meyer's soap-opera departure and some sub-par seasons on the field is a testament to the strength of the brand.

This week we count down the five most impactful UF recruiting classes in the last decade, not including Florida's most recent class, which isn't even fully assembled on campus yet.

No. 5 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, head coach Will Muschamp's first class, which was ranked No. 12 by ESPN.

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
AP Photo/John RaouxLoucheiz Purifoy's big-play ability at cornerback allowed him to stand out in three seasons at Florida and should get him selected high in this year's NFL draft.
The stars: This is easy. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy became lockdown cornerbacks and were the only three-and-done players from this 19-man class. Roberson made an instant impact, starting his first 10 games as a true freshman, and Purifoy first emerged as a special-teams terror. By the end of their college careers, the two clearly established NFL pedigree -- Roberson for his advanced technique, Purifoy for his supreme athleticism. They are expected to be picked no lower than the second round this May.

The contributors: Several players stand out in this class, including a few starters. Among them, starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is the one who could still push his way into the star category if he improves during his final two seasons of eligibility. Other starters have carved out significant roles for themselves, including fullback Hunter Joyer, safety Jabari Gorman and tight ends Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. Valdez Showers successfully converted from safety to running back last season. And Kyle Christy was a record-setting punter who stumbled in 2013 and will fight to take his job back this year.

The letdowns: Some of the top talents in this class never panned out at UF, as eight of the 19 players transferred and one quit football after injuries derailed his career. The biggest name to transfer was QB Jacoby Brissett, who started four games at Florida but left for NC State after losing the competition for the starting job to Driskel. WR Ja'Juan Story, TE A.C. Leonard, RB Mike Blakely and S De'Ante Saunders were four of the Gators' five highest-rated recruits in the class. Transfers Story, Blakely and WR Javares McRoy were recruited by Meyer for his spread-option offense and never quite fit Muschamp's pro-style scheme. Leonard and Saunders made strong impressions on the field, but both ran afoul of the law and transferred to Tennessee State.

The results: There have been high points, such as an 11-win season in 2012 in which Florida was just one Notre Dame loss away from playing for the national championship. But there have been more low points, such as a 7-6 season in 2011 and a numbing 4-8 season in 2013. The results on the field have been uneven, but there's still time for this class to distinguish itself.
It's not every day that a program can lose two future early-round draft picks at a position and still be in good shape. But that's exactly where Florida sits when it looks at the cornerback position.

Before the Gators could even start thinking about spring practice, they lost starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson to the NFL draft. Both had solid careers at Florida and have been viewed as a either first- or second-round draft picks in this year's NFL draft.

But coach Will Muschamp and his staff can breathe a collective sigh of relief when they take a look at their depth chart at the corner spot this spring and beyond. For starters, third-team All-American, freshman All-American and All-SEC stud Vernon Hargreaves III is back and could be viewed as the SEC's best returning cornerback in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star CB Jalen Tabor, an early enrollee, is one reason that Florida shouldn't miss a beat in its secondary despite losing two starters to the NFL draft.
During his first year on campus, Hargreaves looked like the Gators' best corner more than a few times this season. He started the final 10 games of the season and finished the year with three interceptions and defended 14 passes, which ranked third in the league. His 11 pass breakups equaled the most by a true freshman in school history.

Hargreaves is a special talent who has the potential to be one of the nation's best cover corners this fall. So one side of the field is secured, but the Gators' corner talent goes far deeper than just Hargreaves. This is certainly not an empty cupboard in Gainesville.

Youngsters such as Brian Poole and Nick Washington give the Gators a good place to start, but veteran Cody Riggs, who played safety last season, could slide back down to corner again if needed. But it really doesn't end there for the Gators, either. ESPN 300 corners Jalen Tabor (five-star and No. 4-rated corner) and Duke Dawson (No. 16 corner) are already on campus and the early impressions are that both are doing well during offseason workouts.

Dawson had been committed to the Gators for a while before enrolling early, but getting Tabor was a major recruiting surprise. He originally committed to Arizona over Alabama at the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month before flipping to Florida shortly after. At 6-1, 188 pounds, Tabor already has good size and bulk for the position. Tabor has all the talent to play immediately for the Gators this fall. He'll likely add a little more weight, but he's already a very physical cornerback and will definitely benefit from spring practice. As will Dawson, who is a quick-twitch guy and pretty rangy at the corner position.

Florida also has a commitment from ESPN 300 athlete J.C. Jackson, who could play either corner or receiver for the Gators. The thing Florida has to do is make sure he stays committed, as Miami is making a major run at him late.

Then, there's uncommitted five-star Adoree' Jackson, who is rated as the No. 9 player nationally. Florida is one of his finalists and he's another player who could play either side of the ball. Florida's coaches would likely let him play wherever he wants with his skill set. The Gators are near the top of his list, but it doesn't look like he'll take an official visit to Gainesville, making things pretty wide open until national signing day.

Losing two of their top defensive players in 2014 isn't ideal for the Gators, but they'll be able to start rebuilding once spring practice starts. And it could only get better when summer workouts start and fall practice rolls around.

For all the trouble the Gators had in 2013 and all the questions surrounding this team in 2014, it looks like cornerback won't be something Florida frets over this fall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida linebacker Ronald Powell will forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, the school announced Monday.

Powell was the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2010 but struggled to match the hype in his college career. He led the Gators with six sacks in 2011 and again led the team with four sacks in 2013. He missed all of the 2012 season, when he tore the ACL in his left knee twice, once in Florida's 2012 spring game and again during rehab.

[+] EnlargeRonald Powell
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Ronald Powell was the No. 1 overall high school prospect in the Class of 2010. He led the Gators in sacks in 2011 and 2013.
"Ronald has informed me that he has made a decision to declare for the NFL draft," coach Will Muschamp said in a statement released by UF. "This hasn’t been an easy decision for him. I talked to him several times over the holidays, but it was important for him to come back and look me in the eye and tell me what he wanted to do and why he wanted to do it.

"It’s one of the great experiences as a coach to watch young players mature. It’s been well documented the hardships he has had to overcome, and he has always kept a positive attitude. I wish him the best of luck and, as I’ve said before, I encouraged him to return to get his degree."

Powell is the Gators' third junior leaving early for the NFL, joining cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Florida senior defensive lineman Dominique Easley, who tore his right ACL this season after tearing his left ACL in 2011, could have applied for a medical hardship and returned, but chose to enter the draft as well.

Powell and Easley were two of the headline names in Florida's No. 1-ranked Class of 2010 and became close friends. Seeing Easley injure each of his knees might have influenced Powell to leave Florida while he is healthy.

"This hasn’t been an easy decision because this is a tough place to walk away from," Powell said in a statement, "but really you never walk away from being a Gator. I never thought it would be this hard to make this decision. Most people think it’s easy -- go for the money. It’s hard to leave my brothers behind, but we’ve shared so much more than our time on the field. We’ve lived our lives together and we are truly a family."

How Powell performs in pre-draft workouts in front of NFL scouts will play a key role in his NFL future. At 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds, Powell moved between linebacker and defensive end during his final season. He came to Florida from Moreno Valley, Calif., as the nation's No. 1 defensive end prospect.

"I want to thank the entire Gator Nation for making a kid from California a part of their family," he said. "It’s hard to put into words what this whole experience has been for me. I’ve had so many opportunities and met so many people. All of them have been supportive and helpful in my time here. Because of that, I’ve had a chance to grow and mature into the man I am today and the man I am going to become in the future."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's only fitting that a season characterized by injuries and an ineffective offense would conclude with a whimper thanks to those same culprits.

But after losing 37-7 to No. 2 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) in the Swamp on Saturday, Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC) can take solace that its season of misery is mercifully over.

[+] EnlargeBurton
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDespite carrying the ball just twice, Trey Burton led the Gators with 47 yards rushing versus Florida State. Burton left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
"Very frustrating, difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season," coach Will Muschamp said. "That’s the best way I can sum it up."

Not even an inspirational pregame speech by Gators great Tim Tebow could do more than delay the inevitable.

"What he said to us was, 'Any man that goes down, he has the ability to get back up. But the difference is how that man gets back up, because a man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back up and is changed and is different from being down, that's who we are. That's who the Gators are. That's how we need to play and that's who we need to be,' " Florida left tackle Max Garcia recounted.

"So, I'm going to stick with that for the rest of my life. It really penetrated my soul."

With Tebow watching on the sidelines, the Gators were bouncing around and showing more emotion than they had in weeks. In front of a nearly full stadium, its fans at full throat, Florida's defense harassed Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston into one of his worst quarters (4-of-6 for 35 yards) of the season.

Winston threw his first interception in three weeks -- an excuse-me catch by Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who broke up the pass with his back to the ball but was able to find and reel in the deflection. It was the Gators' first interception since the second quarter of the Missouri game on Oct. 19.

The crowd roared its approval, and there was more energy in the Swamp than at any point in the season.

Florida outgained FSU 81 yards to 33 in the first quarter, but 50 of those yards came on one Wildcat keeper up the middle by senior Trey Burton. Two plays later, Burton injured his shoulder on another keeper and did not return to the field.

With Burton went half of the offense the Gators were planning to run.

"We were probably going to have 30-35 plays with Trey [at Wildcat quarterback]," Muschamp said. "Some of the misdirection runs now go out of the game plan, so you've got to make adjustments and you've got to change.

"I hurt for Trey because he’s a senior, his last game in the Swamp, so [it's] very difficult for him. He’s a great young man. It just kinda sums up what’s happened this year. Very frustrating."

With Burton's injury, Florida was missing 16 scholarship contributors in this game. And with cornerback Marcus Roberson dealing with an ankle injury in the first half, UF was missing 10 of its original 22 projected starters on offense and defense.

Winston and the Seminoles still led 3-0 after the first quarter, as FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo converted the same 49-yard field goal that his Florida counterpart, Austin Hardin, missed.

A 12-play, 96-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin might have put the game out of reach, but more importantly, it quelled the enthusiasm of the Florida defense and the crowd.

FSU had weathered the early storm of defensive pressure and taken a 17-0 lead into halftime. It tied the lowest first-half scoring output of the season for the Noles, which happened previously against Nevada in Week 2.

A game that looked on paper like a colossal mismatch inevitably turned out that way. The Florida defense couldn't get off the field, thanks to FSU going 9-of-15 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Florida went 1-for-11 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play on the day.

"You got to maintain the ball against an offense like that," Muschamp said. "You got to take time off the clock. ... We weren’t able to do that. Give them credit. They made plays on third down, and we didn’t. I think we were 1-of-10 or -11 on third down. You got to convert those, and we’ve struggled to make explosives, make third-down conversions. You name it, we haven’t done it.”

In a season of making all the wrong history, the only drama Florida could muster against Florida State was whether the Noles would shut out the Gators for the first time in the 58-game series.

The answer was no, but it was close. And now the Gators boast the nation's second-longest streak of scoring in consecutive games (322, second to Michigan's 374 games in a row).

With one score in the fourth quarter, Florida finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns. It's the fewest since 1989, the season before Steve Spurrier was hired as coach. On the other sideline, sitting out the Noles' final series to let his backup play, Winston had already broken Florida State's single-season record for passing TDs, with three more on Saturday giving him a total of 35.

"It’s been a tough year, difficult to deal with, but it is what it is," a somber Muschamp said when it was over. "Those guys have persevered through some tough times and certainly this season being the iceberg of it all."

Now that it's in the history books, however, Florida's 2013 season might be remembered less as an iceberg and more as the ship that sunk when it struck one.

Midseason report: Florida

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After winning 11 games in 2012, the Gators this year look eerily similar to the team that made its first BCS bowl berth since 2009 last year.

That's both a good thing and a bad thing for No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1 SEC). The good news is that the defense has been stellar thus far, ranking first in the SEC and third nationally in total defense (235.3 yards per game). Even after losing wealth of talent to last spring's NFL draft -- and potential All-American defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending ACL injury -- the Gators' defense has been clicking each week.

Florida's defense is also first in the SEC in rushing defense (83.3 yards per game), passing (152 ypg) and second in scoring (13 points per game). After losing to LSU 17-6 this past weekend, the Gators have gone 13 straight SEC games without allowing 20 or more points. The Gators have an all-star cast in their secondary, headlined by corners Vernon Hargreaves III (a true freshman) and potential first-round draft picks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. The defensive line is headlined by Buck end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., while Antonio Morrison leads a talented linebacker corps.

While Florida has given up more than 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games, no one produced more than 66 rushing yards through the first four games of the season.

Then there's the offense. Like last year, it's a major issue again. Florida lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken fibula against Tennessee in Week 4 and have had to throw longtime backup Tyler Murphy into the fire. After three solid outings, Murphy crumbled under the pressure forced by LSU's defense last week. What didn't help was the lack of a consistent running game. In losses to Miami and LSU, Florida averaged just 2.8 yards per rush.

The weird thing is that Florida is one of three SEC teams to have three players with more than 300 receiving yards, but if the Gators are going to make any sort of push toward Atlanta for the SEC championship, the offense has to get going. The problem is that with running back Matt Jones out for the season, the Gators are still looking for that hammer-type running back like Mike Gillislee was last year.

Offensive MVP: Solomon Patton, WR, Sr.: After spending three years as more of a jet-sweep guy, Patton leads the Gators with 380 yards and four touchdowns on 22 catches. He has become a deep threat, an underneath threat and a threat out of the backfield.

Defensive MVP: Dante Fowler Jr., DE/LB, Soph.: After a slow start, Fowler has been one of the Gators' best players, registering a team-high seven tackles for loss and three sacks. He also has three quarterback hurries, 22 total tackles and has forced two fumbles.

SEC Friday mailbag: Week 7

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Brandon Joyce (@BrandonJoyce_1) writes: What are the Gators’ keys to victory against LSU on Saturday?

Greg Ostendorf: It starts with the defense. Florida is ranked No. 2 in the country in total defense, giving up only 217 yards per game. In a season that has been dominated by the offenses in the SEC, the Gators are winning with defense. If anybody can stop or slow down LSU wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season, it’s Florida. They have two NFL-caliber cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and maybe the conference’s best freshman, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. On offense, the Gators need to establish the run early and often. LSU ranks in the bottom half of the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 160 yards per game on the ground. That could mean a big day for running back Matt Jones.


Kevin Paul (@KevinJPaul) writes: Does LSU have the best offense in the conference?

Greg Ostendorf: As good as Florida’s defense has been this season, it’s going to be nearly impossible to stop this LSU offense. Sure, Georgia outscored LSU when they met in Athens. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel has been the most explosive player in the SEC. But how can you argue against the Tigers’ offense? Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has turned the page and is looking like a first-round draft pick. They have the top wide receiver tandem in the conference. And if you try to shut down the passing game, they can just hand the ball off to Jeremy Hill. There’s not a more balanced offense in the league. LSU is averaging 291 yards per game through the air, and since the return of Hill they’re rushed for more than 200 yards in three of the last four games.


Jerrod Piker (@d1nonlyhogfan) writes: With or without Clowney, does South Carolina struggle in Fayetteville this weekend? Could this be Bielema’s signature win in season No. 1?

Greg Ostendorf: Jadeveon Clowney is expected to pay for South Carolina this weekend, per his defensive coordinator. However, even with the star defensive end on the field, I think the Gamecocks will get all they can handle from Arkansas. Freshman running back Alex Collins is leading the SEC in rushing with 651 yards through the first half of the season, and he’s averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, South Carolina has struggled in recent weeks against the likes of Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. There's no doubt this would be a signature win for Brett Bielema and put them one step closer to making a bowl game.


Adam Hathcock (@adam_hath) writes: Does Tennessee's bye week help or hurt them?

Greg Ostendorf: It all depends on how the Volunteers respond after a gut-wrenching loss to Georgia. You could argue the bye week would be helpful because the team is still devastated after Saturday’s game and might have come out flat this weekend. However, the overtime loss to the Dawgs seemed to re-energize the program and the fans. Butch Jones & Co. could use the game as a springboard for the rest of the season. Ultimately, I think the off week will be helpful. It gives the players a chance to rest up and get healthy, and they will have extra time to prepare for South Carolina. The Gamecocks come to Neyland Stadium a week from Saturday.


Daniel Badger (@badger_daniel) writes: Is Dan Mullen on the hot seat? If so, who are some possible candidates to replace him after the season?

Greg Ostendorf: It’s hard to argue with what Mullen has done for the Mississippi State program. He has taken the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, which is no easy task. But they have seemed to hit a ceiling of sorts and are in danger of missing the postseason this year. I think it’s too early to fire Mullen, but in this day and age in college football, nothing is out of the question. If he were let go, Mississippi State might look at Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris or Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth, who was born in in Mississippi and coached in Starkville once before. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bobby Petrino’s name came up as well.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 7

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1. Will Clowney play?: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and his last-minute decision to sit out against Kentucky. It didn’t go over well with coach Steve Spurrier based on the postgame comments. However, Spurrier defended his star player this week. Once again, Clowney is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game at Arkansas with a muscle strain near his rib area. He returned to practice on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Getty ImagesJames Franklin and Missouri can prove they're legit SEC contenders with a win at Georgia on Saturday.
2. Health concerns at UGA: The Bulldogs survived a scare in Knoxville last weekend, but they didn’t come out unscathed. They lost both running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley to season-ending injuries while fellow wide receiver Michael Bennett will miss an extended period of time with a knee injury. Georgia will have to bounce back quickly with No. 25 Missouri coming to town on Saturday.

3. Mizzou a legitimate contender? It’s safe to say nobody had Missouri as one of the two unbeaten teams in the SEC heading into Week 7. But after an impressive road win at Vanderbilt, the Tigers are 5-0 and finally starting to gain some respect around the league. The next three weeks will be telling, though, as they play Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

4. LSU’s WRs versus Florida’s CBs: It’s a dream matchup for NFL scouts. LSU features what many consider to be the top wide receiver tandem in college football with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy is arguably the top cornerback in the SEC, and playing opposite of him is freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who already has three interceptions. The Gators are also expecting the return of corner Marcus Roberson, another one who could soon be playing on Sundays.

5. Tyler Murphy in Death Valley: Since replacing the injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback, Murphy has exceeded expectations for the Gators. In three games, he has thrown for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception, and he’s progressively gotten better. However, the junior signal-caller is in for his toughest assignment yet when Florida travels to LSU this weekend. How will he perform in a hostile atmosphere?

6. The return of Cooper: When will we see the real Amari Cooper, the one who had 1,000 yards receiving as a freshman for Alabama? The star wide receiver has been slowed by nagging injuries all season, but he expects to play Saturday against Kentucky. Will he be 100 percent? Quarterback AJ McCarron would love to have him back sooner rather than later.

7. Aggies without Ennis: As if Texas A&M’s rush defense wasn’t bad enough, the Aggies lost Kirby Ennis, one of their top interior linemen, for the season with a torn ACL. The injury comes at a bad time for the Aggies, who have to visit Ole Miss this weekend and deal with Rebels running back Jeff Scott, not to mention quarterback Bo Wallace. The staff will turn to freshman Isaiah Golden, who is expected to start alongside Alonzo Williams in the middle.

8. Shootout in Oxford: The SEC has featured its fair share of shootouts early in the college football season, and Saturday’s game between Ole Miss and Texas A&M could be right up there. Both teams feature an up-tempo offense, and neither one likes to waste much time between plays. It could be a long day for both defenses.

9. Big game for Bielema: After a 3-0 start, Arkansas has quickly fallen back to .500 with three consecutive losses. However, first-year coach Brett Bielema has a chance to notch his first signature victory with the Razorbacks this Saturday when they host No. 14 South Carolina. The Gamecocks have struggled in recent weeks and could be prime for an upset. It’s likely a must-win scenario for Arkansas if the Hogs want to reach a bowl game.

10. Auburn’s quarterback: Who will start for the Tigers against Western Carolina? Starter Nick Marshall injured his knee last weekend against Ole Miss, and although he’s expected to play, coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t made a ruling one way or the other. If Marshall can’t go, Auburn will either turn to returning starter Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson.
Every time the members of Florida's vaunted secondary take the field, they're in a constant competition with each other.

Whether it's counting interceptions, tackles, tipped passes or trash talk, Florida's secondary seems to always be playing its own game. Sure, they understand that every move could affect a play -- both positively or negatively -- but their never-ending competition makes them closer. And it makes them that much more dangerous to test.

"At the end of the day, that helps us get better," senior cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins said.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCB Vernon Hargreaves III is coming off am All-SEC freshman season, and coaches say he can be even better this year.
Whether it's practice or a game, they are always looking to show the other one up. It's all in fun and it drives each one to play better because they know their spots aren't permanent. There's too much depth and talent, which Watkins said makes everything that much more fun.

With possible first-rounders for next year's NFL draft in cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, the Gators own the SEC's top corner duo, but it doesn't stop there. Add freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, who might be the most talented pure corner on the team, and cross-training fourth-year safeties in Watkins and Cody Riggs, and this is quite a formidable starting defensive backfield. Florida can rotate eight quality guys in the secondary in each game.

Just check out some of these numbers for Florida's secondary:

  • Florida ranks first in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 157 yards a game;
  • Through three games, the Gators have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 44.3 percent of their passes and QBs average only 4.9 yards per attempt. Quarterbacks have a passer rating of 82.95, lowest in the nation, when facing Florida;
  • Florida has had an interception in six consecutive games, dating to last season;
  • Florida had seven pass breakups in last week's 31-17 victory over Tennessee, which matched the team’s total for the year entering the game and the most in a game since recording seven against South Carolina last year.

"We feel we are the best secondary in the country," Watkins said.

Five of Florida's six interceptions this season have come from the secondary, with Hargreaves leading the team with two picks. Watkins, who is second on the team with 12 tackles and has defended three passes this year, said he knew from the first day Hargreaves stepped on the practice field that he would be special. Watkins said his vertical jump blew everyone away, but it was the way he picked up the technique that had his veteran teammates turning their heads.

It took guys like Watkins weeks to get the positioning and technique down. Watkins said it only took Hargreaves "a few days."

"Once he got it, he looked like me, Marcus and Loucheiz at corner. There was no drop-off," Watkins said. "With Vernon coming in, that's just amazing because he allows me to go to safety and do a lot of different things. He's come in and stepped in and done everything the coaches have asked him. He's going to be a great player."

Now, this secondary isn't perfect. There was the 52-yard touchdown pass in the loss to Miami, and a thin secondary surrendered a late, 79-yard touchdown drive to Tennessee that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass because of a blown assignment.

But as Watkins points out, with how aggressively this unit plays, those things can happen. It isn't always positioning or picking up men that hurts this secondary, Watkins said, it's eye control. And when you're aggressive, that can hurt you.

Watkins said coach Will Muschamp, who was a defensive back at Georgia, harps on eye control and the little things. He calls out minute details that his defensive backs miss. He'll even stop guys in the hall to tell him the exact mistake he made on the exact play.

It sounds like it could get annoying, but Watkins said Muschamp's hands-on approach with the secondary is a good learning tool.

"He takes pride in coaching the little things with us," Watkins said. "It's the really small things that can lead to something big. Eye control might not catch us one time, but it can also lead to a big play."

So far, the secondary has bounced back from big plays and each week brings more development. Playing at such a high level is made easier when the guys running the show are comfortable with all the working parts.

"We all trust each other at a higher level," Watkins said. "We all have good chemistry, no matter who's on the field."

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