SEC: Ronald Powell

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with tradition, Florida concluded a month of practices with a feel-good scrimmage in front of thousands of fans and called the spring a success.

Coming off of a terrible 2013 season, the Gators desperately needed changes and positive feelings. They got that and more.

Florida satisfied head coach Will Muschamp's top priorities by installing a new offense, developing confidence, discovering some new players and rehabilitating some old ones.

Here's what else happened this spring:

[+] EnlargeWill Grier
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFreshman Will Grier showed a quick release in Florida's spring game.
Quarterbacks in command: From the opening of the first practice, it was obvious the QBs had studied hard and grasped the no-huddle spread offense. They led the installation process and made enough progress with fundamentals and basic principles to add wrinkles throughout the spring. Junior Jeff Driskel clearly separated himself as the starter in camp and had the strongest arm. He got into a good rhythm in the spring game and showed what the offense can do (against much of Florida's first-team defense). The battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot was a draw. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg improved as a passer throughout the spring and split reps with true freshman Will Grier. The much-anticipated prospect didn't disappoint, as Grier showed he has an extremely quick release and a bright future.

Deeper at receiver: The Gators have been painfully short of playmakers on offense in recent years, but the numbers are tilting in their favor. Florida will lean heavily on senior starter Quinton Dunbar and three talented sophomores who gained valuable experience last season in Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. The three combined for 13 receptions in Saturday's spring game. Robinson led the way with five catches for 53 yards, including a 31-yard, highlight-reel touchdown. The biggest proof of concept for the offense was that it did what everyone promised it would -- get the ball to players in space.

Still some concerns: After years of departures to the NFL, Florida has a very young secondary. There's plenty of talent, but it appears likely that at least one of the true freshman cornerbacks -- Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson -- will start either at corner or nickel. There will also be two new starters at safety, with an open spot still up for grabs opposite senior Jabari Gorman. ... The issue Muschamp harped on the most throughout the spring was a "huge" drop-off in ability from his first team to the second team on the offensive and defensive lines. Mental and physical stamina is part of the problem. ... Florida still isn't getting much offense from its tight ends and fullbacks. "We’re still looking for that consistent playmaker at the B-position," Muschamp said Saturday. He did single out true freshman DeAndre Goolsby for praise. ... Though there weren't any major injuries this spring, the bug still looms. Florida on Saturday held out two key starters on defense in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There was no reason to expose them to risk, and can you blame a team that lost one of its best players in Ronald Powell to a torn ACL in the spring game two years ago?

Kick in the pants: Muschamp said he's talked to a lot of mental conditioning coaches to try to help place-kicker Austin Hardin iron out his mechanics. Hardin, who struggled mightily in his first season as UF's kicker, made all four of his field-goal attempts in the spring game and won his coach's praise for achieving some consistency. Hardin will still have to fight off a few walk-ons who will try to take his job.

Position changes: Senior offensive tackle Trenton Brown moved inside to guard, performed well as a starter in the spring game and will stay there. At 6-foot-8 and 361 pounds, the Gators love his ability to be a people-mover in the running game. ... Florida gave junior Trip Thurman a long look at guard throughout the spring before giving him second-team snaps at center in Saturday's game. ... Redshirt freshman Antonio Riles moved from defensive line to offensive guard midway through spring. Florida coaches like his athleticism and said he looked natural on the O-line, but the real reason for the move might have more to do with three highly touted defensive line signees who are coming this summer: Thomas Holley, Gerald Willis III and Khairi Clark. ... Redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins wasn't making much of an impact at wide receiver early in the spring so he was moved to safety, where he played some in high school. Florida felt good about its numbers at receiver and needed more help in the secondary.

What's next: The Gators are on their own as far as workouts, as veteran players typically organize drills throughout the summer to stay sharp. Driskel said he plans to throw a lot and work on timing with his receivers. Muschamp said it best in outlining the next phase for his players: "Still got a way to go, 112 days until we report. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in this league."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's no doubt that Florida has played terrific defense under head coach Will Muschamp, but the Gators have done so with one important aspect largely missing -- a pass rush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough is enough. Muschamp wants more push up front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything, including a consistent pass rush by the Gators this season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Watch Will Muschamp this spring and pay special attention to the way he takes questions from the media.

You'll see him crack a smile, tell a joke and express the usual spring optimism.

Watch the Florida coach command his team on the practice field and you can't help but notice the same laser-like focus on getting every detail right.

Sure, he's got a lot on his to-do list this spring, but Muschamp is showing no signs of stress, no extra pressure in the aftermath of UF's first losing season since 1979.

The scrutiny is everywhere, as Muschamp has been named to lists of coaches on the hot seat and facing make-or-break seasons. But after the sting of a 4-8 season wore off, Muschamp took full responsibility and promised he will right the ship.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
AP Photo/Phil SandlinWill Muschamp is eager to rectify issues that were raised in Florida's lackluster 2013 season.
"We had an extremely frustrating and disappointing fall, and that's on me," he said last week, as he has said many times this offseason. "We've made the appropriate changes, in my opinion, moving forward to have a really good football team this fall, and we will."

Close friend Dan Quinn has a good perspective on Muschamp. He was the defensive coordinator during Muschamp's first and second seasons at Florida. Last year, watching from afar as defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, Quinn said it was hard to believe Florida's record and the amount of injuries the Gators suffered.

Quinn came back to Gainesville to be the keynote speaker at Muschamp's annual coaching clinic last weekend and saw the Gators practice firsthand.

"I'm sure internally they feel it," Quinn said Friday, "but I think one of the cool parts for players and for coaches, too, is when you step out onto the grass then you're back in your element. All of the talking about last season is over. I think they're ready to move on and learn from it, I'm sure. But I know they're just champing at the bit to get going. You can feel the energy of these guys in the walk-throughs, in the meetings and being around them. I can certainly feel it. ...

"I know they're getting back to work. When things don't go your way, usually if you're a competitor, which I know these guys are, it's, 'What's the thing I want to do most? I want to go work and get back to it.' There's a lot of guys on this team and coaches, too, that have a lot of grit. Setbacks aren't going to stop them."

A setback. That's exactly how Muschamp views 2013. Quinn observed as much in his brief return to campus. He saw Muschamp's focus as the Gators kicked off spring practice.

"That's one of the things I really admire about him," Quinn said.

Some fans screamed for a pink slip last year, but Muschamp has plenty of support at Florida. The backing of athletic director Jeremy Foley has done the most to reduce the pressure.

"I get the fact you have some fans that are unhappy because you have a tough year in football," Foley told the school website shortly after the 2013 season ended. "Our expectations are just as high as theirs. We understand it and it’s part of the world we live in. The message is, No. 1, we understand it. No. 2, we’re going to fix it.

"It’s not acceptable to us; it’s not acceptable to anybody who is associated with our football program. I can assure you it’s not acceptable to the head football coach. But at some point in time, you have to put that behind you because the season is over. Now we’re going to turn to the future. We’re not going to make excuses; we’re going to start working overtime to get this shipped turned, because it has to turn for a multitude of different reasons."

Another source of support and structure is the return of so many former Gators. Several NFL players have come back to finish their degrees and are working out with the team as well. They feel the pulse of their former teammates and say they see the same head coach.

"It's not pressure," defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. "Think about it. Our defense was close to being the No. 1 defense in the SEC, and you got a 4-8 record. So he's a defensive-minded coach; he's doing his job. We've just got to get everybody together.

"I don't believe that he's going anywhere. He's a good coach, everybody in the program likes him, everybody in the university likes him. Everybody knows what type of man he is and what type of coach he is. The thought of him leaving never comes up in anybody's mind."

Linebacker Ronald Powell, like Easley a former player working out with the Gators to prepare for the NFL draft in May, says the situation is bigger than just one person. After going through a shocking and difficult season, he says the players are rallying around each other.

"They're rallying around the Gators," he said.

Muschamp included.

Rain drenches Florida pro day

March, 17, 2014
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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."

SEC's lunch links

January, 7, 2014
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Well, that was fun. Another college football season is in the books. It's Day 1 of the long, hard offseason.
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. -- Much like the little black lovebugs that swarm these parts twice a year only to splatter across windshields like a plague, the Florida Gators' injury bug in 2013 was a nuisance. Then it reached epic proportions. Here's a complete breakdown:

August

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel's season ended in the third game, when he broke his leg vs. Tennessee.
Injuries: Junior QB Jeff Driskel (appendectomy), sophomore RB Matt Jones (viral infection), senior WR Andre Debose (torn ACL), freshman LB Matt Rolin (torn ACL), junior OT Chaz Green (torn labrum)
Impact: In hindsight, maybe we should have known something was a bit off when players started falling before preseason camp. The injury parade started with Driskel and Jones missing reps at a time when they were supposed to be two of the primary focal points in the UF offense. Days into camp, another offensive weapon was lost when Debose tore his ACL in a noncontact situation. "He just planted his foot and there was a tear," coach Will Muschamp said. Florida' O-line got its first big jolt later in camp when Green, the starting right tackle, was lost for the season. With 19 career starts, Green was expected to anchor the right side of the line. The OL already was without senior guard Jon Halapio, who missed all of camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered in late July and missed the first two games of the season.

September

Injuries: Freshman S Nick Washington (shoulder), Driskel (broken fibula), senior DT Dominique Easley (torn ACL)
Impact: Coming off a shaky three-turnover performance in Week 2's loss at Miami, Driskel was hurt in the first quarter against Tennessee the following week. Because junior backup QB Tyler Murphy rallied the Gators and engineered wins in the next two games, it appeared Florida wouldn't be impaired by the transition from one mobile quarterback to another. Eventually, however, Murphy's limitations in the passing offense showed against tougher competition. The two biggest things Florida lost with Driskel were the read-option element of the offense and the ability to diagnose defenses and check out of bad plays. Losing your best quarterback can cripple any team's offensive season. Losing your best player overall? That hurts in many more ways. Easley's injury changed the course of Florida's season. On the field, the senior was Florida's most disruptive defender, an agitator an identity-maker. He provided the crucial push up the middle that many teams desire but few have. Off the field Easley was a vocal leader, a motivator and someone who could keep the team loose. "You don't replace Dominique Easley," Muschamp said later. "It's not just from a play-making standpoint, it's from a leadership standpoint. It's the heart of your team."

October

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesMatt Jones was Florida's leading rusher when he was lost for the season in the LSU game.
Injuries: Jones (torn meniscus), Murphy (sprained shoulder), senior DT Damien Jacobs (concussion), junior LB Ronald Powell (ankle), senior LB Darrin Kitchens (shoulder), redshirt freshman LB Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), sophomore LT D.J. Humphries (sprained MCL)
Impact: Florida's loss to LSU on Oct. 12 split the season in two. The Gators came into the game with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 17 in the nation. They left with the first of seven straight losses and two more injuries that would plague them the rest of the way. Jones, the starting tailback, saw just six plays against LSU. Florida lost its top blocker and biggest home-run threat at tailback and would have to break in a true freshman replacement. Murphy sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder against the Tigers and struggled with accuracy until his season ultimately ended a few weeks later. The following week in a crushing loss at Missouri, the Gators lost their eighth player for the season in special teams standout Jeremi Powell. But the month wasn't quite over, and UF lost Humphries, its starting left tackle, when he hurt his knee in practice. The offensive line was in disarray heading into the Georgia game.

November

Injuries: Sophomore OT Tyler Moore (broken elbow), sophomore LB Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus), junior LB Michael Taylor (sprained MCL), freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman DL Joey Ivie (heel), senior WR Trey Burton (shoulder)
Impact: At this point in a season marred by injuries, it started to get ridiculous. Just when the offensive line had found itself against Georgia, Moore fell off his scooter when it slipped on a wet sidewalk and was lost for the rest of the year. Just before it faced Georgia Southern's dangerous triple-option offense, Muschamp announced that Morrison, the team's middle linebacker and top tackler, was out for the season. Casualties No. 9 and 10. To further drive home the point, Florida lost Morrison's replacement (Taylor) and then lost his replacement (Anzalone), as well as another linebacker (Kitchens) in the GSU game. At one point, the Gators turned to David Campbell, a senior walk-on who wasn't even on the game-day roster. Before the final game of the season, Florida suffered another scooter injury when Ivie sliced his heel and needed 25 stitches. The season ended, as you might imagine, with an injury ruining the Gators' game plan against Florida State. Burton was to run the wildcat for about 50 percent of the offensive plays and had early success with a 50-yard run. He hurt his shoulder and was knocked out of the game two plays later.

Conclusions

It would be hard for any offense to be effective without its top two QBs, starting tailback and three best offensive tackles. The running game that keyed an 11-win season in 2012 could not be relied upon in 2013. Similarly, the Gators' run defense fell apart by the end of the season. Florida's defense showed signs of being dominant with Easley, giving up just 55.3 yards a game on the ground, but then sprang leaks without their big man in the middle.

The upside? None of the injuries is believed to be career-threatening, and Florida developed some depth when it was forced to turn to younger players.

"There were a bunch of [important players] that didn't play for us," Muschamp said after the season's final game. "They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players, and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward. I'm not using excuses, it's real."

Real painful.

Dominique Easley 'tweaks' his knee

September, 25, 2013
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Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley's status for Saturday's game against Kentucky is unknown after coach Will Muschamp announced that he "tweaked" his knee in practice Tuesday. Muschamp added that Easley would probably miss Wednesday's practice.

"We'll see how it goes," Muschamp said on Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

"We think he’ll be fine. We just need more information. We’re going through the process at this time.”

Muschamp said that Easley injured his right knee while planting before trying to run on a screen play. Easley tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee back in 2011.

Reports surfaced before the teleconference that Easley had torn the ACL in his right knee and would be out for the season. Shortly after Muschamp's 10 minutes were up on Wednesday's call, Easley hinted from his Twitter account (@MR_ChUcKiE_2) that his Florida career could be over:
"Gatornation thank you for all of 4 yrs of sticking wi th me but god has something else planned for and have no worries #believe"

There was nothing official from UF about whether Easley will miss significant time, but losing him would be a big hit to one of the nation's best defenses.

The Gators have developed a better pass rush and do like to rotate guys all along the defensive line, but Easley is just a different kind of player. He doesn't blow up a stat sheet, but he consistently blows up opposing offensive lines. He only has five tackles on the year, but has been credited with four quarterback hurries.

Easley is explosive off the line, has a never-ending motor and is extremely disruptive. He might not make all the tackles, but he creates plays for other people. He draws a lot of double-teams, which opens things up for guys in one-on-one situations. Sharrif Floyd was on the receiving end of a lot of Easley's disruption last year, and the same can be said for a handful of Florida's linemen and linebackers this year. Having Easley out would put a lot more pressure on outside guys, like linebacker Ronald Powell and Buck defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.

Inside, the Gators have a good rotation going with Leon Orr and Damian Jacobs at nose guard, and Darious Cummings has done well rotating with Easley. Remember, he did have that awkward looking interception and return last week. Freshman Jay-nard Bostwick will be in the mix at tackle, while defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Wednesday that freshmen Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. are both capable of playing Easley's position if needed.

Depth will help the Gators for as long as Easley is out, but that "it" quality will be missing.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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Now that Week 1 is in the books for the SEC, here are five things we learned about the conference:

1. Alabama's offensive line needs work: We knew replacing three NFL draft picks would be tough for Alabama, but Saturday night showed that this unit will certainly need the bye week to get things ready for Texas A&M. There were communication issues and players weren't comfortable with the actual game speed. It didn't help that Virginia Tech surprised the Tide with some of their defensive sets. Still, the kinks really need to be ironed out up front. Alabama failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time since 2011 and quarterback AJ McCarron never really looked comfortable with all the pressure he faced. These issues can be fixed, and they'll need to be before the A&M game.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsAlabama and AJ McCarron have some things to work on before facing Texas A&M on Sept. 14.
2. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are for real: We saw a great start to the 2013 season when Ole Miss topped Vanderbilt in that thriller in Nashville on Thursday night. Don't think that we've heard the last of either of these teams. They will make life for all of their opponents tough throughout the season. Both teams showed they have the athletes to keep up with some of the bigger boys in the league and they have the capability of making electric plays on both sides of the ball. They combined for 915 total yards and 74 points Thursday. Both of these offenses should be fun to watch and it wouldn't shock anyone if the Commodores and Rebels both upset one of the big boys this year.

3. Suspect defenses: It's obvious that Georgia and Texas A&M both need to see a lot of improvement on the defensive side of the ball. We knew we'd see a lot of points this weekend, but Georgia's defense was too sloppy at times. There were protection breakdowns, the line was pushed around and tackling was a major issue in the Bulldogs' 38-35 loss to Clemson. Outside of the poor tackling, what really had to frustrate defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the fact that Clemson ran for 197 yards. Stopping the run was a major issue for this defense last year, and it was a problem Saturday night. As for the Aggies, Texas A&M's rebuilding defense had a rough day against Rice. Granted, the Aggies were missing five starters, but they gave up 306 rushing yards and 31 points. Even with guys out, you just can't allow that to happen. Key guys will come back next week, but this defense won't be at full strength until the Alabama game in two weeks. This defense has a lot to work on until then.

4. Kentucky's road is longer than expected: Mark Stoops has brought some excitement back to Kentucky's football program, but Saturday's 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky proved that the Wildcats still have a ways to go when it comes to development and talent. The defense struggled against Bobby Petrino's offense, surrendering 487 yards and 22 first downs, while the offense showed it is in serious need of playmakers in the passing game. The "Air Raid" offense was nowhere to be seen, while the defense didn't register nearly enough pressure to slow down Western Kentucky's attack. This wasn't going to be an easy first year for Stoops, but this was not the start he needed, especially with the way the defense played.

5. Happy returns: It was good to see some players return to the field after injuries affected them in 2012. Missouri had to be pleased with quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey getting off to a fast start. Franklin, who dealt with shoulder, knee and head injuries last year, threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another 44 in the Tigers' blowout win over Murray State. Josey, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, carried the ball 13 times for 113 yards and a 68-yard touchdown. Forget the opponent -- these two looked up to speed after a trying 2012. Florida also got good production out of linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell, who missed all of last year with two ACL injuries. Powell was very active Saturday, finishing with a sack and three quarterback hurries. Also, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw made it through Thursday's game without injury. He passed for only 149 yards and touchdown, but he ran 12 times for 43 yards. It's clear these guys are back to their old healthy selves.

Muschamp: Bigger is better at UF

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

Small guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offensive line

Ideal number: 15-17

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

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

Defensive tackle

Ideal number: 8-10

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

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

Defensive ends

Ideal number: 6-8

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

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

Bucks

Ideal number: 4-6

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

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

Linebackers

Ideal number: 9-12

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

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

Tight ends

Ideal number: 3-5

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

Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.

Florida season preview

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

Florida

Coach: Will Muschamp (18-8)

2012 record: 11-2

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

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

Newcomer to watch: LB Daniel McMillian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
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Here’s some required SEC reading to help get you through the rest of your Monday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Defensive line coach Brad Lawing couldn’t bring Jadeveon Clowney with him when Florida coach Will Muschamp hired him away from South Carolina in January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s nice to have the package available, especially if it allows the Gators to begin to develop younger players like redshirt freshmen Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister.

Countdown to SEC kickoff: 28 days

August, 1, 2013
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If you were ranking the SEC individual records most likely to never be broken, which ones would be at the very top of that list?

One that immediately comes to mind was set going on 25 years ago by perhaps the greatest pass-rusher to ever play the game. To this day, that number almost seems unfathomable: 27.
The late Derrick Thomas registered 27 sacks during the 1988 season and finished his Alabama career with 52 sacks. Both are SEC records, and nobody has come close to those numbers since Thomas left the Capstone for NFL stardom. In fact, the closest anybody in the SEC has come to 27 sacks in a season since Thomas established that dizzying benchmark was Mississippi State’s Willie Evans, who had 15 sacks in 2005. Georgia’s Jarvis Jones had 14.5 sacks last season, and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney had 13. Is it realistic to think that Clowney could make a run at Thomas’ record this season? If Clowney could just get to 20 sacks and the Gamecocks have a successful season, he’d be right in the middle of the Heisman Trophy race. But 27 sacks? Think about it. In a 13-game season, that’s averaging just over two sacks per game, and Thomas needed just 12 games in 1988 to set his record. Of course, it’s not a given that Clowney will lead the SEC in sacks this season. He’ll have some stiff competition. The dark horse, if you will, is Florida’s Ronald Powell, who’s healthy and one of those guys who could explode after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. The Gators will move him around, and coach Will Muschamp said they’ll play more 3-4 this season to get both Powell and Dante Fowler Jr. on the field at the same time.

Opening camp: Florida Gators

July, 31, 2013
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Schedule: The Gators being practice on Friday with a split squad schedule. The first group will go at 6 a.m. ET, while the second group will go at 6 p.m. ET. Florida will hold open practice on Aug. 15, 17, 19 and 20. The first day in full pads will be Tuesday, Aug 6.

On the mend: Quarterback Jeff Driskel is expected to miss two weeks after undergoing appendectomy surgery on Tuesday. Hybrid linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell is returning from two ACL injuries that cost him his entire 2012 season. Linebacker Matt Rolin (knee) and Trip Thurman (shoulder) could be limited during fall practice. Linebacker Alex Anzalone should be healed from his spring shoulder injury.

Key battle: Florida has to find consistent pass-catchers on offense. Junior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar stuck out as the top receiver, but there isn't much experience after him. Someone has to step up to be a consistent receiving threat for Driskel. True freshman Demarcus Robinson turned some heads this spring, but he has to get more familiar with the playbook. Latroy Pittman has to play with the same attitude he had last spring, too. The Gators will also work with four more true freshman receivers this fall. At tight end, the Gators are hoping Kent Taylor or Clay Burton develop into a real receiving threats, while Colin Thompson expands his role beyond being mostly a blocker.

Of note: Last year, running back Mike Gillislee became Florida's first 1,000-yard rusher (1,152) since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Florida has never had back-to-back years with 1,000-yard rushers in school history. Sophomore Matt Jones replaces Gillislee at running back this fall.

Predicted order of finish at media days: Picked third in the SEC East at SEC media days.

They said it: Driskel on what his wide receivers think about being looked down upon heading into the fall: "It's an insult. It really is. That's what they do -- they're football players -- and anytime people say that you're not good at what you do, you're going to be insulted. They've really taken it upon themselves to really improve this year and really prove everyone wrong."

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