SEC: Joker Phillips

Lunchtime links

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
12:30
PM ET
The World Cup is here. Really helps the summer go by before football season starts.
  • Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel wonders why Florida didn't just tell the truth when it came to the sudden resignation of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips.
  • Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson thinks he has options if defensive end Carl Lawson has to miss time after offseason knee surgery.
  • Alabama defensive lineman Brandon Ivory ranks No. 21 on AL.com's list of the most important figures in and around Alabama's program.
  • Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will get to practice and scrimmage against Peyton Manning.
  • Tennessee quarterback commit Quinten Dormady is eager to join a "growing" Tennessee football program.
  • Missouri athletic director Mike Alden talks about the future of the NCAA. Here's Part 1 and Part 2 of his Q&A with The Columbia Daily Tribune.
  • New Orleans Saints' Keenan Lewis thinks LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre will be a top NFL receiver one day.

SEC's lunch links

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
12:00
PM ET
The World Cup begins today. Will you be watching? If so, make sure you take in today’s lunch links before Brazil and Croatia kick off. If not, still check out the lunch links and see what’s going on around the SEC.
  • Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro is the perfect O’Bannon witness to show the NCAA’s economic model is broken.
  • Between Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber, there isn’t a clear pecking order at running back, but that’s how Auburn likes it.
  • Recruits react to Joker Phillips’ resignation at Florida on Wednesday.
  • Georgia’s secondary: How it looks after the Tray Matthews’ dismissal and a possible position change since the end of spring practice.
  • Not so fast: Jalen Mills’ attorney says the LSU cornerback wasn’t the one who struck the victim in the incident last month that led to Tuesday’s arrest.
  • Missouri wide receiver signee Darnell Green, the younger brother of former star Dorial Green-Beckham, plans to delay his enrollment until January.
  • South Carolina’s new-look defensive line remains a work in progress.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One thing is clear in the wake of Joker Phillips' sudden departure from Florida on Wednesday: The Gators haven't had much luck with wide receivers coaches in recent years.

It's no coincidence that Florida hasn't had a wideout with more than 600 yards since Riley Cooper led the team with 961 yards in 2009. That was UF's last season of stability at a coaching position that has been turbulent ever since.

In 2009, Billy Gonzales ended a five-year run as Florida's wide receivers coach when he reportedly resigned with a sticky note that said, "I'm going to LSU."

Then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer replaced Gonzales with Central Michigan receivers coach Zach Azzanni, who only lasted one season. He was not retained when new head coach Will Muschamp took over for Meyer and assembled his staff in 2011.

Muschamp brought in former Gators standout Aubrey Hill, who coached one season before resigning amid allegations of involvement with improper benefits in his previous coaching job at the University of Miami.

Hill's departure came in August 2012, weeks before the season began.

"Aubrey informed me he was resigning for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the University of Florida," Muschamp said in a statement at the time.

Muschamp promoted graduate assistant Bush Hamdan to replace Hill and then hired Phillips after the 2012 season.

At the time, Phillips was quoted on the school's official website as saying, "I’m looking forward to contributing to the long-term vision that [Muschamp] has for this program."

Surely that vision wasn't one of nearly constant turnover, as Phillips left for "personal reasons" of his own.

With graduate assistant Chris Leak's promotion on Wednesday, Florida is on its sixth wide receivers coach in six seasons.

Perhaps that's why Muschamp made sure to mention Leak's standing, saying, "He is one of the all-time Gator greats and being at Florida is very important to him."

In promoting Leak, Muschamp is hoping the former star quarterback is ready to be a full-time assistant coach at the age of 29 and can bring the continuity that has been missing for so long.

Leak inherits a receiving corps largely comprised of talented youngsters who must be developed. Florida has six wide receivers entering their first or second season this fall.

When asked early in spring practice if this group is the most talented he's had in his three years at Florida, Muschamp said, "I don't think there's any question."

Now, after Phillips' departure, the unit and its inexperienced coach are surrounded by questions.

If the Gators are to rediscover their winning ways through the air, Leak and his receivers will have to factor in prominently. If they do that, perhaps Florida will have something as rare as a 1,000-yard receiver -- a wide receivers coach roaming the sidelines for a second season.

SEC's lunch links

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
12:00
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Let's take a look at what's happening around the SEC.

Florida assistant and former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips is reportedly among the finalists to join Charlie Strong's new staff at Texas.

Kurt Roper left a secure situation at Duke to take over as offensive coordinator at Florida, and he needs to quickly construct an attack that can move up and down the field more effectively.

With the return of defensive line coach Bo Davis, Alabama welcomes back an excellent recruiter.

Former Auburn quarterback and receiver Kodi Burns plays an important role as a graduate assistant on Gus Malzahn's staff.

LSU grapples with massive losses from its offense to early entry into the NFL draft.

Freshman receiver De'Runnya Wilson could contribute on Mississippi State's basketball team.

Tennessee announced on Monday that it will play its spring game on April 12.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams is hitting the road in search of a new football coach.

Speaking of which, Athlon lists 10 candidates to replace James Franklin as the Commodores' coach.

Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham's drug arrest from last week is still under investigation and has not yet been submitted to a prosecutor.

Florida running back Matt Jones will miss spring practice after he undergoes a second knee surgery in the next few weeks.

Roper bringing fast-paced offense to UF

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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video

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Like his offense, Kurt Roper prefers to go fast.

That's why it's no surprise the Florida Gators and their new offensive coordinator made such quick work of the hiring process. An interview was set up on Sunday, and just after 6 a.m. the next morning, Florida's private jet was in Raleigh-Durham International Airport to whisk Roper off to Gainesville. A few hours later he was back at home discussing everything with his family.

It didn't take much longer for both sides to agree they found the right fit.

"Well, you know, everything happens pretty fast," Roper said on Thursday from Atlanta, where he will coach Duke's offense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

The Gators and head coach Will Muschamp are banking on Roper turning around an offense that has scuffled for four straight years ... and turning it around fast.

[+] EnlargeKurt Roper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsKurt Roper has SEC experience -- at Kentucky, Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Roper will enter a high-profile, high-pressure situation, as Muschamp is expected to improve upon last year's 4-8 record, Florida's first losing season since 1979. Many have called Muschamp's third offensive coordinator in four years his most important hire, as the head coach is expected to be on a very hot seat in 2014.

How's that for pressure?

"The expectations are great. I understand that going in," Roper said, "and the challenge is to meet those expectations. We’re at the University of Florida that obviously has a great tradition and has met those expectations a lot in the past. I’m just looking forward to it.

"... They've won a lot of games at Florida and won a lot of championships at Florida. But like I said, it's all going that way. You know, we won 10 here at Duke this year.

How quickly he can breathe life into UF's offense remains to be seen, but Roper's success in running an uptempo offense at Duke speaks loudly.

In his second year at Duke in 2009, the Blue Devils had the nation's ninth-ranked passing offense, averaging 305 yards per game. Since then, Duke has ranked 22nd, 28th, 31st and 63rd in passing offense.

The last two seasons have been particularly strong. And fast.

In 2012, the Blue Devils ran 990 offensive plays (76.2 per game), the most in Roper's six seasons as offensive coordinator. Duke ranked No. 55 in total offense, averaging 409 yards per game. This year, Duke ran 934 plays (71.8 per game), ranking 68th in total offense (408 YPG).

Roper's confidence in himself is obvious. He calmly dispatched a question on Thursday about whether he was ready to step outside the sizable shadow of an SEC warhorse such as David Cutcliffe, who has been Duke's head coach for the last six seasons.

"No, been doing it too long," he said. "I won’t have any nerves."

Cutcliffe understands the move and certainly understands the lure of SEC football. After spending 14 of the last 15 years together, Cutcliffe is just as confident in the continued success of his understudy.

"This is an opportunity for him somewhat to be out on his own, and I think he’s looking forward to that," Cutcliffe said on Thursday. "As far as the pressures go, he’s definitively ready for that.

"He’s been in the Southeastern Conference at two institutions and understands the intensity level that’s involved in that league in football. His work ethic, that’s what that’s ultimately about. They’ll be prepared, and they’ll be prepared well."

What else can Florida expect?

"His style would be intensity, tempo and quality of repetition," Cutcliffe said. "From the minute they hit the field it's gonna be intense. I wouldn't call him a laid-back football coach by any stretch of the imagination."

Roper will find a kindred spirit in the always-intense Muschamp. And there's familiarity on the field. The two squared off in the SEC West from 2001-03 while Roper was the play-caller at Ole Miss and Muschamp was defensive coordinator at LSU.

"He has obviously been a great defensive coach for a long, long time and was hard to battle against," Roper said of Muschamp. "He was always multiple and caused problems and pressures, and his guys always were physical and intense. I'm looking forward to working with Coach Muschamp."

Roper also will reunite with Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who was offensive coordinator at Kentucky when Roper spent one season there in 2005. That year has turned out to be pivotal in Roper's coaching journey.

“That was a great year working with Joker and Coach [Rich] Brooks and that whole staff," Roper said. "I learned a lot of football and created a lot of good relationships there. But Joker, when he was offensive coordinator, wanted to install a no-huddle system so we could go in and out of huddle or no-huddle or whatnot. So really that was my first experience with it.

“Yeah, Joker and I get along great. I think he’s a heck of a football coach first, but we’re really good friends. I think he’s a good man, a great recruiter. I think he’s a guy that I’ll enjoy being around every day. And so I’m looking forward to getting back with him."

With his thoughts split between Duke and Florida, Roper has one last game to coach in Blue Devil blue -- "and be my best for these guys one last time " -- before heading down to Gainesville.

He'll dive right into film study, player evaluations and the early stages of teaching his fast-paced offense. But first Roper plans to hit the recruiting trail "as soon as I can."

What other speed would you expect?

SEC lunchtime links

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
12:45
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Happy Friday to you all. Saturday is almost here and that means another weekend of entertaining SEC football. Here is some reading to get you ready for game day:

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A quarterback throwing for 300 yards used to be a regular occurrence at Florida.

It started when Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990 and it continued with Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. Quarterbacks surpassed the 300-yard mark 71 times under those three coaches, including a school-record 17 by Rex Grossman.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesCould Jeff Driskel join the list of Florida QBs who have passed for more than 300 yards in a game?
Tim Tebow did it five times and his final game is the best in school history: 482 yards in the Gators’ 51-24 victory over Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2010.

Since then, however, Gators quarterbacks haven’t exactly been lighting things up. Only once in the past 39 games has a UF QB thrown for more than 300 yards: John Brantley had 329 yards against Furman in 2011.

Offensive coordinator Brent Pease believes Jeff Driskel could be next.

“I think he has the ability to do it,” Pease said. “He has the ability to do it in this system. He has the ability to do it off his skills.”

The biggest reason why Driskel hasn’t done it and Brantley only did it once is a lack of explosiveness in the offense. The Gators had 67 pass plays of 20 or more yards in Brantley’s two seasons as a starter -- but only 22 were 30 yards or longer. UF had 27 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season, which was Driskel’s first as the starter, but only 11 were longer than 30 yards.

The blame for the lack of explosiveness is shared by the offensive line (poor pass protection), the quarterback (holding onto the ball too long, not reading the defense correctly, or being inaccurate) and the receivers (not getting separation). However, Pease believes all three positions have improved enough in the second year of his system that the offense will produce more big plays in the passing game.

"I think they’re going to have more of an impact," Pease said. "I think some of it is on me. I have to be willing to pull the trigger and let them perform. But I’m confident on that.

"It’s more throwing the ball over the top, just stretching the field vertically, which we need to do. That’s route running, accuracy with the ball, protection at times and there’s a lot that becomes involved in it. I think with the respect that our running game has gained that when people start to stack the box, we’ve got to be able to do that."

The biggest key to more explosive plays, though, will be the improvement of the receivers. The position has really struggled since the 2009 season ended but the players should be helped by the hiring of former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience as a receivers coach and helped Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson reach the NFL. Pease said the group has been better than last season, when they were coached by graduate assistant Bush Hamdan after receivers coach Aubrey Hill abruptly resigned the day before preseason practices began.

That’s also partly because they’re more comfortable in their second season in the offense, Pease said.

"The kids are playing confident," Pease said. "There’s most instinct with what they’re doing. They understand the calls. They’re not thinking. It’s more reactionary now."

Recruiting pitches: SEC

May, 10, 2013
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Inspired by Florida's "#ComePlayWRFortheJoker" campaign, our recruiting writers looked at other ways schools can sell themselves on the trail. Here's a look at recruiting pitches for the SEC:

Alabama Crimson Tide
What they are selling:
What's not to sell? Alabama is coming off back-to-back national championships, and the Crimson Tide had nine players taken in April's NFL draft, including three in the first round. For the critics who say you won't play early at UA, ask T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper how much they contributed as freshmen.

What they are missing: Although they won a national championship, the Tide didn't generate much pass rush last fall, and they had trouble containing freshman sensation Johnny Manziel. Also, they need to rebuild the offensive line, a unit that anchored the offense last year.

Arkansas Razorbacks
What they are selling:
New head coach Bret Bielema runs a completely different offensive system than the previous two Arkansas coaches. The Razorbacks are selling an opportunity for freshmen to come in and earn playing time early in their careers.

What they are missing: The Razorbacks signed only one offensive lineman, Denver Kirkland, who was rated a four-star prospect or higher last year. In this run-heavy system, look for Arkansas to focus on landing talented players along the offensive line.

Auburn Tigers
What they are selling:
It's a new regime for Auburn, but there's a familiar face running the show. New head coach Gus Malzahn knows the program from his days as offensive coordinator. He's already shown the ability to recruit, stealing ESPN 150 linebacker Tre Williams away from the Tide. There's a sense of excitement on The Plains again.

What they are missing: Malzahn filled out his first recruiting class with playmakers, but Auburn needs to build up front on the offensive and defensive lines. No matter what offense you run, if you want to win in the SEC, you need to be able to compete up in the trenches.

Florida Gators
What they are selling:
With no proven wide receivers on the perimeter, Florida is attempting to sell early playing time at the position. A chance to play for one of the best defensive minds in college football in Will Muschamp is another selling point to defensive prospects.

What they are missing: Production on offense. After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense, it will be hard to sell playing time to wide receivers without an explosive passing game in place.

Georgia Bulldogs
What they are selling:
Freshmen, if they're good enough, play early at Georgia. From running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to offensive tackle John Theus to defensive end Jordan Jenkins, several freshmen Bulldogs made major contributions on a team that was a few yards away from making the national championship game.

What they are missing: Georgia has brought in four top-12 recruiting classes in the last four years. Depth might become an issue for some recruits, but Georgia has certainly shown a willingness to play younger players.

Kentucky Wildcats
What they are selling:
After finishing 2-10, Kentucky fired coach Joker Phillips. New head coach Mark Stoops is offering a fresh start and a chance to help build Kentucky in to a contender in the SEC East.

What they are missing: Plain and simple -- tradition. Sure, Kentucky is full of basketball tradition, but the success on the hardwood completely overshadows the football program. A record 50,831 fans attended the Wildcats' spring game, so the interest level is certainly headed in the right direction.

LSU Tigers
What they are selling:
An unprecedented 10 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. LSU is selling the opportunity, not only for early playing time because of the departures, but a chance to make it to the NFL in three years.

What they are missing: Because of all the departures, there are some holes on both sides of the ball. Depth is now an issue at running back and LSU will need to replace Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter.

Ole Miss Rebels
What they are selling:
Ole Miss landed the No. 5-ranked class in the country, including No. 1 overall player Robert Nkemdiche and No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. Look for Ole Miss to sell recruits on the opportunity to help build something special under head coach Hugh Freeze.

What they are missing: Freeze brought a creative and innovative offense to the SEC, but the defense is still a work in progress. Ole Miss finished 12th in the SEC in pass defense and will need to continue to build depth in order to compete for the SEC West championship.

Mississippi State Bulldogs
What they are selling:
Only 11 of 22 starters return for a team that finished 8-5 last year. The Bulldogs offer recruits a chance to play early and play in the best division in college football.

What they are missing: Mississippi State returns its starting quarterback Tyler Russell, but who will he be throwing to? Last year's four leading receivers, including Chad Bumphis, are gone. Look for the Bulldogs to focus on offensive weapons in this recruiting class.

Missouri Tigers
What they are selling:
The Tigers return 14 of 22 starters on a team that went 5-7 in its first year in the SEC East. Missouri runs a fun and innovative offense that is sure to attract recruits, and there is certainly an opportunity to play early.

What they are missing: The defensive line is probably the most critical area on any defense in the SEC, and the Tigers lost their best lineman in Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou must find a viable replacement for Richardson and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner.

South Carolina Gamecocks
What they are selling:
The Gamecocks have been dominant on defense over the last few years, and a strong line is a big part of their success. South Carolina is selling an opportunity to be the next Jadeveon Clowney and be a part of one of the top defenses in the SEC.

What they are missing: Hard to believe, but head coach Steve Spurrier needs help at wide receiver. The Gamecocks signed only one wide receiver in their 2013 class. They have young bodies, but not much depth or production from the returning group.

Tennessee Volunteers
What they are selling:
A fresh start under new head coach Butch Jones. Since 2011, Tennessee has finished with the No. 13, 21 and 29 recruiting classes in the country. There plenty of holes to fill, and any incoming freshman will have plenty of opportunities to earn a starting spot.

What they are missing: Tennessee lost wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to the NFL draft and must replace their production on the outside. The Volunteers are also thin in the secondary and will look to recruiting to plug some key holes on defense.

Texas A&M Aggies
What they are selling:
There is a lot to sell a recruit on at Texas A&M right now. An explosive offense which led the SEC in total offense by more than 100 yards a game, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a team that went into Tuscaloosa and handed Alabama its only loss last season.

What they are missing: There are still some holes to fill on defense. The Aggies finished with the No. 8-ranked defense in the SEC and the No. 10-ranked pass defense in the league. They also need to replace talented defensive end Damontre Moore, who is now in the NFL.

Vanderbilt Commodores
What they are selling:
Head coach James Franklin has taken Vanderbilt to a bowl in two consecutive years, and the Commodores are bringing in a solid recruiting class. Selling recruits on an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt during one of the best eras in the school's football history is enticing to high school recruits.

What they are missing: Vanderbilt is not yet on par with other SEC schools as far as facilities. The Commodores, though, are certainly headed in the right direction. A new indoor practice facility is being constructed, and stadium renovations are in the planning stages.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It started innocently enough with a hashtag and an illustration tweeted by Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips. There was the Joker, the Batman villain portrayed by Heath Ledger, wearing a blue Gators blazer including the hashtag #ComePlayWRFortheJoker.

Others followed. An astronaut planting a Gators flag and a newspaper featuring the hashtag and Jeff Driskel watching the Kentucky Derby among them.

Joker Phillips Twitter
TwitterHaving a little fun with Twitter is helping Florida impress recruits.
Not to be outdone, offensive coordinator Brent Pease posted his own masterpiece of Harry Potter flying over The Swamp with his three quarterbacks, Driskel, Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg looking up at Potter on a broom stick. It was captioned with Chasing #TheStandard.

Assistants Brian White, Derek Lewis and Tim Davis have all joined in on the social media onslaught with photos of their own.

While funny, the campaign is also helping Florida go on the offensive in social media. Instead of just private messages to recruits, the Gators are proactively using Twitter as well as Facebook and Instagram as a new outlet for reaching prospects.

Head coach Will Muschamp has refrained from posting comical photos but has used Twitter to promote the success of his program, including several Tweets about the eight Florida players that were selected in the 2013 NFL draft.

Muschamp hasn't said much about his assistants’ forays into memes, but he has made it clear that he will do what is necessary to help Florida recruit the top players in the country -- even if that includes getting creative with the recruiting process.

"I'm not very good at that stuff," Muschamp said at a recent Gator Club gathering. "We have some coaches that have good imaginations."

But does this unique recruiting pitch have any effect on high school players and coaches?

Jacksonville (Fla.) Providence head coach Bobby Raulerson, who's star left tackle, David Sharpe, is the No. 12-ranked player in the country, said this tactic is certainly helping the Gators get noticed.

"We all know college football is one of the most competitive businesses on the planet," Raulerson said. "And, with everyone relying on social media to aid in the recruiting process, success or failure boils down to one question. How do you distinguish yourself from the competition? While I don't think it will affect any recruits decision to attend UF, it does create the all important 'buzz' that coaches are always searching for. Without a doubt, I think it is a creative way for the Gators to stay in the news during the heart of spring recruiting."

Offensive tackle Denzel Ward (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), one of Florida's top offensive line targets, agrees with Raulerson’s assessment.

"I think it's funny," Ward said. "It's very catchy. It caught my eye and it gets you to look at Florida in a different light because they are being creative which a lot of other schools aren't. I know a lot of coaches use social media to message kids and talk to them and things like that, but Florida is using it to promote their program in a positive way and for their own benefit. It's eye-catching and just draws more attention to the program even more."

Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln head coach Yusuf Shakir, who coached Florida wide receiver Raphael Andrades at Lincoln, sees it bridging the age gap.

"To be honest with you, that's how kids interact now,” Shakir said. “They are always on Twitter. Facebook is kind of out of the picture now, but they are on Twitter and Instagram. It's really how they do their whole interaction with everybody. I think it's a phenomenal idea. There's a saying that if you want to get in touch with people then you have to know how to communicate. The more you interact with the kids on their level then the more they are comfortable with you as a coach."

Whether or not recruits think the posts are cheesy is irrelevant, Shakir said. It allows players to see a more personal side of a coach -- a side with a sense of humor to which high school students better relate.

"It opens dialogue. It opens communication and it's intriguing,” the Lincoln coach said. “When you start a conversation with someone it's an icebreaker. That's where it helps -- especially with kids.

"Anytime you can get someone to laugh at something, not only that, but then the kid always enjoy when adults can laugh at themselves so it doesn’t appear that the adults are uptight. I think coaches at big-time schools, especially at like the University of Florida, can be intimidating to the kids when they come in, but if that coach has a way to break the ice, then maybe that kid will open up a little bit more and connect with the coach and feel a little bit closer with the coach."

Ward, the three-star tackle with offers from Pac-12, Big 12, SEC and Big Ten programs, admits social media efforts won’t persuade his decision, but he added he is learning more about the history of the program because of the recent photos and tweets.

"It just keeps Florida fresh in my mind," Ward said. "They are thinking outside of the box and being creative. It just catches my eye. I follow both pages on Instagram, Coach Joker and Coach Davis. They put up some funny pictures but they also put up some good photos about the history of the program and where the program is headed. It's good to know."

Opinions might differ on this new and innovative recruiting philosophy, but one thing is certain, recruits will never look at the Batman and Harry Potter movies the same.

Florida Gators spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
10:00
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FLORIDA GATORS
2012 overall record: 11-2

2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (2nd Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RB/WR Trey Burton, DE/DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, S Jaylen Watkins, P Kyle Christy

Key losses

RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards)
Passing: Jeff Driskel* (1,646 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Reed (559 yards)
Tackles: Josh Evans (83)
Sacks: Dominique Easley* (4.0)
Interceptions: Matt Elam (4)

Spring answers

1. Back in business: Sophomore Matt Jones running back had a fantastic spring and the coaching staff is convinced he’ll be a more than capable replacement for Gillislee. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Will Muschamp’s power-run offense. He’s a straight-ahead, downhill runner, who runs through contact and gets tough yards. The offense will be built around him, especially with the questions surrounding the passing game. Redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor, give the Gators solid depth at the position.

2. Lined up: UF’s offensive line made strides in 2012 and it will be even better in 2013. The addition of transfers -- Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) -- gives the Gators a pair of former starters to add to an already solid base with Harrison and Halapio. Plus, sophomore D.J. Humphries is an immediate upgrade from Xavier Nixon at left tackle. Garcia will start at left guard and pair with Humphries to give Driskel better blind-side protection than he had a year ago.

3. The middle is settled: With the loss of Bostic and Jenkins, the Gators needed a middle linebacker. The staff moved sophomore Antonio Morrison from weakside linebacker, and Morrison showed pretty quickly he was up to the task. He’s not the biggest middle linebacker the Gators have had (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), but he is certainly one of the most physical. Morrison hits like he weighs 260 pounds -- just ask 245-pound former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Morrison leveled last season. Morrison proved he could handle making the defensive calls and he should easily step into the role Bostic held for the past two seasons.

Fall questions

1. Receiver issues ... again: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will again struggle. That’s been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. He has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage. Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.

2. Safety dance: There’s some concern about the Gators’ safeties because some of the younger and less experienced players haven’t developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF’s two starting safeties. They have both played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman. Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Roberson, Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.

3. Just for kicks: Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis was, but it’s the first part that’s more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don’t get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball. Sturgis was able to bail the Gators out because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark may have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.

Mark Stoops understood the daunting task that awaited him in Lexington long before he was introduced as Kentucky’s third head coach since 2009 in late November. He wasn’t blind to the fact that he was taking over a program -- in the SEC -- that has experienced far more excitement over dunks and layups than touchdowns.

But Stoops left his cushy job as Florida State’s defensive coordinator for the Bluegrass State with a plan. He took over Kentucky’s program, which said goodbye to third-year coach Joker Phillips after three straight losing seasons only weeks before, with the idea of first creating a much more physically and mentally fit team.

“We gotta get our players to buy in and believe and change the mentality around here from top to bottom,” Stoops said in a phone interview with ESPN.com earlier this week.

Stoops cares about schemes and relishes an aggressive defense that can raise hell, but he understands that in order to turn things around at Kentucky, he has to start from the ground floor. Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s the only way to improve a team that checked out last year and has consecutive seasons without a bowl berth.

That process started with a very tough offseason regime that his strength staff implemented. He couldn’t be there to constantly monitor players, so he made sure his players felt his wrath with a taxing workout schedule.

So far, Stoops is pleased with the results, as he said players reported to spring practice on Monday looking better physically and with much more positive attitudes. But for Stoops to get some real substance out of this team, he’s going to ask for even more from his players.

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMark Stoops knows he has his work cut out for him as he tries to rebuild the Kentucky football program.
“With everything that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to be very demanding of them in all aspects of the program,” Stoops said. “There's not one position on our field that we don't need to improve.”

Kentucky went from reaching five straight bowl games to going a combined 7-17 during Phillips’ last two years. During that span, the Wildcats lingered around the bottom of the SEC in most offensive and defensive categories and lacked the toughness needed to have any real success.

The toughness process is in full swing, but Stoops knows the future will be based on early success and, of course, recruiting.

Stoops isn’t up to speed on all the recruiting tactics and shortcomings of Kentucky’s previous staff, but he knows he can’t build without the right athletes. Stoops said recruiting priorities are to own the state of Kentucky, make more of an impact in Ohio and keep a strong connection to Florida.

Stoops did a solid job in all three of those areas in his first class by signing three of the top 10 players in the state of Kentucky, including ESPN 300 defensive end Jason Hatcher, who spurned USC, and ESPN 300 receiver Ryan Timmons, who turned down Florida and Ohio State. He also grabbed three players from Ohio and nine players from Florida.

Stoops came away with the No. 36 recruiting class, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and said he could feel a change in Kentucky’s perception the more he and his coaches went on the road.

“I’m very pleased with the reception that’s been given to us [on the recruiting trail],” he said. “It’s been very encouraging for our future.”

The hope is that the future is a lot brighter than the past.

Kentucky hasn’t had a winning record in SEC play since going 6-0 (10-1 overall) in 1977. Since then, the Wildcats have had 23 losing seasons.

Things momentarily turned around with help from Rich Brooks in 2006 when Kentucky started a string of four straight winning seasons and a five-year bowl run, the longest such streak for the Cats since the 1950s. During that time, Kentucky went 3-1 in bowl games and against archrival Louisville. The Cats also beat the likes of Arkansas (twice), Georgia and a No. 1 LSU team (2007). In 2010, Kentucky even upset No. 10 South Carolina.

So, there is some recent success to build on, and while the excitement around the program dipped considerably last year, Stoops said he felt embraced by Big Blue Nation almost immediately after he was hired.

There was a record crowd around to celebrate with him on national signing day and the athletic department has been very aggressive about upgrading the football facilities. The school plans to spend approximately $110 million on renovations to Commonwealth Stadium and the Nutter Training Center.

Stoops is building from within, while the school builds around him. This won’t be a quick fix, but Stoops feels he’ll have what he needs to make Kentucky relevant in the SEC again.

“We have everything that we need and with the resources with the things that we’re building and the commitment that they have to upgrading our facilities," Stoops said, "we’re going to have everything we need to be successful and competitive in this league."

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
11:35
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Schedule: The Gators open spring practice today at 4:30 p.m. ET and will conclude the spring with their annual Orange & Blue Debut on April 6 at 1 p.m. ET inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

What's new: Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn left to become the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Will Muschamp then promoted D.J. Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator. Brad Lawing was hired away from South Carolina to help coach Florida's defensive line and was given the title of assistant head coach. Interim wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan was replaced by former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips.

On the mend: Redshirt junior offensive lineman Chaz Green will miss all of spring after undergoing ankle surgery following Florida's bowl game. Redshirt junior defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell will also miss the spring while he continues to rehab his ACL injury that he suffered last spring. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman is out for the spring, as he recovers from shoulder surgery that he had before the bowl game. Freshman linebacker Matt Rolin is also out, recovering from ACL surgery. Senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio (knee scope), senior wide receiver Solomon Patton (broken arm), redshirt junior linebacker Neiron Ball (ankle) and punter Kyle Christy (shoulder) will all be limited this spring.

On the move: Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy will start the first seven practices at the "Z" receiver spot. Redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams moved from defensive tackle to offensive tackle. Sophomore Antonio Morrison moved from Will to Mike linebacker, while redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor has moved from Mike to Will. Redshirt freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter moved from safety to fullback. Redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe also moved from linebacker to fullback. Redshirt junior Cody Riggs has moved from cornerback to safety, where he's listed as a starter.

Question marks: Heading into the spring, the biggest questions remain on offense, where the Gators were incredibly inconsistent last year. Workhorse running back Mike Gillislee is gone, and while the Gators should feature a stable of running backs this fall, throwing the ball has to improve or this offense will go in reverse. Quarterback Jeff Driskel says he's more confident and offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects to open things up more in the passing game, but the Gators also have to get better protection up front and develop some more reliable receivers and replace top target, tight end Jordan Reed. Florida's defense has a lot of experienced youngsters, but it won't be easy to replace the production that guys like Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam and Jon Bostic had last year. Florida is also looking for someone to replace kicker Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin and senior Brad Phillips will compete for that spot.

New faces: Rolin, running back Kelvin Taylor, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie, and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson all enrolled early as true freshmen. Florida also welcomed Nebraska offensive lineman transfer Tyler Moore (sophomore) and junior college transfer Darius Cummings (DT). Offensive lineman Max Garica also transferred from Maryland and sat out last season.

Key battle: Florida has to find a reliable receiving target at either tight end or receiver. The athletic Kent Taylor figures to be the favorite at tight end, but he'll have to compete with Colin Thompson, Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. At receiver, it's a free-for-all, and there isn't a ton of experience. Purifoy will certainly get his shot, but vets Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose have to make significant strides. So does rising sophomore Latroy Pittman, who fell off last year after a successful spring. Sophomore Raphael Andrades will be back and forth between football and baseball, while Patton will be limited. Keep an eye on Robinson, who was the top receiver in the Gators' 2013 class and is a downfield threat and someone who can be elusive through the middle of the field.

Breaking out: Florida needs to replace Gillislee, and sophomore Matt Jones has already had a solid offseason, according to coaches. He progressed as last season went on and has both speed and strength to work with. The plan is for him to be a 20-plus-carry player this fall. Morrison's role now expands, and after having a very solid freshman year, even more is expected from him now that he's at the Mike. If he improves his coverage ability, he could be a big-time player for the Gators. Also, keep an eye on junior safety Jabari Gorman. He covers a lot of ground and isn't afraid to play in the box.

Don't forget about: Ball and Riggs have dealt with injuries in the past, but as they get healthy, Florida's coaches are excited about what they could do in 2013. Ball will play some Buck and provides Florida with another solid third-down pass-rusher and should help the Gators put more pressure on opposing backfields this fall. Riggs played in just two games last year before fracturing his foot, but he's a very physical defensive back. With his speed, moving to safety should provide him a chance to make more plays in Florida's secondary. He was also the starter at safety when Elam went to nickel last year.

Lunchtime links

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
12:10
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While you're glued to ESPNU's national signing day coverage, check out some SEC links as you stress over college football's version of Christmas morning.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has had some early success on the recruiting trail, and he continued that success by grabbing a big commitment on the eve of national signing day.

The Wildcats picked up their biggest commit yet when four-star wide receiver Ryan Timmons chose Kentucky over Florida, Ohio State and Illinois Tuesday afternoon. Timmons, who ranks No. 249 in the ESPN 300, gives Kentucky 21 verbal commits in its 2013 recruiting class.

Timmons was originally recruited by former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, who continued to recruit him after taking over as Florida's wide receivers coach. Timmons officially visited Florida over the weekend and would have been a nice addition to the Gators' class as they continue to search for weapons at receiver. But he decided to stay closer to home and go with the Cats.

Timmons found it hard to control his emotions before making his decision, but when he put on a blue Kentucky hat, cheers and chants of "C-A-T-S" roared throughout his high school gymnasium.

Timmons is the fifth four-star commitment for Stoops and his staff. A lot of people questioned the hiring of Stoops because the thought was that Kentucky would go in a more offensive direction, but Stoops is proving to be quite the recruiter. He did well when as a recruiter when he was Florida State's defensive coordinator, and he appears to be picking up where he left off now that he's working for Big Blue Nation.

Season report card: Kentucky

January, 17, 2013
1/17/13
4:00
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We're taking a look at the grades for the Kentucky Wildcats from the 2012 season:

OFFENSE: Injuries ravaged Kentucky's entire team, but really crippled the Wildcats' offense. The biggest losses were starting quarterback Maxwell Smith and running backs Josh Clemons, who sat out the 2012 season because of a knee injury he suffered in 2011, and CoShik Williams. They all missed significance time and the Wildcats' offense suffered because of it. Kentucky finished the season 13th in the SEC in total offense (315 yards per game) and last in scoring (17.9). Kentucky scored less than 20 points nine times in 2012 and managed more than 400 yards of total offense just three times all season, while averaging a league-low 4.8 yards per play. The Wildcats tied for last in the SEC with 27 touchdowns and were last with eight field goals. They were also 13th in the league with 146 plays that went more than 10-plus yards. The Wildcats ended up playing the majority of the season with two freshmen quarterbacks in Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles. They combined to throw three touchdowns and three interceptions. Whitlow played in 10 games, throwing for 801 yards. Raymond Sanders battled through injury to lead the Wildcats with 669 rushing yards and five touchdowns. La'Rod King led Kentucky in receiving (488), but after King, no player registered more than 297 receiving yards. Injuries were a major part of Kentucky's struggles, but the offense just never saw any sort of growth or improvement throughout the year. Grade: F

DEFENSE: The defense made strides in the second year under defensive coordinator Rick Minter, but the Wildcats finished the season ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in all of the major defensive categories, including ranking 13th in the league in scoring defense (31). The Wildcats also surrendered 48 touchdowns and were outscored 372-215. Eight times Kentucky allowed 30-plus points in games last fall. The Wildcats only grabbed 13 takeaways, including just five interceptions. Kentucky had injury issues on the defensive side, as well, but there wasn't enough growth from this defense as the season went on. Against SEC opponents, the Wildcats were outscored by an average of 25 points and gave up 36 points in those games. The Wildcats also allowed 424 yards in SEC games. Grade: F

OVERALL: A year after stopping a string of five straight bowl appearances, the Wildcats won just two games and went winless in SEC play. Coach Joker Phillips didn't even make it through the season, but he admitted during his way out that there weren't enough positive results for him to stay at Kentucky. The offense sputtered out of control thanks to injury and poor execution, while the defense was below average for most of the year. For the second straight year, the Wildcats struggled finding consistent playmakers on offense and the defense broke down too many times during league play. Things got off to a rocky start with the loss to Louisville, and the best win of the season came against a Kent State team that nearly made a BCS bowl game. Grade: F

Past grades:

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