- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida was one of the nation's most surprising teams in 2012.
Nobody expected the Gators to go 11-1 and be in contention for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Heck, not many expected the Gators to even have a chance to reach double-digit victories. But that's what happened in Florida coach Will Muschamp's second season.
It happened in part because the following five players delivered some surprising performances in 2012. They played much better than last season or they exceeded expectations. Regardless of the reason, they had key roles in the Gators' turnaround.
Enjoy these today, because Thursday we'll bring you the five most disappointing Gators in 2012.
Christy wasn't able to beat out walk-on David Lerner at the beginning of last season. A little more than a year later, he's arguably the best punter in the country. His 46.1 yard average ranks sixth nationally and he has 25 punts of at least 50 yards, dropping 26 inside the 20-yard line. He's a field-position weapon and played a big part in the Gators' victories over LSU and South Carolina. He put three punts inside the LSU 10-yard line and had seven punts of at least 51 yards against the Gamecocks. He's a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation's top punter, and was recently named to the Associated Press and coaches All-SEC first team.
Perhaps no player in the secondary has thrived under Muschamp's tutelage more than Evans, a senior who went from an average player to one of the top three on the Gators' defense. Evans led the team in tackles (79) and had 2.5 sacks, three pass breakups, and two interceptions. He had 71 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, and one pass breakup in his previous 34 games. Evans paired with Matt Elam to solidify the back end of a pass defense that ended up ranked 15th nationally. Evans wasn't always spectacular, but he was steady and solid. He'll be remembered for being steamrolled by Texas A&M RB Ben Malena, but he should be remembered for being a vital part of the Gators' resurgence.
He's on this list not because of his ability, because he had been very productive in his first three seasons (930 yards and 10 TDs on 145 carries). He's on this list because he stayed healthy, which was something he wasn't able to do in 2010 and 2011. Gillislee missed only three games in those two seasons, but a nagging ankle injury that he suffered as a sophomore in 2010 kept him from being a bigger part of the offense and limited his production when he did get carries. He got banged up this season, too -- he hurt his hamstring, groin and ribs at various times -- but failed to get 14 carries in all but one game (13 in UF's 38-0 rout of Kentucky). He finished the regular season with 1,104 yards to become the first UF back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
The 6-1, 216-pound freshman from Illinois is built like a receiver but hits like a 250-pound middle linebacker with a 10-yard head start. That's partly why he found his way onto the field so much. His high football IQ was also a reason the staff never hesitated to play Morrison when Jelani Jenkins went down with various injuries. In part-time action and two starts, Morrison finished eighth on the team with 31 tackles. He also delivered one of the biggest plays of the season when he hammered Florida State QB EJ Manuel and caused a fumble that eventually led to the Gators' go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Morrison will step into the starting job at weakside linebacker if Jenkins decides to turn pro a year early. Even if Jenkins returns, Morrison will be somewhere in the starting lineup next season.
Purifoy was the Gators' top special teams player and came on late last season on defense, playing his best in the Gators' bowl game victory over Ohio State (five tackles and a forced fumble). Expectations were high for him in 2012 and he delivered. He started 11 games, made 51 tackles, broke up five passes and forced three fumbles (nobody else forced more than one). He is the Gators' most physical corner, both in coverage and as a tackler. He's got very good ball skills to go along with his speed and size (6-foot-1, 186 pounds), and he's such a good athlete that the Gators have used him at receiver. He might find more time on offense next season. Plus, Purifoy has done all that while still being one of the Gators' top special teams players.