Florida Football: State Of The Program

A new era begins.

Florida fans experienced what I call a “reversion to the mean” in 2010 where their annual expectations of performance were brought back down to reality.  During an insane run with Urban Meyer for four seasons (2006-2009), the Gators had an overall record of 61-7.  Seven losses in four years.  The run included winning the SEC East 3 times, the SEC twice, and the National Championship twice.  Then came 2010.

If the 2006-2009 run was incredible as a fan, 2010 was nearly equally as bad.  It’s not the fact that the team lost a bunch of games.  It’s how the team played in nearly all the games.

Fans that had been used to the enthusiastic leadership of Tim Tebow and the speed of the many playmakers now were asked to root for a team with a skittish quarterback who was asked to split time with a receiver and a tight end and who apparently could only throw five-yard outs, a running back that sends death threats to his girlfriends, and a coach that not only looked burnt out but disinterested.  It was a mess of a season.

The biggest problem with 2010 is that rebuilding did not occur in what was meant to be a rebuilding year.  Nothing improved over the course of the year, so the team essentially lost a year.  2011 starts the process all over again, this time with a completely new coaching staff which is where we will begin.

Head Coach: Will Muschamp comes in as a new head coach.  He’s been a name that has been thrown around for years when coaching gigs come up but he’s never been a head coach.  It seems his biggest credentials are his track record as a defensive coordinator, his enthusiasm and the fact that he lived in Gainesville as a child. The University of Florida is arguably the top athletic program in the country, and the football program is the pinnacle of it.  Is Muschamp comfortable being the face of the program and the CEO of a major organization?  Time will tell.

Coaching Staff: Muschamp made some quick moves bringing in NFL coaches to run his offense and defense.  Charlie Weis is running the offense with essentially full autonomy and Dan Quinn will be running the defense, likely not with full autonomy.  While Weis is sort of a controversial hire for fans, it’s hard to find legitimate reasons why this was not a great idea.  His experience and track record with offenses is stellar.  Weis has done well in the NFL and at Notre Dame getting high levels of performance out of his players, and Florida’s offense can’t get much worse than it was in 2010. Quinn is figured to be an instant-impact help along the defensive line, and that aspect of the defense improved tremendously just this spring.

Quarterback: John Brantley was the starter in 2010 and as of now, is set to start in 2011.  Last season almost did more harm to Brantley than good as his development was set aside for the sake of the season when Meyer believed he could win more games by running his spread attack with Trey Burton and Jordan Reed.  The result was an anemic offense that was 88th in the country in passing offense.  Meyer would have indeed been better off sticking with Brantley and letting him run the offense and develop as a quarterback.  The alternative did not help the season, weakened Brantley’s confidence, and did nothing to develop him for 2011.  While fans were increasingly frustrated with Brantley, bringing him in on every third-and-long after failing to move the chains with the more “athletic” quarterbacks isn’t exactly a prime opportunity to succeed.

The highly touted recruit of Jeff Driskel will surely be a fan favorite and fans will eager to see him on the field, but I anticipate Brantley begins and ends the season as the starting quarterback.  This doesn’t mean he’ll dominate, but I anticipate he performs above average. Driskel will see some action and show glimpses of what fans can look forward to in the years ahead.  Tyler Murphy has looked decent in practice and could see some playing time during cupcake blowouts.  Incoming Freshman QB Jacoby Brissett should redshirt this year.

Offensive Line: The Gators offensive line was talented in 2010 but did not perform well.  Snapping issues with Pouncey at Center and the changing of the offensive strategy left the line a bit of a mess.  Jonotthan Harrison is a big boy and is taking over at Center – while he hasn’t played the position since his freshman year of high school, he should make the transition well.  Jon Halapio and Xavier Nixon are the only starters that have played significant time on the field for the Gators.  An injured player right now that could have a large impact at tackle is Matt Patchen. It seems Patchen has been a piece of glass and very fragile ever since he stepped foot on campus. He is supposed to be ready for fall. However, with the lack of depth and lots of new faces leave the offensive line as a major question mark for the 2011 Gators.  The coaching staff will have to work hard at solidifying this group.

Running Backs: The Gators bring back two of the fastest players in the SEC with Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps.  As long as Rainey can keep away from text messaging and Demps can remain healthy, fans should expect a good number of break-away runs from this tandem.  Rainey, being the best playmaker on the team should see action all over the field whether it’s in the backfield or in the slot.  Helping to carry the load will also be Mike Gillislee since the coaches will attempt to limit Demps’ carries to keep him healthy.  Mack Brown was having a great Spring prior to suffering an injury should also see extensive playing time as he is a legit talent.  Former option quarterback Trey Burton will step in and be a big running back on short yardage for the Gators this year as well. Trey runs between the tackles as well as anyone on this team. With lots of talent and lots of depth, the running back position is the strength of the Gator offense.

Wide Receivers: Frankie Hammond and Omarius  Hines look to be the starting wide outs for the Gators with playmakers like Andre Debose also getting on the field in various formations.  Trey Burton – the man who seemed to play every position in 2010 – is also a wildcard and it will indeed be interesting to see how Weis’ offense utilizes Burton who is a major talent. Burton will play running back, but he can really catch the football as needed.

Fans have been waiting to see redshirt senior Deonte Thompson become a superstar it seems for a decade.  While he led the team with 38 receptions and 570 yards, he only had one touchdown in 2010.  His Spring had mixed reviews, and it looks like he’s behind Hammond and Hines on the depth charts.

The receiving corps for the Gators indeed has talent, but they will have to get a more cohesive offense going on the field, and the offensive line needs to give Brantley time to find and hit his receivers (a major challenge in 2010).  I will be most interested to see what Weis has planned for the X-factor like players of Chris Rainey, Andrew Debose and Trey Burton.

Tight End: The tight end position gets a boost in 2011 with Jordan Reed being dedicated to this position.  Incoming freshman A.C. Leonard is also a major talent that will be fun to watch.  Michael McFarland also adds needed depth at this position.  These athletes are not necessarily the true inline blocking tight end that you might see in a pro-style offense, rather, their strengths are in their receiving capability.

Defensive Front: Probably the biggest strength of the 2011 Gator football team, the defensive front is going to be downright nasty.  Talented and deep, the Gators will rotate Dominique Easley, Shariff Floyd, Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter at the defensive tackle spots.  Ronald Powell will line up at the “buck positions” which is sort of the defensive end / linebacker hybrid essentially playing defensive end in the 4-3 formation and linebacker in the 3-4.  Kendric Johnson and William Green will also play defensive end.  Look for the Gator defensive front to keep them in ball games this year.

Linebackers: The Gator linebackers are anchored by Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic.  Gerald Christian looks to be rising in the linebacker depth chart despite also playing time at tight end.  Jenkins could be the fastest and most athletic linebacker in the conference. The Gator linebackers are good, but not great, and will need to improve upon their 2010 performance. They can run sideline to sideline with anyone but can they stop the bull rush up the middle?

Defensive Backfield: While the Gators lost arguably their best talent in the backfield in Janoris Jenkins, there are still quality athletes in Jeremy Brown and Matt Elam.  Moses Jenkins got burned on a regular basis in 2010 and has been a weak link in the past.  De’Ante Saunders, Josh Shaw and Cody Riggs provide additional depth. Right now, Brown and Riggs look to hold down the two corner positions while Elam should be a force at safety.

Special Teams: Look for Andre Debose to return kicks and Chris Rainey to return punts.  Both guys are electric and should do some damage in the kick return game.  Caleb Sturgis is back at kicker.

Conclusion: The 2011 Gators have legitimate talent all over the field as a result of years of quality recruiting classes.  The coaches must get the talent to gel in a cohesive manner and become a team on the field.  The 2011 season will provide this opportunity.  I do expect the Gators to lose some games in 2011, but unlike 2010, I expect them to finish the season stronger than they started it.  By the end of the season, Gator fans will be increasing their expectations for the future, not lowering them.