The Florida Gators just finished an amazing 11-2 season finishing 7-1 in SEC play and 7-0 in the Swamp after going a dismal 7-6 last season. Unlike last season,when the Gators finished on a high note beating Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, they ended this season a sour note by getting dominated by Big East co-champion Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
While nothing can detract from the great season that was, it’s time to take a look back at the successes and failures from this past season and where the Gators need to improve in the offseason to be ready for the 2013 season. We’ll break it down by offense, defense, and special teams starting today with the offense.
No aspect of the team was more maligned this past season than the offense. A work in progress, the unit suffered through a coordinator change, a new first time starter at quarterback, a terrible lack of depth and skill at receiver, and an offensive line that was inconsistent and showed a severe drop-off in skill and depth from the starting five.
The lone bright spot for the offense was the running game which was the focus of the offense this season as head coach Will Muschamp sought to create a tougher, downhill inside running game. Senior running back Mike Gillislee, the team MVP, was the offense for the most part as he filled the role admirably in Muschamp’s vision of the running game. He became the first running back to rush for over a 1.000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 finishing with 1.152 yards on 244 carries with ten touchdowns.
While the running game did suffer at times with injuries to the line and defensive focus designed to stop it, many Gator fans lost sight of one thing: Gillislee was rarely, and I mean very rarely, stopped for a loss. He may not have gotten big yards every time he touched the ball but he was never arm tackled, rarely was stopped by one guy, the first guy, or without a dogged fight to gain extra yardage.
Gillislee was not the biggest, strongest, or fastest back. But he could move piles, break tackles, and hit the hole quickly to outrun defenses when he needed to. Against both LSU and FSU, two of the toughest run defenses in the country he put up over 140 yards rushing and two touchdowns apiece. In both games he hit a big touchdown run to take control of the game in the second half.
While Gillislee was pounding the ball up the middle, Jeff Driskel was pounding the edges keeping defenses honest with the zone read. While Driskel’s passing abilities have been the subject of much conjecture this season, there is no doubting his running abilities and it’s obvious why the staff chose him as the starter this season over Jacoby Brissett.
Driskel’s running skills were never more on display than the huge scramble for a first down to close out the Texas A&M win or the Vanderbilt game where he rushed for 177 yards on only 11 carries with three touchdowns breaking Tim Tebow’s school record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback. The zone read play was one of the few wrinkles thrown into Pease and Muschamp’s pro-style offensive attack and it was designed to take advantage of Driskel’s speed and “escapability”. This is the main reason cited by Muschamp for why they chose Driskel over Brissett in the quarterback battle that waged throughout the offseason, preseason, and into the first game of the season.
Apparently, the staff had the foresight to know that the passing game would struggle with either quarterback and that they might need to rely on Driskel’s running skills to overcome not only the passing deficiencies but also to counter the inside running game keeping defenses honest. Driskel’s running forced both linebackers and defensive ends to make decisions as to who to defend. This will take on even more importance in the future as the passing game improves which will make the play action an effective, viable option as well as slow the pass rush from the edge as ends can’t simply a) crash down on the running back , or b) head upfield toward the quarterback.
Next season, with Gillislee graduated, the running game will be taken over by Matt Jones who was the primary backup to Gilly this season as a true freshman. This is one area that Gator fans should feel good about. Jones has a good combination of size (220 pounds) and quickness that should allow him to take over where Gillislee left off. If he paid attention to the things that Gilly taught him this season, the Gators should not only be fine, but may even see an improvement.
The offensive struggles this season were many and well documented, some correctly but some not. The first and most important area of struggle was quarterback play. After the Sugar Bowl I pointed out that the Gators will need to either find a quarterback who can ably man the position or coach this one (Driskel) up. Some criticized me for the opinion. Let me make it real clear, I do not dislike Jeff Driskel by any means. Obviously, he brings things to the table for the coaching staff to have so much faith in him.
However, everyone has a job to do and Driskel does too. It’s an honor to be the quarterback at the University of Florida. The Florida quarterback has to follow in the footsteps of Steve Spurrier, the Gators first Heisman winner and the one who first led the Gators to a major bowl game, ironically the Sugar Bowl, and Kerwin Bell, who led them to their first on the field SEC title, though it was post-humously taken away due to NCAA sanctions. He has to follow in the footsteps of Danny Wuerffel, the Gators second Heisman winner and the first to lead them to a national championship as well as Chris Leak, the Gators second title winner, and Tim Tebow, the Gators third Heisman winner and third national title winner.
The Florida quarterback has to step up and play at a high level on the big stage. As a quarterback, Driskel did not do that this season. Again, as a quarterback and not a runner, I would grade Driskel at a C- this season. He lacked accuracy and touch, often slightly missing receivers forcing them to try to make difficult catches or failed to put the right touch on passes making it hard to make a catch at all. Don’t get me wrong, Driskel has skills. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws… in practice. The problem is in game situations he struggles to put the ball in places that receivers can make the catch in rhythm and make plays from there.
It doesn’t matter if you can throw a ball 90 yards on your knees if you can’t put the right touch on a flare pattern so the running back can catch in stride and make the first defender miss. It doesn’t matter if you can fire a ball 90 miles per hour if you can’t put it where the receiver can catch it easily and then continue to make a play after the catch.
The Sugar Bowl game alone exposed where Driskel is at, and where he needs to be in terms of passing ability. The Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who incidently was recruited as a wide receiver by Urban Meyer in favor of Driskel, repeatedly put throws exactly where the receivers could run to the ball and make an easy catch. They didn’t have to make big plays, they simply had to get there and catch it. Driskel, on the other hand, repeatedly put the Gator receivers in positions to have to stretch, reach back, jump high, or think fast in order to try to make catches. That is simply not going to get it done.
The Gator receiving corps, arguably, was the most maligned unit on the team but that is somewhat unfair as they were never put in positions to make easy catches. There’s a big difference in running a 100 meter dash and running a 100 meter hurdle. The Gator receivers were required to run hurdles this season. We need them to be running 100 meter dashes. If there is one thing, and there’s way more than one, that Driskel needs to improve on in the offseason it’s his accuracy, ball placement, and touch.
Sadly, we’re not done critiquing the quarterback position. Driskel, while understandably a first year qb making first year qb mistakes, needs also to work on his reads, his vision finding receivers, and his decision-making. Driskel, as most first year qb’s do, struggled this season reading defenses. A good quarterback has to understand where the pressure’s coming from, where he has single coverage, and how he is being defended. There are ways to beat blitzes, man coverage, zone coverage, and eight man fronts, but, the quarterback has to be able to read that pre-snap to either audible into a good play or to make the correct decisions on the play that’s called to overcome how they are being defended. Too many times Driskel was eaten up by a corner blitz or an edge rush with no clue as to what was coming. Too many times he took his first read and threw into strong defensive coverage. Too many times he made poor choices in the read option because he didn’t see the run blitz coming. These are all important things that go into successful quarterback play that Driskel will have to improve on in the offseason if the Gator offense is to improve next season.
Secondly, Driskel needs to get better at seeing his receivers quickly. If you’ve ever played Madden you understand just how difficult this can be. There are so many things happening on each play that a quarterback can get lost in the shuffle of player movements and not see the field correctly. Too often Jeff seemed to sit on his first or primary read or quickly check down when there were other, better options available that he just did not see. Now to his credit, the offensive line struggled at times in their protections and that can mess with a quarterback’s mind as he becomes preoccupied with the pass rush rather than looking downfield, but still this is one area that Driskel will need to work on in the offseason.
Finally, of all the areas that Driskel was criticized this season, perhaps, his decision-making was criticized the most. This kind of goes along with the vision aspect of quarterback play, but a good quarterback has to know “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” Every play isn’t going to be a successful passing play. Sometimes the defense just has the right call or the players just get them covered up. There’s a point at which a qb has to judge that the play, for all intents and purposes, has broken down and the only option is to throw it away or scramble out of the pocket.
Most “athletic” quarterbacks struggle with this aspect as they tend to take off too early before the play has a chance to develop. Oddly, Driskel’s problem has been the opposite. Rather than leaving too early he tends to hold the ball too long or stays behind the line too long looking for a downfield play when he should simply “tuck and run” and get what his wheels will allow him. Driskel has shown great speed, quickness, and elusiveness when scrambling and he needs to do more of that in the future. What he will find is it will open up the passing game as safeties and corners will cheat up in coverage attempting to stop the scrambles and that will create more downfield opportunities for him.
Of course, let’s not put all the passing game struggles this season on Driskel. It was obvious to anyone who watched the Gators this season that the biggest need on offense was some playmaking receivers. The one unit on the whole team with the least amount of depth and experience was the wide receivers.
Senior Frankie Hammond and sophomore Quinton Dunbar were the only two wideouts with any experience coming into the season. Throw in Trey Burton who played multiple positions and Jordan Reed in his second year playing tight end and you don’t have a pole to hang your hat on. Behind them were two true freshman Latroy Pittman, who the staff praised in the preseason but fans saw little of in game action, and true freshman Raph Andrades, a signing day plan b after losing both Nelson Agholor and Stefon Diggs.
These are not the things that magic is made of. At least not in the passing game. If you were putting together a team, it’s doubtful any of these guys would be first, second, third, or even fourth round picks. Nothing against any of them, Gators are Gators and we all stick together… you know the song. BUT… the Gators need some playmakers at receiver and they need them yesterday.
Of course, help is on the way, in the form of four star receiver Ahmad Fulwood and three star athlete Alvin Bailey and a few other committed receivers. However, it is rare for a true freshman receiver to make an impact in college, especially in the SEC where NFL caliber cornerbacks and safeties lurk at every turn. The hope for Gator Nation is that the staff can get Dunbar, Andrades, and Pittman coached up to be at the very least serviceable next season and, at least one of the current high school commits is able to come in and provide some depth and ability next season.
Finally, we come to the offensive line. Like the wide receiver corps, this unit was much maligned this season, but most of it was unwarranted. If you listened to any of coach Muschamp’s press conferences this season you heard him repeatedly praising the offensive line. If you listened to Gator fans, especially on Gator site message boards, you heard grousing and complaining. You’d think the line couldn’t block my mother.
The truth, like the old saying goes, is somewhere in the middle. When the line, and by line I mean the starting five, are all healthy and together they are pretty good. The two games where the starting five played together, against LSU and FSU, they dominated in the running game in the second half. That cannot be discounted. Of course, at times they struggled in the run game and especially in the passing game protecting Driskel. All offensive lines struggle at times in both the running and the passing game and it’s easy to blame lineman when we see them miss a block or get beat by a defensive end.
Sadly, fans rarely seem to high five a good block like when Trey Burton took off on an 80 yard gallop against Tennessee, or when Mike Gillislee hit a 37 yarder up the middle to break the back of FSU. The line had it’s struggles as all lines do but blocking was not necessarily the weak link of the offense. And, with the bulk of the line returning as upperclassmen, and two transfers who played previously at FBS schools, Max Garcia and Tyler Moore, coming in next season as well as a massive junior college transfer in Trenton Brown, the Gator offensive line should be the strength of the offense next season.
The Gators worked very hard last offseason to overcome the struggles of a 7-6 season in the weight room and on the practice field. The benefits of that hard work was obvious in an 11-1 regular season this season. To go 11-1 against an SEC schedule is extremely difficult. The Gators should get credit for what they achieved regardless of how they played in a “meaningless” bowl game.
As the Gators head into the offseason, the key things that need to be worked on are quarterback play, especially recognition and accuracy, receiver play, looking for someone to step up and become a playmaker, offensive line play, and, above all else, cleaning up penalties.
Penalties, particularly unforced errors, were the wink link of the entire team. All too often the Gators would be driving only to have a false start, holding, or even worse, a personal foul penalty called. The defense would get a big third down stop, but wait, there’s a flag. These are the things that will drive coaches, and fans for that matter, crazy. All season, and especially in the Sugar Bowl, when the Gators drove down to the red zone they were called for false start or illegal formation penalties that put them behind the eight ball. Holding calls, like pass interference are part of the game, but personal foul penalties, which the Gators were called for 16 times this season including three unsportsmanlike, are unacceptable. They are a result of a lack of discipline. Football, if nothing else, is controlled chaos. Discipline in actions are the most highly valued trait a coach can hope for. The Gators have to address the penalty situation in the offseason if they hope to progress next season especially on offense.