July 20, 2011; Hoover, AL, USA; Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp speaks at the SEC media day press conference in the Wynfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Monday Morning Quarterback: Florida Football State of the Union

The Florida Gators finished the 2012 football season with a much better than anticipated 11-2 record but closed out the season in disappointing fashion getting trounced by Big East co-champion Louisville. With news of juniors leaving early for the NFL, players requesting transfers and recruiting season hitting the stretch run with only a few spots left, The Monday Morning Quarterback returns to sort through it all and bring you the Florida Gator football state of the union.

Let’s start with the season that was. While Gator fans are highly disappointed in the egg that the Gators laid in the Sugar Bowl, let’s not jump overboard just yet calling for players or coaches heads. As the old Dennis Green soundbite goes, “they are who we thought they were.” Sometimes when a team plays well we overlook some of the glaring weaknesses and become overconfident in that success when we really should just temper it. In going 11-1 in the regular season, the Gators played very tight games that could have gone either way. They showed a tendency to get down early and have to play from behind. That’s always dangerous. Just like last year when fans said we could have went 9-4 if this or that went our way, this season they could very well have gone 8-5 if some things went against them.

All things considered, the team was the exactly the team that Muschamp said they would be before the season. A tough downhill running football team that relies on a fantastic defense and plays great special teams. The danger of relying on strong defense to carry you is what happens when the defense has a bad day? Or in the case of the Sugar Bowl, we saw what happens when the defense meets a great player, playing the game of his life, at the same time the defense has a bad day.

Are there glaring weaknesses? Absolutely. An offensive line that still is not quite what Muschamp envisions with poor depth. There is a huge dropoff in ability from the starting five who themselves are not quite what the Gators need to run Muschamp’s offense. Then there’s the wide receiver’s who have zero depth and as little talent as I’ve seen in Gainesville since the ’89 team which if not for Emmitt would have set a record for ineptness at Florida.

Oct 22, 2011; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Maryland offensive lineman Max Garcia (73) gets ready to block Florida State Seminoles defensive end Brandon Jenkins (49) in the first quarter of their football game at Doak Campbell Stadium. The Seminoles beat the Terrapins 41-16. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

The good news? Both of these needs have been and are being addressed in this recruiting class. With no less than six lineman coming in for next season, two who will probably start and another who will provide quality depth particularly in the extra lineman sets the Gators liked to run this season. Max Garcia transferred to Florida from Maryland last spring and sat out this past season according to NCAA transfer rules. He is now eligible to compete. The 6-4 310 pound tackle started all twelve games for Maryland in 2011 and will likely step into a starting role at Florida next season. Tyler Moore, 6-6 305, is another lineman transfer, coming from Nebraska by way of St. Petersburg Community College. He became the first true freshman tackle ever to start a season opener for the Cornhuskers playing in nine games and starting four of them. He was only the tenth true freshman lineman to start a game in their history. Both he and Garcia should compete for starting positions next season. Add in big Trenton Brown a 6-8 355 pound junior college transfer who should provide quality depth in multiple lineman sets.

The two deep for next season across the line should look like this.  At tackle, D.J. Humphries, Tyler Moore, Max Garcia, Chaz Green, Trenton Brown, and Trip Thurman. At guard, Jon Halapio, Jessamen Dunker, Tommy Jordan, Kyle Koehne, and Ian Silberman. At center, Jonathan Harrison and incoming freshman Cameron Dillard. Of course, some guys will be cross trained and may play multiple positions. But this should be the deepest and most talented line since the 2008 team and will likely be a team strength next season.

Wide receiver is the biggest question mark on the team. Frankie Hammond graduates leaving only Quinton Dunbar with any significant experience. Sophomores Raph Andrades and Latroy Pittman will need to step up significantly next season. The Gators now have five committed wide receivers, with Demarcus Robinson making a last minute decision to enroll at UF. A tall rangy receiver with great speed, good hands, and can compete for jump balls, he should compete for a starting spot right away. Two others who will likely see significant action next season are Ahmad Fulwood a tall, physical wide receiver with great hands and Alvin Bailey a smaller, speedy slot receiver who can also return kicks and is a playmaker.

At tight end, the Gators lose leading pass catcher Jordan Reed which is significant. Behind Reed, there is no significant experience, especially as pass catchers. Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook provided depth this season at the position but were liabilities in the passing game. True sophomores Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor, the top two tight ends in last season’s recruiting cycle, should move into the lineup next season. Thompson, 6-4 256, is more of a traditional tight end while Taylor, 6-5 233, will be likely be utilized as more of a slot style pass catcher and may be split out some as well as the Gators look for playmakers outside. This position should be an improvement overall with the addition of Taylor and Thompson and then Burton and Westbrook being a year older.

Jan 2, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel (6) against the Louisville Cardinals during the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Louisville defeated Florida 33-23. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

At quarterback, of course, Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as starter. Driskel, which may come as a surprise to many Gator fans, had a pretty good season statistically speaking considering the level of talent at receiver and the issues along the line. He completed 63.7 % of his passes with 12 touchdown passes and only 5 interceptions. He was the Gator’s second leading rusher with 408 yards and 4 touchdowns including a 70 yarder against Vanderbilt. There is certainly a lot for him to work on in the offseason. Namely, getting quicker and going through his progressions, getting better at reading defenses at the line, making quicker decisions, and becoming more accurate on his throws.

For all the Muschamp doubters, who criticize his decision to stick with Driskel, you have to understand Driskel’s upside is much higher than Brissett’s and his running abilities give the Gators an extra element to their offense that Brissett cannot. With the inconsistencies along the line, this element is a necessity.

Defensively, the biggest issue is the best players from each unit are leaving . With Floyd and Elam turning pro early and Bostic and Evans graduating plus three others on the line graduating as well, the defense is taking a big hit. Then there are the issues that got exposed in the bowl game. Namely, the Gators lack a true shutdown corner and struggle getting a consistent pass rush. Again recruiting is key here. Vernon Hargreaves III the top rated corner in the nation and consensus top ten player overall is coming to Gainesville next fall. He was the best player on the field in the Under Armour All American game and will likely be playing from the get go in nickel and dime coverages. The Gators are still recruiting USC commit Jalen Ramsey, an Army All American, who is also a high school teammate of Gator qb commit Max Staver. Corner will be the strongest unit on the team at this point with returning starters Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, and Loucheiz Puriofy

On the line, JUCO defensive tackle Darrius Cummings should compete for immediate playing time. He played extensively at FSU his freshman season and was primed for more time his sophomore season before an injury ended his season. He’s the most physically prepared recruit in the whole recruiting class. The Gators are also in the mix for top rated defensive tackle Montravius Adams who visited the Gators this weekend and was pleasantly surprised. He will likely be a signing day decision but the Gators have a shot.  At end, the Gators are still actively recruiting DeMarcus Walker an Alabama commit who will be enrolling somewhere today or tomorrow, but at this point he is a longshot. More likely is defensive end Elijah Daniel who is said to be leaning to the Gators and will make an official visit the last weekend before signing day. This is the area of most concern right now with only one guy who can come in and play right away. But with Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard a year older the Gators should be good here.

September 22, 2012; Gainesville FL, USA; Florida Gators linebacker Antonio Morrison (12) against the Kentucky Wildcats in the first half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker is losing three year starter and defensive captain Jon Bostic at Mike, and junior Jelani Jenkins who apparently, and head scratchingly, has decided to leave early for the NFL draft. This is huge as that leaves junior Michael Taylor and sophomore Antonio Morrison as the only experienced inside linebackers. Morrison is a big hitter and Taylor has played well in spots but needs to become more consistent. redshirt junior Gideon Ajagbe and senior Darrin Kitchens will certainly need to step up and step into the two deep next season. The Gators have three middle linebackers committed and three good ones in James Hearns, Daniel McMillan, and Jarrad Davis. Hearns is a headhunting ballhawk who will likely compete for playing time right off the bat. Actually all three will likely be pressed into duty from the get go.

The loss of the Gator’s top two safeties is a concern. “Pop” Saunders, the third “starting” safety, has decided to transfer leaving the Gators with no experienced safeties. Cody Riggs is a versatile player that will likely see time here and Marcus Maye and Brian Poole are two freshman that the coaches raved about who will be counted on to step up next season. Additionally, the Gators have three really good safeties coming in Marcel Harris, Nick Washington, and Keanu Neal, with Harris and Neal prospects to provide immediate depth.

On special teams, Ray Guy Award finalist Kyle Christy returns but Lou Groza finalist Caleb Sturgis graduates. Christy was a great weapon for the Gators all season and should be expected to improve even more in the offseason, if that’s possible, but the Gators will be fine here. With Sturgis gone, redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, the nation’s top kicker in last year’s recruiting cycle, takes over. Word is he has a strong leg, even stronger than Sturgis, and working with Sturgis has improved his accuracy. Can’t help but think there will be a dropoff from the best kicker in Gator history, but shouldn’t be a significant dropoff.

October 6, 2012; Gainesville FL, USA; Florida Gators defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy (15) gets pumped up during the second quarter against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On coverage teams, D.J. Durkin returns as coordinator but we lose Chris Johnson who has teamed with Loucheiz Purifoy as coverage team standouts the last two seasons. We should have little dropoff as there is no shortage of athletes in Gainesville and Durkin always has the guys prepared. At returner, Andre Debose returns fresh off his kickoff return for a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl and the Gators tried Loucheiz Purifoy some at returner as well in that game. Purifoy was a standout returner in high school with many highlight plays and the Gators really want to get him involved in places where he can make plays. Look for him and Debose to combine for some highlights next season. Some of the incoming freshman including Bailey will likely get some looks on the return teams as well, especially at punt returner as the Gators seek to get consistency there.

As we move into the offseason, many Gator fans are concerned with the loss of key players to the NFL and the attrition caused by transfers. Since the end of the season, starting safety DeAnte “Pop” Saunders, oft-injured offensive lineman Matt Patchan, true freshman corner Willie Bailey, backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and reserve running back and special teams standout Chris “Juice” Johnson have requested releases so that they can transfer.

Out of the early entrants, only Jelani Jenkins was a surprise. The word is he got a low draft evaluation and the staff advised him to stay but he went against advice and chose to leave. There’s nothing anyone can do about early entrants, it happens at every school especially schools with great talent like Florida because guys want to play in the league. The best part is Muschamp and company do their best to get the best advice for their players and if they think it’s in their best interests to go they tell them that. That let’s prospective recruits know that Muschamp is a player’s coach. Elam and Floyd certainly should have gone as they realistically couldn’t improve their draft stock much by coming back. Reed probably should have stayed, but word is he had issues with attitude and consistency and probably just wanted to get out of dodge so to speak.

As far as transfers,the two significant losses are Pop Saunders and Jacoby Brissett. Saunders is a great player and could provide some leadership and ability at safety, especially with the loss of both Matt Elam and Josh Evans. However, he had numerous off the field problems and was repeatedly suspended for them. While his talent is not in question, Muschamp wants players who are team players meaning they tow the line in the classroom and in their personal lives. If he returned he would likely still be a cancer to team discipline and the negatives still would outweight the positives.

Brissett leaving hurts quarterback depth as that would leave Driskel as the only qb with any real experience, although Tyler Murphy did see a few snaps in a couple of games this season at mop up time. With Driskel being used so much as a runner, the injury risk is high, so it’s important to have some experienced depth behind him. I don’t blame Brissett for leaving, he’s a talented player who simply wants to play, and with Muschamp stating emphatically that Driskel would be the starter next season, Jacoby saw the handwriting on the wall and realized it was time to move on. Rather than being criticized, Muschamp should be commended for being flexible and understanding with players who desire to leave. Though it hurts the Gators, it lets prospective players know that if they come and things don’t work out, he will be receptive to their desires to do what’s best for them.

The others were likely going to be career backups or scout team players and probably saw the handwriting on the wall and felt it is time to move on. Nothing wrong with that. If they want to go elsewhere let them, it frees up scholarships for guys that might better be able to compete for playing time. Win-win for all concerned. Eight of Muschamp’s first recruiting class have now left the program, but remember with Meyer staying until January 1st, Muschamp had little time to effect that first class. It is honorable that he didn’t run off Meyer’s commits in favor of guys more likely to fit into his system. They had their chance, if they don’t feel like it’s for them then the best thing for all involved is to let them pursue their playing dreams elsewhere.

With Jenkins leaving, the Gators have now lost 7 of the 11 defensive starters so Gator fans should expect a significant dropoff next season defensively. Of course, there is lots of talent still returning and lots of talent coming in this recruiting class, but it would be too much to expect that the Gators can replace Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Jon Bostic, Josh Evans, Larentee McCray, Omar Hunter and Jelani Jenkins without a dropoff in play.

November 3, 2012; Gainesville FL, USA; Florida Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease prior to the game against the Missouri Tigers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Offensively, with an infusion of new talent along the line, at receiver, tight end, and running back, and then Jeff Driskel having another offseason to improve, and the whole offense being in year two of Brent Pease’s offense, the Gators should be much improved in this area. How much? That, of course, will remain to be seen. No way to predict when and how much the light will come on for a young quarterback and there’s no way to predict who will step up at skill positions and how much the young guys will be able to contribute in the gauntlet that is the SEC. But The Monday Morning Quarterback will be very surprised if the Gators offense isn’t vastly improved next season.

Just remember what the Gator Nation saw this season was a masterful magician job getting players to buy in, getting them stronger and tougher, and coaching them up to 8 come from behind wins, 11 wins overall, 7 SEC victories, and going undefeated in the Swamp, only the third team in school history to do so. All that while playing the toughest schedule in the nation as ranked by the NCAA. And remember they had to break in a new starter at quarterback, implement a new offensive scheme, they played with no talent and no depth at receiver, and dealt with numerous significant injuries along the offensive line which itself suffered from a lack of depth.  It’s nothing short of a miracle that Muschamp and company was able to squeeze 11 victories out of this squad, and have them just short of playing in the BCS championship game.

Overall, The Monday Morning Quarterback feels that the Gator program is in good hands with Will Muschamp, is on solid footing with scholarship levels and recruiting, and has a bright future. They are as close to being a top five program as they have been since 2009 and will likely enjoy the notoriety that Gator Nation has become accustomed to since the arrival of Steve Spurrier in 1990.

Tags: Florida Gators Gator Football Jeff Driskel The Monday Morning Quarterback Will Muschamp

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