There’s no better way to erase the memory of a less than stellar season than by starting a new one. The team was plagued with injuries, an ineffective offense, and an inconsistent special teams game. The lone bright spot was the defense. It’s been 273 days since the Florida Gators last took the field against the eventual national champion and bitter rival Florida State Seminoles. Now, Florida welcomes an Idaho team that struggled on all sides of the ball a year ago.
Nothing worked for Florida on offense last season. The Gators never started the same 12 twice. The offensive line struggled protecting the quarterback. And, speaking of quarterbacks, Florida went through three of them before the season was over. The wide receivers couldn’t find any separation from the defense, which led to a historically awful offense. The Gators only scored 18.8 points per game, tied for 112th in the nation. Their passing offense was worse with just 170.9 yards per game, good for 107th. With that type of season, UF has officially been disassociated with the Fun N Gun offense. There is good news this season, however. Kurt Roper comes in as offensive coordinator and has completely revamped the offense. He changed the Gators attack to spread, which should mean more catches, better production, and more points for Florida. If Roper’s offense worked wonders at Duke, imagine what he can do with the athletes Florida has. Running back Kelvin Taylor is back after having a promising finish to his freshman season. Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four touchdowns, getting the majority of those yards (410) and all the scores in the last six games. QB Jeff Driskel also returns after breaking his leg versus Tennessee last season. His skill-set is tailor-made for Roper’s new scheme and he’s impressed this fall. Driskel’s yet to throw an interception in practice, something he’ll look to translate to game day this season. Maybe the most important thing Driskel brings? He’s 12-3 as a starter for the Gators.
As atrocious as Florida was on offense, Idaho could be worse. Against lesser competition, the Vandals were in the bottom half of the FBS in all the offensive categories. They did manage to throw for 230.8 yards per game, mostly because they were constantly behind on the scoreboard. They only scored 18.2 points per game and had 368.3 yards per game. Not very good. Things aren’t getting much better for the Vandals either. Idaho dismissed leading receiver Dezmon Epps this offseason, making the quarterback’s job that much harder. Speaking of QBs, head coach Paul Petrino still hasn’t chosen one. It’s a competition between Chad Chalich, who threw for 1,224 yards, 5 TDs, and 3 INTS, and Matt Linehan, the son of NFL coach Scott Linehan. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for an offense that ranked 90th or lower in all of the major categories, save passing yards.
Florida’s defense may be young, but they have a lot of talent and experience. Dante Fowler Jr. and Vernon Hargreaves III return to lead a defense that ranked in the top third of FBS in the major categories. The Gators did give up 142.4 yards per game (33rd in the country), mostly due to teams trying to run out the clock after being ahead. Florida was top-15 in every other category, giving up just 171.8 yards through the air and 21.1 points per game. The secondary does lose two playmakers in CBs Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, but it may be addition by subtraction for the last line of defense. Roberson and Purifoy were mostly looking ahead to the NFL and had subpar seasons for Florida last year. Hargreaves is likely the best player on the Gators and a shutdown corner. Opposite of him, Brian Poole and Jalen Tabor will be getting the reps, with Poole getting the starting nod. Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman step into the starting safety roles as youth will play a big role in the rotation. The linebacker and defensive line, led by Fowler, return the most experience. The injuries along the front seven last year created a lot of playing time for some of the younger players, an advantage Will Muschamp would like to have going into a new season. Fowler and the defense will try to get more pressure on the QB, as last year’s defense managed only 1.58 sacks per game.
Meanwhile, as good as Florida’s defense was, Idaho’s defense was terrible. Although they play an aggressive scheme, the Vandals didn’t rank better than 117th when it came the major defensive statistics. They gave up 40 touchdown passes, the most in FBS since 1997, and 46.8 ppg, most since 2008. The Vandals do have some pieces to the puzzle, however, with a defensive line made up of Quinton Bradley, Maxx Forde, and Quayshawne Buckley that returns 15.5 sacks from last season. Cornerback Jayshawn Jordan also has the talent to lock down one half of the field. It’s the rest of the secondary that could be the issue for Idaho.
Special teams struggled mightily for Florida last season, despite an outstanding 2012. Punter Kyle Christy never found the consistency that made him a Ray Guy Award finalist the year before. He eventually gave way to Johnny Townsend, who actually led the Gators in punting, although struggled at times as well. Both are listed as the starter, but hopefully Florida fans won’t have to see much of either. Kicking duties didn’t fare much better. Austin Hardin struggled with consistency as well, hitting only 4-of-12 attempts. Frankie Velez stepped in and hit a 44-yarder, the longest of the season for the Gators. Velez was more consistent, but still didn’t pull away from the competition. His season did earn him a scholarship this offseason and has a chance to win the starting job. Virginia Tech transfer Brooks Abbott also comes in to provide more depth and competition. There is some good news for Florida on special teams. Andre Debose returns after tearing his ACL to give the return game a boost. He holds the UF record for most kickoff returns for TDs in a career and is tied for the SEC record with four. The punt return job is still up for grabs with Debose, Demarcus Robinson, and Hargreaves all vying for the duties.
Maybe the lone bright spot for Idaho last season was the special teams. Punter/kicker Austin Rehkow had a great freshman season, punting for an NCAA single-season record average of 47.8 yards per punt. The Vandals net punting average was 40.76, good for sixth in the country. Rehkow also made 10-of-17 field goals with a long of 41 yards. Idaho’s return game didn’t see the same results, however. They ranked 78th in kickoff return yardage with 20.58 yards and 5.46 yards per punt return for 99th in the country.
The entire Florida Gators team physically and mentally buried the 4-8 season before the start of this academic year. They wrote down the record on a piece of paper and then buried it. That might be exactly what they do to Idaho on Saturday. The Vandals went 1-11 last season as they were one of the worst teams in college football. They brought in a bunch of JUCO talent, but they don’t have the horses to compete with Florida. The best way to break in a new offense and make people forget about a disappointing season is to come out with an impressive season opener. The Gators have won 24 straight season openers, the second longest in the country. Look for that streak to make it to a quarter-century Saturday in The Swamp.
Tags: Andre Debose Austin Hardin Brian Poole Dante Fowler Demarcus Robinson Florida Gators Football Francisco Velez Idaho Vandals Jabari Gorman Jalen Tabor Jeff Driskel Johnny Townsend Keanu Neal Kelvin Taylor Kurt Roper Kyle Christy Vernon Hargreaves Will Muschamp