Alex Turko (@aturko_23)
Every season there is a player that emerges and creates a significant impact for the Seminoles. Last season it was Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin, Nick O’Leary, and Chad Abram among others, who broke out for one of the best offenses in college football history. This season the Noles will need the same production from an otherwise unknown player to match the offensive output from a year ago. Attrition hits Jimbo Fisher’s team every year at the hands of the NFL draft, so replacing starters is nothing new. The positions that need players to blossom in order for the Seminoles to duplicate their national title run from last season are the wide receivers, offensive line (at center) and fullbacks.
Bryan Stork was “Mr. Consistency” on the offensive line last season, and that success earned him the Rimington Trophy and a fourth-round draft selection. Stork was a warrior that fought through numerous injuries and provided a general-like mentality to the rest of the offensive line. With questions at wide receiver, Jimbo Fisher is likely to run the ball more behind this senior laden offensive line. Enter Stork’s replacement Austin Barron. Barron has seen plenty of action in the past, starting on multiple occasions, and his experience should allow him to seamlessly slide in to the starting role at center and protect a bevy of talent in that backfield that includes a Heisman trophy winner.
Wide receiver should be a unit that finds it’s success through committee after losing Kelvin Benjamin. Rashad Greene will have to carry over his productivity from last season while facing more double teams from opposing defenses. Greene is a proven commodity but the questions begin to arise in finding a valid number two option. Seniors Christian Green and Scooter Haggins (injury prone) provide solid experience but neither have been an established weapon for FSU quarterbacks. Both will see plenty of playing time while they look to end their college careers with a bang. Jesus Wilson’s recent arrest for third-degree grand theft auto has raised more questions as Wilson emerged as the number two guy over spring practice. With Wilson’s status in limbo, sophomore Isaiah Jones will have to prove that he can be a valid option with his 6-foot-4 frame. Also competing for playing time is the trio of freshman studs, Ermon Lane, Javon Harrison and Travis Rudolph. Rudolph is the most polished at this stage and should get playing time immediately while Lane and Harrison could make their presence felt as the season progresses. Lane has a big frame and if he grasps the offense early on, he could help ease the pain of losing the physicality that Kelvin Benjamin brought to the table. Harrison’s impact may be on special teams as a returner, but is sure to get his shot to prove he deserves legitimate playing time.
Fullback is the position that is all guts and no glory and despite just one season as a starter, Chad Abram was one of the better fullbacks to pass through Florida State. Abram brought soft hands, speed and a road-grading mentality to the backfield. His contributions were often over looked due to his position, but trust me when I say that the running backs were well aware of his abilities. Abram helped pave the way to Devonta Freeman’s 1,000 yard season, which was the first time a Nole has broken the 1,000 yard mark since 1996. This season we may see another immediate contributor at the fullback position by the ways of sophomore Freddie Stevenson. The former linebacker is familiar contact and showed his athletic ability in the Garnet & Gold game in April. Stevenson strictly played running back after injuries held all 4 other backs out of action. He more than held his own, rushing for 85 yards on 18 carries. Stevenson’s physicality is what got him his scholarship and he will be using that every down to open holes for one of the most talented backfields in the nation.
If these offensive players emerge to provide consistent production, the Seminoles’ offense could once again see a record-breaking season. Find out which defensive players will need to step up for new defensive coordinator, Charles Kelly, in my next blog.
Alex Turko (@aturko_23)
It isn’t often that an undefeated defending national champion could be improved, but that is just the case with this year’s Seminoles. Jimbo Fisher may have lost seven studs to the NFL along with his defensive coordinator and I think he will be fielding a better team this season.
Everyone points to receiver as a deficiency and the offensive strategy is sure to shift from an aerial brigade to a lethal ground attack. FSU features great talent in the backfield highlighted by the Seminoles' yard-per-carry leader from last season, Karlos Williams. I don’t just think that Williams will be an All-American, but I think he’ll be in New York for the Heisman voting. This is going to be the hardest backfield to defend for opposing defenses since the three-some of Greg Jones, Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker.
Williams brings a scary blend of speed and power while Mario Pender, Ryan Green and Dalvin Cook all possess top-end speed and agility that will create little drop off when Karlos Williams needs spelled. This may be the fastest offense that Florida State has ever fielded, with speed spread out all over the field. Not to mention that the Seminoles still have the Heisman trophy winning quarterback in the backfield.
I have yet to metion what most experts believe is the best offensive line in the country, a unit that returns four starters from last season while the one new starter (center Austin Barron) is a senior with starting experience.
It may be a tall order to have the number one secondary in the country again after leading the nation in interceptions and passing yards allowed last season, but don’t be surprised if this group puts up better numbers from last year’s squad. P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby are the best cornerback duo in the nation.
Tyler Hunter returns at safety after injuring his neck against Nevada last season. Hunter was a headhunter at safety who is a beneficial part of the defense against the run and the pass. Jalen Ramsey will shift into Lamarcus Joyner’s role at nickel and look to improve upon his freshman All-American season while key reserver Nate Andrews should slide into the starting free-safety spot. Andrews quietly lead the team in interceptions off of the bench and should have a spectacular season with the increased playing time.
The defensive line took a hit with the departure of Timmy Jernigan and will look to Nile-Lawrence Stample to fill his shoes. Stample is a big body very capable of taking over at the zero-technique. It will be a defensive tackle by committee approach, but with the talent at that position, the fresh legs should provide a huge amount of production. I expect the sack numbers to increase after finishing 30th in the country last season. New defensive coordinator Charles Kelly is rumored to call more blitzes which will have offensive lines across the nation trembling.
At linebacker Matthew Thomas will take over outside for Christian Jones and add a heavy dose of athleticism to the lineup. Terrance Smith will look to build on his extremely productive season where he emerged as one of the biggest playmakers on the defense. Every linebacker on the roster is capable of starting and making a huge impact so look for a deep rotation at this position.
It might be too much to ask for the Seminoles to win it all again although with their roster and experience it is hard to expect anything less. Before last season I thought the team was a year away. With a sophomore quarterback with weapons at his disposal, there should be no stopping this offense. On defense I would be shocked if there was a team that put up more than 24 points this season. So in the end, anything short of a championship will be a bust.
By: Nick Joost (@joosyjoost)
If you have ever played competitive sports before, or heck, even if you’ve just been an avid watcher for a number of years, I’m sure you've heard all of the clichés and mantras that come along with the nature of sports—especially football.
Some are a bit flaky, but some hold true; here's the ones I can't stand:
Ok, so we’re on the same page now I hope. I only say this because I wanted to bring up one of the classic football clichés that I’ve always been a big proponent of: “Defense wins championships.”
Although you’ll eternally think of the great offenses of Florida’s championship years, there was never a time in which Florida's defense played second fiddle. Whether it was Bob Stoops’ Troops from ’96 to ‘98, or the NFL-laden defenses we enjoyed under Charlie Strong, Florida’s national title teams always featured a defense that could take over a game, if needed. In Florida’s three national championship victories, the Gator defense gave up 20, 14, and 14 points respectively. And remember, the defense really only gave up 7 points against Ohio State.
So what does this mean?
Maybe defense doesn't win championships, but it takes a great defense to win a championship-type game. Teams win championships. It takes a full team of championship-caliber players and coaches to come together for a season, and go all the way to bring back a ring.
The Gators haven’t had that under Muschamp; whether you believe the setbacks of the 2013 campaign happened because of injuries, coaching, talent, or because you lost your lucky Gator hat, which inadvertently cast a perpetual superstitious curse over Gainesville...you can’t deny the fact that Florida went 4-8 last season—a fact we certainly hope this 2014 season will help erase from our memory banks forever. You were all there, you saw it. But hey, in all kinds of weather, we stuck together…and now we just have three more months of waiting.
But were there any bright spots last season? Any areas we can look back on with some confidence?
I believe so, because the same team that could never get out of its own way, lost arguably its two most vital players by September, and had every reason in the world to throw in the towel and quit, did something pretty remarkable last season. When you consider how historically awful the Gator offense was, you have to at least give a tip of the proverbial cap to the defense, which finished second in total defense behind only Alabama, in the nation’s toughest conference.
In the four primary defensive statistics (rush, pass, scoring, and total defense), Florida finished no worse than three. Consider this, the Gator defense gave up just nine passing touchdowns in 2013…Texas A&M gave up 31. Through the first six games, the defense gave up an average of just 235 total yards, with only LSU eclipsing the 300-yard mark.
Steve Spurrier once said that statistics are for assistant coaches and losers. The Head Ball Coach is wise, but that doesn’t mean stats are irrelevant. It’s all we’ve got, and when you take a good hard look at the defensive stats, you’ll see that this year’s Gator defense has the potential to be one of the nation’s best.
The projected starting front seven consists of juniors and seniors, and the secondary may have more raw talent than ever before. With a little help from the offense, this year’s edition of the Gator D might end up being tops in the SEC. Here’s my 5 keys to make it happen:
The play of Florida's front four defensive linemen—finding a rotation and creating pressure on opposing QBs. One thing I do credit Muschamp with, is recognizing that the SEC is absolutely a line of scrimmage league. It just gets tiring to hear about it when the W's aren't lining up in your favor. But Muschamp is 100% correct, this means that the Florida defensive line can't be good, it must be great. Gator Nation, the potential is there for Florida to field a defensive line comparable to its 11-2 squad a couple years ago—perhaps even better if it can gain depth and remain healthy.
The starting four consists of Jonathan Bullard (Jr.) Leon Orr (Sr.) Darious Cummings (Sr.) and second-team All SEC'er Dante Fowler. It's a group that has everything you'd look for in an SEC defensive line—they're versatile, explosive, strong, and have loads of game day experience. All reports from Gainesville indicate that these four men, along with the linebackers, are the core of your defense which is ideal. The good news is Florida has plenty of depth here, with potential young starts Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, and Joey Ivie ready and waiting to step into the interior of the defensive line. Although providing depth, those players don't have as much game experience as you'd like, so their development throughout summer and fall camp will be vital to the defensive line.
Dante Fowler is poised to have a breakout season and he has the natural ability to become an All-American, Jevon Kearse type of player (Yes, I know Kearse played linebacker at UF, but you get it). Fowler should lead the team in sacks, which surprisingly, the greatest concern other than health for this group. In 2013, Florida finished with just 19 sacks—not even half of Missouri's league-leading 41 QB burials. Not a single Gator defender has sacked the quarterback more than four times in a year since 2011. The last time someone even came close to the 10-sack mark was...yeah, you guessed, during the Tebow days—2009 when Carlos Dunlap had nine and Jermaine Cunningham had seven. If Fowler can blossom into that dominating force at defensive end, there will be plenty of havoc surrounding the opposing backfield, which will be a sight for sore eyes for the Gator faithful.
One thing about Fowler is he's been a consistent starter since his freshman year, and the pro scouts who make a living breaking down game film project this guy to be a first rounder. Fowler has all the potential to become the force that Florida has been missing for so long.
But I look at Jonathan Bullard to be the key player on the line. Bullard, while not flashy and not one to wow you in the stat book, is the most versatile player of the group. Bullard can be counted on to take reps at defensive tackle and defensive end, something he's done in game situations and during the spring. When Bullard is able to line up inside, it creates a situation where Florida can tee off and really pressure the quarterback with speedy pass rushers who can come off the ball quicker. Look for Brian Cox, Alex McCalister, and even linebacker Daniel McMillian during these passing situations. Florida may have found all of the necessary ingredients to getting pressure on the quarterback—something that kills drives, creates momentum, and more importantly forces turnovers and rattles quarterbacks.
Win the turnover margin battle by 10+. You can't stress it enough. Defense may win championships, but turnovers dictate games—and that's why, year in and year out, the top ranked teams at the end of the season typically lead the nation in turnover margin. Florida's -2 margin is unacceptable for a Will Muschamp-coached team, and must be fixed if the Gators want to return to national prominence sooner rather than later. Granted, a key component to this ever so important stat is the offense, which did its fair share of mistaking a football for a bar of soap in 2013; but it also garners another point: If the Gator D can force more turnovers, it'll only create more opportunities for the offense to put points on the board—which brings me to my next point.
Other than Vernon Hargreaves, who will step up in the secondary? We all know by now that Hargreaves, a first-team All SEC corner and freshman All American, has the talent to join the likes of other Gator defenders who wore #1 at Florida—guys like Tony George, Keiwan Ratliff, and Reggie Nelson. With the departure of veterans Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, and Jaylen Watkins, it is imperative for someone to fill the void left in the defensive backfield. Losing the three aforementioned players may be something of concern for Gator fans, but Will Muschamp has made it clear that he believes this group possesses more raw talent than any of his previous three seasons at UF. So who will play the role of next door neighbor to "Hargreaves Island?" My guess is Brian Poole, the nation's second-ranked defensive back coming out of high school in 2011. Poole is a natural talent and has shown ability in coverage, picking off two passes last year and recording 20 tackles.
Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye will likely start at the safety posistions. Both Gorman and Maye have experience and are very good tacklers, but Gorman has proven to be shaky at times and has blown coverages more than once in his career. There is a long list of young Gators..."chomping at the bit," if you will, to find the field in 2014. Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal, both prized recruits from a year ago have progressed well and are built like they came from a laboratory that designs the frame and physique of top-notch safeties. Neal especially could find himself on the field as a starter by the time the season kicks off. Not to be forgotten, freshman corners Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, who played very well in the spring will flourish as the season moves on. Also a player to keep an eye on—#22 Nick Washington from Jacksonville. Washington was injured last season, but has a knack for getting to the ball, which was made evident by his interception in the Orange and Blue Debut.
Rush Defense. The SEC East is as "wide open and quarantine" as Mick Hubert would say, than it has ever been. Personally, and I'm sure you all share this feeling as well, I am overjoyed to see the departure of Aaron Murray from Georgia, Connor Shaw from South Carolina, Zach Mettenberger from LSU, and James Franklin from Missouri. If there's a fan base that understands the struggles and risks of replacing quarterbacks, it's the University of Florida.
With that said, of the 12 teams Florida will face this season, six are equipped with at least one running back who will probably make a living playing football on Sundays soon. The Gators' front seven will be challenged week in an week out against some of the top running backs in the country. Starting with Alabama's three-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, and Derrick Henry—combined, they rushed for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Terrance Magee of LSU averaged 7.6 yards per carry, Vandy's Jerron Seymore ran for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns. Then there's the most lethal 1-2 punch in the nation—Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall from UGA. Additionally, the Gators will face Mike Davis, a 1,000 yard rusher from South Carolina and Karlos Williams from Florida State.
Gentlemen of the Gator D, your work is cut out for you.
Who will be the leader of this unit? Before the Missouri game, four Gator captains walked to midfield before the coin toss. Two were senior linemen, Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio, the third, Dante Fowler, and the fourth, a true freshman, was a player largely unknown among Gator fans—Jarred Davis.
Davis, a three-star recruit coming out of high school quickly became an integral part of the defense as injuries continued to plague the Gators, and he made an immediate impact not only on the field, but inside the locker room. Will Muschamp calls him one of the most respected players on the team by both the coaches and players.
Last year, Florida lost its leader in Dominique Easley early in the year, and his absence was clearly evident in many situations throughout last season. The Gators need more players like Davis to step up this season and refuel the identity of the Florida defense.
Vernon Hargreaves and Dante Fowler are both cemented as team leaders, but the Gators will need the attitude shared by Davis, Hargreaves, and Fowler to become contagious. One of the few flaws of this unit over the past few years has been its consistent undisciplined style of play, often committing foolish and costly penalties. I think the young men inside that locker room know more than anyone else, while it may not take one single individual to be the face of the defense, the majority of the success of 2014 will lie on their shoulders. It's time for players like Antonio Morrison, Mike Taylor, Neiron Ball, and Darrious Cummings to step up and take charge as a whole. If that can happen, this could be one of the best defenses to come around Gainesville in quite some time.
Alex Turko (@aturko_23)
Florida State’s baseball team pulled the all too familiar “two and barbecue” this weekend after falling to Georgia Southern and Alabama. Florida State failed to score a run against Georgia Southern losing 7-0 before falling to the Crimson Tide. The Noles attempted to rally back from a 6-0 deficit in the 9th inning against the Tide. The rally seemed promising, scoring 5 runs to bring the game within 1, before Gage West popped up with the bases loaded.
Mike Martin’s squad does this every season and after hosting numerous Regionals and Super Regionals in Tallahassee, the Seminoles have failed to win a College World Series. Martin is a great regular season coach and every year he fields a highly ranked baseball team, but eventually a coach needs to get his ring.
How long is Martin’s leash going to extend before these early postseason exits become mundane and unacceptable? I’m starting to worry that the only way to unseat Martin is to remove him with force. That gruesome visual reminds me way too much of the ugly breakup that FSU had with coaching great, Bobby Bowden.
It would be sad to watch such a prestigious coach step down, but sometimes change is a good thing. Look at how the football team faired with a new coach; winning the National Title game in Jimbo Fisher’s 4th season. Getting rid of a legend would be difficult, but hey, we’ve done it before.
By: Nick Joost (@juicyjoost)
For a program whose success has been synonymous with fielding a high-powered, fast moving offense, it goes without saying the first three years of the Will Muschamp era have been a difficult adjustment for Gator fans.
Muschamp however, entering his fourth, and
likely, make or break season at Florida, has been forced to make a major adjustment of his own—by remodeling his team’s offensive philosophy, hiring offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper, from Duke.
Roper, a David Cutcliffe protégé and quarterbacks guru, has been called upon to fix the once powerful engine known as the Gator offense; an offense that has struggled to create any sense of an identity, other than being consistently inconsistent. You’d have to go back to the days of Tim Tebow to find a Gator offense that met the standard set by Steve Spurrier long ago.
There are many spots to point fingers when you try to make sense of Florida’s anemic offense under Will Muschamp—inserting a pro-style offense with spread personnel, questionable play-calling with seemingly no intentions of taking risks or creating big plays, etc.—none of which matter when it comes to the 2014 Gator offense. Implementing a revamped offensive scheme for a full off-season, and a healthy one at that (so far), there will be no looking in the rear view mirror for these Gators. Led by quarterback Jeff Driskel, a slew of talented running backs including Kelvin Taylor, and a young, explosive group of receivers, the Gator offense realizes the importance of finding a rhythm that has been missing for the length of their careers at UF.
Although coming off a season in which Florida finished 114th in points per game, an all too familiar position under Muschamp’s watch, there is certainly an aura of hope and excitement in Gainesville again with the hiring of Roper. Not only does Florida’s offense return with more depth than it’s had in years, but it seems as if Roper’s system—an aggressive, no-huddle spread attack—will be a much better fit than his predecessors’.
With that said it is difficult to tell whether or not the Gator offense will flourish in its first year under Roper at this point; the task at hand is a demanding one. The Gators face one of the toughest schedules in the nation, playing Alabama, Georgia, and FSU all away from The Swamp, while hosting Missouri, LSU, and South Carolina. All are familiar faces, and all are due for an Orange and Blue payback.
Here are my five keys Florida must maintain if it wants to have a successful offense under Roper in 2014:
1. Stay healthy. While obviously an area of importance for any football team, this has to be the greatest concern in 2014. The Gators are coming off a year in which it couldn’t field enough healthy players for a spring game, an eerie case of foreshadowing for the 2013 season. Consider this: the last time a Gator quarterback started each game in a single season was 2009. That’s half a decade. What other major program has suffered that? Although the Gators are better prepared to sustain injuries than last year, what team is really prepared to lose their starting quarterback in game three? It would be a nightmare scenario and an almost guaranteed fate-sealer for Muschamp if his team suffers another slate of injuries the way it did a year ago.
2. The emergence of Jeff Driskel. I believe Driskel has the all the physical tools to take this team back to Atlanta for a shot at an SEC Title. Granted, there’s plenty of uncertainty when you look at his numbers and performances. For as many poor moments and decisions Driskel’s made, however, he’s still the same player who led Florida into Texas A&M and FSU, and came back with victories in two extremely hostile environments. In both games, Driskel had some key runs that kept drives alive and set Florida up for some scores. Something has to be said about a first year starter leading a team into those stadiums—especially in Tallahassee, where he displayed a gutsy performance just two weeks after a high ankle sprain.
When you consider the type of offense Driskel will run this season, you can’t help but get excited about the potential that clearly exists. You can bet a number of plays in Roper’s playbook involve #6 calling his own number. Driskel’s mobility is the secret ingredient that could end up making this offense come around full circle. With such a predictable offense the past two seasons, Florida’s no-huddle attack will be anything but predictable. Just imagine Driskel leading an up-tempo Gator offense, racing across Florida Field like Scottie Wilbekin going coast to coast in the O’Connell Center. Driskel’s mobility, coupled with the multiple threats at running back, could create a lot of headaches for opposing defenses.
3. Finding a go-to receiver. Although the Gators lose two of their top three receivers from 2013, Solomon Patton and Trey Burton, the receiving core should be the deepest it’s been in the Muschamp era. Led by Quinton Dunbar, Florida’s receivers include a plethora of young talent in Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson, Latroy Pittman, Valdez Showers, Alvin Bailey, and some big bodies to throw to at tight end; there is no reason why Florida’s offense can’t be anything less than dynamic. Dunbar will most likely be Driskel’s go-to receiver as he’s been a consistent target the past two seasons. If Dunbar is able to fill this role as the go-to, opportunities will arise for other receivers to become an integral part of the group. Driskel has raved about Robinson’s big play ability all spring, and Fulwood showed flashes last season that he could become a dependable target in the future. While Robinson’s game has more to do with yards after the catch, Fulwood, standing at 6’3″, has the length and deceptive speed to open up a facet of the passing game that Florida hasn’t seen in quite a while—the deep ball.
4. Limiting turnovers. One of the most telling statistics in all of football is turnover margin, an area in which Florida enjoyed a +15 ratio in 2012, yet dropped to -2 in 2013. You can’t help but reflect on the Miami game when you talk about the turnover issues the Gators suffered last season. Despite committing five turnovers, four of which occurred in Miami territory, Florida nearly doubled Miami’s offensive yardage and was still well in position to win that game late in the fourth quarter. Take away just one of Florida’s interceptions or fumbles and the Gators probably leave South Florida with a win, rather than a gut wrenching defeat that was a sign of things to come. It’ll be up to Driskel to fully understand Roper’s concepts and formations—something he should be able to handle as a redshirt Junior, although won’t be easy considering the new offense he’ll be directing. The entire offensive unit needs to spend a lot of time with each other this summer. Turnovers are especially important in the redzone, and the Gators must make that an area of great concern throughout the 2014 campaign.
5. Creating balance in the running game. The running back position may be Florida’s strongest group on offense. The spring game featured the introduction of Adam Lane, who will displayed an impressive combination of shiftiness and power. Lane is the newcomer to the core of running backs that have already proved to be a talented group. Kelvin Taylor, who earned the starting role by progressing throughout his freshman season, appears to be well on track to becoming the breakout threat Gator fans hoped he’d be after enrolling at UF. Taylor’s combination of speed, explosiveness, and strength makes him Florida’s most dangerous ball carrier. Not to be forgotten, Mack Brown and Matt Jones add experience and dependability. Brown looked like he was in the best shape of his life in the spring game, showing improvements in acceleration and hitting the hole. Jones, the starter last season, comes with a degree of uncertainty because of health issues. If he can remain healthy throughout the year, Jones will get his fair share of touches and a chance to become a major part of the rotation.
With each back possessing their own particular skill set, the potential for Florida to create a balanced and dangerous running game is there for the taking. It will be interesting to see how Roper handles the rotation, and I’m sure he’s drawn up a ton of misdirection that’ll involve Driskel.