Tough endings will lead to new beginnings
While the Florida football season did not end as expected, with the heavily favored Gators suffering a 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, the program is well ahead of schedule in terms of regaining national prominence.
Second year head coach Will Muschamp was left with a virtual dumpster-fire of a roster in his first season, following the abrupt departure of Urban Meyer first to retirement and then to Ohio State. Thus, Year 1 was a struggle most Gators fans would just as quickly choose to forget -- Muschamp's group needed a Gator Bowl win just get to 7-6, the team's most losses since 1987.
Year 2 was an entirely different animal. Where nine wins would have been seen as an extraordinary improvement in the always-tough SEC, Florida racked up 11, moving all the way to No. 2 in the national polls at one point.
Muschamp's incoming recruiting class is currently rated among the best the nation, but where can the Gators improve in 2013? We take a run-through of the team's offense, defense, special teams, recruits, and big games of 2013 to better gauge how the Gators will perform in Year 3 under the fiery Will Muschamp.
Offensively, the future of the passing game starts right now
The program's season opening kickoff against Toledo is still a long ways away. The opportunity for young, mobile quarterback Jeff Driskel, his disappointing wide receiver corps and his swiss-cheese-at-times offensive line to get better and to eventually dominate begins with Day 1 of the offseason.
Driskel wrestled the starting job from fellow true sophomore Jacoby Brissett in the team's first game of the season against Bowling Green. Don't think for a second Brissett has not taken his eyes off the prize; by all reports, Brissett has been in the film room as much as if not more than Driskel. Brissett is the more natural pocket passer, whereas Driskel can make something out of nothing. Both should improve by leaps and bounds with another offseason to compete. Whomever wins -- and Driskel will have every advantage as the team's incumbent starter -- has to be able to hit receivers when they are open.
Because in 2012 that was a rarity. Tight end Jordan Reed had a big season, leading the team with 45 receptions for 559 yards. However, the actual wide receivers struggled to find open space throughout the year. Driskel and Brissett's fellow sophomore, Quinton Dunbar, finished second with 36 catches for 383 yards -- not exactly Oregon's offense. Timing and route-running in spring practice will be a key towards improvement.
Lest we forget about Andre Debose, the enigmatic team leader in reception yards and touchdowns in 2011, only to go silent through 2012 until the Sugar Bowl. A 100-yard kickoff return only added to his school record in that category. He apparently has an attitude problem, but if that can be fixed, the sky's the limit.
But Muschamp's thirst for running the football is eternal
After spending three years in the shadow of Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps and Pittsburgh Steelers scatback Chris Rainey, Mike Gillislee was finally afforded a starting opportunity. Gilly did not miss out of that opportunity, either, becoming the first Gators running back to crack the 1,000-yard barrier since Ciatrick Faison in 2004.
Should Matt Jones succeed him, the highly touted prep star will not have had to wait nearly as long, as he will only be a sophomore in 2013. As a true freshman, Jones finished third on the team in both carries and yardage, with 52 for 275, respectively. He scored his third career touchdown in the otherwise vastly disappointing Sugar Bowl.
Redshirt sophomore Mack Brown got a healthy dose of carries early in the season, but as the year drew on, it became apparent that Jones was Gilly's full-time backup. Brown rounded out the year with 25 carries for 102 yards. He either did not play or did not record any stats in each of the team's final four games.
No matter who is running, be it Jones, Brown, Trey Burton or Jeff Driskel, the offensive line needs to show vast progress over an already improved 2012 season.
The onus will be on one man: DJ Humphries. It is nearly impossible to see the field as a true freshman lineman, but the 6-foot-6, 275-pound monster could not be kept off of it. With more time in the weight room to add another 10-to-20 pounds of mass, he should easily slide into the left tackle role vacated by the oft-penalized, oft-beaten Xavier Nixon.
Offense wins games, but defensive backfield play can win championships
Never was this twist on the old cliche proven more true than in the Gators' Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville. The nation's No. 3-overall defensive unit tanked in the biggest game of the year, allowing Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to hit pinpoint strike after pinpoint strike against Florida's vaunted secondary.
With the culmination of the season, the program loses the team's leading tackler, senior safety Josh Evans, to graduation and uber-talented free safety, junior Matt Elam, to potentially the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Combine those losses with De'Aunte "Pop" Saunders, a hard-hitting backup who was kicked off the team for repeated marijuana use, and the defensive backfield that got torched by a Big East team is looking thin in 2013.
Muschamp will be looking to two guys that will be sophomores next season, Valdez Showers and Brian Poole, to begin making more plays defensively. Those two, along with Jabari Gorman and Jeremy Brown, will be integral to the support of star cornerbacks Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy.
Purifoy is by far the most intriguing piece to the Gators' 2013 defensive backfield puzzle. The team's fourth-leading tackler in 2012 with 51 also lined up on offense in the Sugar Bowl, even catching a pass, and returning kicks, before leaving the game with an injury.
He has proven that he can do at least a little bit of everything, but he and his teammates will have to do a lot more in 2013 to bring home a postseason trophy.
Stopping teams begins and ends along the Gators' defensive line
In 2012, the Gators defensive line was one of the nastiest and most dominant units in the nation. Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter, and Lerentee McCray's ability to blow offensive linemen off the line of scrimmage and harass quarterbacks, like PETA harassing a steak restaurant, made defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's job easy.
Fast forward to 2013 and Hunter and McCray are out of eligibility, while Floyd is entering the NFL Draft as a junior.
Luckily for Muschamp, Quinn and Gator Nation, the defensive line and passrushing linebacker corps is a position of strength moving forward.
Two true freshman showed they were ready for the bright lights of SEC play this season in Dante Fowler Jr., who finished with 30 tackles on the year, and Jonathan Bullard, who finished with 27. Both are going to be superstars, pure and simple.
The Gators also lose middle linebacker and senior captain Jon Bostic. It will be up to another true frosh in 2012, Antonio Morrison, to continue to blow people up in his sophomore campaign. He finished eighth on the team in tackles with 33, despite limited playing time in his first year.
The future is definitely looking bright, especially with the return of current junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins, as well as that of Ronald Powell. Powell led the team in sacks in 2011 but missed all of this season with a torn ACL, being forced to redshirt. The presence of Powell coming off the edge, with a season's worth of pent-up frustration, should have offensive linemen shaking in their giant shoes.
Lest we forget, special teams are one-third of every football game
Special teams is one of the biggest deciding factors in a football game, as evidenced by the Gators' failed onside kick attempt to open the second half, which very quickly resulted in yet another Cardinals' touchdown and probably put the game out of reach.
That said, all season long, Florida rode dominant special teams to great field position, big points, and huge wins. Against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns, a blocked punt fell right into the hands of Jelani Jenkins, who sprinted into the end zone for the winning touchdown with mere seconds remaining in the game.
The Gators boasted arguably the best and most highly decorated kicking tandem in the nation, with the team's all-time leader in field goals kicked in All-American Caleb Sturgis, and fellow All-American punter Kyle Christy.
Christy averaged an insane 45.8 yards per punt on 66 attempts in 2012, regularly flipping the field when the Gators were struggling to move the ball offensively.
However, he is only a sophomore and will be around in 2013. Sturgis, on the other hand, is moving on to the NFL, and it will not be easy to replace a guy who bags 50-plus yard attempts on the regular.
Jon Crofoot, bother of long snapper Kyle, may take over for Sturgis in 2013. Other candidates include freshman Austin Hardin and junior Brad Phillips, who attempted and missed one field goal attempt while Sturgis was nursing a hamstring injury.
Which recruits are coming in as reinforcements?
Current Gators safety Brian Poole (24) returned an interception for a touchdown in the Under Armour All-America Game this time last year. Once again, future Gators will have a heavy presence in showcase games taking place at various times and locations around the country. Here's a list of Muschamp's top incoming recruits and where the rank among the rest of the national prep superstars:
Vernon Hargreaves III, cornerback, No. 4-rated player in the nation
Kelvin Taylor, running back (and son of Fred), No. 22
Daniel McMillian, linebacker, No. 48
Marcel Harris, safety, No. 67
Ahmad Fullwod, wide receiver, No. 72
Matt Rolin, linebacker, No. 140
Keanu Neal, safety, No. 148
Alvin Bailey, wide receiver, No. 152
Jordan Sherit, defensive end, No. 170
Nick Washington, defensive back, No. 190
James Hearns, linebacker, No. 264
Adam Lane, running back, No. 282
Marqui Hawkins, wide receiver, No. 376
Max Staver, quarterback, No. 419
Who will all these new and familiar faces be playing in 2013?
Yes, these Gators finished a tough SEC year with 11 wins, but even the most die-hard of fans will admit that this program can make plenty of improvements for 2013.
That said, against whom will Florida be showing off their new and -- hopefully -- improved team against?
Look no further:
8/31/13: vs. Toledo Rockets
9/7/13: at Miami Hurricanes
9/14/13: Open Date
9/21/13: Tennessee Volunteers
9/28/13: at Kentucky Wildcats
10/5/13: Arkansas Razorbacks
10/12/13: at LSU Tigers
10/19/13: at Missouri Tigers
10/26/13: Open Date
11/2/13: Georgia Bulldogs (in Jacksonville)
11/9/13: Vanderbilt Commodores
11/16/13: at South Carolina Gamecocks
11/23/13: Georgia Southern Eagles
11/30/13: Florida State Seminoles
Which game are you most excited for, Gator Nation? Exacting vengeance upon Georgia? Maintain dominance over the likes of Kentucky, Vandy and Florida State? The early season game at Miami or the mid-year road test at LSU?
No matter what game you're most jazzed up for, the season absolutely promises to be one to remember for the Florida Gators.
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