Jeff Driskel is no longer mired in a quarterback controversy, and the junior appears poised for a breakout season. UF’s starter has a live arm coupled with quick, powerful legs, but can he overcome his confidence and read-progression issues? In Florida’s conservative offense, Driskel threw for more than 175 yards just three times, yet he did do a nice job of mostly avoiding turnovers (12 TD: 5 INT). As Florida aims for offensive balance, an improved and polished Driskel is a good start. UF lacks quality depth behind Driskel, as his backups — (RJR) Tyler Murphy, (RFR) Skyler Morhinweg (FR) and Max Staver — are an unproven and shaky group. Driskel’s health is vital to Florida’s potential success.
RUNNING BACKS: B+
Florida has never had consecutive 1,000-yard rushers in school history. That could change this season. Or maybe not. Matt Jones, a 6-2, 228-pound sophomore, has battled a serious viral infection all August, jeopardizing his role early in the year. Jones was a spring star, and with an elite blend of size, speed and strength, was expected to replicate Miami Dolphins rookie Mike Gillislee’s production (1,152 yards) as Florida’s workhouse tailback. Freshman Kelvin Taylor, the state’s all-time leading high school rusher, and redshirt junior Mack Brown (40 career rushes) must now carry the load. Taylor is the son of Florida legend Fred Taylor and was an early enrollee this spring. Hunter Joyer, a junior, is one of the best fullbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
Demarcus Robinson (6-2, 204) has never played a down of college football, but the ballyhooed freshman emerged as the team’s top wideout during camp. Florida’s beleaguered unit includes junior Quinton Dunbar (36 catches, 4 TDs), senior Trey Burton (18 receptions, 1 TD), junior Solomon Patton (8 career receptions) and five freshmen — only two of whom are ready to contribute: Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood (6-4, 200 pounds). At tight end, Florida cannot replace Jordan Reed’s team-leading 45 receptions but Clay Burton, a reliable blocker, will assume the first-team duties.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Florida’s line was a Jekyll and Hyde unit a season ago. Center Jon Harrison and left guard Jon Halapio propelled a group that mauled opponents on the ground (No. 3 SEC rushing offense) but struggled mightily in pass protection (No. 115 nationally in sacks allowed). Sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries (6-5, 185) should boost the pass blocking immediately, as will transfer linemen Tyler Moore (6-5, 315), Max Garcia (6-4, 307) and Trenton Brown (6-8, 363). Concerns remain though, as Halapio is the leader of group (33 career starts) and has missed all of training camp with a torn pectoral. Although the senior is expected to return to action week one, his effectiveness playing with a torn pectoral is unknown.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Replacing defensive tackle Shariff Floyd, a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, will be tough, but the Gators have plenty of firepower to survive. Florida’s nickel “rabbits” package includes four former five-star prospects: Ronald Powell, back after missing all of 2012 with an ACL injury, Dominique Easley, Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. Fowler, a sophomore, is a budding star and is on the fast-track to be one of the nation’s elite pass rushers. Without Floyd and Omar Hunter — last season’s nose tackle — UF will not be as dominant against the run (No.4 nationally), but with Fowler and Bullard, the self-titled “Bash Bros,” its sack numbers should increase big time. Leon Orr (6-5, 310), Darious ‘Bear’ Cummings (6-1, 309) and Damien Jacobs (6-3, 290) will rotate at nose tackle.
Here, Florida’s losses will be felt. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins were two premier run-stopping and coverage linebackers. Antonio Morrison delivered several highlight blows as a freshman, but the sophomore is suspended for the first two games and has worked mostly with the second-unit in camp. Career role players Michael Taylor (6-0, 230) and Neiron Ball (6-3, 235) are two likely starters, while early enrollees Daniel McMillian (6-1, 225) and Alex Anzalone (6-3, 230) should contribute as rotational players. Depth is a serious concern, especially with so many inexperienced players in the mix.
Welcome to the no fly zone. Florida’s greatest strength is its volume, talent and experience at cornerback. Juniors Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are All-SEC performers, and senior Jaylen Watkins has 19 career starts. Freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit, and Brian Poole, a physical sophomore, are expected to play significant roles too. Because of coverage concerns at linebacker, the Gators will regularly play six defensive backs together to get the best players on the field. Florida’s athletic trio mitigates many of the unresolved questions at safety but some still linger. Matt Elam, a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, and Josh Evans, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ sixth-round selection, were a lethal combination and now the undersized Cody Riggs (5-9, 184) and training camp star Marcus Maye, a redshirt freshman, must take over.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Kyle Christy might be the nation’s top punter. The junior was named a preseason All-American after averaging 45.8 yards per kick in 2012, fifth-best nationally. The kicking situation is a major quagmire with the graduation of All-American Caleb Sturgis. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin is the probable starter. Andre Debose was an electric kick returner but his torn ACL has caused Florida to audition a collection of guys. Roberson will handle punts, and with Purifoy, Ball and others, the coverage units should remain among the nation’s best.
With the additions of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, formally Kentucky’s coach (2010-12), and Brad Lawling, South Carolina’s defensive line coach (2006-12), Florida’s strong staff got even better this offseason. Will Muschamp opted for improvement over stability. Muschamp is entering the pivotal “Year Three,” while offensive coordinator Brent Pease is considered a potential future head coach. The up-and-coming D.J. Durkin replaces Dan Quinn, now with the Seattle Seahawks, as defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson is a dynamic recruiter. Also on staff are several ex-Gators, including former quarterback Chris Leak (2003-06) and linebacker Mike Peterson (1995-98).