UF PREVIEW

Grading the Florida Gators: position by position

 

For The Miami Herald

UF correspondent Jesse Simonton grades the Florida Gators by position, and also the coaching staff:

QUARTERBACKS

Jeff Driskel is cemented as UF’s starting signal caller, as Florida transitioned to a spread, no-huddle attack to maximize his dual-threat skill-set. The redshirt junior — now completely healthy — has underwhelmed as a starter, battling durability, confidence and consistency issues. However, Driskel possesses the physical tools to be an all-conference quarterback, and armed with a slew of playmakers and a tailor-made offense, the onus is now on his shoulders to lead Florida’s attack to new (or old) heights. Behind Driskel, the Gators have a pair of raw but titillating freshmen prospects. Treon Harris, a standout at Miami Booker T. Washington, and Will Grier, a five-star recruit, both came to Gainesville with an insane amount of hype, and whoever wins the backup job will play this season. Redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg remains an emergency option. Grade: B

RUNNING BACKS

Florida has an embarrassment of riches at tailback, with as many as five players competing for carries. The Gators will operate in plenty of two-back sets to showcase the team’s depth. Kelvin Taylor is preliminarily penciled in as the starter, and the sophomore added muscle this offseason after he emerged as a potential feature back toward the second half of last year. Matt Jones is healthy following a traumatic 2013 (serious viral infection and later season-ending knee surgery), and the junior is poised to be an X-factor in Florida’s new hybrid “B” position. Senior Mack Brown was actually the team’s leading rusher last year (543 yards), but he finds himself battling for backup touches with redshirt freshman Adam Lane and freshman Brandon Powell. The speedy Powell, once a longtime Miami commit, is a home run threat and will play this year following a strong training camp. Grade: A

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Once the Gators’ most beleaguered unit, the wideouts are suddenly a position of strength for Florida. Driskel has a mix of seasoned veterans (Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Latroy Pittman) and emerging youth (Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Alvin Bailey) at his disposal. Robinson, an electric but enigmatic talent, is Florida’s most explosive playmaker and could be among the top wideouts in the conference this fall. Meanwhile, the addition of Virginia transfer Jake McGee immediately boosts a woeful tight end group. McGee tallied 71 receptions over the past two seasons and is a mismatch in the middle of the field. Grade: B+

OFFENSIVE LINE

Florida’s offensive line surrendered 66 sacks over the previous two years, and pass protection continues to be a source of concern. The starting five — a solid but hardly spectacular group — could make or break UF’s offensive improvements this season. The Gators have just six linemen with any college experience, and are starting a center who has never played the position (redshirt senior Max Garcia), a pair of tackles who struggle to stay healthy (junior D.J. Humphries, redshirt senior Chaz Green) and a guard who is 6-8, 360 pounds (senior Trenton Brown). Florida has several talented freshmen (OT David Sharpe, OT Roderick Johnson, OG Antonio Riles) waiting in the wings, but overall it’s a fragile group with ready-made depth a serious issue. Grade: C

DEFENSIVE LINE

Junior end Dante Fowler Jr. is a future first-round NFL draft pick and is among the nation’s elite pass rushers. Fowler leads a stout front-four, hungry to prove it can dominate without the talents of Dominique Easley. The Gators struggled to stop the run at times last season (No. 33 nationally), but Leon Orr (6-5, 310) and Darious ‘Bear’ Cummings (6-1, 297) are expected to anchor the middle. Junior Jon Bullard and freshman Gerald Willis III are versatile inside-outside weapons, and redshirt sophomores Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister are complementary pass rushers. Similarly to 2012, Florida will rotate heavily, with as many as nine guys playing significant snaps. Grade: A-

LINEBACKERS

Florida’s linebackers struggled in 2013, as the Gators felt the absences of Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, two premier collegiate linebackers. Junior Antonio Morrison whiffed on an impact season, while injuries limited the growth of several promising players (Matt Rolin, Alex Anzalone). Sophomore Jarrad Davis, a special-teams ace last year, is a natural breakout candidate as a playmaking presence. Davis is a probable starter at the weak-side position, and career role players Michael Taylor and Neiron Ball (6-3, 235) are in the mix to start at the middle and strong-side spots, respectively. In all, the unit remains high on potential, but development is a major question mark. Grade: C+

SECONDARY

Despite losing three future pros, the Gators again have a glut of talent at defensive back, led by sophomore All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. But beyond Hargreaves, the secondary is really green with so much raw and unproven potential. Safety Keanu Neal – favorably compared to former Gator great Reggie Nelson — is a devastating eraser and rising star, but the sophomore has zero career starts and played mainly special teams last fall. Florida has five freshmen (Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Deiondre Porter, Quincy Wilson) competing for immediate playing time, but the significance of their roles will be depend on the swiftness of their development. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye is no longer in the coaches’ doghouse and should be a linchpin at safety or nickel back, while Brian Poole and Jabari Gorman offer a veteran presence. Grade: B+

SPECIAL TEAMS

Florida’s kicking situation remains a major quagmire, as its specialists were disastrous in 2013. Kyle Christy went from All-American punter to the pine, while Austin Hardin — UF’s lone scholarship placekicker — hit just 4 of 12 field goals. Florida elected to bring in two kickers – former Virginia Tech kickoff specialist Brooks Abbott and Belen Jesuit Prep freshman Jorge Powell — to compete for the job and senior walk-on Francisco Velez (6 of 8 in 2014) remains in the mix as well. Although UF’s coverage units were strong, the Gators blocked just a single kick all year. A healthy Debose (the school’s all-time leader) should boost Florida’s return game. Grade: C-

COACHING

Will Muschamp is intimately aware of the hot-seat talk. With the potential do-or-die season, Muschamp upgraded Florida’s offensive staff with a pair of offseason hires. In steps offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, a longtime lieutenant of Duke head coach David Cutcliffe. Roper is tasked with resurrecting a Florida offense ranked in the bottom 20 nationally for three consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, veteran line coach Mike Summers is charged with overhauling UF’s inconsistent offensive line. Coleman Hutzler is the new special-teams coordinator, replacing Jeff Choate. Former Gators quarterback Chris Leak, a graduate assistant last season, was named Florida’s receivers coach after Joker Phillips abruptly resigned in mid-June following NCAA allegations. Defensively, coordinator D.J. Durkin and cornerbacks coach Travaris Robinson are dynamic recruiters and solid teachers. Grade: B+

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