Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 Florida Gators Preview

Like most of the civilized world, I'm anxiously awaiting Barack Obama's choice of vice president. But since he's quite intent on making us all feel like jackasses for staring at our cellphones, it's probably wise to write about a different subject.

So, college football. My beloved alma mater went 9-4 in 2007, a mild disappointment coming off the national championship year of 2006. Considering the quality of the players lost and the youth of those remaining, it actually wasn't that bad a year. But expectations are much higher this year, as they should be. Anything less than an SEC Championship will be considered a disappointment.


Will be the strength of the team. Led by the Heisman Trophy winner, with a solid offensive line and a bevy of talented playmakers, Florida's offense should be one of the very best in the country. Last year's offense was ranked 14th in the country in yards per game, third in points per game.


There's nothing new or original to be written about Tim Tebow. He's an outstanding passer, a frightening runner and generally the best player in America. Tebow ran 210 times for nearly 900 yards last year in large part because Urban Meyer didn't have a true running back on whom he could lean. If things go according to plan, that "210" number will go down considerably. Still, we're talking about the freaking Heisman Trophy winner here. Get him the damn ball and stop apologizing for it.

Two quarterbacks are battling for the back-up role behind Tebow, and according to Meyer, it won't be a clipboard holding job. Meyer wants a system akin to what he used in 2006, when Tebow was Florida's third and short battering ram.

The best QB for that role is probably sophomore Cam Newton, a 6-6, 240-pound monster of a quarterback who saw mop-up action last year and impressed with his speed and power. He quarterbacked a couple impressive drives in the waning moments of the blowout win over Tennessee, punctuating one with a Tebow-esque rumble into the endzone. His passing performance in the 2008 Spring Game was erratic, and there remain questions about his ability to truly master an offense. But if he can convince Meyer that he's capable of holding on to the football, he's well-suited for a change of pace role as a running quarterback.

Fighting Newton is redshirt freshman John Brantley, one of the prizes of the 2007 recruiting class. A gifted drop back passer, Brantley sat out last year and has battled a handful of small, nagging injuries during his limited tenure at UF. He might well be the post-Tebow quarterback of the future. But with his relatively limited mobility and apparent fragility, it's hard to see how his skills really complement Tebow's in a way that would allow Meyer to use him as a second quarterback.

Running backs

Note: in this offense, wide receivers frequently end up running the ball. It's a big part of what Meyer does. Nonetheless, in this section we'll focus only on those who are listed as RBs in the media guide. Receivers who figure to spend time in the backfield will be discussed in the next section)

The bane of Meyer's existence during his first three years at Florida. In 2005 and 2006 it was Deshawn Wynn and his infuriating inconsistency. Last year it was Kestahn Moore and his fumble issues. Those problems were why Tebow became Florida's go-to running back in both 2006 and 2007.

Things look to be better in 2008. Meyer and new running backs coach Kenny Carter have raved about their stable of backs in fall camp, and there's renewed hope that Florida will find a consistent running back for the first time since Ciatrick Fason left after the 2004 season.

Senior Kestahn Moore remains the presumptive starter. Solid and thoroughly boring, Moore's been picking up about 5.3 yards a carry since he debuted in 2005. He lacks breakaway speed but runs hard. (During the 2006 Alabama game, CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist told analyst Gary Danielson that "Meyer calls Moore a real 'lunch pail' guy." Danielson deadpanned, "That's usually what coaches call running backs who aren't very fast.") Meyer lost faith in Moore last season after a horribly timed fumble against LSU and another fumble on the first drive of the game against Georgia. Those were his only two fumbles of the season, but they stuck with the fanbase and coaching staff. Still, Moore's always picked up his yards, and Meyer loves how he handles the secondary responsibilities (blocking, receiving, etc.) of the position. Moore will also play a lot of fullback, allowing Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to get an offensive threat at that position while sticking another running back on the field.

The anointed savior is USC transfer and redshirt sophomore Emmanuel Moody. Moody played well for the Trojans as a true freshmen in 2006, but saw himself buried in the tide of four and five star running backs Pete Carroll was trucking into LA. Reports on Moody's skillset are a little sketchy, since he hasn't played a down since that 2006 season. But he seems like a more talented version of Moore, a powerful runner with surprising speed. We think. Meyer is obsessed with ball security out of the running back position and won't let anyone on the field who has fumble issues. Moody ran for over 100 yards in the spring game, but also fumbled while diving into the endzone. If Moody can get that under control, Meyer might well have caught his white whale: an every down running back.

Fellow redshirt sophomore Mon Williams has impressive talent, and at 6-2, 210 pounds he might have the backfield's best combination of size and speed. He saw some mop-up work as a true freshmen in 2006 and impressed coaches during 2007 spring practice, but he tore his ACL and missed all of last year. He should see more than a few touches.

After Williams is a trio of absurdly fast and exciting scat backs. Redshirt freshmen Chris Rainey was a five star prospect in the 2007 recruiting class but hurt his shoulder early in the season and was granted a medical redshirt. He is, as the kids these days say, "fast." Absurdly fast. He came to Gainesville as a 160-pound running back, but has since added 25 pounds of muscle (according to and should be big enough to play in the SEC. Considering the three players ahead of him, Rainey will probably spend more time as a slot receiver and on reverses and end-arounds, as opposed to a traditional between-the-tackles running back role.

If Rainey is absurdly fast, true freshmen Jeff Demps, unbelievably fast? Frighteningly fast? Jaw-droppingly fast? Demps barely missed out on a spot on the US Olympic track team as a 100 meter sprinter. Demps and Rainey ran a handful of races on the street outside their apartment; Demps won the first heat, Rainey pulled up on the second and won the third. Demps, like Rainey, doesn't have great size; GatorZone lists him at 5'8, 176 pounds. He won't get the touches of the first four backs discussed here, but he'll definitely see the field, perhaps as Florida's version of LSU's Trinton Holliday.

The last back is Brandon James, Florida's dynamic return man. He won't get a lot of hand-offs, but he will be used frequently as a slot receiver and the pitch man on options.

Receivers and Tight Ends

There seems to be this perception that Florida's got another excellent receiving corps, like the group it had in 2006 or 2007. That's not really true. Cornelius Ingram's season-ending knee injury removes a reliable receiver from the depth chart. That leaves Florida with a thinner group of pass catchers.

The one who should head that group is extraordinary junior Percy Harvin, one of the most electrifying players in America. He's fast, agile and surprisingly strong. He's got good hands, runs solid routes, keeps his nose clean off the field and stays crunchy, even in milk. Harvin can blow past any defender and is capable of making multiple players look stupid with a single, subtle cut. (Check him out on YouTube.) Caught 59 passes for 858 yards and rushed the ball 83 times for 764 yards last season. (That's a 9.2 YPC average, if you don't want to do the math) He is, in short, a wonderful player with the ability to change the game every time he touches the ball.

And no one has any idea how often he'll play this year.

Harvin, who battled leg and hip injuries over his first two seasons at UF, had heel surgery in the spring. His rehab was going swimmingly until the start of fall practice, when he had a setback and felt some pain in the offending heel. He hasn't practiced since, though he has taken part in various conditioning exercises, sometimes at full speed. Meyer hasn't confirmed anything, but it appears likely that Harvin will miss the season opener against Hawaii. The Gators won't need him to beat the Warriors. But while they probably won't need him to beat Miami in week two, it'll be a bad sign if he misses that game. If he misses the game at Tennessee, it'll be a sign that his season is in serious jeopardy.

Behind Harvin is senior Louis Murphy. He was Tebow's prime deep threat in 2007; when the Heisman winner executed his patented "jab step/deep pass" play, Murphy was usually on the receiving end of the pass. If Harvin's unavailable, Murphy will be Tebow's most reliable and experienced target. He has good size (GatorZone lists him at 6'3) and could be a high draft choice in 2009.

After Murphy comes...well, quite a lot of of inexperience. It's hard to believe that Florida's in a position of having two experienced, reliable receivers, one of whom might be suffering from a serious injury, but that's the situation. When Ingram went down and Jarrod Fayson transferred to Illinois, it left a troubled depth chart.

Of course, this being Florida those inexperienced receivers have abundant talent. If Harvin misses the game against Hawaii, the number two receiver is likely to be junior Riley Cooper. Cooper caught only eight passes in 2007, but he made them count; he averaged 22.3 yards per catch and reeled in three touchdowns. Unfortunately, two of those touchdowns came on long bombs against opening patsy Western Kentucky. (The third came on a 30-yard reception against Tennessee) Cooper's another big guy with great speed, but he's been injury prone as a Gator and has shown a tendency to screw up his routes.

Beneath Cooper on the depth chart are a bunch of receivers who can be summed up fairly quickly. Redshirt Junior David Nelson is 6-5 and looks impressive, but only has nine career receptions. Junior college transfer Carl Moore is 6-3, 220 lbs and was a five star JUCO recruit in January, but his spring performance was, by all accounts, poor. He's doing slightly better in the fall, but it's hard to pencil him in for 20+ catches. Redshirt freshmen Deonte Thompson was a big-time recruit out of Belle Glades, Fl. The Gators pulled him away from Miami, Ohio State and USC.

A trio of true freshmen round out the group. Frankie Hammond Jr. came in as a rail thin, lightning quick project who Meyer expected to redshirt. He's impressed enough this fall to earn some playing time. Omarious Hines and TJ Lawrence are likely to redshirt.

At tight end, sophomore Aaron Hernandez will slide into the starting spot vacated by Ingram. He's not the physical specimen Ingram is, but he's got great speed for a tight end and flashed some impressive open field skills as a true freshmen. Hernandez was the nation's top tight end recruit in 2007, and should step up in a big way this season. He'll do a lot to make up for the loss of Ingram.

Fifth year senior Tate Casey will back him up. He's big and he's old and four years ago he caught some touchdown passes as a true freshmen. That's his relevant biography.

The lack of reliable, experienced receivers is troubling on a team that spends so much time in four and five receiver sets. Fortunately, UF has enough playmakers to fill out those sets; it's just that many of those playmakers aren't wide receivers. The running backs, especially James, Rainey and Demps will take a lot of snaps at the slot receiver positions. James has been practicing extensively at the "Harvin position," should Percy be unable to play for an extended period of time.

Offensive Line

Meyer considers this the strongest unit on the team. He might be correct. The offensive line has undergone an impressive evolution over the last three years. 2005's offensive line was an embarrassment and nearly got Chris Leak killed. The 2006 unit improved dramatically but still had some problems. The 2007 line was a legitimate strength, with only the Michigan and Georgia games as black marks. The 2008 offensive line should be one of the best in the country.

Florida lacks a Michael Oher or Andre Smith, the kind freakish, dominating talents that get taken with high draft choices. What the Gators do have is a collection of experienced, talented linemen who have worked together for a couple years and have formed a cohesive unit.

The tackle spots will be held down by seniors Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins. Trautwein played a big role as a junior on the national championship team, but he broke his foot last spring and missed the 2007 season. Watkins is a huge dude (6-6, 310 pounds) who started every game at left tackle last season. He had problems in the Georgia game, as did every other linemen on Florida's roster.

Senior Jim Tartt will play left guard; he's become quite adept at that, starting 26 games there over the last two years. Sophomore Michael Pouncey played defensive tackle last year as a true freshman; Florida had so few bodies along the defensive line that the choice came down to Pouncey or Mr. Two Bits. But his future is at the right guard position he'll play in 2007.

He'll start alongside his twin brother, Maurkice Pouncey, who'll handle Florida's shotgun snaps as the center. (Both Pounceys are listed at 6-5, 312 pounds on GatorZone, by the way) This Pouncey started 11 games at right guard as a true freshmen and acquitted himself nicely. That included a fantastic performance at LSU, where he went one-on-one with Glenn Dorsey and generally handled the future top-five draft choice.

Meyer has impressive depth behind the starting unit. Some of the names include former big-time recruit Carl Johnson, Frank Tenpenny, Marcus Gilbert and former big-time recruit James Wilson, who nearly transferred to Wake Forest this off-season.

Tomorrow: defense and special teams.

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