Two-a-Days rolls on with our seventh installment, in which we take a closer look at the Florida Gators.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Florida in a flash:
Head Coach: Urban Meyer, 6th year
2009 Record: 13-1 (8-0 SEC), beat Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 457.86 ypg (1st in SEC, 6th nationally); Total defense, 252.57 ypg (2nd SEC, 4th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Teryl Austin became Florida's third defensive coordinator since December when left the Arizona Cardinals to replace George Edwards, who was on the job for just a month after replacing longtime DC Charlie Strong. Recruiting coordinator and receivers coach Billy Gonzoles also left, replaced by Zach Azzanni. Cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter also left. Stan Drayton, who coached at Florida in the earlier part of the decade, returns as running backs coach. D.J. Durkin takes over defensive ends and special teams. Oh, and Urban Meyer has been in and out as he takes occasional leaves of absence.
Starters Returning: Offense (6), Defense (7), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: QB Tim Tebow, WR Riley Cooper, TE Aaron Hernandez, C Maurkice Pouncey, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Joe Haden, S Major Wright, DE Carlos Dunlap
Big Games: @ Alabama (10/2), LSU (10/9), Georgia (10/30) @ Florida State (11/27)
Non-Conference Slate: Miami, Ohio (9/4), South Florida (9/11), Appalachian State (11/20), Florida State (11/27)
After yet another season dominating the SEC East, Florida remains the likely favorite once again. But this year, the Gators will go to battle without a number of stars, most notably quarterback Tim Tebow, who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Denver Broncos. So while the talent level remains high at Florida, there are plenty of questions about the new-look defense, the ability of John Brantley and the development of some offensive playmakers to boot.
So, how much will be reloading and how much will be rebuilding? For those answers, I turned to Orlando Sentinel beat writer Jeremy Fowler, who, contrary to recent reports, is not a bad guy…
David Hale: The obvious topic of debate -- and one you found yourself in the middle of earlier this spring -- is the transition from Tim Tebow to John Brantley. First off, what have you seen from Brantley this spring? Is he taking that leadership mantle that Tebow handled so well, too? And given that the two are dramatically different in terms of what type of QB they are, how much might Florida's offense need to change along with the QB?
Jeremy Fowler: Brantley has handled the transition well so far. He wasn't flawless this spring, but he was impressive in the spring game. He seems to rise when the lights come on. His arm's never been in question, but the leadership process will take some time. I think he's good in the huddle, but we don't know what type of poise and leadership he'll display in, say, Tuscaloosa on Oct. 2. He's trying to shed his aw-shucks demeanor. Florida will still run the option, still run with the quarterback, but not nearly as much as with Tebow. You will probably see a lot more screen passes with hybrid WRs/RBs such as Chris Rainey. Lots of quick routes for short gains. And Florida has backup QB Trey Burton, who runs a 4.5 40, to spare Brantley some of the wear and tear of rushing.
DH: Florida's offense had some serious problems in the red zone last year, and now Tebow -- the Gators' best red-zone threat -- is gone. How have they worked to correct that issue this spring?
JF: One of the issues was playcalling. Florida got so predictable by rushing Tebow over and over. Florida must rely on its running backs more, and at least in the spring, the Gators showed they aren't afraid to make the tough throws in the red zone. They must get less timid. It's too early to tell whether they will overcome last year's red-zone struggles, but the Gators look like they are in the right direction.
DH: Charlie Strong was the bane of Georgia's existence for a long time. Now he's at Louisville. What's been different on the defensive side of the ball with Teryl Austin in as DC now? And what's the dynamic between Austin and co-defensive coordinator Chuck Heater?
JF: Strong is a huge loss, and the Gators will have a new identity under Austin. Not so much with formations -- the Gators will mix 4-3 and nickel package like last year -- but with utilizing talents. Florida's defense will be faster this year, especially at linebacker. The Gators are trying to teach all the young LBs how to play numerous positions in order to maximize speed. Florida can't rely on the sacks that Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham used to produce, so the key is letting LBs and DBs play free. Heater coaches safeties but also oversees the secondary and serves as a second pair of eyes for Austin, who also coaches cornerbacks. They seem to work well together.
DH: Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap... the list of other big-name Gators moving on to the NFL goes well beyond Tebow. So who have been some of the younger players to step up this spring that might be able to fill in those gaps?
JF: Linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, both sophomores, look ready to contribute early and often. Great combination of speed and size. Look out for Jaye Howard, a combo DE/DT, to flourish on the defensive line along with DT Omar Hunter, who's very powerful. Receivers with nice springs include Deonte Thompson, arguably the team's MVP over the last four weeks, Frankie Hammond and Omarius Hines. Mike Gillislee is a young running back who's been overshadowed by Jeff Demps, Rainey and Emmanuel Moody, but he's ready to contribute mightily next season. Could thrust himself into the second spot in the rotation since Moody's always hurt. Tight end will be the biggest question mark -- Jordan Reed and Gerald Christian have zero experience, though both are talented.
DH: From the Urban Meyer fake-retirement to the hiring of a new DC that bolted a month later to all the hubbub over Tebow being unprepared for the NFL to the minor tussle between Meyer and some hack reporter from Orlando... it seems like most of the headlines at Florida lately have had little to do with what's going on with the players themselves. So will all of this turmoil have an affect this fall? How have the players reacted to all the fuss over Meyer and his status?
JF: Meyer's off-field issues would be a major problem if Meyer appeared uninterested, but he's been pretty fiery this spring. I think his confrontation with a reporter fueled his team, showed he will stick up for his guys under any circumstance. To be honest, the Meyer situation has been so confusing from day one that I don't know if anyone save Jeremy Foley and Meyer's family knows what's really going on. Just puzzling from start to finish. But Meyer seems to be affecting his team as normal, and recruiting obviously hasn't suffered.
I don't think any of the headlines will affect Florida this fall unless more drama happens during the season. For example, the Carlos Dunlap DUI days before the SEC title game was hard to overcome. Last year there was so much drama. This team should be able to avoid some of that, partly because the microscope isn't hovering over its every move. Tebow takes with him much of the attention.
The Gators should be a little better on offense but not as polished on defense, resulting in what I think will be a 10-2 season.
So, do you agree with Fowler's 10-2 prediction? Or do you see Florida having more trouble overcoming the departures of Tebow, Strong, and company?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT UP: Ole Miss this afternoon.