Florida Gators: Team Overview
By Jess Nicholas
August 30, 2009
The biggest question surrounding the Florida Gators this fall is whether they can repeat as national champions. Winning the SEC East is almost a foregone conclusion; only Georgia has a legitimate shot to knock off Florida, and even that would take some miracles along the way. The biggest loss the Gators suffered over the offseason was losing offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to Mississippi State, where Mullen will be the new head coach. But Florida managed to replace him with the highly regarded Scot Loeffler. This is the last hurrah for a veteran team led by the inimitable Tim Tebow, and another national championship would likely do the unthinkable – elevate Urban Meyer ahead of Steve Spurrier as the most beloved head coach in Florida history.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, TE, LT, C, RG, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 11 (RDE, RDT, LDT, LDE, RLB, MLB, LLB, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 12-0
Projected SEC Record: 8-0
Projected SEC East Record: 5-0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Vg
Defensive Backs: Ex
Special Teams: Ex
Loeffler is expected to tweak the offense somewhat to add a few more NFL-friendly elements, notably getting Tebow under center and perhaps tweaking the offense in ways to minimize the shots Tebow takes from opposing defenders. But at heart, this is still Meyer’s vaunted spread-option attack, which uses quarterback reads and high athleticism at the skill positions to make defensive coordinators go insane.
Tim Tebow. That pretty much explains everything here. Tebow returns for his senior season, and his body keeps growing right along with his reputation. At 6’4” and pushing 240-250 pounds, Tebow is basically a tight end calling the signals. He’ll do a few more pro set-type things in 2009, but the bread and butter of this offense is still Tebow’s uncanny ability to fire passes with pinpoint accuracy while at the same time taking 25-35 legitimate shots a game as part of the offensive scheme.
If Tebow were to get hurt, John Brantley would be the backup, but the offense would probably have to change significantly to accommodate him. Brantley is a drop-back style passer, not Tebow’s clone.
With Kestahn Moore’s departure, Florida will transition to more speed and less bulk in the offensive backfield. The majority of the carries will be split between Chris Rainey and Jeffery Demps, but both players are scatbacks and neither do well as inside runners. Junior Emmanuel Moody will be called upon when Florida needs a bigger back, but Moody is just a tad above average size for a SEC running back. Moody is currently banged up.
Freshman Mike Gillislee adds depth. There is no fullback in the Florida offense, so short-yardage duties are typically handled by Tebow, whether he’s running it or dispensing the ball to someone through the air. The problem for defenses is that, even though Rainey and Demps can be strung outside and run down in theory, no one has been able to pull it off.
There are a lot of bodies here and some good gameday experience, but a go-to guy has yet to step up. Riley Cooper returns to start at split end, but he caught only 18 passes in 2008. Cooper has the size coaches like, however, and he had a good spring. David Nelson and Deonte Thompson figure to get the flanker and slot positions. Nelson is a big target at nearly 6’6”, while Thompson is shifty and quick.
Kick returner extraordinaire Brandon James, redshirt freshman Justin Williams and senior Carl Moore figure to be the next line, along with super-signee Andre Debose. But the real attraction is tight end Aaron Hernandez, who figures to have a long NFL career as a pass-catching tight end. Depth took a hit when Desmond Parks was knocked out, likely for the season, which leaves little-used senior Christopher Coleman and a true freshman wideout, Josh Postell, as the only other options.
If Hernandez stays healthy, this group should make its share of plays, but an injury to Hernandez would be nothing short of devastating.
If there’s a weakness to this team, it’s the offensive line, but it’s still an average unit on its worst day. The middle of the line figures to be solid enough, with center Maurkice Pouncey and guards Mike Pouncey and Carl Johnson returning as starters from 2008. The tackles, though, will both be new. Johnson could slide out to tackle, but it’s more likely that Matt Patchan and Marcus Gilbert will keep those slots. The key here is Patchan, who figures to start at left tackle despite weighing less than 270 pounds.
If Patchan struggles, look for Johnson to move there and James Wilson to step in at left guard. Maurice Hurt gives Florida experience off the bench at guard, but it’s all underclassmen at the tackle and center positions. As goes Florida’s offensive line, so goes Florida’s offense.
Eleven starters return. Eleven. And this is the unit that finished 9th in the country in total defense in 2008 and ranked in the top 20 in every major defensive category. Florida’s familiar 4-3 set returns in 2009, and the Gators are widely regarded as having the top defense in the nation. The Gators’ only real competition for that title comes from Alabama. There really are no weaknesses here.
To say the Florida defensive line is the least impressive unit of the Gator defense is like saying Jaguar cars pale in comparison to Bentleys – the end product is still impeccable. Ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap are feared pass rushers, and Justin Trattou gives Florida a starter-quality player off the bench. Dunlap’s performance against the run is the only question mark. William Green is cut from the same cloth as Dunlap, a speedy pass rusher who is light against the run. Duke Lemmens offers a more conventional profile off the bench.
Florida still has a bit of concern inside, where Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders are a pair of overachievers at tackle. Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard need to get more consistent, especially Howard, for whom the sky is the limit. Brandon Antwine adds depth.
Florida is the only team in the conference to compare to Alabama at linebacker, where Brandon Spikes mans the middle flanked by a host of experienced players. A.J. Jones and Ryan Stamper figure to be the starters ahead of Dustin Doe and Brandon Hicks. All four will play and play a lot. Jones and Doe, in particular, have great speed off the edge.
The only cause for concern, and it’s just a small one, is depth behind Spikes in the middle. All the combatants are freshmen, led currently by Jon Bostic and Brendan Beal. Lorenzo Edwards and Jelani Jenkins add depth outside.
The cornerback group of starters Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins, along with reserves Wondy Pierre-Louis and Markihe Anderson, is probably the best in the conference overall. Moses Jenkins adds depth. The safeties are effective, if a bit small. Major Wright is the starter at free safety, while termite-sized Ahmad Black holds down the fort at strong safety. Will Hill is the walking prototype of a SEC safety, and will play as much as the starters. Depth took a hit when Dorian Munroe was lost for probably the first half of the season with a knee injury. As long as the Gators don’t have to face multiple teams in a row with physical running backs who can wear down the safeties, everything should be fine despite Munroe’s absence.
In addition to returning the league’s best placekicker, Jonathan Phillips, and one of the league’s best punters, Chas Henry, Florida also welcomes back return specialist Brandon James, who battles weekly with Alabama’s Javier Arenas for the title of best returner in the SEC. Phillips was an astounding 12-of-13 on field goals last year and Henry pretty much takes opposing returners out of the game. If the hallmark of a successful SEC team is tough defense and tight special teams, it’s no surprise Florida is picked by most to repeat as national champions.