Friday, October 28, 2005

And you thought I'd forgotten about report cards...

It’s been so busy around work this week that I missed the one year anniversary of this monumentally average blog. That’s right, yesterday was the one year anniversary of Mark’s Musings.

I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long to me either. Actually, who am I kidding? It feels like it’s been 5 years, not just one. In the span of time since I’ve been writing in this space I’ve moved, switched jobs (three times, with a fourth possibly looming in the near future), barely avoided a DUI, and ingested god knows how many different types of drugs. What does all this mean? Not much other than, I’m probably a little more dense than when I began this, and that I can’t possibly work anywhere for more than a couple of months without uttering the words, “I hate this place.” as I read through the classifieds in search of a job that pays me more while expecting less from me than my previous place of employment. If you hadn’t guessed I’m still searching for that job…I’m not giving up that easy.

Speaking of giving up, most Gator fans were ready to give up on the SEC season after the embarrassing loss to LSU a couple of weeks ago. However, after DJ Shockley went down with a knee injury last week the window of opportunity for an SEC East Championship was cracked ever so slightly. If Florida can pull out a victory in Jacksonville this weekend then the Gators would have the tiebreaker if Georgia were to lose another game in the SEC. With Auburn still on the docket for the Bulldogs, a win this weekend for the Gators could make things extremely interesting heading down the home stretch. A win tomorrow could change the tenor of the entire season. With that in mind, I’m finally ready to turn in the mid-season report card for the 2005 Gators. I want to preface this by saying that this isn’t going to be the most comprehensive report card I’ve ever written. This will be much more concise, with a few quick points about each unit and a spotlight on a particular player in some of the personnel groups who has grabbed my attention in one way or another. I’m leaving for Jacksonville soon so let’s get started.

Quarterback: Chris Leak has struggled, there is no other way to put it. He has struggled adapting to the spread option and his various responsibilities for running the offense. He isn’t committing to the run enough to be a threat and that’s allowed defenses to focus on the pitch options when Florida attempts to run the option. Furthermore, Leak has struggled with accuracy as well as going through his reads and checking down to his third and fourth options in the passing game. Some of the blame is definitely on the shoulders of the receivers and the offensive line but Leak has to become more consistent in his execution of the offense as a whole.

Grade: C-

Running Backs: DeShawn Wynn is clearly the most physically gifted of the group. He’s big, strong, and possesses breakaway speed. However, he struggled to get out of Urban Meyer’s doghouse for much of the early part of the season. As has been the scenario with Wynn for most of his career, it was a case of his attitude and work ethic not being up to the desired level of the coaching staff. The LSU game seemed to be Wynn’s coming out party as he ran with purpose and drive against a quality opponent for the first time in nearly two years. The job is clearly his now, if he takes advantage of this opportunity remains to be seen. Redshirt freshman Markus Manson has been pegged by observers for a breakout game for weeks now, but his inability to protect the ball has kept him from seeing the field for any type of meaningful minutes. If he can correct this problem, he should begin to see the field much more often for Florida as he is a true homerun threat everytime he touches the ball.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers: This unit was as talented and as thin a position as any on the Gator football team coming into the fall. The talent had Gator fans drooling over the possibilities in early September. Since then, the lack of depth has caused major problems for Florida’s offense. Losing Andre Caldwell for the season has severely hindered the creativity of the spread option as he was the receiver designated for use in most option plays. Since then Jemalle Cornelius and Chad Jackson have both suffered nagging injuries that have limited their effectiveness as playmakers. Dallas Baker has been the only proven receiver healthy since the Alabama game and while he’s played well, the lack of a threat on the other side of the field has allowed defenses to focus on Baker without fear of being burned by any of the receivers who have been lining up opposite of Baker. Key player: Tate Casey. The sophomore tight end caught four touchdown passes in his last six games last year and possesses both the hands and body to cause major matchup problems for secondaries. Unfortunately, Casey has been almost nonexistent in the gameplan for much of the year. Meyer and Offensive Coordiantor Dan Mullem must find a way to exploit the matchup problems that Casey causes if they’re going to spark a revival in the Florida passing attack.

Grade: B

Offensive Line: The worst unit of the field. Sadly, most fans and media members thought this group would be a physical, dominating unit in 2005. The combination of a new zone blocking scheme as well as the some new positioning has turned this line into a wall with all of the consistency of a wet paper bag. They have been absolutely unable to hold up against pressure and have also struggled mightily in the run game. Somehow, the coaching staff must find a way to instill some confidence in this group. There is talent here. However, this talent is seriously lacking confidence in both themselves and the scheme at this point.

Grade: F

Defensive Line: After losing it’s best player, defensive end Ray McDonald, during the Tennessee game it seemed as though this unit would revert back to the inconsistent ways of the past two years. However, DT Marcus Thomas has responded by playing the best football of his career while Jeremy Mincey (or Jerome as Verne Lundquist calls him) is leading the team in tackles from the defensive end spot. This unit still leaves a little something to be desired when it comes to the pass rush, but they’ve played very well to date despite not getting any time to rest from a horribly inconsistent offense. Player(s) to watch: McDonald is expected to be back to (near) full strength for tomorrow’s game. Even more encouraging is that former super recruit Jarvis Moss is finally healthy for the first time in two years after suffering from a mysterious infection in his groin and has really come on as of late. He recorded three QB pressures, a sack and a forced fumble against LSU and looks to finally be the pass rusher that the Gators have lacked for so many years.

Grade: B+

Linebackers: Thin, thin, thin. That’s about all you can say about this group. After starters Brandon Siler, Earl Everett, and Todd McCullough there is little to speak of other than a couple of walk-ons, a few freshman, and a converted fullback. With that said, this unit hasn’t played badly. They haven’t been great either. Adequate would describe this group’s effort this year. A couple of the freshman have shown flashes of coming into their own but are probably a year away from really competing for a starting job. Player to watch: Jon Demps. Of all the freshman, Demps seemed to be the most ready to contribute in the remaining games this season. Unfortunately, Demps tore his ACL on Wednesday and is out for the season. When you’re thin, you’re thin…what can I say.

Grade: C+

Secondary: Another disappointing unit for 2005. This group has not played badly this year, just failed to meet the lofty expectations placed upon them in the preseason. Dee Webb has not been the shut down corner that many predicted him to be. While he’s played adequately, he’s failed to make the big plays when locked up one-on-one against opponents’ best wideouts. He has often looked tentative and that has resulted in him mistiming his break on the ball. At this point, one has to wonder if he can ever be the game changing corner that he was advertised to be coming out of high school. The safeties (Jarvis Herring and Kyle Jackson) have also had some very bad moments throughout the year. After a fantastic finish to last season, Jackson has lost his starting position which is never a good sign for a player who was (arguably) the nation’s top safety as a high school senior just two years ago. Player to watch: JUCO Sophomore Reggie Nelson. Nelson began the year as Florida’s nickel back due to his combination of blazing speed (4.3 40) and sure tackling. With the aforementioned struggles of Jackson, Nelson will move back to his natural position of safety (where he was a JUCO All-American) this weekend where most expect him to become a star in the very near future. Originally, Meyer was reticent to move Nelson to safety because he has been so effective in a hybrid role as a blitz and cover specialist. However, Nelson has proved too talented to keep in this role when his natural position is so on need of a lift.

Grade: B

Special Teams: Florida’s special teams have been surprisingly solid and could even be credited as the major reason for two of the Gators’ five victories. While the return teams have struggled mightily todo much of anything, it’s been the coverage teams grabbing the headlines(especially punt coverage...if that's even possible) by routinely pinning opponents inside their 20. Dee Webb has excelled in this phase of the game with a blocked field goal against Tennessee as well as a blocked punt that was converted into a touchdown against Mississippi State. Reggie Nelson has also been a bright spot in this area for Florida. Somehow, the Gators must find a way (hint: switch return men) to make a big play on punt returns in order to give the anemic offense a boost. Vernell Brown has been solid and reliable but far from the gamebreaker that you would expect to see from a team that has so many great athletes up and down it’s roster.

Grade: B

Coaching: The defensive coaches have done a great job of working with their personnel to create favorable matchups, and the two headed defensive coordinator that is Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison have brought aggressive defense back in vogue in the Swamp. In my opinion they could disguise their coverages more (especially considering the state of the SEC QB this season) but that’s really just nitpicking. They have their defense going in the right direction and should have Gator fans excited about the future. As for the offensive coaches…it’s been a struggle. They have not adjusted their schemes to fit the individual talents of their players. In addition, the playcalling has been downright predictable for much of the season. This isn’t to say that it’s time to give up on Meyer & Mullen as the offensive gurus on this team. What I am saying is that these two coaches need to spend a little more time preparing a gameplan that not only plays to the opponents weaknesses but also to the strengths of the Gators’ biggest playmakers. The offense is a work in progress and will continue to be for quite a bit of time, it’s just that most Gator fans would like to see some of that progress make its way onto the field on Saturdays. In fact, this Saturday would be just about perfect.

That’s it’s for now. The train is leaving the station and I’m not about to get left behind. Hopefully, I’ll be back on Monday for some highlights of the weekend and not in a jail somewhere in Duval County.

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