I’m aware that I originally promised pictures in the first part of the Florida Football preview but between the hurricane (HA!) and the catch up I had to play yesterday after missing work on Wednesday, it just seemed to be a case of too little, too late. I have no doubt that some well placed pics would’ve added something to the quality of the post, but the post itself is more about my analysis of this year’s Gator Football team than it is about pretty pictures of a bunch of kids who most of you wouldn’t know if they walked into your office right now.
So there’s my excuse for the lack of pictures in Part 1. We’ll see if we can’t get some pictures up for Part 2. Speaking of Part 2, let’s get started. (note: I’m not going to review the special teams until after this weekend’s game when I have a chance to at least see what the Gators are trotting out for the all important third phase. If I had to guess I’d say that the kicking game will be much improved in all aspects other than punting, because Punter Eric Wilbur and his coverage team were both pretty solid last year already. I do not expect that to change.)
Defensive Line: You have to go back to the 1998 team (possibly further) to find a D-Line at Florida with this much depth and talent. In fact, one could make the case that this line has the potential to be the best defensive line in the 100 years of Florida Football.
The line is anchored by All-American candidate Marcus Thomas. A starter since he was a true freshman, Thomas is coming off his first completely healthy off-season since he entered UF. Already a first team all-SEC player, look for the 6’3”, 300 lb Thomas to be a dominating force on the interior of the line with his unusual blend of power and quickness. If he can stay healthy, look for Thomas to become the first Gator All-American D-Tackle since Gerard Warren in this, his senior year.
Another player who has started at UF since his freshman year is DE Ray McDonald. McDonald originally began his career as a DT next to Thomas before being moved to DE by Urban Meyer’s staff before the beginning of last year. All signs in the pre-season pointed toward the Gator legacy (his dad, Ray, Sr. was a WR at UF) having a monster season off the edge last year before he went down with an ACL tear against Tennessee in early September. Amazingly, McDonald rushed back from injury and was back on the field by late October. Unfortunately, McDonald rushed back too soon, which resulted in him tearing the ACL in his other knee shortly after his return to action. McDonald is now back and completely healthy after a rigorous offseason of rehab on both of his reconstructed knees. Though he’s been held out of many of the fall drills, expect McDonald to return with a vengeance in his final campaign.
Pairing up with Thomas at DT will be a combination of seniors Joe Cohen and Steven Harris. Harris started every game alongside Thomas last year but missed most of spring (and much of fall) camp with what Meyer deemed "personal issues". It’s recently come out that Harris is the father of two four month olds from different mothers and the speculation is that Meyer wanted Harris to take care of his newfound family business before he rejoined the team. In Harris’ absence, Cohen finally seems to have begun to realize the enormous potential scouts saw in him as a senior at Palm Bay High. Though he was originally recruited as a running back, the now 6’2”, 300 lb. Cohen spent the last two years at DE where it seemed he lacked the necessary burst to be a dominant rusher off the edge (the fact that he spent most of last year recovering from hip surgery is thought to have contributed to this lack of explosion). With his squat build and natural power (reportedly the strongest player at Florida), Cohen always seemed like a natural for the tackle position. His play in the spring and fall has done nothing to diminish this notion and many (including me) expect Cohen to have a big year. Besides these three, Florida also boasts outstanding depth along the front four with Ends Derrick Harvey, and true freshman Jermaine Cunningham as well as the undersized (but extremely agile and active) Clint McMillan backing up either tackle spot. Who am I missing? Oh yeah.
Breakout player: Jarvis Moss. Get ready to see (possibly) the most dominating defensive end in the country this year. Moss was the nation’s #1 rated end coming out of high school in Texas three years ago. However, when he arrived on campus in Gainesville he was unable to gain any weight whatsoever. In fact, he was actualy losing weight. Getting down to 215 lbs, despite being 6'6". It got so bad for Moss that he nearly gave up football altogether two springs ago. Luckily for Moss, Urban Meyer wasn’t ready to let him quit just yet. Meyer ordered a battery of tests to determine what was wrong with Moss. Eventually, Florida’s medical staff discovered that Moss was suffering from an infection in his groin that resulted from a cortisone shot during his senior year of high school (um, owww). Once his condition was discovered, Moss began to gain weight and was soon on track to becoming the player he’d been touted to be. Though he didn’t start a game last year and didn’t even play until mid-October vs. LSU, Moss finished the season as the team sack leader with 7.5. Reports from practice have Moss being completely unblockable this fall and most experts are predicting that Moss will break Alex Brown’s single season sack record (13) at UF. From what I’ve seen (and heard), I have no reason to disagree.
Linebackers: While there is no shortage of depth or talent along the Gator defensive line, there is a serious lack of depth at linebacker in Gainesville. The Gators will come into fall with two of the SEC’s best, and most experienced, linebackers in junior Brandon Siler and senior Earl Everett. However, after these two the drop off is precipitous.
There isn’t another proven backer in the entire group. Senior Brian Crum is slated to start WLB but any Gator fan who tells you they are comfortable with that is either insane or a pathological liar. Crum has all the physical tools you could ask for, but has never shown the toughness or mental capacity to adequately handle the duties of a starting linebacker in the SEC. Most observers expected him to eventually cede the starting duties to sophomore Jon Demps, but that was before Demps went down with a torn ACL for the second consecutive season a few weeks back. The backups at linebacker for UF now consist of three true freshman (AJ Jones, Brandon Spikes, & Dustin Doe) and a former walk-on (Darryon Robinson). If there’s one place where the Gators must stay healthy on defense, its at linebacker where an injury to either Siler or Everett would be catastrophic.
I haven’t written much about either Siler or Everett here and that’s a testament to their consistency and durability. They were Florida’s two leading tacklers last year and will have to step up their play to an even higher level if UF’s defense is to be the truly dominant unit that it can (and should) be this season. More specifically, Everett needs to make more “big” plays than he has up to this point in his Gator career. Everett has the speed and size to be a difference maker in the passing game with both his pass rush and coverage ability and will need to better utilize these gifts if he’s to fulfill all the potential he had when he first started for the Gators as a 195 lb. freshman. As for Siler, he the league’s best middle linebacker and the undisputed leader of this team. He’s been an impact player since he replaced an injured Channing Crowder as a true freshman. Now a junior, Siler has to become the kind of linebacker who changes the course of a game with his hits and defensive aptitude. He’s been building towards this year since he first stepped on the field at Florida. Now is the time for him to cement his legacy in Gainesville.
Breakout player: ?????. I’d love to say Brian Crum but I can’t say I really believe that. Freshman Brandon Spikes (6’3”, 240) is already physically ready for the SEC. Can he catch up mentally quick enough to be an impact freshman for this defense? I hope so but it’s all up in the air as of now. I’m going to go with both Everett and Siler here for all the reasons I named earlier.
Secondary: Just a few weeks ago many Gator fans would’ve described this as the weakest and most shallow unit on the entire squad. Luckily for UF, the NCAA’s new transfer rule brought in some much needed talent at corner that helped solidify a secondary badly in need of some player makers on the perimeter. Ryan Smith has come in from Utah and grabbed one of the starting corner positions on this team where he has reunited with his former head coach and position coach (Chuck Heater) at Utah. Smith was a freshman All-American during Utah’s undefeated season two years ago. Somehow he fell out of favor with new coach Kyle Whittingham and ended up out of Utahs’ starting lineup by mid-season. Once Smith decided to transfer, he sped up his course load and graduated Utah this summer. The aforementioned new NCAA rule allowed Smith to transfer to any school he chose to attend graduate school while not having to sit out the year that normal transfers must. This couldn’t have happened at a better time for the Gators who lost their top three corners off last year’s team through a combination of graduation (Vernell Brown), early entry (Dee Webb) and dismissal (Avery Atkins). Without Smith, UF would be faced with the prospect of starting two corners with precious little experience. A prospect that didn’t bode well for a Gator defense that employs man-to-man almost exclusively.
Starting opposite Smith will be senior Reggie Lewis. Lewis is a converted wide receiver who had never played a down of defense before last spring. While he struggled for much of last season, Lewis rebounded by stepping up in the absence of Brown (broken leg) late in the season with a some solid performances against Vandy (game saving interception in OT) and FSU. The light came on for Lewis late last year and has only continued to shine throughout the off-season. While going against one of the nations most talented wide receiver corps, Lewis has consistently held his own and received praise from Meyer for his ability and toughness throughout fall camp. Lewis will be tested early and often by SEC offenses and how he responds will go a long way towards determining the effectiveness of this defense.
Florida’s safeties will be junior Tony Joiner and junior Reggie Nelson. Joiner is a linebacker in a safety's body. Joiner is one of the hardest hitters on the entire squad and a player who has become one of the unquestioned leaders of this defense with his heady play and fiery persona. Joiner is still a relatively unproven safety (1 career start) and will need to prove he can handle the responsibilities if he’s to hold off former All-SEC freshman Kyle Jackson who is trying to recover mentally from an awful 2005 campaign. As for Reggie Nelson, well…
Breakout player: It may seem odd to simultaneously label a player as the team’s best defender and a breakout candidate but that’s precisely what I’m saying about Reggie Nelson. Florida fans have been waiting on Reggie Nelson for years. Ever since he teamed with Joe Cohen at Palm Bay High, Gator fans have been pining for the freakishly talented athlete to make his presence known at the Swamp. He did just that last year and should be expected to do that and more this season. Many scouts considered him the state’s best player when he came out of high school. Unfortunately, low test scores forced Nelson to junior college. There Nelson redshirted his freshman year (in order to preserve eligibility) and then became a JUCO All-American in his second year. He arrived on campus in Gainesville with as much hype as any player in Gator history and quickly made his way onto the field as the Gator’s nickel back early in the season. Meyer and his staff wanted to ease Nelson into a starting role before they threw him into the fray at Safety. It wouldn’t take long. Actually, Nelson's play wouldn't allow it to take long.
Though he wouldn’t start until the Georgia game, hesoon made his presence known to all the SEC. Nelson’s decapitation of Mohammed Massaquoi (right at 2:10) ranks as one of the more vicious hits of the entire 2006 college football season. Nelson ended up second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss. So exceptional is Nelson’s talent, that he was actually starting at corner for UF early in the fall before the emergence of Ryan Smith. Nelson will be all over the field this year for the Gators, starting at safety, lining up in the slot in nickel situations and even returning punts. It’s my expectation that Reggie f’n Nelson (as posters on Gator message boards have taken to calling him) will become one of the SEC’s (if not the nations) biggest stars this year.
If that comes to fruition and the linebackers and corners can avoid major injuries then a Gator defense which ranked in the nations’ top 10 last year may end up as the nation’s very best by year’s end.
The season kicks off at 6 pm tomorrow night in the Swamp vs. Southern Miss. I'm not sure if I can make it that long.