2013 was a year to forget in Gainesville. Florida finished 4-8 overall and won just three games in SEC play. The Gators finished last season on a seven-game losing streak, largely due to anemic offense. Coach Will Muschamp is on the hot seat entering 2014 and needs to get this program back on track. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a significant task ahead in order to fix Florida’s offense, but the Gators should have one of the top defenses in the SEC.
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Previewing Florida’s Offense for 2014:
One sure sign that Florida football is in a dire situation: The Gators are looking to a Duke coach to boost the confidence of the offense. The arrival of Kurt Roper from the Duke staff means that a now-healthy Jeff Driskel will run a system featuring more shotgun snaps, more plays hinging on his mobility and more no-huddle. “We’re more comfortable in the gun,” Florida coach Will Muschamp says. “That’s why Kurt Roper is here.”
Even though Florida returns the same cast of characters, Muschamp says the receiver and running back group is the most complete he’s had in his time in Gainesville. Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Florida running back Fred Taylor, emerged in the second half as a feature back who can thrive in open space. Leading rusher Mack Brown returns as well. He can be an effective runner inside the tackles.
The leading returning receiver, Quinton Dunbar, has proved to be reliable, but the key to the receivers is Demarcus Robinson. He was a standout in spring last season but caught only five passes in the regular season. The 6'2", 201-pound sophomore is Florida’s most athletic receiver. The Gators received a post-spring boost at tight end with the addition of Virginia transfer Jake McGee (43 receptions with the Cavaliers in 2013).
Florida lost two linemen who started a combined 84 career games, but the Gators hope to have two healthy starting tackles, D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, who were limited by injuries last season. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will play center.
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Previewing Florida’s Defense for 2014:
Dante Fowler Jr. is the key figure if Florida is going to improve its sack numbers. The Gators ranked 11th in the SEC in sacks per game last season (1.6) and haven’t ranked higher than sixth since 2009. Fowler’s 2013 season, though, took a turn after tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season in September, and now Easley is gone for good.
At linebacker, Antonio Morrison appeared to be on track as an impact player as a sophomore in 2013, but the linebacker was inconsistent for eight games before a knee injury ended his season. Also in the linebacker corps, fifth-year senior Mike Taylor emerged in spring as a rock-solid leader, and sophomore Jarrad Davis looked like he could be a rising star.
Beyond cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, talent in the secondary is unproven. Hargreaves quickly became one of the top players in the conference as a freshman and could be one of the nation’s best cornerbacks in 2014. Even after starter Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame, safety will be a more veteran position, comparatively, with senior Jabari Gorman and sophomores Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye.
Previewing Florida’s Specialists for 2014:
Florida must find answers to fix an atrocious kicking game. The Gators benched 2012 Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy as they finished 10th in the SEC in net punting. Christy will try to reclaim the job from Johnny Townsend. Meanwhile, Florida kickers went 12-of-22 on field goals. Sophomore Austin Hardin hit 4-of-12. Andre Debose, a rising star whose career has been derailed by injuries and off-field issues, could be a wild card on special teams if he returns healthy and in Muschamp’s good graces.
Muschamp enters the most critical season of his tenure with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons in Gainesville. It’s not a stretch to say that hiring Roper is the most important move Muschamp has made. The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, the low point a 26–20 loss to Georgia Southern. Muschamp needs Roper to rebuild the confidence on offense. If not, Florida may be looking for more than an offensive coordinator.
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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Florida No. 23:
1. No shortage of talent in Gainesville
Despite last year’s 4-8 record, Florida isn’t hurting for talent. According to recruiting rankings, the Gators have the No. 2 roster in the SEC. With better luck in the health department, Florida should easily improve its win total.
2. Changes on the coaching staff
With Will Muschamp squarely on the hot seat, changes had to be made after a dismal 2013 season. Kurt Roper was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, and Mike Summers was picked as the new offensive line coach. Both hires should be upgrades for Florida, with Roper making a huge difference in the development of Jeff Driskel.
3. Favorable schedule
Florida has to play Alabama and LSU in crossover play, but the Gators host Missouri and South Carolina – two of its main contenders in the SEC East – and should be 3-1 in non-conference play. Even if the Gators lose two games against the West, the home slate could be favorable enough to rebound to eight wins in 2014.
4. Six starters back on defense
For all of the problems on offense last year, the defense was still one of the best in the SEC. In eight SEC games, Florida ranked No. 1 among defenses in the conference by allowing just 5.09 yards per play. This unit needs more from its pass rushers, but six starters are back, including end Dante Fowler, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard.
5. Improving weapons on offense?
In order for Florida’s offense to take the next step in 2014, its running backs and receivers have to provide more production. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor could push for 1,000 rushing yards if the offensive line is better, while the receiving corps gets a boost from the return of Andre Debose from injury. If players like Demarcus Robinson and Taylor can take the next step in their development, the Gators will have solid playmakers for quarterback Jeff Driskel.