Florida needs a big year from Jeff Driskel.
The days of Steve Spurrier’s Fun ’n’ Gun are long past — relegated to record books, YouTube clips and faded memories among longtime Florida Gators fans.
Tim Tebow is doing TV, Percy Harvin is preparing for his sixth NFL season and Urban Meyer is coaching at Ohio State.
The Gators’ offense followed them out the door, apparently never to return.
Left now are question marks, coaching transition and waning patience from even the most loyal Florida fans.
Head coach Will Muschamp enters his fourth year on the hot seat following the program’s first losing season since 1979. While Muschamp’s defenses have finished each year ranked in the top 10 nationally, his offenses have not once cracked the top 100. The Gators averaged 14.4 points during a seven-game losing streak to cap 2013’s 4–8 season, leaving Muschamp with time for one more Hail Mary to save his coaching career in Gainesville.
Enter Kurt Roper, the longtime protégé of Duke head coach and quarterback whiz David Cutcliffe, one-time mentor of Eli Manning at Ole Miss and the man handed one of the toughest jobs in college football.
Roper’s up-tempo scheme carried the Blue Devils to new heights and helped Duke’s offense go toe-to-toe with Johnny Football and Texas A&M during a shootout loss in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Now, Roper has one offseason at Florida to teach his system to a collection of unprovens, unknowns and underachievers.
Or else he and the Gators’ coaching staff might not be back for another offseason.
“We have to produce,” Muschamp says. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. I’d feel a little bit more uncomfortable if we didn’t have some of the talented players we have on our football team.
Florida's Offense Over the Last Three Years
|Total offense||316.7 ypg|
|Yards per play||4.79 ypp|
“I feel confident in the players we have and the changes we’ve made in our staff moving forward.”
The Gators finished 2013 ranked last in the SEC in points and yards. Even in 2012, when Florida went 11–2 and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, the Gators were last in the league in passing.
The day after Florida’s season ended with a 37–7 loss to Florida State and without a bowl bid for the first time in 23 years, Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis after two seasons.
Muschamp is banking on Roper and veteran offensive line coach Mike Summers to tap into the potential of a host of high-level recruits who have failed to produce as planned.
Chief among them is junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who will be the key if the Gators’ offense is to turn things around in 2014. Driskel is 11–3 as a starter at Florida, but he rode the coattails of the nation’s best defense as a sophomore in 2012, finishing with 12 touchdown passes and 35 sacks, many because he held onto the ball too long. Last season, Driskel had five turnovers, including three critical miscues during a 21–16 loss at Miami, before he broke his leg in the season’s third game, against Tennessee.
Related: College Football's Top Players Returning From Injury for 2014
But one thing Driskel has shown he can do is run; he totaled 716 rushing yards, not including sacks, in 2012.
Roper will place Driskel in the shotgun and use the spread formation to highlight the dual-threat abilities that made him the nation’s No. 1 quarterback recruit in 2011. Too often, Driskel appeared paralyzed by the decision-making required of Pease’s pro-style system.
“He’s talented, folks,” Roper said in March during spring practices. “I mean we’re sitting here talking about a guy that’s really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It’s not his first rodeo.”
Upbeat evaluations are as common that time of year as springtime allergies. Optimism also does not hide the facts. No returning Gator wide receiver caught more than one touchdown in 2013, while the tight ends (not including Virginia transfer Jake McGee) combined for four receptions. Tailback Kelvin Taylor, son of former NFL star Fred Taylor, displayed a hard-running style as a first-year player, but the Gators lack a home-run threat anywhere on offense to change a game in one play.
Meanwhile, Summers, a 34-year coaching veteran, faces one of his toughest assignments yet when it comes to the Gators’ offensive line. Florida allowed 66 sacks the past two seasons and lost two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in 2013. UF’s run game averaged 3.6 yard per carry. Worse, the Gators lost their two best linemen, three-year starters Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio.
“They don’t have a receiver on their football team that would start at another SEC school right now,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg says. “Think about that. This is the University of Florida.”
Under Spurrier, the Gators revolutionized SEC football. The Fun ’n’ Gun era produced four straight SEC championships, a national title and 59 40-point games.
The Gators won two more national titles using Meyer’s spread offense, with Tebow at the controls and thoroughbreds like Harvin lined up beside him.
Offensive talent flocked to Gainesville during those days. Lately, top recruits are jumping ship.
When five-star running back Dalvin Cook of Miami changed his commitment in January from Florida to Florida State, the Gators lost the kind of big-play threat they have lacked since Harvin. Cook also left Florida fans with a bad taste in their mouths when he explained his decision.
“Coach Roper is a great coach, but I don’t think Florida has the athletes like Duke got,” Cook said. “That’s all I can say.”
Recruiting misses, injuries and coaching turnover have plagued the Gators dating to Meyer’s final season in 2010.
To see the big picture, look no further than sixth-year senior wide receiver Andre Debose.
Debose was tabbed “the next Percy Harvin” when he signed with the Gators in 2009. Since then, he has worked with five wide receivers coaches, four offensive coordinators and endured two season-ending injuries.
These days, Debose is recovering from an ACL tear suffered last August, hoping finally to make his mark during the extra season gained by the NCAA’s medical hardship waiver. A five-star recruit with four touchdown catches in three seasons, Debose will turn 24 the day before the Gators’ SEC opener on Sept. 13 at home against Kentucky. He believes he stuck around long enough to see Florida finally turn things around on offense.
“I expect this offense to definitely put up some numbers,” Debose says. “I feel like the whole SEC is changing to the spread from the smashmouth. It’s going to be a challenge this season for other teams to stop us.”
Roper says that the offense that Florida will put on the field will be far easier to execute than it will be for opposing teams to stop.
“The Gators want to have an offense that is simple to learn, but complicated to defend,” he says.
The mandate for Debose, Roper and the entire Florida offense this season is not complicated in the least: It’s time to produce.
Written by Edgar Thompson (@osgators) of the Orlando Sentinel for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.