Florida's offense looking to evolve entering 2013
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Quarterback Jeff Driskel suffers no delusions regarding the 2012 Florida offense. He saw the same thing you did.
"Hand the ball off," Driskel said on Saturday.
"Hand the ball off," Driskel said.
"Third down, get the conversion," Driskel said.
Needless to say, this didn't make for a very efficient operation. "It's hard to put drives together consistently," Driskel said. "We've got to hit big plays in order to score touchdowns. We need to do that more."
Last season's lack of creativity certainly wasn't the fault of offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Pease was plenty creative at Boise State when he had Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, a veteran offensive line and some smart young receivers at his disposal. Pease tried last year, but a coordinator can only watch his offense fail to execute so many times before he tightens the reins and goes vanilla so as not to screw things up for the defense. At Florida, the defense was so good in 2012 that the Gators won 11 games and put together perhaps the nation's best regular-season résumé before a complete team meltdown in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville.
After Florida beat Florida State in Tallahassee in November to notch a fourth win against an opponent that finished the season with double-digit victories, the reality truly sank in for the Gators. If the offense had held up its end of the bargain, Florida probably would have played for the SEC title and possibly the national title.
So will the offense carry its share of the load in year two under Pease? Spring practice didn't offer many public answers to that question, and that's probably how coach Will Muschamp would prefer it. Muschamp doesn't allow the Gators to make many headlines, and even when the headlines come, he seems to squash them quickly. Take, for example, the accusation by former Auburn player Mike McNeil last week that Muschamp -- as Auburn's defensive coordinator -- once gave McNeil $400 in cash. "Totally deny it," Muschamp told The Gainesville Sun on Thursday. Saturday, Muschamp refused to discuss the accusation of McNeil, who on Monday accepted a plea deal on a first-degree armed robbery charge and was sentenced to at least three years in prison. "It's exactly what you read," Muschamp said, referring to his denial. "Exactly what you read."
Muschamp has given far more thought to what he must do to raise Florida from an upper-level SEC contender to a participant in the SEC title game. Last year, the Gators jumped from 7-6 to 11-2 with little preseason fanfare. This year, they're coming off a nationally televised beatdown by the Cardinals and flying as far under the radar as an 11-win team returning most of its starters can. This spring, Florida held two open practices. The second was supposed to be the spring game, but Muschamp instead held a regular practice because the Gators had only six healthy offensive linemen.
This much we can guess: Despite losing tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebacker Jelani Jenkins early to the NFL, the defense will remain stout. Defensive end Ronald Powell, the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2010, is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in last year's spring game. Dominique Easley, he who speaks of black holes in the heart while consuming an industrial size tub of animal crackers, can excel at tackle or end. Antonio Morrison should replace Jon Bostic with little dropoff. Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy could be the second coming of former Georgia cornerback Champ Bailey -- possibly the SEC's best corner and also possibly his team's best wide receiver.
But simply equaling last year's defensive dominance won't be enough to propel the Gators to Atlanta for the first time since 2009. They have to go to Baton Rouge, where even a rebuilding LSU is capable of double-digit wins. They have to beat Georgia, which will be good enough on offense to crack any defense. They have to travel to Columbia, S.C., where Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks would love to get revenge for last year's Murphy's Law loss in The Swamp. If they'd like to compete for the national title, the Gators also will have to beat Miami and Florida State, two teams that could wind up facing off for the ACC title. To do all that, Florida will need more out of the offense.
Specifically, Florida will need more explosive plays in the passing game. Florida's staff defines an explosive run as one that gains at least 10 yards. This was not Florida's problem last season. The Gators peeled off 90 such runs. This probably won't be a problem in 2013 as electric sophomore Matt Jones inherits the lion's share of the carries from departed Mike Gillislee. Florida's staff defines an explosive pass play as one that gains at least 20 yards. The Gators completed 27 such passes in 13 games last year. By comparison, Alabama's AJ McCarron -- who leads the offense Florida would most like to emulate -- completed 46 such passes in his first 13 games last year.
That inability to stretch the field nearly sunk the 2012 Gators during narrow escapes at home against Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette. Florida's offense probably reached its nadir in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl. After a double personal foul on the second-half kickoff set up a touchdown pass on Louisville's first play from scrimmage, the Gators trailed 30-10. They needed to score quickly to come back. On Florida's next four possessions, the Gators ran 17 plays for 23 yards. It wasn't that they didn't complete passes -- Driskel was actually 4-for-7 during this stretch -- but the longest completion went for 13 yards. (With Louisville playing loose defense on second-and-18.) Meanwhile, Driskel took two sacks for a loss of 28 yards, fumbled once and threw an interception. During this period, the line failed, the receivers failed and the quarterback failed. The backs, as noted earlier, were never the problem.
Florida must address those three problem position groups, and the Gators appear to have satisfactory answers for two of them in 2013. The offensive line, which rose and fell last season due to depth issues because of injuries, should have no such depth issues this season. The Gators' lack of healthy linemen for the spring game is a bit misleading; by the time fall camp opens, Muschamp expects to have everyone healthy. That means returning starters Jonotthan Harrison (center) Jon Halapio (right guard) and Chaz Green (right tackle) will be joined by a group that includes Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore, Maryland transfer Max Garcia and former five-star recruit D.J. Humphries. In all, Muschamp believes the Gators will have eight offensive linemen with significant FBS-level experience. That's huge. Most teams go into camp hoping to find five or six linemen who can play at a high enough level. So the Gators should be better here. "I don't think there's going to be a set starting position," Harrison said. "Honestly, I think it's going to be a rotation. There are too many people that are competitive."
At quarterback, Driskel should improve in his second season with Pease. Unfortunately for the Gators, their lack of depth at the position could prevent Pease from making the most of Driskel's skill set. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound Driskel is best suited to run an offense like Ohio State's -- which is why Urban Meyer recruited Driskel to Florida when Meyer worked in Gainesville. This was clear last season when Driskel carried 11 times for 177 yards and three touchdowns against a Vanderbilt team that wound up winning nine games. Pease has no problem incorporating zone-read plays that allow the quarterback to run under normal circumstances, but the Gators aren't sure they have a capable backup behind Driskel and probably will have to limit his carries. "I do need to, this year, kind of limit the shots that I've taken," Driskel said. "Coach Muschamp and coach Pease have definitely put that in my head."
That essentially removes one effective dimension from Florida's offense. So even with a better line and a stud tailback, Driskel will have to throw well to keep defenses from loading up to stuff Jones. While some of that responsibility falls on Driskel, he'll need help from Florida's receivers -- who have provided little in the past three seasons. Andre Debose, who looked like another Percy Harvin in high school, has shown only brief glimpses of that explosiveness in four years in the program. Latroy Pittman, who looked like a breakout star as an early enrollee last spring, caught only two passes for six yards during the season. Quinton Dunbar was the most reliable of Florida's returning receivers, and he had only 383 receiving yards last season. The next great hope at the position is Demarcus Robinson, a 6-2, 201-pound early enrollee from Fort Valley, Ga., who impressed coaches this spring but was limited in Saturday's showcase by an ankle injury. The other reason for optimism is Purifoy, who will contribute on offense only as long as it doesn't hurt his ability to cover opposing receivers.
If Robinson lives up to the hype and then gets some help from Purifoy or Pittman or Swiss Army back Trey Burton, the Gators might have an offense worthy of playing alongside their defense. If that happens, Florida's ceiling is as high as any team in the nation. If not, Muschamp has no qualms about making the 2013 offense as bland as the 2012 version. "We're going to do what we've got to do to win football games," Muschamp said. "If it means we're going to run it 25 times at the end of the game to beat LSU, that's what we're going to do. It's kind of who we are."