GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Little, if anything, went right for Florida last year.
Mounting injuries, including a devastating one to quarterback Jeff Driskel in the third game of the season, were the main culprit in the program’s first losing season since 1979. Coaching conflicts, locker room issues and a woe-is-me mentality made a difficult situation downright dire.
Coach Will Muschamp fired two assistants a day after the 4-8 debacle ended, overhauled one of the league’s worst offenses in the offseason and vowed to return the Gators to the top of the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division.
It’s a lofty goal, but far from impossible for Florida.
“We’ve got a good roster and our guys are motivated,” Muschamp said.
Equally important, the Gators are healthy.
Driskel, running back Matt Jones, receiver Andre Debose and offensive tackle Chaz Green have returned after missing most or all of last season with injuries. And Florida has a number of budding stars with another year of experience, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker Jarrad Davis and receiver Demarcus Robinson.
They’re eager to move past 2013, but not quite ready to forget the feeling of failure.
“You want to put it behind you, but you’ve got to learn from your past mistakes or you’ll repeat them,” linebacker Michael Taylor said. “When you’re a kid, you’re not going to put your hand on a hot over repeatedly. You’re going to learn to not touch a hot stove. We’re not getting anywhere close to that oven now.”
Well, Muschamp can’t really say the same thing.
The fourth-year head coach is squarely on the hot seat. He is 22-16 in three seasons and unlikely to be around in 2015 if the on-field product doesn’t look considerably better.
Muschamp is counting on new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to turn around a unit that ranked 105th in the nation in 2011, 103rd in 2012 and 113th last year.
“You can continue to do the same things and get the same results or you need to make a change,” Muschamp said.
So the revamped Gators are going with an up-tempo, spread offense designed to better fit Driskel’s strengths. If it works, Florida could get back to its winning ways in a hurry.
Here are five things to know about the Gators heading into the season:
WR WATCH: Florida is hoping for more production from its receiving corps. The Gators haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2002. But with seniors Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar back and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson seemingly ready to contribute, the group could be at its best during Muschamp’s tenure. One problem might be coaching. Joker Phillips resigned in June, and former graduate assistant Chris Leak was promoted to coach the position.
DOMINANT DEFENSE? While the Gators have had their issues on offense, the defense has been solid, if not stout, under Muschamp. Although Muschamp acknowledged that his current unit doesn’t have as much talent as it did in 2012, he believes they are good in the right spots. They have pass rushers Dante Fowler Jr. and Jon Bullard, penetrating tackles Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, plenty of depth at linebacker, shutdown cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and versatile safety Keanu Neal.
KICKING WOES: The team was close to awful in the kicking game in 2013, missing 10 of 22 field goals - many of them in close games. Florida switched between place-kickers Austin Harden, Brad Phillips and Frankie Velez, but never settled on a go-to guy. The competition remains open, with Harden and Velez in the mix, and Muschamp is confident things will be better this season.
TRANSFERRING TALENT: Florida’s tight end situation would be a precarious one without former Virginia starter Jake McGee. The fifth-year senior transferred in May and should pay dividends for the Gators this fall. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound McGee led the Cavaliers with 43 receptions for 395 yards last season. He will provide new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper with a versatile threat in the passing game and a seasoned veteran in the locker room.
TOUGH SLATE: Having lost to Georgia Southern late last year, there are no gimmies for the Gators. Still, the 2014 schedule has few easy stretches. Florida plays at Alabama (Sept. 20), at Tennessee (Oct. 4), against LSU (Oct. 11), against Georgia (Nov. 1), against South Carolina (Nov. 15) and at defending national champion Florida State (Nov. 29).
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