Florida 2014 spring practice: Breaking down the Gators with Andy Hutchins
Florida's 2013 season was a perfect storm of everything that could have conceivably gone wrong. Injuries begat injuries. Nothing worked on offense. At one point, it seemed possible that an actual alligator could have been a legitimate option at quarterback. Picking One Shining Moment from last fall would be a difficult task: Was it two linemen blocking each other? The loss to Georgia Southern? To Vanderbilt? Or was it one of the many inexplicable Will Muschamp quotes?
The best thing to happen to the Gators in 2013 was that its 4-8 season came to an end. Florida opened spring practice on Thursday eager to turn the page. So, have the issues really been addressed? Will things calm down for Muschamp? Campus Union caught up with Andy Hutchins from Alligator Army.
SI: Florida's 2013 campaign was clearly a disappointment, from the injuries to the seven straight losses to close out the year. Now that you've had some time to assess, what went wrong? And what do the Gators need to do to turn things around?
Andy Hutchins: Is everything an acceptable answer? Florida wasn't healthy in 2013, not really, not at any point. Running back Matt Jones missed Florida's opener against Toledo and looked rusty against Miami. Florida's offensive line missed Jon Halapio early and Chaz Green all year, got desiccated in the heat against Miami and took body blows again and again, with three tackles eventually getting sidelined for the season. Quarterback Jeff Driskel's broken leg kneecapped -- go with it -- Florida's offense, which was never all that great in the first place, and Dominique Easley's torn ACL, suffered just three days later, robbed Florida's great defense of its best and most important player.
Plus, the minor injuries and other things that kept guys out of games seemed to come at the worst possible times. Cornerback Cody Riggs could have been really helpful against Missouri, especially with a handful of other defenders out ... so, of course, he was ejected on an iffy targeting call on the game's first play. Florida needed discipline against Georgia Southern's option attack ... so, of course, defensive end Jonathan Bullard missed that game with an injury.
SI: But even with injuries, Florida should have made a bowl game, right? It seems inconceivable that the Gators went 4-8.
AH: It seems inconceivable -- and yet it happened. The key to that 4-8 record was the pair of home losses in November. Quarterback Tyler Murphy, playing with a bum shoulder, all but handed Vanderbilt its first win over Florida in decades. The Gators lost the cupcake game that usually helps them get to six wins, even in fallow years, against Georgia Southern. The Eagles, banged up in their own way, were less cupcake than king cake, and Florida's offensive teeth were already beyond repair.
It should also be noted, perhaps, that Florida played six teams that won nine games, and lost all of those games. Bad team plus tough schedule tends to lead to rough years, and Florida was rendered bad in 2013.
SI: What do the Gators need to do to have a successful fall? Was the hire of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper the right move?
AH: Flipping the calendar theoretically wipes away many of the Gators' injury issues, which is a boon in a lot of ways. It also probably gives a lot of players a fresh start after the most frustrating season of Florida football in three decades. It doesn't solve everything, sure, but there's a lot of it-can't-be-that-bad-again regression to the mean to take into account, I think.
Florida needs to improve its offense, though, and find a happy medium between the brutal-but-efficient offense that helped it win 11 games in 2012 and the slightly prettier attack that rolled up yards but sputtered in the red zone with Driskel at the helm early in '13. Roper is key to that. If he can simplify things and get production out of Florida's ample talent, the Gators should be a lot better merely by getting close to average on offense. Given Roper's history of doing simple things well as David Cutcliffe's assistant at Duke and Ole Miss, I have confidence he's a very good hire.
SI: On the subject of talent, how was this year's recruiting class? Did you see a dip from the down year on the field? Who were the jewels? Were there any big misses?
AH: Given the context and challenge of recruiting after a 4-8 season that included a loss to Georgia Southern, this might actually be Muschamp's best class at Florida. He raked in talent on defense, with Jalen Tabor looking like a potential freshman starter somewhere in Florida's turned-over-for-NFL-scrilla secondary. Gerald Willis, Thomas Holley, and Khairi Clark will likely bolster Florida down the road. Duke Dawson could play a bit at nickelback, and J.C. Jackson is a great enough athlete to force his way on the field, whether at wide receiver or defensive back.
But the offensive haul leaves a fair bit to be desired outside of blue-chippers Will Grier and Treon Harris at quarterback. Running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Ermon Lane both flipped from Florida to Florida State late in their recruitments, as the 'Noles revved up and the Gators stalled again. Both of those playmakers could have been remedies for what ails Florida's offense, Cook especially.
SI: With spring practice starting up, are there any position battles to keep an eye on? Are there any lesser-known players from 2013 who you expect to make a jump?
AH: The battle at backup quarterback between Grier and Harris will be interesting, as Driskel has yet to make it through a full season without missing a game due to injury. But Grier is already in town, while Harris arrives in the summer, and Grier is more likely to redshirt, while Harris is more likely to play in the fall in sub packages, much like the ones Roper used at Duke with multiple quarterbacks playing multiple roles. So "battle" might be pushing it.
Tabor will compete against a lot of upperclassmen for time in the secondary; that will be interesting. The receiving corps has a lot of the same problems the secondary does: There's talent, but we don't know for certain who will emerge as a likely contributor. Demarcus Robinson was brilliant in practice last fall before dreaded off-the-field issues and terrible day of route running against Missouri glued his patootie to the pine. (Florida's benches are aluminum; go with it.) He could shine again. And Florida needs to find a third contributor at defensive tackle, where Easley is gone, Leon Orr is out for the spring and Darious "Bear" Cummings is a senior.
I think Robinson is the most likely to make a jump from bit player to star, just because his talent -- jaw-dropping in person at times, and so ample that even sensational corner Vernon Hargreaves III might struggle to stay with him in practice -- only needs a bit of focus and refining to be turned into production. But I'd also watch for linebacker Jarrad Davis, who had a great freshman year in the middle of Florida's most injured unit, to make a leap.
SI: What are your expectations for 2014? Will Florida compete for an SEC title again? Or is Muschamp's seat destined to get even hotter?
AH: If things go more right than wrong in 2014, Florida could very well make another dramatic leap from also-ran to SEC contender, similar to the one it made from '11 to '12. The Gators' issues last season had as much (or more) to do with injuries as an offense that used the shotgun and pistol to fire away at its feet. The defense's days of struggle came against a very good Missouri offense, an unconventional Georgia Southern scheme, Florida State's awesome attack ... and a lot of bad field position, which was mostly the fault of the offense and Florida's suddenly average special teams.
Additionally, the SEC East looks open. Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia all lose longtime starting quarterbacks, and Vanderbilt loses its 2013 starter and the coach that brought the Commodores virtually the sum of their success. Florida has to travel to both Alabama and Florida State, which should probably set the Gators' ceiling lower than a national title no matter how much they improve. Still, Florida should play in a bunch of coin-flip games against other good SEC teams this year, and it gets LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home. If Florida can prevail in them, Muschamp will survive and continue laying the foundation for a perennial that 2013 eroded. If it can't, Muschamp will probably deserve his hot seat, and perhaps a pink slip.