- The University of Florida, which ranks third in the nation in
the 1990ís in total wins with 61 and has won four SEC titles in the past five
seasons, enters the 1996 season with the intent of once again ranking among
the nationís premier teams.
The Gators are coming off their finest season in school history as they posted a 12-1 record and advanced to the 1995 national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. Florida and Nebraska were the only schools in the country in 1995 to win 12 games and the Gators second- place ranking in the final AP Poll was their best in school history. Florida won its third consecutive outright SEC title, joining Alabama as the only schools in SEC history to achieve that distinction.
Steve Spurrier, who joins the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant as the only coach in SEC history to win three straight outright titles, has led the Gators to elite status in college football since taking over the UF reins in 1990. Florida is one of only two schools in the nation to finish each of the past five seasons ranked in the top ten in the final AP Poll and it is one of only four teams in the nation to win at least nine games each season of the decade of the 1990ís.
Spurrier, who has compiled an eye-catching 44-6 record vs. SEC foes (an 88% win percentage, the best in SEC history), greets a team this season that returns 16 starters (eight on offense, six on defense and two kicking specialists). The offensive unit, headlined by record-setting quarterback Danny Wuerffel, should once again rank among the nationís finest. The defensive unit must replace five starters on the front seven but returns perhaps its strongest secondary unit in many seasons.
Last year's Gator team played a schedule that ranked among the nationís most demanding. It was just the second unit in SEC history to play five conference games on the road and it played seven teams that were ranked in the top 25 polls at some point during the season. It played four teams ranked in the top 10 at game time (Tennessee, Auburn, Florida State and Nebraska). The challenge in 1996 will be demanding once again as the Gators face six bowl teams (Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State) with only two of those contests (LSU and Auburn) at friendly Florida Field, a.k.a. "The Swamp", where UF has posted a sparkling 35-2 record since 1990. The Gators must play at Tennessee and Florida State, squads that in all likelihood will rank in the top five in most preseason polls.
Following is a closer look at the 1996 Gator squad:
- Eight starters and 24 letterwinners return from a 1995 offensive
unit that arguably ranked as the finest in SEC history. Steve Spurrierís
squad set conference records for yards (534.4 pg), average yards per play
(7.4), passing yards (360.8 ypg), points (44.5 ypg), total TDs (74), passing
TDs (48) and first downs (327). The unit ranked among the nationís four best
Senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel passed the 7,000-yard plateau for total yards gained in his career.
Headlining the offense is senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Wuerffel, who finished third in the 1995 Heisman Trophy balloting and was the recipient of the Davey OíBrien National Quarterback of the Year Award, put together a superb year in 1995, leading the nation in TD passes with 35 (a SEC record) while compiling a sparkling passing efficiency rating of 178.4, the best seasonal mark in that category in NCAA Division I-A history. Wuerffel, who is also a standout in the classroom (3.67 GPA) and was named the GTE Academic All-American Team Member of the Year last year, has already thrown for 75 career TD passes, the top total in SEC history and a total that ranks as the seventh-best in NCAA Div. I-A history. The 1995 SEC Player of the Year enters 1996 just 17 TD passes shy of moving into second place on the all-time NCAA Division I-A list (Ty Detmer of BYU ranks first with 121 and David Klingler of Houston second with 91).
Seniors Eric Kresser and Brian Schottenheimer are the backups at the signal-callers spot. Kresser has seen a good deal of duty as the top backup behind Wuerffel and threw for 912 yards and 12 TDs last year, including a school-record 458 yards vs. Northern Illinois last November.
Floridaís entire running back contingent from 1995 returns this fall. The tailback trio of juniors Elijah Williams and Fred Taylor, and sophomore Terry Jackson, combined for more than 1,900 yards and 12 TDs last fall. Williams led the squad in rushing in 1995 as he gained 858 yards and his average per carry of 7.5 was the best in UF history for a back who carried at least 100 times in a season. Taylor, who led the squad in rushing as a true freshman in 1994 with 873 yards, saw his rushing total drop significantly in 1995 to 281 yards due to a knee injury which sidelined him for the final half of the 1995 season. Jackson, who was moved to tailback from outside linebacker in 1995 spring drills, rushed for 780 yards (6.4 avg.) as a freshman last fall. This talented trio will be further bolstered this year by Eugene McCaslin, a talented redshirt freshman who impressed the coaching staff throughout the 1995 season as a member of the scout team.
At fullback, Florida returns its top two players in seniors Dwayne Mobley and Jerome Evans. Mobley started the majority of the season but Evans, who graduated last December and received his degree in just three and a half years, was considered a co-starter at fullback by seasonís end. Evans came out of spring drills atop the depth chart.
The Gators return five of their top six wide receivers from last fall. The lone departure, however, is record-setter Chris Doering, who completed his career with 31 TD catches, the top total in UF and SEC history. He had a sparkling season in 1995 with 70 catches for 1,045 yards and 17 TD grabs, the top single-season total in SEC history and a figure that tied Ohio Stateís Terry Glenn for the top total in the nation in 1995.
The cupboard is far from empty, however. Juniors Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony, and sophomore Jacquez Green return to headline what should once again be a potent wide-receiver contingent. Hilliard caught 57 passes for 1,008 yards
Junior wide receiver Ike Hilliard gained 1,008 yards receiving last season, becoming just the third player in UF history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season. His TD/catch ratio of 4.29 (21 TDs/90 catches) is the second-best in school history, while his 15 TD catches in '95 ranked as the second-best seasonal total in SEC history. His 21 TD catches rank fifth in SEC history.
Anthony, who returned kickoffs vs. Auburn and Nebraska for TDs last year, caught 24 passes in 1995 for 366 yards (15.3 avg). Green, who suffered a dislocated hip in the national championship game vs. Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and missed half of spring drills, established himself as a premier big-play maker in 1995 as he averaged 24 yards every time he touched the ball as a receiver or rusher. He had 19 catches as a freshman for 531 yards (a sparkling 28.0 avg.) and five TDs.
Sophomores Nafis Karim and Travis McGriff, and redshirt freshman Jamie Richardson will also see a good deal of duty as UF regularly plays six wide receivers per game. Junior Tyrone Baker, a former running back prior to sustaining a knee injury early in the 1995 year, moved to wide receiver this spring.
Seniors Tremayne Allen and Shawn Nunn headline the returnees at tight end. Allen, a former walk-on, was the starter throughout the 1995 season and had eight catches for 143 yards (17.9 avg.), while Nunn was the starter at TE in 1994. Junior Taras Ross and freshman Erron Kinney, impressive in his redshirt year last fall, will compete for playing time. Kinney suffered a broken wrist early in spring drills and missed the balance of those sessions.
Floridaís offensive line return three of five starters from last yearís iron-man unit. All five starters started every game in 1995, one of the critical components in the Gatorís success last fall as quality depth was not present behind the top unit. There should be more competition and depth this fall as several redshirted players join the mix.
Departing the line are Jason Odom and Reggie Green, who started 46 and 43 games, respectively, throughout their Gator careers. Both moved into the starting lineup as true freshmen in 1992. Odom, one of three finalists last year for the Outland Trophy and the recipient of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SECís premier blocker in each of the past two seasons, was a consensus first-team All-American choice in 1995. Green gained first-team All-SEC honors as a sophomore tackle in 1993 and a senior guard in '95.
Senior center Jeff Mitchell and senior guard Donnie Young, both two-year starters, headline the offensive line returnees. Both are top post-season honors candidates in 1996 with Mitchell gaining first-team All-SEC recognition in 1995 while Young gained second-team recognition. Mitchell was a starter at guard as a sophomore in 1994 before moving over to center last year where he became one of the nationís best.
Junior Wyley Ritch and redshirt freshman Corey Yarbrough will battle for the top backup spot to Mitchell at center. Junior Elijah Brown, sophomore Deac Story and redshirt freshman Ryan Kalich will battle for the starting nod at the other guard spot opposite Young as well as top backup roles at the two guard positions. Kalich came out of spring drills listed as the starter at left offensive guard.
Sophomore Mo Collins, a starter in all 13 games at right tackle as a freshman in 1995, is the top returnee at tackle. He will move to left tackle to replace Odom. Sophomore Zach Piller, a transfer from Georgia Tech who sat out last year, enters the fall as the likely starter at right tackle. Sophomore Pat Browning, the only true freshman to play on the Gator offense last year, and redshirt freshmen Cooper Carlisle and Scott Bryan will battle for top backup roles at the two tackle positions. Browning missed spring drills due to a back injury.
- The Gators installed a new defensive scheme this spring under
defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, whose nation-leading defense at Kansas
State in 1995 was a 4-3 alignment. That scheme includes a middle linebacker
and two other versatile linebackers, weak-side (Will) and strong-side (Sam),
replacing last season's two inside linebackers and a nickelback, a hybrid
strong safety/outside linebacker.
Six starters and 28 letterwinners return from the 1995 unit that surrendered an average of 315.6 yards per game, a mark that ranked third-best in the SEC and 20th in the nation.
This is the second consecutive year that Florida must replace three starters on the defensive line unit. Kevin Carter and Ellis Johnson, first-round selections in the 1995 NFL Draft, as well as Henry McMillian, made NFL rosters last season after solid years at Florida in 1994. Now the Gators
Sophomore Terry Jackson, who ranked second on the squad in rushing with 780 yards in '95, has seen time at both tailback and linebacker this fall.
Campbell, a first-team All-SEC choice in 1995, was a three-year starter while Church played a prominent role at the end slots for the past four years, including a starting nod last fall. Senior Cameron Davis, junior Willie Rodgers, sophomores Willie Cohens and Tim Beauchamp and redshirt freshman Anthony Mitchell will continue to battle for starting spots and key backup roles at end. Davis has been a top backup for the past three seasons while Rodgers and Cohens were moved to defensive end last year from linebacker positions. Beauchamp was the only true freshman to play on the defensive line unit last fall. Mitchell missed virtually the entire spring with a foot injury.
The tackle unit loses David Barnard, a prominent player at that position for the past four years and a starter throughout the 1995 campaign. He led all defensive linemen in tackles last year with 45. Junior Keith Council, a starter early in the 1995 season before suffering a wrist injury which sidelined him for nearly two months, sophomore Ed Chester, a starter in seven games in 1995, and junior Mike Moten are the top returnees at tackle. Council had nine tackles with 6.5 "Big Plays" last year while Chester registered 29 tackles and 11.8 "Big Plays". Moten missed half of the 1995 campaign with shoulder problems.
Senior McDonald Ferguson and two talented redshirt freshmen, Ernie Badeaux and Reggie McGrew, also figure in the picture at the defensive tackle positions. Badeaux and McGrew were both regarded among the premier prep defensive linemen in the nation in 1994 before taking redshirt years with the Gators last fall. McGrew had an outstanding spring and is battling Council for a starting role, while Badeaux was somewhat limited as he continued to recover from knee surgery last season.
Gone from last year's corps of linebackers are All-SEC performers Dexter Daniels and Ben Hanks. Daniels, who started 34 games in his career, registered 283 career tackles, including 83 last fall. Hanks was a four-year starter at the nickelbacker post and finished his career with 320 tackles, including 83 last fall.
At the middle linebacker spot senior James Bates headlines the returnees. He started nine of 13 games last fall at inside linebacker and finished the year with 75 tackles, the fifth-best total on the squad. Junior Kavin Walton, who missed the entire spring after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery from an injury sustained in the Fiesta Bowl, redshirt freshman Keith Kelsey and junior Dwayne Thomas are the other players at the MLB spot. Walton's status for the fall is still questionable at this time, while Kelsey played his way into the top backup role at MLB.
True sophomore Johnny Rutledge came out of spring drills with the starting nod at the weakside linebacker (Will) spot. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team last year, seeing action in 12 of 13 games and registering 27 total tackles. Kelsey and junior Xavier McCray are fighting for the top backup spot to Rutledge at this post. At the strongside linebacker spot (Sam) sophomore Mike Peterson, Ben Hanks' top backup at the now departed nickelbacker position last year, came out of the spring atop the depth chart. He was also a selection to the 1995 SEC All-Freshman Team and registered 29 tackles. Redshirt freshman Jevon Kearse and junior Pat Lowe will continue to battle Peterson this August.
Unlike the line and the linebackers, the secondary unit returns intact from last fall. Senior Anthone Lott and junior Fred Weary return at the corners while Lawrence Wright returns at strong safety. Sophomore Teako Brown and junior Mike Harris return to battle for the free safety spot.
Lott has been a starter at the corner spot since his freshman year in 1993 and has shown steady improvement which resulted in first-team All-SEC honors last fall. He was the only defensive player in the league who was a unanimous selection on the coaches All-SEC team. He ranked second on last yearís team in both tackles (90) and "Big Plays" (22). Weary started 12 games at corner as a sophomore and responded with a solid season.
Senior Shea Showers, considered a starter by Bob Stoops, returns at the cornerback spot as does junior Ronnie Battle. Two talented redshirt freshmen, Damian Hill and Dock Pollard, also return at the cornerback positions.
Lawrence Wright, a first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American selection last fall, headlines the strong safety unit. Wright led the 1995 team in tackles with 109 and "Big Plays" with 25. He is a very experienced performer. Seniors Demetric Jackson and sophomore Tony George are other top players at this position area. Jackson started three games at free safety last year, while George, who can also play at cornerback, led the '95 team in special teams tackles with 34.
The competition at free safety will continue to be keen this fall. Mike Harris split that role in the first half of the season with Demetric Jackson before redshirt freshman Teako Brown took over for the final seven games of the year. Harris, now a junior, started three games at free safety and was credited with 78 total tackles, the fourth-top total on the 1995 team. Brown continued to come on throughout the 1995 campaign and started the final seven games as a redshirt freshman. He registered 30 tackles with an interception and two fumble recoveries. Brown came out of spring drills atop the depth chart.
- The Gator special teams return intact from 1995, but wants to
improve in the kicking phases. Florida has its top placekicker, top punter
and top kickoff man, as well as several other special teams standouts. The
unit hopes to continue its success of 1995, when it blocked seven kicks during
the regular season, including four punts, two field goals and an extra point.
Three of the blocked punts led to Gator touchdowns. In the Fiesta Bowl,
UF added two more blocks, both on extra point attempts.
Placekicker Bart Edmiston is back for his senior season after setting a NCAA record for PATs made in a season with his 71 successful extra points last year. Edmiston added six field goals, including a career-long 47-yarder against Georgia. Sophomore punter Robby Stevenson has one year of experience under his belt after averaging 38.3 yards per punt in his true freshman campaign. Senior Matt Teague will likely handle the kickoff chores once again. Teague posted 13 touchbacks among his 87 kickoffs, in addition to holding for UFís place kickers.
Florida also excelled on its returns last fall, averaging 23.3 yards on kickoffs (eighth-best in the nation) and 7.4 yards on punts. The Gators returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, a 90-yarder versus Auburn and a 93-yarder in the Fiesta Bowl, both by Reidel Anthony. Anthony led the team with an 11.1 average on punt returns and a 24.8 average on kickoffs. Jacquez Green averaged 19.5 yards on his 16 kickoff returns and 5.6 yards on his nine punt returns.