1998 Team Outlook
The Florida Gators, one of the most dominant programs of the 1990's, enter the 1998 season in a rather unfamiliar position.
Since Steve Spurrier arrived on the Gator scene for the 1990 season this is only the second time that his returning squad has begun a new campaign not coming off a first place finish in the SEC standings. Florida entered the 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 seasons following a first place finish in the league standings. Only in 1993 and now 1998 have the Gators not begun fall drills coming off a top place finish in the nations most competitive league.
The fact that Florida finds itself in this rather unique situation heading into a new season speaks volumes about what Spurrier has achieved at his beloved alma mater. Spurrier, now the dean of SEC coaches, inherited an underachieving program in 1990 that had never won an official SEC title and had never won more than nine games in a season. His eight Gator teams have won five SEC titles and have won 10 or more games six times, including each of the last five seasons.
In the process of bringing unprecedented success to Florida, Spurrier has elevated the Gator program and himself into prominent national positions. The Gators are one of only two teams in the nation to finish in the final AP Top 10 Poll in each of the last seven seasons. UF is also one of only three teams to win 10 or more games in each of the past five seasons and one of only three schools to win at least nine games each of the eight years of this decade. Florida has appeared in the weekly polls each of the past 135 ranking weeks, with a top 10 appearance 113 times, a top five ranking 75 times and a number one ranking 25 times, including the final polls of the 1996 season to give the Gators the national championship. UFs 83 wins since 1990 is the third-top total in the nation this decade.
Spurrier has compiled a sparkling 83-16-1 record at his alma mater, a win total that ties Oklahomas Barry Switzer for the most wins during the 20th century by a coach in his first eight years at a school. His 59-8 record in SEC play is by-far the best win percentage (88.1%) for a coach in the long and storied history of the conference. He has become the only coach in league history to win eight or more conference games in a year for four straight seasons and the only coach to win at least six conference games for eight straight years. He and the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant are the only coaches in the history of the league to win as many as four consecutive SEC titles.
Spurrier, whose overall 103-29-2 record at Duke and Florida ranks as the third-best win percentage (77.6%) among active Division I-A coaches, heads into his ninth year at the Florida helm. His 1998 squad returns six offensive and six defensive starters, as well as all of the kicking specialists from last years 10-2 team which finished the year with a number four ranking in the final AP Poll. The season ended on a high note after a 32-29 comeback victory over top-ranked Florida State and a 21-6 win over Penn State in the CompUSA Florida Citrus Bowl.
The overall Gator offense, and specifically the passing attack, regarded as among the nations elite this decade, saw a significant fall in its production and efficiency last fall. Improved quarterback play will be a point of emphasis this fall as will the development of a young and inexperienced wide receiver contingent, which might have more question marks than any unit since Spurriers initial receivers group in 1990.
The Gator defense was the most productive unit on the squad in 1997 as it ranked second in the nation in rushing defense and 12th in total defense. The front seven is once again expected to be strong but the secondary faces a major rebuilding as six of the top eight defensive backs on last years unit have graduated, including each of the top four corners.
As usual the schedule has many roadblocks. Trips to Tennessee, Alabama and Florida State, in addition to the annual showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville, headline the non-home schedule. At Florida Field (a.k.a. "The Swamp"), where the Gators have posted a sparkling 47-2 overall record since 1990, including a 26-1 mark vs. SEC foes, Spurriers troops will take on an improved Kentucky team, in addition to matchups with highly regarded LSU and Auburn. Five Gator opponents this fall (Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Florida State) won at least
10 games last season.
Last year Florida compiled a 10-2 record against a schedule that was arguably the nations most demanding as it met six teams (Tennessee, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State and Penn State) that were ranked in the AP Top 10 Poll at some point during the year. The Gators defeated five teams (Southern Miss, Tennessee, Auburn, Florida State and Penn State) that finished the year ranked in the nations top 20, a victory total that was more than any other school which finished the year in the Top 25 polls.
Following is a closer look at the 1998 Florida team:
Defense was the strength of the 1997 team. Florida was one of just five teams in the nation (along with Michigan, North Carolina, Florida State and Iowa) to rank in the top 15 in the final NCAA stats in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and total defense. It ranked 12th in the nation and third in the SEC in total defense, yielding an average of just 290.5 yards per game.
Bob Stoops unit was especially impressive against the run last fall as it led the SEC and ranked second in the nation in rushing defense, yielding an average of just 70.7 yards per game. That mark of 70.7 yards per game versus the rush was the best in UF history and ranked as the third-best seasonal performance in that category in the SEC since 1971. Florida held six opponents (Southern Miss, Central Michigan, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn and Penn State) to less than 50 net rushing yards. In addition, Floridas high-pressure, big-play unit led the SEC in total tackles for losses with 98 and also in QB sacks with 50, a new Florida single-season record.
The 1998 unit should be strong against the rush again as the vast majority of the front seven return from last years contingent. Five starters and 12 of the top 14 on the two-deep depth chart from the front seven are back. Three of four starters return from the front four, including seven of the top eight on the depth chart, and two of three starting linebackers return, as do five of the top six players on the depth chart. Simply put, Floridas front seven has the potential and ability to rank with the nations best in 1998.
The secondary is in the exact opposite situation and faces a major rebuilding job. Six of the top eight players on last years depth chart in the secondary are gone, including each of the top four corners. Several young and inexperienced players are going to have to step up and provide quality play to replace the departed Fred Weary and Elijah Williams at the cornerback posts. If that happens, there is every reason to believe that the 1998 Gator defense could be just as productive, if not more productive, than the very solid 1997 unit.
- Defensive Line
Florida enters 1998 in a solid situation along the defensive line and the unit has the capability of ranking among the premier groups in the nation. The only departures from the unit that held opponents to a school record low 70.7 rushing yards per game last year are end Willie Rodgers and tackle Mike Moten. Both moved into top roles last year in their redshirt senior years. The other top seven players along the line return and a couple of redshirt freshmen should help the depth situation as well.
Senior Ed Chester, a first-team All-SEC choice as a sophomore in 1996 and a third-team All-America choice last year, headlines the tackle unit. Chester, a 6-4, 283-pounder, has been nagged by bothersome injuries throughout much of his career. He is the most experienced player on an experienced line with 23 career starts and he has the ability and experience to rank among the nations truly top defensive linemen this fall. He led the 1996 national championship team in "Big Plays" for a lineman with 33 and last year he had a team-high 13 forced QB hurries while starting five games during a injury-marred season.
Joining Chester at the tackle spot is junior Reggie McGrew (6-2, 302), who has started 18 games the past two seasons and was named to The Sporting News 1996 Freshman All-America Team. He combines with Chester to give the Gators one of the nations top tackle duos. Sophomore Derrick Chambers (6-4, 289), named the squads most improved defensive lineman this spring, and redshirt freshmen Gerard Warren (6-4, 304) and Thomas Moody (6-3, 289), also will push for top backup playing time. Chambers saw duty in 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 1997 and earned a letter. Warren was named the most improved freshman on the defensive unit this past spring.
Seniors Willie Cohens and Tim Beauchamp headline the defensive end unit which lost only Willie Rodgers from last years unit. Cohens, a redshirt senior who the Gator coaching staff is very high on, started the final eight games of the 97 season and was credited with 32 tackles and 18.5 "Big Plays". The 6-3, 269 pounder was very productive in 1997 as he ranked second on the team in quarterback sacks with 5.5 and also ranked second in total tackles for loss with 10.5. Beauchamp, a true senior, is also an experienced player with 16 career starts, but he only started four games in 1997 after starting 12 games as a sophomore on the 1996 national championship team. The coaching staff is hopeful he will get back to his sophomore form, when he led the national championship squad in QB sacks with seven and his 23 "Big Plays" ranked as the second-best total on the line. In 1997 he was credited with just seven "Big Plays".
Juniors Thaddeus Bullard (6-4, 248) and Anthony Mitchell (6-5, 256) and sophomore Buck Gurley (6-2, 263) will continue to push Cohens and Beauchamp for starting and key backup roles at end. Mitchell and Bullard both saw extensive playing time at end last year. Gurley was moved from end to tackle last fall to bolster the depth at that position area but was moved back to end this spring and enters fall drills as the top backup to Beauchamp at left end. In addition, All-SEC linebacker Jevon Kearse sees duty here as well in certain situations and schemes
Redshirt freshman Alex Brown could also see duty at end in addition to his primary strongside linebacker role.
The linebacking unit has very solid and proven front-line people but the depth situation needs to continue to be improved. Dwayne Thomas, a starter at middle linebacker last fall who garnered the game-clinching interception in the dramatic 32-29 upset win over top-ranked Florida State in the regular season finale, is the only departure from last years linebacking unit. Six of the top seven players on last years linebacking unit return. The trio of senior Johnny Rutledge in the middle and senior Mike Peterson on the weakside combined with junior Jevon Kearse on the strongside arguably ranks with the nations finest starting groups. If some solid depth can continue to be developed then this will not only be an outstanding unit but perhaps one of Floridas finest in recent memory.
Rutledge, one of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award last year, was moved from weakside to middle linebacker this spring and adjusted quite nicely to his new role. The two-year linebacker starter has over 200 career tackles and led the 97 team in total tackles with 67 after finishing second in tackles on the 1996 national championship team with 108. Sophomore Teddy Sims, promising freshman Andra Davis and junior Keith Kelsey, the top backup at middle linebacker last year who missed all of spring drills after undergoing knee surgery in January and will open August drills as a backup to Mike Peterson at weakside linebacker, provide the depth behind Rutledge at middle linebacker. Sims spent most of his redshirt freshman season in 1997 as a backup at strongside linebacker but moved to the middle late in season when injuries surfaced at that spot and he started the Vanderbilt contest at that position.
Senior Mike Peterson , who has started 14 games the past two seasons at strongside linebacker, was moved over to the weakside backer this spring and had a tremendous spring at his new post. Peterson, co-recipient of the squads Most Outstanding Linebacker Award for 1997 along with Johnny Rutledge, registered 44 tackles last fall, the fourth-best total on the squad. He has been overshadowed by Rutledge and Kearse in the publicity area the past two years but he is immensely appreciated and respected by the Gator coaching staff. Junior Keith Kelsey, who missed all of spring drills after undergoing knee surgery, will start August drills at the weakside spot after posting 43 tackles at the middle linebacker spot last fall. Redshirt sophomore Daryl Owens will battle Kelsey for the top backup role to Peterson.
Junior strongside backer Jevon Kearse, a prominent preseason All-America selection who was a first-team All-SEC choice by the league coaches last year as a sophomore, appears ready to be one of the nations premier defensive players this fall. He possesses a superb mix of size (6-5, 254), speed, quickness and overall athletic ability which could make him a top contender for Butkus and Lombardi Award consideration. Kearse caused havoc at both the strongside linebacker and defensive end positions last fall and led the nationally-ranked Gator defense in total "Big Plays" with 29.5, as well as in QB sacks with 6.5 and total tackles for loss with 12.5. Promising redshirt freshman Alex Brown, named the squads most improved outside linebacker this spring, enters the fall second on the depth chart at the strongside post. Senior Mike Peterson and sophomore Teddy Sims also played at that spot last year and could make the move from weakside and middle linebacker, respectively, if called upon.
Whereas the line and linebacker units boast a lot of returning players, the secondary faces a major rebuilding, especially at the cornerback positions. Six of last years top eight secondary players have departed with four of those coming at the corner position.
First-team All-America and Thorpe Award finalist Fred Weary, Floridas all-time leading interceptor with 15, departs after starting at the corner spot for three years. Elijah Williams, UFs leading rusher in 1995 and 1996 who moved to corner last spring and emerged as a very strong starter at that spot, has also departed, as have top backups Ronnie Battle and Tyrone Baker. Weary was selected in the fourth round of last Aprils NFL Draft by New Orleans while Williams was a sixth round choice by Atlanta.
Senior Tony George, a starter at strong safety last fall who was moved to corner this spring, is the only member of the 1998 cornerback unit who has seen significant playing time. No other returning player at the cornerback spot saw more than 69 total plays of action last year.
The move of George to the corner spot was a solid success this spring. He played some at that position as a freshman in 1995 before moving to the strong safety position for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. He is the only senior on the cornerback unit and his leadership will be counted on quite heavily by the Gator coaching staff and the fact that we was elected a defensive captain this spring indicates that he has embraced that role. Last year at strong safety George registered 65 tackles, the second-best total on the squad and his 18 "Big Plays" ranked as the top total among the defensive backs. Juniors Dock Pollard and Demetrius Lewis, who was also moved to corner from strong safety, sophomores Cedric Warren and Craig Dudley and redshirt freshmen Bennie Alexander and Mike Gipson, who spent most of last year with the wide receiver unit, will continue to battle for the key cornerback positions this August. Going into fall drills George is listed as the starter at the left corner spot with Lewis and Dudley fighting it out for the top backup role. At the right corner spot, Pollard and Warren are in a tight battle for the starting nod with Alexander also in the picture. Pollard and Warren were named co-recipients of the most improved defensive back award this spring.
With the move of Tony George to cornerback the starting strong safety spot was up for grabs this spring. Sophomore Rod Graddy, who really came on strong at the end of last year, continued to show a lot of promise this spring and enters fall drills atop the depth chart at that post. Promising redshirt freshman Marquand Manuel, who reminds many Gator followers of Lawrence Wright, fills the top backup role here. Tony George and Demetrius Lewis could also play here if called upon.
At free safety senior Teako Brown, whose 22 career starts is tops for a member of the secondary, returns after gaining first-team All-SEC honors last fall from the league coaches. His six interceptions tied for the squad lead in 1997 and his 47 tackles ranked third-best on the team. He enters the 1998 season with 10 career interceptions, a total that places him among the top dozen players in Gator history and just five shy of tying Fred Weary for the all-time top total in Gator history. Junior Reggie Davis, who has seen very limited duty over the past two seasons, enters the fall as the top backup at free safety.
By most standards the 1997 Gator offense was productive. It ranked 20th in the nation in total offense (421.3 ypg) and 15th in passing offense (276.3 ypg). By Gator standards of the 1990's under Steve Spurriers guidance, however, it was not the high-octane unit that struck fear in opponents.
The 97 unit finished the year ranked fourth in the SEC in total offense and third in passing offense, marking the first time in Spurriers head coaching career at Duke or Florida that his unit finished lower than second in conference rankings in total offense or passing offense. The 97 unit was the first in his eleven years as a head collegiate coach at those two schools that his passing offense didnt finish the year ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation. Over the final six games of the regular season, the 1997 unit averaged just 377.2 yards a game in offense and just 247.5 yards passing with only seven touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. After averaging 503.9 total yards per game in 1996, the production fell to an average of 421.3 last fall, the second-lowest mark for a Gator team since Spurriers arrival in 1990. Florida led the SEC in touchdown passes each of the seven years from 1990-96 but finished third last fall. Florida, which leads the nation in total TD passes in the decade of the 1990's with 288 (BYU is next with 234), led the nation in TD passes in each of the previous four seasons (1993-96), including 48 in 1995 and 42 in 1996, but fell to seventh last fall with a total of 32 with only seven in the last six games.
The goal heading into 1998 is to get the offense back to its accustomed position as one of the nations most productive units overall and among the best in the passing game. To achieve that goal in 1998 Florida will have to get more consistent and productive play at the quarterback spot and a group of very young and inexperienced wide receivers will have to step to the forefront. In addition, the running game, which was led superbly by Fred Taylor last fall, must remain as productive as it was last season.
True junior Doug Johnson, who started seven games last season, underwent shoulder surgery on May 8 and has been in rehabilitation since that time. His availability for 1998 will be determined during fall practices. Last year he completed 148 of 269 passes for 2,023 yards with 21 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions for an efficiency rating of 135.03 and an average of 224.8 passing yards per game.
Johnson was expected to battle sophomore Jesse Palmer for the starting quarterback position this season. Palmer, a Canadian who enrolled in January of 1997 after graduating early from high school, saw action in six games last fall with one start (vs. Auburn). On the year he was 21 of 38 for 291 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions for a 135.16 efficiency rating. Redshirt freshman Tim Olmstead, a Parade All-America prep selection in 1996, is significantly behind Johnson and Palmer in his understanding of the Gator offense at this young point in his career.
- Running Back
The Gators must replace Fred Taylor, a first-round selection in last Aprils NFL Draft. Taylor, the sixth Gator running back to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1983, rushed for 1,292 yards in 1997 (the fourth-best seasonal total in Gator history) and he became just the fourth back in school history to rush for over 3,000 career yards, joining Errict Rhett, Emmitt Smith and Neal Anderson in that elite company at Florida. Particularly late in the year when the Gator passing attack struggled, Taylor took charge. In his final three games last fall, Taylor rushed for 170 yards against South Carolina, 162 in a upset win over top-ranked Florida State and 234 yards against Penn State in the CompUSA Florida Citrus Bowl.
Senior Terry Jackson, who was moved to fullback last season in order to get the squads top two backs (Taylor and Jackson) on the field more often, moved back to tailback this spring. Jackson, one of the squads top overall players, was just starting to settle into his new fullback spot when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game of the season against Kentucky. The senior standout, who has rushed for over 1,200 career yards and had a game- high 118 yards rushing versus Florida State in the Gators 1996 national championship victory in the Sugar Bowl, appeared fully recovered this spring from his knee injury. Jackson, an Academic All-America candidate who was elected Student Body Vice President this past spring, will be joined at the tailback spot by junior Eugene McCaslin who has been itching to get on the playing field. McCaslin, who has seen limited game time the past two years due to the presence of Fred Taylor, Terry Jackson and Elijah Williams at the tailback slot, rushed for 93 yards last season. Sophomore Bo Carroll, one of the nations fastest players who rushed for 317 yards (second-best total on the 97 squad) was moved to wide receiver this spring.
At fullback, sophomore Rod Frazier is the starter. Frazier, whose brother Tommie led Nebraska to back-to-back national titles in 1994 and 1995, moved into the top spot at fullback when Terry Jackson suffered his season-ending knee injury. He played in all 12 games last fall with eight starts. He has quickly developed into a solid fullback in the Gator system. Redshirt freshman Luke Farmer is slated to be the top backup at that spot. In addition, Jackson and McCaslin can also play at the fullback spot if called upon.
For the second consecutive year the Gator wide receiver unit has taken quite a hit. After the 1996 national championship season juniors Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard, both NFL first-round draft selections, bypassed their senior years to enter the NFL Draft. Jacquez Green, who had a superb year in 1997, also decided to bypass his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, where he was a early selection in the second round by Tampa Bay. Green had 61 catches last year for 1,024 yards with nine touchdown receptions and gained first-team All-America honors, in addition to being one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nations top receiver.
This leaves a wide receiver unit that is as unproven as any since Spurriers first receiver group in 1990. Seniors Travis McGriff and Nafis Karim, who caught 27 and 23 passes, respectively in 1997, are the only two upperclassmen returning. True sophomores Darrell Jackson and Travis Taylor, who caught five combined passes last year, join sophomore Ian Skinner (one catch in 1997) as the squads next most experienced players. Redshirt freshmen Brian Haugabrook and Steve Shipp, who joined Taylor and Jackson as one of the nations most highly regarded receiver signing class in February of 1997, also are competing for playing time. In addition, speedster Bo Carroll was moved from running back this spring to bolster the unit. Freshman John Capel, a national sprint champion, will get an early opportunity to see if he is ready to play in 1998.
Karim, McGriff, Taylor and Jackson emerged as the top four receivers on the top depth chart at the conclusion of spring drills. If the 98 Gator passing attack is going to get back to its established levels throughout most of the 1990's, then several members of that foursome, as well as some of the others mentioned above, must step forward in a significant manner this fall.
At tight end, the Gators lose Taras Ross, a starter in three games last year, but return junior Erron Kinney, sophomore Dwight Edge and redshirt freshman Rob Roberts. Kinney , a 6-6, 270-pounder, started four games last fall and led all tight ends with 12 catches for 162 yards. He came out of spring drills at the top of the depth chart while Edge and Roberts, who had a solid spring, are in a tight battle for the top backup role behind Kinney.
- Offensive Line
Florida enters the fall having lost only two of its top 15 players on the offensive line and has eight players on the returning line unit who have started games. Competition is keen at several positions and the depth situation appears better than it has been in several years.
Tackle Mo Collins, who decided to bypass his senior year to enter the NFL Draft where he was a first-round selection by the Oakland Raiders last April, and center Wyley Ritch, are the only departures from a unit that should continue to see a great deal of competition throughout August and the fall. Even though there are a great number of returning players this fall only two, tackle Zach Piller and tackle Deac Story, are seniors which bodes well not only for 1998 but 1999 as well.
Senior Zach Piller, a offensive co-captain and postseason honors candidate, is the top returnee at tackle. The 6-6, 320-pounder will open the fall at left tackle. Junior Cooper Carlisle, a starter in 10 games at left tackle over the past two seasons, enters August drills as the projected starter at right tackle. Redshirt freshmen Ben Brown and Kenyatta Walker, along with junior Scott Bryan and Story, who missed all of spring drills with a shoulder injury, will continue to push Piller and Carlisle and battle for top backup roles at tackle. Brown and Story have also played at guard during their Gator careers.
Competition at the guard spots should be interesting throughout the year. Junior Ryan Kalich is the squads most experienced player on the offensive line, having started 23 games over the past two years, 22 of those at left guard. He enters the fall slated to open the new campaign at that position again. Junior Cheston Blackshear, a 10-game starter in 1997, returns at right guard. Junior Pat Browning (one start) and sophomore Zac Zedalis (two starts) also return at guard, as does redshirt freshman Erik Strange. In addition, sophomore Leon Hires has transferred from Notre Dame and will be eligible to compete this fall. Browning and Zedalis hold a slight edge over other contenders in the battle for the top backup roles to Kalich and Blackshear, respectively, entering fall drills. Browning and Hires could also play at tackle if called upon.
The competition this spring to replace Wyley Ritch at center ended with junior Corey Yarbrough atop the depth chart. Yarbrough, who has spent most of his Gator career at guard, is the only non-freshman upperclassman at this position. He started five games at guard as a freshman during the 1996 national championship season and emerged from spring drills as a potential all-star candidate. Redshirt freshman Tommy Hillard, named the squads most improved offensive lineman this spring, and true freshman David Jorgensen will continue to battle for the top backup role to Yarbrough. Jorgensen enrolled at UF in January and took part in spring drills. If the need arises, junior Ryan Kalich could also move to center and Zac Zedalis also saw some playing time at center in 1997.
Senior punter Robby Stevenson and senior placekicker Collins Cooper return. Stevenson, who has handled all of the punting chores for the past three seasons, averaged 41.4 yards per punt in 1997 and he also handled all of the kickoff duties. Cooper, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship last fall, connected on 7-12 field goals in 1997. Incoming freshman David Wasielewski, a highly regarded placekicker and punter in high school, could provide some immediate competition to both Stevenson and Cooper this fall.
Floridas punt return game, which ranked 16th in the nation last year (12.1 avg.), will undergo a major change with the loss of Jacquez Green, who set a Florida record with four career punt returns for touchdowns and averaged a sparkling 14.5 per return with two scores last year. A host of candidates for punt and kickoff return duties will audition this fall. Sophomore Bo Carroll, who averaged 31.9 per return in nine opportunities last fall, headlines the list of candidates for top kickoff return duties. One of Carrolls nine returns went for a 94-yard jaunt and a touchdown versus Arkansas. Carroll is considered one of the nations fastest football players.