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Gators coach Will Muschamp will make a stop at SEC Media Days on Monday in Hoover, Ala. (Photo: Jim Burgess)

Sunday July 13, 2014SEC Media Days: Five Gators Storylines

Gators coach Will Muschamp will make a stop at SEC Media Days on Monday in Hoover, Ala. (Photo: Jim Burgess)

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Since it ended Nov. 30, putting the 2013 Florida football season in the rearview mirror and looking to better things in 2014 has preoccupied the Gator Nation.

Staff changes, an outstanding recruiting class, encouraging spring followed by an ensuing offseason of conditioning has the orange and blue blood pumping again, and no one’s heart is beating faster with enthusiasm and anticipation for a bounce-back year than UF coach Will Muschamp's.

And next week, we can all start really and truly looking ahead.

The Gators don’t open the 2014 campaign until Aug. 30 against Idaho, but Monday the Southeastern Conference will call the preseason to order with the start of SEC Media Days. For the ensuing four days, head coaches, star players and an estimated 1,100 reporters, bloggers and broadcasters from across the country will converge on the Hyatt Winfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., and begin dissecting a season still seven weeks from first kickoff.

Florida will bat second in the 14-team lineup, when Muschamp addresses the masses and works the interview rooms Monday from 3:30-6:20 p.m. (ET), accompanied by junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., and sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. The event will be televised by ESPNU and streamed on ESPN3.

There will be lots of questions about 4-8 (and, yes, Georgia Southern), but the UF contingent’s collective focus will be on looking ahead, rather behind.

Storylines will be plentiful, but here’s five that figure to dominate the conversations during Florida’s three hours in front of the microphones and cameras.

1) THE STATE OF THE PROGRAM ... AND COACH

To his credit, Muschamp has accepted the criticism that has come his way in the last nine months and said time and time again that 4-8 is unacceptable at Florida and that the onus of fixing the program is on him.

Now he has every intention of doing that.

Will Muschamp

In three years under Muschamp, the Gators are a combined 22-16. Muschamp’s teams have posted an average season (7-6 in 2011), an excellent one (11-2 and a BCS berth in ’12) and a poor one (4-8 with a seven-game losing skid in ’13), so he can expect bombs lobbed his way about job security and the pressure of turning things around -- questions already asked and answered at all levels of the program.

After dealing with a paddle-wheel of major injuries that bordered on the comical -- unless you were one of the injured -- UF athletic director Jeremy Foley publicly backed Muschamp at the end of last season. Muschamp then made two key coaching changes -- most notably, the hiring of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, by way of Duke.

Meanwhile, players like Driskel got healthy during the offseason and the installation of Roper’s up-tempo offense rebooted the program’s overall attitude and made for some positive vibes to date.

Muschamp will emphasize those positives, while accepting the pressure accompanying the Gators into a season that includes road games against the winners of the last three national titles (Alabama and Florida State), plus dates against LSU and SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina, who loom as the co-favorites to win the division.

2) NEW GUY IN THE HEADSET

The last time the Gators turned their offense over to a guy from Duke, things turned out pretty well. 

No one is saying Roper is Steve Spurrier, but what the 42-year-old and 18-year college veteran coach did in the Atlantic Coast Conference was thoroughly impressive -- especially if you were watching the Chick-fil-A Bowl. That night, the Blue Devils cranked out 661 yards of total offense (427 passing) in a wild 52-44 loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. Those fireworks were a microcosm of what Roper did during the ACC season.

Duke set school records for total touchdowns (54) in 2013, while becoming the first team in school history to have more than 20 touchdowns rushing and passing in the same season -- and that was after setting school marks for points scored (31.5 per game) in 2012. 

Repeat: This was at Duke.

Quinton Dunbar

All this should come as good news to Florida fans who watched an offense that finished ranked next-to-last in the SEC in total offense (313 yards per game), 11th in rushing (141 ypg), 11th in passing (171 ypg) and 11th in scoring (19.9 points ppg). 

And it should be great news for a returning receiving corps that after senior Quinton Dunbar (40 catches, 548 yards, 0 TDs, photo at right) did next to nothing to distinguish itself. The names of sophomores Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Alvin Bailey and Chris Thompson will come up next week as surely as they need to come up this fall. So will tight end Jake McGee, a transfer from Virginia who caught 43 passes there and should provide instant impact to a position that was virtually invisible last season. 

3) QUARTERBACK COMEBACK   

First things first: Driskel was not playing well when he broke his leg in the first quarter of the season’s third game.

Though he had hit nearly 69 percent of his passes for nearly 500 yards, he’d thrown three interceptions (two in the red zone at Miami; the third returned for a touchdown against Tennessee), had a fumble returned for a touchdown against UM and was sacked four times.

Jeff Driskel

Now to the next point: UF wasn’t very good after Driskel went down, either. 

One thing all Florida offensive players have talked about since Roper arrived is a new-found belief in what they’re trying to do, philosophically. While Driskel often is viewed as a running quarterback -- and he can be special in the open field -- his downfield passing skills have gone mostly underused because the previous system emphasized shorter throws and plays in the flat and sidelines to the near-exclusion of any intermediate and keep aerial game. 

Roper not only will turn Driskel loose in this offense, he can’t wait to do so. 

4) IN DEFENSE OF THE DEFENSE  

In 2012, the Gators had one of the best defenses in the country, allowing less than 100 yards rushing per game, registering 30 sacks, forcing 30 turnovers and holding opponents to 31 percent conversion on third down. 

Though UF finished second in the SEC in total defense in 2013, the numbers were significantly down in all those important categories. Not surprisingly, the Gators had far fewer splashy, game-changing plays.

Dante Fowler

There were also those 433 rushing yards against Georgia Southern.

Muschamp’s background is on defense and he knows the Gators have to get back to that 2012 identity.  

Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who took over last season when Dan Quinn bolted for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, wants more (a lot more) of the those sudden-change situations. The front seven, led by Fowler (No. 6 in photo) and the likes of Jonathan Bullard, Leon Orr and Darious Cummings on the line, plus a mix of Mike Taylor, Antonio Morrison, Neiron Ball and Jarrad Davis at linebacker, will be charged with being more disruptive.

In the secondary, Hargreaves was a rare first-team All-SEC performer as a freshman. The Gators have another rookie with that kind of skill set in cornerback Jalen Tabor. Muschamp loves his depth in the defensive backfield, but knows it is young and has to grow up in a hurry. 

5) WELCOME AND WELCOME BACK 

In addition to Tabor, UF has a handful of true freshmen who figure to make contributions this fall, including cornerback Duke Dawson, nose guard Khairi Clark, running back Brandon Powell and offensive lineman David Sharpe. And don’t rule out quarterback Treon Harris providing Roper with a way to get creative with a change-of-pace “wildcat” sort of package. 

Besides Driskel, the Gators’ depth will be bolstered by getting back a bunch of guys who missed a bunch of games. 

Worth noting: Only two UF players started all 12 games at the same position last season; and the offense started a different lineup in every game.

Chaz Green

The return of offensive tackle Chaz Green (photo, left), who missed the entire season with a shoulder injury suffered in preseason, plus fellow tackle D.J. Humphries (who played hurt much of the season, then suffered a season-ending knee injury late) gives the offense some options on the outside. Guard/tackle Tyler Moore (season-ending moped accident) also is back. Running back Matt Jones, who galloped for 176 yards on 28 carries at Kentucky, went down with a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game at LSU. 

And then there’s Andre Debose, the senior granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering an ACL injury (the second of his career) in the ’13 preseason. 

Debose has never met expectation as wideout, but when healthy he was one of the most dangerous kick-return threats in the nation. His 27.4-yard career average and four touchdowns on kickoff returns are both school records that he’ll get a chance to add to.

 

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