2015 Season Preview

Once more, it’s time for the Gator program to start over, as Jim McElwain and a brand new staff attempt to get Florida back on track as a consistent contender in the SEC and among the national elite. McElwain has done an outstanding job so far to wash away the stench of the Will Muschamp era in all aspects. He has enlarged the support staff to concentrate on recruiting. He has convinced Jeremy Foley to loosen the purse strings and immediately build an indoor practice facility and upgrade the player’s dorms. He has hired a coaching staff that is energetic and relates very well with the high school kids Florida is recruiting. He is savvy with the media and not confrontational and immature like Muschamp. He actually seems to have a clue about offensive football and has really shown an aptitude to be a program manager with a real understanding of organization, delegation, and getting recruits interested in Florida.


The Gators will implement their 4th offense in 5 years, and I can only hope that this one sticks for the time necessary to gain continuity and comfort. Doug Nussmeier comes to Gainesville as the OC and QB Coach after one undistinguished season at Michigan. He did work closely with McElwain at Alabama during their recent run of success, and after 5 seasons of wandering in the wilderness, Florida’s offense finally has a vision and a direction with the Head Coach and the offensive staff on the same page.

It will be a competition in fall camp between Will Grier and Treon Harris for the starting QB job. Harris has the advantage in experience, getting thrown to the wolves as a true freshman last season. He showed composure under fire and leadership skills, but was too inaccurate and was hurt by poor coaching. Grier redshirted to gain weight and strength, and had the edge after Spring practice. He is taller and has a stronger arm, and came out of a high school program that had a more sophisticated passing game. But until you have to face SEC defenses and gain valuable experience, it’s difficult to say who will eventually emerge. I do think, though, that once McElwain names a starter, he and Nussmeier will give him plenty of opportunity to prove himself before making a switch. I expect both to see action the first 2 games, and perhaps a full-time starter named prior to the Kentucky game.

The running back situation seems to be more clear, as Kelvin Taylor has seemingly become the #1 guy after a successful spring, and has responded to new coach Tim Skipper. Behind Taylor, though, the picture gets a little murkier until the season develops. True freshman Jordan Scarlett comes in with a lot of hype – he has the size and speed to possibly become a star in the SEC……..if he picks up the playbook and continues to work. By default he is the backup and will get a lot of snaps, as Adam Lane continued to be in the doghouse and has recently transferred. True freshman Jordan Cronkrite will likely get some opportunities this year as well. A run of injuries here could prove disastrous with little proven depth.

The WR position could be the most pleasant surprise of the season, as there is untapped potential that has suffered from poor coaching and, frankly, poor QB play the past 2 years. Demarcus Robinson is the clear leader of the unit and can be an all-SEC player this year with improved play from the QBs and the WRs around him. He has the size, speed, and blocking ability that NFL teams desire already – it’s all about consistency going forward. Behind him, Brandon Powell, Ahmad Fullwood, C.J. Worton, and true freshman Antonio Calloway all have the natural talent to make plays in the SEC…….but need to prove it to the staff and their teammates in live action.

The TEs can really make a difference in the overall effectiveness of the offense this fall. Jake McGee was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA after breaking his ankle in the very first quarter of game 1 last year. He is a proven player with starting experience at Virginia, and could thrive in the new offense by being a weapon over the middle in the intermediate zones and taking pressure off of the inexperienced QBs. Redshirt freshman C’yontai Lewis is the backup – he has speed, but not the size to be an effective in-line blocker. For now it appears that the TEs will be flexed out more often than not to help spread the field, and not a factor in the running game.

Finally, the most talked-about and scrutinized unit facing the most pressure is the Offensive LIne. This unitl has been a mess for most of the past 2 seasons due to injuries and no consistent game planning from the previous coordinators. Coach Mike Summers was the only coach retained from the Will Muschamp failure, which speaks volumes about the trust McElwain has in him. Last season he actually did a fine job with a mash up of players with varying experience and some with marginal talent. The entire offensive staff went all out since December to bring in fresh recruits, transfers and reevaluated the returning players to try and cobble together an effective unit going forward. The only proven SEC-level player already on hand is OT David Sharpe. After that, it’s all hands on deck as transfers, redshirts and some true freshmen will make up the balance of the starting OL and rotation. Mason Halter comes from Fordham as a FCS All-American, and will likely be a starter at tackle or guard. Trip Thurman will be a starter at the other guard position or at center. True freshman Tyler Jordan has drawn raves form the staff and will get a lot of playing time at center. Martez Ivey steps in right out of high school as an immediate rotation player at tackle. Other newcomers, mostly redshirt or true freshmen such as Nick Buchanan, Cameron Dillard, Travaris Dorsey, Kavaris Harkless, Antonio Riles, and T.J. McCoy all will have opportunities this fall to prove themselves. It’s painfully obvious that coach Summers has a monumental task ahead of him, and the development of this group as the season progresses will influence the effectiveness of the entire offense and the game-planning of Nussmeier, especially if they struggle.


Overall, this unit – again – will be counted on to lead the team, and will have to carry their weight plus some until the offense can find it’s way. Fortunately, there is a lot of returning quality talent to compete against anyone in the country.

The Defensive Line, despite the loss of Dante Fowler Jr. to the NFL, has plenty of experience and quality players to establish the front line of a typical tough SEC defense. Jonathan Bullard surprised some by returning for his senior year, and will anchor the line. He has the flexibility to play both tackle and end based upon the scheme, and will be the leader of this group. There is a lot of young talent ready to get their chance. At tackle, Caleb Brantley, Taven Bryan, Joey Ivie, and Khairi Clark should form a solid rotation – Bryan, in particular, has looked very good so far in fall practice. At end, Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox, Jr. showed flashes last year in getting to the QB, but now have to prove thry can do it more consistently and without Fowler drawing attention away from them. True freshmen Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga come in with high expectations, and will see significant playing time.

The Linebacker corps is the unit under the most scrutiny coming in to the season, as the prior staff simply did not recruit this position well in terms of quality talent and depth. Antonio Morrison should have entered his senior season as the leader on the field, but the knee injury suffered in the bowl game has set him back, and no one is sure if or when he’ll see the field this fall, and how effective he will be. Personally I’d like to see him redshirt, but the lack of depth and experience at the position leads me to think he will try and play as soon as possible. Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone are the only others in the rotation that have seem significant playing time, and they have both been injury-prone. New coach Randy Shannon is a great coordinator and has developed a lot of fine players, and he has a huge task ahaead of him trying to find a mix of young guys to fill in the depth chart and try to survive the season until he can re-stock the position. He has tirelessly worked his old stomping grounds of South Florida to find freshmen like Rayshad Jackson and Jahim Lawrence, who will have to learn some hard lessons right away in the SEC. There is some potential with some returning players like Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin, but injuries or simply not picking up the scheme have hampered their careers so far.

The strength of the Gator defense this season lies in the secondary, which, barring injuries, will be among the best in the country. Leading the way is A-A candidate Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, who is great in coverage and also shows toughness in supporting the run game. Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor, and Brian Poole are all quality players, and can rotate outside as well as in the slot. All four are also very capable in making big plays with the ball in their hands after turning the ball over. The safety position is well-manned by Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye, and Duke Dawson. All have the size and speed necessary to be playmakers in the SEC, especially Neal, who is a big hitter and should be an all-SEC candidate this season. There are plenty of young guys like Marcell Harris and Deiondre Porter, and some true freshmen such as Kylan Johnson that will provide quality depth. There is an embarrassment of riches in this unit.

Special Teams

New Tight Ends and Special Teams Coordinator Greg Nord has a lot of work ahead of him establishing his own style, along with incorporating new players and improving the returning specialists.

The placekicking duties fall solely on Austin Hardin this season. He made some clutch FGs last year including the game-winner at Tennessee, but this is his 4th year at Florida, and it’s time for him to show consistency and improve his accuracy and start to fulfill the hype that came with him out of high school. Johnny Townsend inherits the punting from Kyle Christy. He has some experience from the past few years, but the job is his now, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the challenge and pressure. Until the offense can show proof it will actually be functional unlike the past few disastrous seasons, field position will be even more important.

The return game loses one of the SEC’s all-time leaders in Andre Debose, and it may take a few games to settle on who will handle the kick and punt returns. Going in to fall camp it appears as if VH3 will be the PR. He has the playmaking ability, but I’m always nervous having such a good and important skill position starter returning kicks, because of the added risk of injury. There is no established leader right now at KR. Right now Demarcus Robinson and freshman DB Chris Williamson are mentioned as the first guys to get the opportunity, and Robinson may also handle some of the PR duties. This is concerning, as again I’m concerned about the best WR increasing his chances for injury, and also having an unknown like a true freshman returning any kicks. This situation shows just how fortunate Florida was in having guys like Brandon James and Debose in the past that were so dangerous. Yes, they both made major contributions as true freshmen, but they were not critical starters elsewhere.

Schedule and Outlook

Gator fans approach a new season with some trepidation – again. A new staff, new offense – again, and the horrific last 2 years of the Will Muschamp era have spooked even some of the most ardent fans. The defense will need to carry more than it’s share of the load until the offense (hopefully) develops some confidence and rhythm. September is crucial to this year’s success (or lack of it).

New Mexico State – Win
Time to establish a new identity for the offense (again), and use this as an advanced scrimmage. Stay healthy – please!

East Carolina – Win
Rematch of last season’s bowl game. The Pirates could be good enough on offense to force the Gators to be pressured to score more often than they may be ready to – the defense will be on the spot to control this game.

@Kentucky – Win
The Gators barely squeaked by the Wildcats last year, and the Florida fan base is not used to this game being such an iffy proposition. If the Gators play well in all 3 phases they should be able to win this game, but until there is evidence of that with the offense and special teams, the margin for error is uncomfortable.

Tennessee – Win
The overhyped media team of the offseason comes to the Swamp. The Vols may be improved, but I’m not buying that they are “back” in any way. Still, the Gators have to play well and avoid turnovers. If Florida loses either to UK or UT, the bad part of the fan base will already start to vocalize it’s displeasure (yes – that quickly), and Coach McElwain will learn first-hand as a head coach in the SEC what expectations – even reduced ones – can do to make your job that much harder.

October is a tough 4 game stretch against 2 quality SEC West teams and 2 SEC East contenders. Talk about how far Will Muschamp drug the program down – the Gators could easily be underdogs in all 4 of those games. There won’t be any chance to hide any offensive deficiencies – the OL and QB play have to be shored up and efficient by then or another difficult season could be ahead.

Mississippi – Loss
Ole Miss comes to the Swamp with another solid squad and a defensive line that will give the Gators trouble at it’s weakest position – OL and QB. The Rebels historically catch the Gators at less than their best, and right now this matchup does not look favorable.

@Missouri – Win
This game (and the next) will be a test for the young and inexperienced offense. Another solid defensive front seven awaits, and the Tigers have been able to take advantage of a historically weak SEC East. I’m going to be an optimist here and say that the Gators surprise with a close win at Columbia.

@LSU – Loss
Too tough an opponent, too tough a venue. Death Valley and the Tigers have their own issues on offense and at QB, but have one of the best RBs in college football in Leonard Fournette, and the Gators would have to win the turnover battle by at least +2 or +3 and make huge plays on special teams in order to pull off the upset.

Off Week

vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
The Puppies are another team breaking in a new QB, but have a very strong running game and continuity in the offensive scheme that Florida can’t match. I can’t see the Gators running for over 400 yards again like last season. The off week to rest and game plan is a huge benefit, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to win.

November should be less difficult, giving the Gators a chance to either rebound from a difficult SEC gauntlet in October, or to perhaps build upon some success and complete a turnaround season.

Vanderbilt (Homecoming) – Win
The Commodores have had a nice run the past 3 seasons, but it’s back to reality, and Florida should win relatively easily.

@South Carolina – Win
The Gamecocks are rebuilding, but any road game in the SEC is a challenge. Florida’s strength on defense is it’s secondary, and that’s a good matchup against a Steve Spurrier offense. Again an optimistic prediction based on confidence in the new staff.

Florida Atlantic – Win
The Owls simply don’t have the personnel to match up with the Gators for 4 quarters. They might hang around with in-state pride and the Gators mentally looking ahead to the next game, but the Gators should pull away in the 2nd half.

Florida State – Loss
Florida has lost 4 out of 5 to the Criminoles, as Muschamp’s legacy lives on painfully for a few more seasons until the Gators restock the roster with the quality and depth it is used to. An in-state rivalry as intense as this one usually means there isn’t a real upset, but the Gators will need to jump to an early lead and not play with the pressure of playing from behind, even at home. By this time, if Florida has shown some success on the field and the offense shows signs of life, there may be enough positive momentum to help the team mentally in getting the win.

Overall Record 8-4
SEC Record 5-3

The perception of the Gator program is one of skepticism – again, especially on the offensive side of the ball – again, from knowledgeable observers and recruits. Everyone outside of the players and coaches is in wait-and-see mode – again. A good season that shows offensive progress can lead to a great offseason and recruiting class, and help permanently turn the corner for a positive future. More struggles, whether they are due to injuries or with learning the offense, could slow down the rebuilding effort. This refrain is getting old, and it’s time for good things to happen to Florida football – again.

It’s that time – again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!