Florida enters the 2009 season with the collective bullseye of the rest of the college football world directly on it. The Gators have the chance to make some real history for themselves and carve out a niche among the elite teams of all time if they can win another National Championship. The coaching staff has the luxury of retaining key senior leadership that will help motivate and focus the team as best as can be hoped. The entire two-deep roster returns on defense to lead the way this fall, while the offense actually could take a step back with the loss of Percy Harvin and an inexperienced WR corps.
The schedule is possibly the easiest one in 20 years. The one toss-up road game is at LSU, an improved Arkansas team has to come the Swamp, Georgia has a new QB, South Carolina also has a new QB and still searches for a big-time offense, and F$U arrives at the Swamp on Senior Day. Oh yeah, Lame Kiffen and his “mouth that roared” travels to Florida with Tennessee on 9/19 to get that same mouth smashed shut.
The Gators will have perhaps the best interior OL in the country this fall to block for Tim Tebow and a solid RB corps. Coach Addazio has an embarrassment of riches between the Pouncey twins, James Wilson, and Carl Johnson inside. The one area that needs to develop and establish a rotation the first 2 weeks is at OT, where some combination of Marcus Gilbert, Matt Patchan, and Carl Johnson will have to be sorted out. Addazio has proved to be an excellent developer of linemen, though, and most of these guys are already cross-trained at multiple positions in case of injury (always possible) or poor performance (doubtful). There is also a solid group of young players pushing for snaps, including Xavier Nixon, Jonotthan Harrison, Nick Alijajian, Sam Robey, and David Young.
The running back rotation is set with Jeffrey Demps, Chris Rainey, and Emmanuel Moody ready to break off big plays. I’m actually hopeful that the RBs are involved more in the passing game for two reasons — (1) because they are all breakaway threats in the open field, and (2) because this can help take pressure off of the WRs and TEs. Demps and Rainey, despite their size, have proven to be tough enough to run inside, while Moody just has to stay healthy (which at this point is no guarantee). Freshman Mike Gillislee has shown enough flashes in fall practice that he may not redshirt this year.
The question marks on offense are at the WR and TE position. The loss of Harvin and Louis Murphy will not easily be replaced, and I expect some struggles at WR this year. There is plenty of talent and potential between Deonte Thompson, Riley Cooper, and David Nelson, but none have over 30 catches in any season. It appears that Carl Moore may be lost for the season with a back injury. Brandon James will see significant plays in the slot to try and fill the void. Someone in the young group of Frankie Hammond, TJ Lawrence, and Omarius Hines has a real chance to play a lot this fall if deserving. At TE, Aaron Hernandez is one of the best in the country. He does it all — catch, run, and block — equally well. However, with the likely redshirting of freshman Desmond Parks due to a spring knee injury, there is no scholarship player behind him. If he goes down, then the entire offense changes significantly in scheme, which could prove detrimental against quality opponents.
It’s almost comical to try and break down the QB position, as Tim Tebow comes back for one more shot at another championship season and individual awards. The guy is the real deal in every way — leadership, motivation, toughness on the field, and work ethic. Johnny Brantley will finally get his chance to see significant playing time this year, and new QB coach Scot Loeffler has improved both player’s mechanics and coverage recognition. Brantley has great tools, and will benefit by getting snaps earlier in games. This could prove beneficial in preserving Tebow’s health though another physical SEC grind.
Unbelievably, Florida becomes the first defending National Champion to return it’s entire two-deep roster. This unit overall could actually improve over it’s 2008 play, which is what will have to happen in my opinion in order to win either another SEC or BCS title.
The defensive line actually has some quality depth in it’s rotation now, despite the off-season loss of Torrey Davis. Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders, Jaye Howard, and Omar Hunter should provide a solid base at DT in 2009. Howard is pushing Sanders for a starting role, while the much-hyped Hunter is finally in shape and could provide some real push up the middle. The DE group is one of the best in the country. Carlos Dunlap looks to improve his performance from last year with improved strength and more consistent effort on every play. His ability is freakish, and if he can command extra attention from the opponent’s OL, the rest of the DEs — Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Trattou, William Green, and others will dominate.
The linebacking corps also finally has depth at each position. The unit is lead by All-American Brandon Spikes, and as he goes, so goes the defense, according to Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong. Ryan Stamper and AJ Jones will start alongside him. Brandon Hicks is still nursing an ankle injury right now, or he would start ahead of Jones. Lorenzo Edwards, Brendan Beal, Lerentee McCray, John Bostic, and Jelani Jenkins will all play quite a bit this year. Bostic and Jenkins are future stars.
The secondary is one of the top 5 units in the country this fall. The cornerback rotation of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins, and Markihe Anderson are all quality players and tough. The Gators are loaded at safety. Coach Heater says he has 4 starters instead of 2 — Major Wright, Ahmad Black, Will Hill, and Dorian Munroe. Unfortunately, Munroe suffered a recent knee injury knocking him out for a month, but Dee Finley steps right in to lay the wood. This group plays well as a unit, and gets turnovers at a high rate — a real luxury in the college game.
Starting with the coach of this unit, Coach Meyer, this group is possibly the best one in college football. Starters are sprinkled throughout the coverage and block teams, along with young talent biding their time until they become starters some day. Florida received an unexpected bonus in the off-season when the NCAA granted Jonathan Phillips one more year of eligibility. He turned into a clutch performer last season, missing only one XP and FG all season. Chas Henry comes into his junior year as an A-A candidate at punter, allowing minimal return yards and also a threat as an athlete. Even with all of that, there is still Brandon James to return kicks. James may get more snaps as a slot WR this season, so he may be spelled on kickoff returns by Rainey or punt returns by Haden. Make no mistake though — he is possibly the most feared return man in college football. He’s fearless and tough, and consistently flips field position into Florida’s favor. The biggest challenge will be to replace James Smith as long snapper, who was a great kick coverage player, and Butch Rowley as the holder on placekicks. They were unsung heroes, but the team and Coach Meyer appreciated them.
The 2009 Gator football team has talent and depth at almost every position now, thanks to Coach Meyer’s relentless recruiting genius. The advantage of having such a strong leader like Tebow return is as much as any team could hope for in terms of trying to stave off complacency and getting lazy in weekly game preparation. The entire team seems to realize how they can be remembered in history if they manage another championship season.
There are only 2 possible losses on the road schedule, the main one being at LSU. Florida has the advantage of a week off in preparation for that showdown, and no current player or coach has won at Baton Rouge except for Coach Strong, the lone holdover from the Zook Error. South Carolina could prove to be a tough game late in the year with their solid defense, but unless they get their offense untracked, I doubt they pull off a win.
Tennessee is in line for a beatdown, and not just because of their entitled, idiot head coach — they simply lack talent on offense, and their defense is razor-thin in depth after the starters. Arkansas could sneak up on the Gators in the Swamp the week after the LSU game with a potent offense and a Florida letdown, but the Hog defense has a long ways to go. Georgia will be improved in the trenches, and may actually give Florida it’s toughest battle this season. However, the Puppies lack playmaking at QB and possibly RB this year, and know that the Gator offense has piled up huge numbers the past two years. Florida State may be marginally improved this year, but will still get to send Tim Tebow and a tremendous senior class off with a victory on Senior Day at the Swamp.
If there is a loss on the schedule, it’s hard to see right now. However, history says that Florida will lose somewhere along the way, as they have never completed an undefeated season. That, and getting back to Atlanta, are the main goals for the 2009 Gators. Many media types are predicting this, but until it happens, I just can’t go along with it. Maybe it’s superstition, maybe it’s just going with the odds. But, Florida has won all 3 of it’s National Championships with one loss, and would (I believe) get the benefit of the doubt if they still win the SEC Championship and be selected for the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. That one loss, though, would have to be against a quality SEC opponent (LSU or Georgia) that also has a good year of it’s own. Or, it could come in the last game of the season (ugh).
Here goes nothing……
Regular Season 11-1
East Division Champions
SEC Champions (over Alabama)
National Champions (over Southern California)