Posted: 7:21 am Sunday, August 28th, 2011
By Jason Lieser
Gators fans seem to be conflicted by hope and dread heading into this season.
Maybe the new coaching staff and some new starters will revitalize the team and make everyone forget how awful 8-5 felt last year. Then again, maybe 8-5 is too lofty of a goal for team with a rebuilt offensive line, a mostly unproven defense and very shaky quarterback play.
Which side is right? The answers will begin trickling in once the Gators open the season Saturday against Florida Atlantic (7 p.m., ESPNU). Until then, here are five things that could go well for Florida this fall:
1. The defensive line turns out to be the best in the conference.
The names on Florida’s starting defensive line are a recruiting nerd’s fantasy: Ronald Powell at the Buck, Sharrif Floyd at defensive end and Dominique Easley at defensive tackle. Those were three of nation’s top seven prospects coming out of high school last year. Powell and Floyd got substantial playing time in 2010; Easley was limited by disciplinary issues and injury. Reports on those three during training camp have indicated better performance on the field and increased maturity away from it — especially for Easley. All three of those players seem to have the potential to be all-SEC this year. The other man on the defensive line would likely be Omar Hunter or Jaye Howard. Both are experienced and productive seniors. The line will be judged by sacks and rushing yards allowed, and Florida expects to be dramatically better in those areas than in 2010, when it finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in the SEC in those categories.
2. Quinton Dunbar’s emergence energizes the passing game.
Let’s supposed everyone on the Florida offense stays healthy, the offensive line is solid and John Brantley is at least a middle-of-the-road SEC quarterback. Lot of assumptions. But if all that happens, look for red-shirt freshman Quinton Dunbar to announce himself this year. Dunbar is 6-foot-1, 184 pounds and will be the Gators’ best vertical threat this year. Even if Florida has trouble up front and with Brantley, Dunbar should still be able to create opportunities for himself.
3. The new tight ends have breakout years.
New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis loves to lean on tight ends in the passing game and that should make life easier than Brantley. It should also put Jordan Reed and Gerald Christian in position for big seasons. Reed has long been seen as a gifted tight end, but he has spent too much time at quarterback during his Florida career at quarterback and battled injuries last year. With only one position to concentrate on this season, he should show improvement. Christian appears to have an idea skill set to be effective in the passing game, but was used almost exclusively as a blocker in 2010.
4. Matt Elam shows the capacity to be an elite safety.
There was no chance of Matt Elam beating out senior Ahmad Black last year, but the Florida coaching staff immediately tabbed him as the starting strong safety for 2011. Elam has done nothing to discredit that decision, and new coach Will Muschamp has been consistently pleased with him during practices. Easley said last week he might be the single best player on the defense. He has the size and speed for the position, but the big question remains whether he can carry out the duties of reading offenses, calling out coverages and directing other players. Muschamp said in July that Elam had “turned a corner” in that area, but has been critical of his communication during the pre-season.
5. The schedule turns out more favorable than expected.
It sounds crazy to point to the schedule as a potential positive for the Gators when it includes six games against ranked teams. But there are some possible upsides. Florida gets three straight home games, including a pivotal match-up with Tennessee, to start the season. The fourth game is at Kentucky. That gives the Gators a month to work out any issues in their offense before things get serious. They have to face national title contender Alabama, but the game is at home. If Auburn is as down as some people seem to believe, the Tigers could drop from the rankings by the time Florida visits them in October. Another game with enormous implications is the Week 11 trip to South Carolina. What’s good for the Gators in that one? Any team would rather face RB Marcus Lattimore late in the season rather than early, hoping he’s been beat up along the way (although that did not help Florida when he ran wild last November).