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August 31, 2011

ITG RoundTable: Fall Football Edition

MORE FLORIDA FOOTBALL: Tuesday Notebook: Weis examined quarterbacks before taking Florida job | Weis will be on the sidelines | Brantley not worried about injury | Depth Chart Breakdown & Positional Grades

Finally, after months of talk and speculation about what the 2011 Gator football team will look like this season, it's time for the team to put on the pads and hit the field.

We thought we'd take one last stab at some of the top questions facing UF before they begin the season this Saturday with another edition of the Inside the Gators Round Table.

ITG staffers Alex Klausner, Kyle Maistri, Andrew Olson and Adam Silverstein take a look at some of the issues surrounding the team as they answer four burning questions heading into the 2011 season:

1) In your opinion, which area of the team concerns you the most as we head into the season?

Klausner: This may be playing devil's advocate here, but the pass rush. Here's the thing. Everybody hypes up the new defensive linemen Florida has, and for good reason. They looked spectacular in the spring game. But people have to remember - one,that was against an offensive line so riddled by injuries they couldn't form two five-man lines from it and had to reformat the Orange and Blue game. And second, the three guys people cite as reasons the defensive line is strong are yet to start against an SEC opponent. In a worst-case scenario, the Gators need the defense to be the rock of the team if John Brantley stifles the offense. For that to happen, they need a high-octane pass rush from the edges and strong interior run defense. While this line certainly has the potential to bring just that - and most likely will - the fact is the core of the line is inexperienced and as of yet unproven.

Maistri: The quarterback situation concerns me the most. It's the most important position on the field and any time you head into a season without a proven player at that spot, it's cause for concern. Brantley was miserable in his first year as a starter, but there were many factors working against him having a successful season. There will be no excuse this year, it's put up or shut up time for Brantley. He needs to get off to a good start in the first couple games and keep the momentum rolling. Or else, Jeff Driskel could be making his first start as a Gator a few games into the season.

Olson: The secondary stands out as an area of concern. Even with Ahmad Black and Janoris Jenkins, this area had trouble last year. Matt Elam is said to have good instincts and be a hard hitter, but he cannot carry the unit on his own. Until the returning cornerbacks (Jeremy Brown, Cody Riggs, Moses Jenkins and Jaylen Watkins) show improvement from last season, it is a question mark.

Silverstein: The secondary. There is no question that the offensive line is a work in progress and depth at linebacker is an issue, but the inexperience of the secondary and inability of some of the more experienced players to step up and corral starting jobs is worrisome. Assuming Jeremy Brown is healthy before the SEC slate begins, the Gators will be running with Brown and Matt Elam as the only sure-fire solid contributors on that unit. Josh Evans, a junior, should have locked down the other safety job by now, and sophomore Riggs should have made the nickel spot all his own. Instead Florida may start two freshmen - cornerback Marcus Roberson and safety De'Ante Saunders - which might be fine for the first few games but will undoubtedly be a concern as the season goes on. Athleticism will only take you so far - at some point experience comes into play.

2) What is the biggest obstacle to Florida once again representing the East in the SEC Championship game?

Klausner: While anything can happen on any given Saturday, the only realistic competition Florida has in the SEC East right now is South Carolina - and challenging them at home will be no small feat. They return two primetime offensive weapons in Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore and have only bolstered their stock with a strong recruiting class that as others have pointed out includes Jadaveon Clowney, the top high school recruit in the nation. The Gamecocks look like a superior team to the Gators right now and aren't in a rebuilding year. The only way the Gators get to represent the East this year is if Stephen Garcia sinks the Gamecocks.

Maistri: The Ol' Ball Coach and South Carolina. The Gamecocks are the team to beat in the East and return absolute studs Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore. The reigning SEC East champions also added the No. 1 recruit in the nation in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, which should bolster an already strong pass rush. To make matters worse for Florida, they have to travel to South Carolina this season and will likely need to be beat the Gamecocks on the road to make it to Atlanta. Beating the better team on the road is never easy.

Olson: The biggest obstacle to winning the East will likely be the games against the West in October. The three-game stretch starting Oct. 1st (Alabama) could make or break the season. If the team goes 0-3, Will Muschamp's critics will be at full blast and team leadership will be put to the test. A breakdown in trust and team unity before games with Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State could lead to a train wreck season. If the Gators go above .500 against the West, they likely control their own destiny in the East.

Silverstein: I was originally going to simply say "South Carolina," but the truth is that it's their entire conference schedule. Even if Florida starts out 2-0, they are going to have a four-game slate of Alabama (home), LSU (away), Auburn (away) and Georgia (neutral) in which they will have to win at least two games to stay in contention. That would mean they'd have five SEC wins heading into the South Carolina game on Nov. 12 and would obviously need a victory there to get to the title game. The Gamecocks, on the other hand, could be 6-1 or even undefeated headed into that contest as they avoid both Alabama and LSU this year.

3) Who are the 2-3 most important players on the team?

Klausner: When this topic comes up, it's guys whose production or value is unmatched and irreplaceable on the team that first come to mind. Brantley is one of those guys. He's not perfect, I know, but you have to look beyond just him. If he plays even on an average level, then gets hurt and taken out of the fold, the next best guy is a reportedly interception-prone freshman quarterback. Another guy I would say is very important is Jon Halapio. He brings the best combination of talent and experience to the offensive line and I think he will be the glue that binds the line together. If he goes, it could spell trouble for the guys in the offense backfield. On defense, I'm going to make a potential pick. I think Sharrif Floyd - despite his inexperience - will ultimately prove to be the best defensive linemen of the three 2010 five-star signees. Without him, the defense would sorely miss not only his size but also his explosiveness off the line. He's got the potential to be the kind of guy who can completely morph a defensive line, a la Ndamukong Suh.

Maistri: Brantley, Floyd and Elam. Again, Brantley plays the most important position on the field, and the Gators will need his veteran leadership for an offensive unit full of unproven players.

Muschamp has consistently shown concern about generating a reliable pass rush during camp, and Floyd looks primed for a breakout season. He's got a great attitude, he gained valuable playing experience as a freshman, he's in great shape and his teammates say nothing but good things about him. He can alleviate a lot of the pressure his teammates will face by living in the backfield.

The secondary is young and inexperienced, and it will help tremendously if Elam can erase his teammates' mistakes.

Olson: Outside of Brantley, Floyd is the most important player on this team. With his move to defensive end, Floyd's importance has increased significantly. If playing Floyd at end helps establish a pass rush, it's a brilliant move getting another tackle on the field. With Jaye Howard, Dominique Easley and Omar Hunter all ready to be used on the inside, it would be very useful for the Gators if Floyd works out at end.

If Frankie Hammond Jr. is truly the most consistent receiver on the team, he is a very important player this season. A consistent target for Brantley can help the team stay out of third and long, and possibly stay on the field longer. Without a reliable receiver, Brantley's grasp of the Xs and Os has little influence on the offense's overall production.

Silverstein: It all starts and stops with Brantley on offense this year. If he has the turnaround that fans are hoping for and coaches are expecting, Florida could go from a flounder in the SEC East to a real contender. Should he falter, even if Driskel ends up as a mid-season replacement, the team's hopes are probably crushed. Defensively, Elam has to replace seven years of safety experience (Ahmad Black, Will Hill) in only his second season with the team. He is the only member of the secondary that has straight-up earned his job and is being counted on big-time by a very young unit. In the front seven, Ronald Powell has to prove that he can be as dominant as many have hoped. Muschamp and Dan Quinn's defense depends on a major playmaker at the buck linebacker position (see Sergio Kindle and Jason Taylor), and Powell has as good of a chance as any to take a leap in 2011.

4) There's been a lot of speculation, but what do you expect the team to look like now that Muschamp is running the show?

Klausner: Offensively, expect this offense to draw heavily from what Charlie Weis was doing in Kansas City with Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster working out of the backfield. It will be a run heavy offense, but with flashy speed backs instead of workhorses. Everything the Gators do will be based off the run, though Weis won't be afraid to challenge the defense downfield. The only question then becomes: Can Weis turn Brantley into his next Matt Cassel?

Defensively, expect a multiple 3-4 attacking defense where the defense will mask its formations to confuse opposing passers.

Maistri: I think it'll look pretty similar to how Muschamp is saying it will look. On defense, I expect the defense to be predominantly 3-4 with a pass rush that is hard to identify pre-snap.

On offense, I expect Florida to lean heavily on running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey which will set up the play-action pass and hopefully keep the pass rush off of Brantley.

Muschamp has a team of hungry young players who will be playing with a chip on their shoulder this season.

Olson: I expect to see an intense, aggressive defense and a conventional pro-style offense.

This season, I think it will be a work in progress. I don't think all of Brantley's receivers will have the new routes down. I expect Powell to not fully learn the 'Buck' position until he has game experience. I don't expect the offensive line to be functioning as a cohesive unit in the early half of the season.

With the right talent, I think Muschamp's Gators in the future could resemble the FSU teams of the 90s that relied on strong, aggressive defenses, but put up plenty of points in a pro system.

Silverstein: With Muschamp everything starts on defense, and the smash mouth style that fans saw for years with Charlie Strong at the helm should return and perhaps even be more intense. He has placed a premium on limiting mistakes, being consistent and making big plays on both sides of the ball. Though ideally that is what every team should do, Florida's defense may have some difficulty fulfilling the first two demands due to its relative youth and inexperience. Though the defense should be improved, it will be young, so I think Weis's offense may have to take over and lead the way in year one. With four seniors - Brantley, Demps, Rainey and Deonte Thompson - looking to go out on a high note, the Gators can infuse some of their talented youth (Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Jordan Reed, Trey Burton) and really turn some heads offensively.

Quick Hitters

Who is your surprise player on offense and defense?

Klausner: On offense, a lot of people are getting caught up in the Dunbar hype, but don't forget about Hammond Jr. On defense, Riggs is another guy who can be expected to take the next step forward in his game.

Maistri: On offense, Gerald Christian will surprise some people with his ability to block on the edge and motion into the backfield as a blocker in addition to adding an extra pass catcher.

On defense, Riggs will take the next step in his game in year two and lock down a starting spot by the end of the season.

Olson: Despite all the excitement surrounding Rainey and Demps, I think Mike Gillislee will get a chance to contribute and make something of it. Howard gets lost in the shuffle sometimes on defense, but this could be a big year for him with opposing offensive lines putting so much effort into stopping Dominique Easley and Floyd.

Silverstein: Offensively I think Debose finally takes the step forward that fans hoped would happen last year. His big play ability has impressed Muschamp in recent practices, and his mindset seems to have changed for the better in the off season.

I always found myself noticing Lerentee McCray on the field last year, and I think he may shock some people with how much he contributes at Sam linebacker. He has a nose for the ball and is a good tackler, but his coverage abilities will need to improve.

Which player is unlikely to live up to the expectations of the fans?

Klausner: Brantley's the player it's probably the easiest to pick on here with all the people calling a complete turnaround, but I'm going to go with Elam. He is replacing one of the better safeties the school has seen in recent years and a lot of people are thinking this transition will be seamless. It won't be.

Maistri: Everyone has different expectations, but I'll say Brantley. I think he can be serviceable this season, but I can't see him living up to any All-SEC hype.

Olson: It is difficult to pinpoint a player with very high expectations after an 8-5 season and most contributors in the NFL. Dunbar has been hyped in both spring and fall as a go-to receiver. With the pro-style offense, fans are likely hoping for play makers in the vertical passing game and Dunbar's clean slate - as opposed to Thompson's reputation of frequent drops - could lead to unfair expectations.

Silverstein: Don't get me wrong, I believe he is going to play well throughout the season, but I think Dunbar has received a little too much hype in the off season. Practices are closed, so it is tough to know what he truly accomplished on a day-to-day basis, but going up against some experienced SEC secondaries may limit the big-plays that fans are expecting from him game-in and game-out.

And finally, in your opinion, what will Florida's final regular season record be and why?

Klausner: I'm going to predict a 9-3 record for the Gators. They have five extremely tough games this season in two groupings: the mid-season October grind against Bama, LSU and Auburn. Then there's Florida State and South Carolina. I think the Gators will find a way to win one of those three mid-season games and will split the late games with Florida State and South Carolina. This is a team that stumbled to a 7-5 record last season. With far better coaching on the offensive side of the ball and a defensive whiz being brought in as a head coach, it's reasonable to expect the Gators to improve on last season.

Maistri: The Gators will go 7-5 this season while navigating an extremely tough schedule. Loses to Alabama, South Carolina, FSU, Auburn and either LSU or Georgia will keep them from improving on last year's record.

Olson: I think Florida goes 8-4 this season. The Gators have enough talented running backs and a solid defensive front seven to win a majority of games just by playing smart football. I view the LSU and South Carolina games as likely losses with Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and FSU as toss-up games. If this team wants to truly take back The Swamp, it needs to win two of the big three at home (Tennessee, Alabama, FSU).

Silverstein: Even though the team is somewhat rebuilding, you have to give Florida six wins off the bat in Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Furman. So the real question is: What will the Gators' record be in their other half of the schedule Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State. I have no doubt that Florida can pick up two victories in that grouping, and I'll give them one more for a total of nine wins. Auburn at home, Georgia in Jacksonville and a revenge game against Florida State are the three most likely victories out of those six games.



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