As the Florida Gators embark on a new season with practice beginning in just a couple of days, there are a few questions on a team that has a good senior base. There are a lot of spots on the roster that could be characterized as strong suits, but we will take a look at five things that the Gators need to solidify for a successful 2006 season.
1. LEAK TAKES CHARGE: We saw a lot of it from Chris Leak in the spring and Offensive Coordinator Dan Mullen mentioned it in the article the other day that he has improved. That needs to carry over this fall and this has to be Leak’s team. He has been through more battles and done more than anyone else on the roster, but now he needs to be able to help others help him win games. If this happens, the Gators can win and win big in every game.
Leak will have some veteran receivers to help him. The offensive line is relatively young and that is a place where he will have to assert himself. They will look to him for guidance. The backup receivers also need to be able to look to Leak for guidance and he needs to show them he has what it take to get them in the right place.
2. SOLIDIFY THE CORNERBACK SITUATION: The early loss of Dee Webb to the NFL was only magnified by the departure of his replacement Avery Atkins before the season. The Gators return special team honchos Tremaine and Jermaine McCollum but they’re inexperienced. Reggie Lewis shows great potential but he just moved to corner last season although he played well in his three starts. Reggie Nelson will move to the corner opposite Lewis when two-a-days begin but safety is his natural position and where the staff would really like him to be. Three true freshmen are on campus in Jacques Rickerson, Markihe Anderson, and Wondy Pierre-Louis. They should be joined by Utah transfer Ryan Smith who was an All-Mountain West Conference cornerback and a freshman All-America for defensive backs coach Chuck Heater while at Utah.
If they can develop three corners and move Nelson back to safety, the Gators should be sitting real pretty on defense for 2006.
3. OFFENSIVE LINE MUST RUN-BLOCK EFFECTIVELY: The Gators averaged 3.9 yards per rush and 146 yards per game rushing in 2005. They would love to see the first number up at or above 5.0 and another 100 yards rushing per contest. There is a senior at center (Steven Rissler) with a lot of experience. There are two junior tackles (Phil Trautwein and Drew Miller) with somewhat limited experience but the guards are young all the way around.
I expect the offensive line to run block better in this system than last year’s line from the outset. This group has a meaner mentality up front and they are more prone to plowing their opponent than being quick and athletic like the last group. I think they will grow into pass blocking, as they go. If the line can run block with authority and push people off the ball as expected, this could be a very potent offense.
4. HARD RUNNING, CONSISTENCY FROM RUNNING BACKS: In 2005 the Gators never found that one back that could break the long runs, could pound it inside consistently, could pass protect with authority. They were running back by committee which is fine if each back could handle all the duties. This preseason the Gators need to find one or two ball carriers that can be the man in the backfield.
They have a group to choose from in senior DeShawn Wynn, sophomores Marcus Manson and Kestahn Moore, and freshmen Mon Williams and Chevon Walker. All have different traits, but Wynn would be the ideal candidate if he can handle all his duties and do them with a consistently good attitude.
5. DEPTH AT LINEBACKER: This is one of the biggest mysteries in Gator recruiting. The Florida Gators can recruit every position on the field and have been able to for quite some time, except for one. There has always seemed to be a lack of numbers at the linebacker position. This year it is no different.
They brought in three freshmen in Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, and A.J. Jones, but only Spikes seems physically mature enough to take the field early. All three are expected to be great players at the position, but Jones’ size may push him to safety in the early going. Ahead of the freshmen are seniors Earl Everett and Brian Crum. Crum is Florida’s most experienced backup. Everett is a three-year starter that led the Gators in tackles last year as a junior. Crum will fight off sophomore Jon Demps for the starting strong side linebacker spot. Junior Brandon Siler is the most heralded player and will wreak havoc from his middle linebacker position. Spikes will likely be his backup.
Red-shirt freshman Eric Sledge is likely a year way from being big enough for linebacker and he might be called on anyway to spell the starters from time to time. That leaves red-shirt freshman Ryan Stamper who could see time at strong and weak side linebacker. Having Stamper, Demps, and Spikes play well early will mean a lot to this linebacker corps.
TOMORROW: Five things the Gators need to avoid this preseason.