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IN-DEPTH: Gators vs. Gamecocks Head to Head

Written by markmcleod, November 10, 2006, 0 Comments,
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Gator Country’s Mark McLeod takes an in-depth look at how the Florida Gators match up against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Coach Spurrier’s first game in The Swamp as a mortal enemy.

FLORIDA OFFENSE IN-DEPTH

The rigors of a tough Southeastern Conference slate and a twelve game schedule are beginning to take its’ toll on the Florida football team. The Gators are banged up and have limited depth along the offensive front, defensive end, and running back This is the time when mental toughness has to be at a premium.

DeShawn Wynn ran pretty well last weekend and appears to be close to full speed. True freshman Percy Harvin has seen time at the position too, but has struggled with a high ankle sprain over the past several weeks. Senior wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius has also been nursing an ankle sprain. He has not been full speed for a few weeks.

The area of greatest concern to the Florida offensive coaches is found along the offensive front. The interior line is beaten up and bruised. Center Steve Rissler (bruised knee), guard Jim Tartt (sprained ankle), and guard Drew Miller (sprained ankle and injured Achilles) are key to the Gators success. All will be playing at less than 100%.

“We are very banged up,” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “I think that we have had eight or nine guys in a (protective) boot this year with sprained ankles….Right now, Drew Miller is probably the worst of the ankles. Our offensive line is not playing very well. Our offensive line actually played their worst game on Saturday for a lot of reasons. I could give you excuse after excuse, but it’s about time we played a little better up front. A lot of guys have not played much football, Ronnie (Wilson) and (Carlton) Medder, and Jim Tartt are all new starters this year and it’s game nine, ten, whatever it is- it’s time to be a little better.”

The Big Nasties

“That’s the number one concern on our team right now,” Meyer added. “The productivity and ability to practice and develop chemistry on the offensive line. How do you address it? You can substitute people and make changes if you can do that, but we can’t. So, the other guys have to get better. That’s the number one area of concern, right now.”

Left tackle Phil Trautwein (6-6 308) did a heck of a job on Georgia’s pre-season All-American defensive end Quentin Moses two weeks ago. Moses finished with a big zero. Zero tackles. Zero assisted tackles. Trautwein was one of only two offensive linemen named to the champions club this past week. Trautwein was named offensive player of the game for his play against LSU where he graded out at 84%. He was also named co-offensive player of the game by the Florida coaches for his effort against Tennessee. He earned champions club award for performances against Kentucky and Alabama. He and center Steve Rissler are the only two linemen named to the champions club for their play against Georgia and Vanderbilt.

The projected starting offensive guards prior to the season opener were Jim Tartt (6-3 315) and Ronnie Wilson (6-3 312). Both give Florida a physical, rather punishing presence. Tartt has demonstrated toughness in returning from those shoulder surgeries. He does not have the range of motion and continues to experience tightness in the shoulder. Overall, Tartt has played fairly well. However, he too sprained his ankle and came off of the bench to play last weekend. Once he regains full motion in that shoulder, the Florida coaches expect him to become one of the SEC’s dominating guards. He is a real road grader.

Florida lost Wilson on August 12th to a broken ankle that required surgery. Wilson had performed very well throughout practice and like Tartt, displayed the nasty attitude that coaches love. Wilson returned against LSU where he saw action on 44 plays as a reserve. He graded out as a champion in that game. He started in place of Tartt last weekend.

Two of Florida’s best linemen are center Steve Rissler (6-3 306) and right guard Drew Miller (6-5 305). The pair played together at Sarasota Riverview High School. They were among the most sought after recruits in the state. Rissler is Florida’s elder statesman with sixteen starts. The senior moved over from guard where he player last season. Rissler was named co-offensive player of the game after his performance against Tennessee and graded out very high against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. He and Trautwein were the only linemen to grade out champion the past two weeks. .

Miller, a junior, made a name for himself as an Olympic lifter at Riverview. He told me that helped him tremendously with the transition to the collegiate level. Miller has started fourteen games in his Florida career. He was also named to the champions club for his work against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. He is really going to have to tough things out this weekend on a badly sprained ankle and Achilles injury. He did so a week ago.

Right tackle Carlton Medder (6-5 315) was seemingly lost last spring. However, he noted that a change had to be made. The redshirt junior worked very hard in the weight room- the result being a stronger, more physical lineman. Medder graded out high against Tennessee, earning membership in the champions club. He has not been as impressive in recent weeks.

Overview: The health of the Miller, Tartt, and Rissler is the major concern. Rissler said that he is 80% and should be much better by the weekend. Miller is the player with the biggest concerns. His ankle is badly sprained and Achilles injuries are always tricky. Tartt should be much better by game time.

For the second consecutive week Meyer challenged the offensive line. This time he stopped short of simultaneously issuing a direct challenge to the offensive coaching staff as well. The mistakes, which have been addressed, must be corrected. Penalties, dropped passes, players failing to carry out assignments, and reserves who aren’t making the push for playing time continue to hurt this unit.

South Carolina allowed Arkansas to run for 267 yards (5.3 yards per carry). Vanderbilt and Tennessee ran for less than four yards per carry. The Gators will come in averaging 4.4 yards per carry, but will be hard pressed to do so with a banged up offensive line. We’re not even sure if the line will be able to pass protect as well. Again, Meyer said they are coming off of their worst performance.

SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: South Carolina

Skill positions

Senior quarterback Chris Leak (6-0 207) has finally led Florida to their first Eastern Division championship since he has stepped under center. The biggest question now is can he regain control of his game and make sound decisions?

Leak just hasn’t played very well over the past three games. He struggled in the second half against Auburn hitting only 5 of 12 passes for 54 yards and a key interception. It continued once again against the Bulldogs. Leak completed 6 of 12 for 46 yards and another key interception. He failed to alert the staff that he was suffered blurry vision from a blow to the head.

Last week in Nashville, Leak completed 18 of 25 for 237 yards and a touchdown. However, he also threw three interceptions- two of them in the second quarter as the Gators could have had a say in burying Vanderbilt. Those first half missed opportunities occurred at the Commodores 28 and 19 yard lines. He was hit on one pick while trying to avoid pressure, but Leak who has never had a presence of feeling the pressure knows that his first obligation is taking care of the football. Furthermore, there were times he went underneath when receivers, especially Dallas Baker, were open downfield. He must do a better job surveying the entire field.

Leak’s third interception came four plays after Vandy had closed in on the Florida lead.

On the season, he has completed 142 of 226 passes for 1,903 yards. Leak is now third in the conference in pass efficiency, twentieth nationally. He is third in the SEC with 17 touchdown passes and has thrown ten interceptions.

True freshman reserve quarterback Tim Tebow (6-3 229) didn’t play more often last weekend, but actually dropped back and threw the football for the first time since October 7th against LSU. Tebow earned the SEC Freshman Player of the Week in that game. He just missed a certain touchdown pass to Dallas Baker last weekend, going 1 for 3 for five yards. Tebow is the Gators second leading rusher with 320 yards on just 56 carries, a hearty 5.7 yard average.

Senior DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) should be full speed this weekend. He did not start last weekend. In fact, Florida’s leading rusher didn’t even secure his first carry until the third quarter. Fortunately, the coaching staff saw fit to get the ball into his hands, where he helped secure the victory. Wynn has 98 carries for 500 yards (5.1 ypc) and three touchdowns. Sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) is also banged up. Moore has run for 218 yards on 43 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield. Wynn has hauled in five passes for 48 yards. Moore has seven receptions for 56 yards and a score.

The unsung hero of this offense is senior fullback Billy Latsko. He is an outstanding blocker who gives Leak additional time to throw, Wynn and Moore the ability to get past the linebacker, and is often spotted downfield knocking around a defensive back to clear a path for the Florida receivers. Latsko (5-10 232) provided a huge spark to the offense with a key 18 yard reception against Alabama. He provides yet another headache for defensive coordinators.

Florida has a pair of athletic tight ends. Junior Tate Casey (6-7 240) has several starts under his belt and teams with Cornelius Ingram (6-4 225) to provide a terrific one-two punch. Casey is a big target who played baseball with the Gators baseball squad. He made the national highlight circuit with his receptions of Tebow’s double-pump, jump pass in the back of the endzone against LSU. Ingram played basketball for the Gators and is one of the most athletic tight ends in the nation with speed and running ability galore. Ingram has hauled in eight passes for 100 yards. He picked up 38 yards on a big play against the Vols. The pair has combined for 15 receptions totaling 163 yards and two touchdowns.

The Gators have one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. They can flat torch you when they opt to go four or five wide. The leader of the group is senior Dallas Baker (6-3 207) who leads the team with 44 receptions for 731 yards (16.6 ypc) and seven touchdowns.

Junior Andre Caldwell (6-1 203) who was lost for much of the season last year. Caldwell was a little rusty in the season opener against Southern Miss, but has emerged as the Florida playmaker the past two games. His running ability after the catch was outstanding against Georgia. Caldwell has 39 receptions for 3691 yards and four touchdowns. He carried the ball extremely well on reverses last weekend too. Overall, he has 12 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11 185) has 20 receptions and brings a tremendous 18.0 yards per catch average with him. He has a lot of quickness and wiggle. Cornelius has three touchdowns.

True freshman Percy Harvin (5-11 180) is one incredible football player. The former U.S. Army All-American has blazing speed and has hauled in 11 passes for 171 yards (15.5 ypc), while rushing for 195 yards on just 22 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per carry. You should see more of him this weekend.

Overview: Arkansas’ Marcus Monk torched the Gamecocks for eight receptions for 192 yards. Tennessee’s Robert Meachem hauled in five receptions for 106 yards. Monk and Meachem are outstanding wide receivers. So are Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell. Carolina won’t be able to contain them any better.

Tennessee is the only team among the national leaders in pass efficiency the Gamecocks have faced. Florida will be the second. Carolina hasn’t faced a group of receivers as talented or deep as the Gators.

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Analysis: Why hasn’t the Florida offense been able to consistently move the football? Coach Meyer said that it would be unfair to blame the offensive line. He stated that it was a multitude of reasons including, penalties and turnovers. He specifically pointed out that the turnovers by Leak cost them 100 yards of offense last weekend against Vanderbilt.

With an offensive front that is so banged up and the erratic (at times) play of Leak, Tim Tebow might be one of the keys to the Gators offensive success this weekend. I’m merely saying that he might play a slightly more significant role this weekend, which would present South Carolina with a very difficult challenge. Tebow has the ability to scramble and throw on the run, which could certainly help the offensive line. His running prowess has clearly been noted.

South Carolina has yet to face a quarterback that does both so well. Vanderbilt’s Chris Nickson ran for 70 yards on 14 carries despite a deep thigh bruise that limited his ability to push off and throw the ball. He struggled throwing the ball and was replaced late in the game.

Last weekend, Florida controlled the field position and cut down the penalties that have plagued the Gators far too often this year. The ability to convert on third down must also improve. Florida has only converted 11 of 42 (26%) third down chances in the past four games.

FLORIDA DEFENSE IN-DEPTH

“I do not believe we played great defense (against Vanderbilt),” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “As a matter of fact, I thought it was our worst game of the year. No disrespect to Vanderbilt, but they had two premier players, number ten (Earl Bennett) and (Chris) Nickson, the quarterback played very well. I thought that he made some great throws in the end, but we have to play much better than we did on defense. That’s one of the first times this year and one of the few times in the last two years that I can say that I don’t believe we played great defense”.

The Big Uglies

Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That fact has not been lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. They have been able to get pressure on the quarterback though.

This group is nasty against the run. Florida ranks fifth nationally having allowed just 70.2 yards per game.

Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) was dismissed from the squad. Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moved Ray McDonald (6-3 280) down from his defensive end position. RayMac has been outstanding and the Gators should not suffer much of a drop off. McDonald really turned the corner three weeks ago after having both knees surgically after last season. McDonald has 24 tackles, including three sacks among his four tackles for a loss. He was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the week for his play against Georgia and graded out in the champions club last week.

Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that he should have played true freshman reserve noseguard Brandon Antwine (6-0 271) more in the Auburn game. Had he known that Thomas’ actions would cause his dismissal- he wouldn’t have hesitated. Antwine has progressed well enough to warrant additional playing time. Expect to see him more often to give RayMac a breather. Again, it’s been a long season

Senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 290) will be starting opposite McDonald. He has racked up 16 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, including ½ a sack, a forced fumble, and has forced a fumble. He has also broken up a pass. Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen struggled to find his niche at Florida. He has seen time at fullback, defensive end, and finally, at defensive tackle where he said that he is most comfortable. Cohen has played well all season. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has six tackles, including a tackle for loss. He has also been credited with half a sack. Harris has also played well. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Both Cohen and Harris earned champions club status for their play last weekend in Jacksonville.

The Gators were set at defensive end. The dismissal of noseguard Marcus Thomas forced the Gators to move Ray McDonald inside, causing some depth issues at the position. Florida is considering taking the redshirt off freshman Lawrence Marsh, who the coaches say has graduated from the learning curve to practice field playmaker.

Regardless, Florida has the luxury of having two premier playmakers man the position who both earned grades as champions. You can’t begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 255). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss’ quickness is reminiscent of Georgia’s Quinton Moses. The junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, which includes 4.5 sacks, and a team high 10 quarterback hurries. He also has forced two fumbles. Moss was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week for his efforts against Vanderbilt.

Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) will be making only his third start. He is known for his speed and quickness, yet his intensity is one thing that appears to be his most significant improvement. He doesn’t have Moss’ first step, but he is quick. Harvey leads the Southeastern Conference with eight sacks. He has notched 22 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, and has recovered two fumbles.

Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-2 231) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators in that game with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 58 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.

Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who seemingly plays his best football in big games. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He finished with nine stops against Auburn, second best in the game. He is currently second on the team with 54 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, including three sacks, three quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. He has a slightly sprained ankle, but is expected to play.

Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in ’03 where he saw very little action. Crum has 21 tackles, two tackles for loss, which includes .5 sacks. He also has secured a quarterback hurry.

There is plenty of talent playing behind the starting linebackers. They are getting limited experience in the games and several snaps on special teams. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) (six tackles) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) (15 tackles) will be key challengers for starting jobs next season.

Overview: The Florida defensive front has limited opponents to just 2.7 yards per carry and 70.1 yards per game on the ground. That is tops in the conference and fifth best in the nation. The Gators have 26 sacks on the season, which second best in the conference. The Gators have recorded 12 of their sacks over the past three games against Auburn, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Much of that is due to the emergence of Harvey and the improved play of Moss.

Most expect a drop-off inside due to the loss of Marcus Thomas, who was having a first team All-SEC campaign. However, McDonald is playing awfully well. I wouldn’t count on a significant slip, especially when pressuring the quarterback. Expect to see more of Harris and Antwine helping to keep everybody fresh.

Carolina ran the ball very well against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. They averaged 4.85 yards per carry in those two games. They put the ball in the air against Arkansas, running only 15 times.

Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing just eight touchdowns and six field goals in 22 opportunities. That is third best in the SEC. The Gators have also played much better on third down. In the past three games, Auburn converted just 6 of 16 (37.5%), Georgia 3 of 13 (23%), and Vanderbilt only just 4 of 14 (28%).

The Gamecocks are the worst team in the conference in the red zone at 65.7%.

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Secondary

“I finished watching their offense and their group of receivers, who I think are the best in the SEC,” Meyer said. “We’re going to have our hands full, because I’m not sure we match up three deep. We have Ryan (Smith) and Reggie (Nelson). Tremaine McCollum’s our nickel and he’s going to have to play his best game he’s ever suited up for the Florida Gators to maintain with (Noah) Whiteside, (Sidney) Rice, and (Kenny) McKinley.”

Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve, as he has a fine understanding of the defense from his days at Utah. Smith has 40 tackles. He has intercepted an SEC best six passes, all in conference play. If there is one area that Smith needs to shore up it’s his hands- he has dropped two sure interceptions. Smith would have taken his third pick against the Crimson Tide to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass. Two more interceptions would tie him for tops in the nation.

Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who has a leg injury. He is expected to play though. Lewis is best remembered for making the play of the game, which sealed the Gators 49-42 double overtime victory over Commodores a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. He has two interceptions, one of which he returned for 35 yards. The other occurred last weekend against Georgia. Lewis has 17 tackles and has also knocked down four passes. Lewis earned champions club recognition for his play last weekend.

Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) is third on the team with 51 tackles. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, two interceptions, and added a safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.

The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 195). Nelson is a Thorpe Award candidate. The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama and followed up with another outstanding performance a week later against LSU. He returned a John Parker Wilson (Alabama) interception 70 yards for a touchdown. He is tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.

Overview: First things first…The Thorpe Award folks missed adding Florida cornerback Ryan Smith to the list of semi-finalists. Heck, he was even mentioned on their watch list. Smith was the Florida defensive player of the game last weekend.

The South Carolina quarterback rotation should prove to be very interesting. The Gators struggled at times to keep the versatile Chris Nickson bottled up. The loss of Thomas could very well tire out a thin crew for Florida at defensive end.

Second year headache Sidney Rice teams with Kenny McKinley to form a potent pair of receivers. That would seemingly be enough to keep the Gators busy. Add the mastermind that is Steve Spurrier and the Orange and Blue and that spells a busy week ahead.

VERY SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida

Injuries: Sophomore defensive tackle Javier Estopinan (6-1 282) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Brandon Siler (ankle), and Reggie Lewis (leg).

Analysis: Florida linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett figure to be very busy this weekend. They will be largely responsible for making certain Carolina has limited success running the draw, as well as, watching for those quick hits over the middle.

Carolina has run the football pretty effectively in recent weeks. That was until last week. Spurrier put the ball in the hands of his quarterbacks against a Razorback team that has been pretty good against the run and somewhat suspect versus the pass. Is there any doubt that Spurrier is going to predominantly throw the football against the fifth ranked run defense in the land?

Obviously, with the absence of Thomas, Carolina will run the draw early and see if McDonald and the Florida linebackers can get off the blocks and defend it. It’s a large part of what Spurrier does anyway.

Meyer called out Tremaine McCollum this week in his presser. He said that the senior will have to play his finest game to help Smith and Lewis bottle up the Gamecocks receivers. The Florida defensive backs have made many an opposing quarterback pay for their mistakes. The Gators have picked off 14 passes, trailing only Alabama by one as the best in the conference. Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson have been ball hawks. If the Gators can rattle Carolina’s Syvelle Newton and Blake Mitchell- look out.

Florida has one of the Southeastern Conference’s best defenses in the red zone. South Carolina is the worst SEC offense in the zone.

The Gators have given up just four rushing touchdowns this season. They boast the seventh best scoring defense in the nation at 13 points per game

FLORIDA SPECIAL TEAMS IN-DEPTH

“Kicking game won the game,” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “We were ten of ten in our goals. I’ve been involved in kicking for a long time and that’s probably the most dominant effort that I can remember. We have some very good players on kick return and on our kicking game. We had six game breakers. We had two blocked punts recovered on our side and three punts that were downed inside the ten yard lane. Our punt team five times pinned their offense inside their twenty yard line, three times inside their ten. Our punt block team handed the ball to our offense on the plus side of the fifty (yard line) four times. Like I said, I can’t remember anything close to that as far as talking about field position, so our guys played very well in that phase of the game.”

“Average field position for Vanderbilt in the first half was the (their own) seventeen yard line,” he added. “We were midfield at the forty-eight yard line. Once again, it was a tilted field in the first half. In the second half, we kept them at the twenty-six yard line and ours went down to the thirty-one yard line. Once again, as far as following the plan to win and playing field position football- we did do that.”

“This is probably the most amazing stat,” Meyer said. “after a punt the average field position for the Florida Gators was the plus forty-four (yard line) going in and the percentage of scores is between sixty and sixty-five percent. Vanderbilt’s average starting field position after a punt was the eighteen yard line. So, obviously that’s an enormous change of field position.”

“If you had to say why we won- we played average defense, below average offense with three turnovers, and the punt block team is playing like a national champion. There’s one phase that’s playing the best and I’d have to put them against any team in the country that’s our punt block and punt return.”

Florida ranks eighth nationally in punt return coverage. The Gators have allowed just 38 yards on 12 returns- a paltry 3.57 yards per return. That’s impressive considering Florida has faced five of the top eight return men in the Southeastern Conference.

The Gators shut down Kentucky and Georgia, who rank third and fourth nationally in punt returns to a minimum. The Wildcats returned one punt for five yards. Georgia finished with just two yard average. The Gators have maintained exceptional discipline staying in their lane and carrying out their assignments. The Florida cover team is the only squad ranked among the top 15 nationally who have caused a fumble and taken it to the house for a score.

On the season, punter Eric Wilbur has punted 33 times for a 43.6 yard average. He ranks 17th nationally. Wilbur has hit 16 of his punts (48.4%) inside the opponents’ 20 yard line.

South Carolina is ranked 94th nationally in punt returns with a 6.38 yard average.

Prior to the Auburn game, the Gators kickoff coverage had been very good. Florida has faced two of the top 15 kick returners nationally in Auburn’s Tristan Davis (12) and Kentucky’s Keenan Burton (18). Burton was held nearly 15 yards below his average. The Gators were not as effective against Davis, who secured five returns for 124 yards (24.8 avg), which was still just over three yards short of his average.

Florida has found a gem in return specialist Brandon James (5-7 180). The true freshman from St. Augustine High School burst onto the scene against arch-rival Tennessee with an electrifying 89 yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back for a bogus block in the back penalty. James was once again spectacular last weekend. He has three punt returns for 38 yards, including a 66 yard touchdown return that was called back for a bogus illegal block on Nick Brooks.

James has returned 17 punts for an average of 9.2 yards. He is also Florida’s primary kick return specialist currently averaging 20.0 yards per return. However, James was in a boot for two days after spraining his ankle. His status for Saturday’s game is probable.

Florida kicker Chris Hetland hit only his second attempt of the season when he nailed a 29 yard field goal last weekend. On the year, he has hit only two of eight. Both were within thirty yards.

Hetland did not get a field goal attempt until the Tennessee game where he missed 47 and 52 yard attempts respectively. His next attempt came two weeks later when he missed on a 36 yard attempt. A senior should be able to maintain his confidence despite not being called upon to kick until the third game of the season. However, I’d be willing to bet that the Florida coaching staff will get kickers into position to make an attempt in the first or second game from this point forward- just to make certain that they’ll be prepared before a big game against an arch-rival.

Head coach Urban Meyer said that he would open things up every week in practice. He said that if another kicker were to equal Hetland’s practice efforts that kicker would be the starter this weekend in Nashville.

Analysis: South Carolina kicker/punter Ryan Succop has hit 12 of 13 field goals. That is a huge advantage over anything Hetland has been able to accomplish this season. He has also been a very good punter for the Gamecocks.

Florida has the edge in all facets of the return game and punt coverage. That is especially true in field position. The Gators had better hope that Hetland continues “the streak” or they don’t have to count on one for the victory.

SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida

Florida 31, South Carolina 20

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Gator Country’s Mark McLeod takes an in-depth look at how the Florida Gators match up against the South Carolina Gamecocks in Coach Spurrier’s first game in The Swamp as a mortal enemy.

FLORIDA OFFENSE IN-DEPTH

The rigors of a tough Southeastern Conference slate and a twelve game schedule are beginning to take its’ toll on the Florida football team. The Gators are banged up and have limited depth along the offensive front, defensive end, and running back This is the time when mental toughness has to be at a premium.

DeShawn Wynn ran pretty well last weekend and appears to be close to full speed. True freshman Percy Harvin has seen time at the position too, but has struggled with a high ankle sprain over the past several weeks. Senior wide receiver Jemalle Cornelius has also been nursing an ankle sprain. He has not been full speed for a few weeks.

The area of greatest concern to the Florida offensive coaches is found along the offensive front. The interior line is beaten up and bruised. Center Steve Rissler (bruised knee), guard Jim Tartt (sprained ankle), and guard Drew Miller (sprained ankle and injured Achilles) are key to the Gators success. All will be playing at less than 100%.

“We are very banged up,” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “I think that we have had eight or nine guys in a (protective) boot this year with sprained ankles….Right now, Drew Miller is probably the worst of the ankles. Our offensive line is not playing very well. Our offensive line actually played their worst game on Saturday for a lot of reasons. I could give you excuse after excuse, but it’s about time we played a little better up front. A lot of guys have not played much football, Ronnie (Wilson) and (Carlton) Medder, and Jim Tartt are all new starters this year and it’s game nine, ten, whatever it is- it’s time to be a little better.”

The Big Nasties

“That’s the number one concern on our team right now,” Meyer added. “The productivity and ability to practice and develop chemistry on the offensive line. How do you address it? You can substitute people and make changes if you can do that, but we can’t. So, the other guys have to get better. That’s the number one area of concern, right now.”

Left tackle Phil Trautwein (6-6 308) did a heck of a job on Georgia’s pre-season All-American defensive end Quentin Moses two weeks ago. Moses finished with a big zero. Zero tackles. Zero assisted tackles. Trautwein was one of only two offensive linemen named to the champions club this past week. Trautwein was named offensive player of the game for his play against LSU where he graded out at 84%. He was also named co-offensive player of the game by the Florida coaches for his effort against Tennessee. He earned champions club award for performances against Kentucky and Alabama. He and center Steve Rissler are the only two linemen named to the champions club for their play against Georgia and Vanderbilt.

The projected starting offensive guards prior to the season opener were Jim Tartt (6-3 315) and Ronnie Wilson (6-3 312). Both give Florida a physical, rather punishing presence. Tartt has demonstrated toughness in returning from those shoulder surgeries. He does not have the range of motion and continues to experience tightness in the shoulder. Overall, Tartt has played fairly well. However, he too sprained his ankle and came off of the bench to play last weekend. Once he regains full motion in that shoulder, the Florida coaches expect him to become one of the SEC’s dominating guards. He is a real road grader.

Florida lost Wilson on August 12th to a broken ankle that required surgery. Wilson had performed very well throughout practice and like Tartt, displayed the nasty attitude that coaches love. Wilson returned against LSU where he saw action on 44 plays as a reserve. He graded out as a champion in that game. He started in place of Tartt last weekend.

Two of Florida’s best linemen are center Steve Rissler (6-3 306) and right guard Drew Miller (6-5 305). The pair played together at Sarasota Riverview High School. They were among the most sought after recruits in the state. Rissler is Florida’s elder statesman with sixteen starts. The senior moved over from guard where he player last season. Rissler was named co-offensive player of the game after his performance against Tennessee and graded out very high against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. He and Trautwein were the only linemen to grade out champion the past two weeks. .

Miller, a junior, made a name for himself as an Olympic lifter at Riverview. He told me that helped him tremendously with the transition to the collegiate level. Miller has started fourteen games in his Florida career. He was also named to the champions club for his work against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU. He is really going to have to tough things out this weekend on a badly sprained ankle and Achilles injury. He did so a week ago.

Right tackle Carlton Medder (6-5 315) was seemingly lost last spring. However, he noted that a change had to be made. The redshirt junior worked very hard in the weight room- the result being a stronger, more physical lineman. Medder graded out high against Tennessee, earning membership in the champions club. He has not been as impressive in recent weeks.

Overview: The health of the Miller, Tartt, and Rissler is the major concern. Rissler said that he is 80% and should be much better by the weekend. Miller is the player with the biggest concerns. His ankle is badly sprained and Achilles injuries are always tricky. Tartt should be much better by game time.

For the second consecutive week Meyer challenged the offensive line. This time he stopped short of simultaneously issuing a direct challenge to the offensive coaching staff as well. The mistakes, which have been addressed, must be corrected. Penalties, dropped passes, players failing to carry out assignments, and reserves who aren’t making the push for playing time continue to hurt this unit.

South Carolina allowed Arkansas to run for 267 yards (5.3 yards per carry). Vanderbilt and Tennessee ran for less than four yards per carry. The Gators will come in averaging 4.4 yards per carry, but will be hard pressed to do so with a banged up offensive line. We’re not even sure if the line will be able to pass protect as well. Again, Meyer said they are coming off of their worst performance.

SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: South Carolina

Skill positions

Senior quarterback Chris Leak (6-0 207) has finally led Florida to their first Eastern Division championship since he has stepped under center. The biggest question now is can he regain control of his game and make sound decisions?

Leak just hasn’t played very well over the past three games. He struggled in the second half against Auburn hitting only 5 of 12 passes for 54 yards and a key interception. It continued once again against the Bulldogs. Leak completed 6 of 12 for 46 yards and another key interception. He failed to alert the staff that he was suffered blurry vision from a blow to the head.

Last week in Nashville, Leak completed 18 of 25 for 237 yards and a touchdown. However, he also threw three interceptions- two of them in the second quarter as the Gators could have had a say in burying Vanderbilt. Those first half missed opportunities occurred at the Commodores 28 and 19 yard lines. He was hit on one pick while trying to avoid pressure, but Leak who has never had a presence of feeling the pressure knows that his first obligation is taking care of the football. Furthermore, there were times he went underneath when receivers, especially Dallas Baker, were open downfield. He must do a better job surveying the entire field.

Leak’s third interception came four plays after Vandy had closed in on the Florida lead.

On the season, he has completed 142 of 226 passes for 1,903 yards. Leak is now third in the conference in pass efficiency, twentieth nationally. He is third in the SEC with 17 touchdown passes and has thrown ten interceptions.

True freshman reserve quarterback Tim Tebow (6-3 229) didn’t play more often last weekend, but actually dropped back and threw the football for the first time since October 7th against LSU. Tebow earned the SEC Freshman Player of the Week in that game. He just missed a certain touchdown pass to Dallas Baker last weekend, going 1 for 3 for five yards. Tebow is the Gators second leading rusher with 320 yards on just 56 carries, a hearty 5.7 yard average.

Senior DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) should be full speed this weekend. He did not start last weekend. In fact, Florida’s leading rusher didn’t even secure his first carry until the third quarter. Fortunately, the coaching staff saw fit to get the ball into his hands, where he helped secure the victory. Wynn has 98 carries for 500 yards (5.1 ypc) and three touchdowns. Sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) is also banged up. Moore has run for 218 yards on 43 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield. Wynn has hauled in five passes for 48 yards. Moore has seven receptions for 56 yards and a score.

The unsung hero of this offense is senior fullback Billy Latsko. He is an outstanding blocker who gives Leak additional time to throw, Wynn and Moore the ability to get past the linebacker, and is often spotted downfield knocking around a defensive back to clear a path for the Florida receivers. Latsko (5-10 232) provided a huge spark to the offense with a key 18 yard reception against Alabama. He provides yet another headache for defensive coordinators.

Florida has a pair of athletic tight ends. Junior Tate Casey (6-7 240) has several starts under his belt and teams with Cornelius Ingram (6-4 225) to provide a terrific one-two punch. Casey is a big target who played baseball with the Gators baseball squad. He made the national highlight circuit with his receptions of Tebow’s double-pump, jump pass in the back of the endzone against LSU. Ingram played basketball for the Gators and is one of the most athletic tight ends in the nation with speed and running ability galore. Ingram has hauled in eight passes for 100 yards. He picked up 38 yards on a big play against the Vols. The pair has combined for 15 receptions totaling 163 yards and two touchdowns.

The Gators have one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. They can flat torch you when they opt to go four or five wide. The leader of the group is senior Dallas Baker (6-3 207) who leads the team with 44 receptions for 731 yards (16.6 ypc) and seven touchdowns.

Junior Andre Caldwell (6-1 203) who was lost for much of the season last year. Caldwell was a little rusty in the season opener against Southern Miss, but has emerged as the Florida playmaker the past two games. His running ability after the catch was outstanding against Georgia. Caldwell has 39 receptions for 3691 yards and four touchdowns. He carried the ball extremely well on reverses last weekend too. Overall, he has 12 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11 185) has 20 receptions and brings a tremendous 18.0 yards per catch average with him. He has a lot of quickness and wiggle. Cornelius has three touchdowns.

True freshman Percy Harvin (5-11 180) is one incredible football player. The former U.S. Army All-American has blazing speed and has hauled in 11 passes for 171 yards (15.5 ypc), while rushing for 195 yards on just 22 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per carry. You should see more of him this weekend.

Overview: Arkansas’ Marcus Monk torched the Gamecocks for eight receptions for 192 yards. Tennessee’s Robert Meachem hauled in five receptions for 106 yards. Monk and Meachem are outstanding wide receivers. So are Dallas Baker and Andre Caldwell. Carolina won’t be able to contain them any better.

Tennessee is the only team among the national leaders in pass efficiency the Gamecocks have faced. Florida will be the second. Carolina hasn’t faced a group of receivers as talented or deep as the Gators.

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Analysis: Why hasn’t the Florida offense been able to consistently move the football? Coach Meyer said that it would be unfair to blame the offensive line. He stated that it was a multitude of reasons including, penalties and turnovers. He specifically pointed out that the turnovers by Leak cost them 100 yards of offense last weekend against Vanderbilt.

With an offensive front that is so banged up and the erratic (at times) play of Leak, Tim Tebow might be one of the keys to the Gators offensive success this weekend. I’m merely saying that he might play a slightly more significant role this weekend, which would present South Carolina with a very difficult challenge. Tebow has the ability to scramble and throw on the run, which could certainly help the offensive line. His running prowess has clearly been noted.

South Carolina has yet to face a quarterback that does both so well. Vanderbilt’s Chris Nickson ran for 70 yards on 14 carries despite a deep thigh bruise that limited his ability to push off and throw the ball. He struggled throwing the ball and was replaced late in the game.

Last weekend, Florida controlled the field position and cut down the penalties that have plagued the Gators far too often this year. The ability to convert on third down must also improve. Florida has only converted 11 of 42 (26%) third down chances in the past four games.

FLORIDA DEFENSE IN-DEPTH

“I do not believe we played great defense (against Vanderbilt),” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “As a matter of fact, I thought it was our worst game of the year. No disrespect to Vanderbilt, but they had two premier players, number ten (Earl Bennett) and (Chris) Nickson, the quarterback played very well. I thought that he made some great throws in the end, but we have to play much better than we did on defense. That’s one of the first times this year and one of the few times in the last two years that I can say that I don’t believe we played great defense”.

The Big Uglies

Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That fact has not been lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. They have been able to get pressure on the quarterback though.

This group is nasty against the run. Florida ranks fifth nationally having allowed just 70.2 yards per game.

Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) was dismissed from the squad. Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison moved Ray McDonald (6-3 280) down from his defensive end position. RayMac has been outstanding and the Gators should not suffer much of a drop off. McDonald really turned the corner three weeks ago after having both knees surgically after last season. McDonald has 24 tackles, including three sacks among his four tackles for a loss. He was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the week for his play against Georgia and graded out in the champions club last week.

Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that he should have played true freshman reserve noseguard Brandon Antwine (6-0 271) more in the Auburn game. Had he known that Thomas’ actions would cause his dismissal- he wouldn’t have hesitated. Antwine has progressed well enough to warrant additional playing time. Expect to see him more often to give RayMac a breather. Again, it’s been a long season

Senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 290) will be starting opposite McDonald. He has racked up 16 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, including ½ a sack, a forced fumble, and has forced a fumble. He has also broken up a pass. Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen struggled to find his niche at Florida. He has seen time at fullback, defensive end, and finally, at defensive tackle where he said that he is most comfortable. Cohen has played well all season. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has six tackles, including a tackle for loss. He has also been credited with half a sack. Harris has also played well. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Both Cohen and Harris earned champions club status for their play last weekend in Jacksonville.

The Gators were set at defensive end. The dismissal of noseguard Marcus Thomas forced the Gators to move Ray McDonald inside, causing some depth issues at the position. Florida is considering taking the redshirt off freshman Lawrence Marsh, who the coaches say has graduated from the learning curve to practice field playmaker.

Regardless, Florida has the luxury of having two premier playmakers man the position who both earned grades as champions. You can’t begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 255). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss’ quickness is reminiscent of Georgia’s Quinton Moses. The junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 39 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, which includes 4.5 sacks, and a team high 10 quarterback hurries. He also has forced two fumbles. Moss was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week for his efforts against Vanderbilt.

Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) will be making only his third start. He is known for his speed and quickness, yet his intensity is one thing that appears to be his most significant improvement. He doesn’t have Moss’ first step, but he is quick. Harvey leads the Southeastern Conference with eight sacks. He has notched 22 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries, and has recovered two fumbles.

Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-2 231) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators in that game with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 58 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.

Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who seemingly plays his best football in big games. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He finished with nine stops against Auburn, second best in the game. He is currently second on the team with 54 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, including three sacks, three quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. He has a slightly sprained ankle, but is expected to play.

Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in ’03 where he saw very little action. Crum has 21 tackles, two tackles for loss, which includes .5 sacks. He also has secured a quarterback hurry.

There is plenty of talent playing behind the starting linebackers. They are getting limited experience in the games and several snaps on special teams. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) (six tackles) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) (15 tackles) will be key challengers for starting jobs next season.

Overview: The Florida defensive front has limited opponents to just 2.7 yards per carry and 70.1 yards per game on the ground. That is tops in the conference and fifth best in the nation. The Gators have 26 sacks on the season, which second best in the conference. The Gators have recorded 12 of their sacks over the past three games against Auburn, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Much of that is due to the emergence of Harvey and the improved play of Moss.

Most expect a drop-off inside due to the loss of Marcus Thomas, who was having a first team All-SEC campaign. However, McDonald is playing awfully well. I wouldn’t count on a significant slip, especially when pressuring the quarterback. Expect to see more of Harris and Antwine helping to keep everybody fresh.

Carolina ran the ball very well against Vanderbilt and Tennessee. They averaged 4.85 yards per carry in those two games. They put the ball in the air against Arkansas, running only 15 times.

Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing just eight touchdowns and six field goals in 22 opportunities. That is third best in the SEC. The Gators have also played much better on third down. In the past three games, Auburn converted just 6 of 16 (37.5%), Georgia 3 of 13 (23%), and Vanderbilt only just 4 of 14 (28%).

The Gamecocks are the worst team in the conference in the red zone at 65.7%.

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Secondary

“I finished watching their offense and their group of receivers, who I think are the best in the SEC,” Meyer said. “We’re going to have our hands full, because I’m not sure we match up three deep. We have Ryan (Smith) and Reggie (Nelson). Tremaine McCollum’s our nickel and he’s going to have to play his best game he’s ever suited up for the Florida Gators to maintain with (Noah) Whiteside, (Sidney) Rice, and (Kenny) McKinley.”

Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve, as he has a fine understanding of the defense from his days at Utah. Smith has 40 tackles. He has intercepted an SEC best six passes, all in conference play. If there is one area that Smith needs to shore up it’s his hands- he has dropped two sure interceptions. Smith would have taken his third pick against the Crimson Tide to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass. Two more interceptions would tie him for tops in the nation.

Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who has a leg injury. He is expected to play though. Lewis is best remembered for making the play of the game, which sealed the Gators 49-42 double overtime victory over Commodores a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. He has two interceptions, one of which he returned for 35 yards. The other occurred last weekend against Georgia. Lewis has 17 tackles and has also knocked down four passes. Lewis earned champions club recognition for his play last weekend.

Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) is third on the team with 51 tackles. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, two interceptions, and added a safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.

The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 195). Nelson is a Thorpe Award candidate. The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama and followed up with another outstanding performance a week later against LSU. He returned a John Parker Wilson (Alabama) interception 70 yards for a touchdown. He is tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.

Overview: First things first…The Thorpe Award folks missed adding Florida cornerback Ryan Smith to the list of semi-finalists. Heck, he was even mentioned on their watch list. Smith was the Florida defensive player of the game last weekend.

The South Carolina quarterback rotation should prove to be very interesting. The Gators struggled at times to keep the versatile Chris Nickson bottled up. The loss of Thomas could very well tire out a thin crew for Florida at defensive end.

Second year headache Sidney Rice teams with Kenny McKinley to form a potent pair of receivers. That would seemingly be enough to keep the Gators busy. Add the mastermind that is Steve Spurrier and the Orange and Blue and that spells a busy week ahead.

VERY SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida

Injuries: Sophomore defensive tackle Javier Estopinan (6-1 282) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Brandon Siler (ankle), and Reggie Lewis (leg).

Analysis: Florida linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett figure to be very busy this weekend. They will be largely responsible for making certain Carolina has limited success running the draw, as well as, watching for those quick hits over the middle.

Carolina has run the football pretty effectively in recent weeks. That was until last week. Spurrier put the ball in the hands of his quarterbacks against a Razorback team that has been pretty good against the run and somewhat suspect versus the pass. Is there any doubt that Spurrier is going to predominantly throw the football against the fifth ranked run defense in the land?

Obviously, with the absence of Thomas, Carolina will run the draw early and see if McDonald and the Florida linebackers can get off the blocks and defend it. It’s a large part of what Spurrier does anyway.

Meyer called out Tremaine McCollum this week in his presser. He said that the senior will have to play his finest game to help Smith and Lewis bottle up the Gamecocks receivers. The Florida defensive backs have made many an opposing quarterback pay for their mistakes. The Gators have picked off 14 passes, trailing only Alabama by one as the best in the conference. Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson have been ball hawks. If the Gators can rattle Carolina’s Syvelle Newton and Blake Mitchell- look out.

Florida has one of the Southeastern Conference’s best defenses in the red zone. South Carolina is the worst SEC offense in the zone.

The Gators have given up just four rushing touchdowns this season. They boast the seventh best scoring defense in the nation at 13 points per game

FLORIDA SPECIAL TEAMS IN-DEPTH

“Kicking game won the game,” Florida head coach Urban Meyer said. “We were ten of ten in our goals. I’ve been involved in kicking for a long time and that’s probably the most dominant effort that I can remember. We have some very good players on kick return and on our kicking game. We had six game breakers. We had two blocked punts recovered on our side and three punts that were downed inside the ten yard lane. Our punt team five times pinned their offense inside their twenty yard line, three times inside their ten. Our punt block team handed the ball to our offense on the plus side of the fifty (yard line) four times. Like I said, I can’t remember anything close to that as far as talking about field position, so our guys played very well in that phase of the game.”

“Average field position for Vanderbilt in the first half was the (their own) seventeen yard line,” he added. “We were midfield at the forty-eight yard line. Once again, it was a tilted field in the first half. In the second half, we kept them at the twenty-six yard line and ours went down to the thirty-one yard line. Once again, as far as following the plan to win and playing field position football- we did do that.”

“This is probably the most amazing stat,” Meyer said. “after a punt the average field position for the Florida Gators was the plus forty-four (yard line) going in and the percentage of scores is between sixty and sixty-five percent. Vanderbilt’s average starting field position after a punt was the eighteen yard line. So, obviously that’s an enormous change of field position.”

“If you had to say why we won- we played average defense, below average offense with three turnovers, and the punt block team is playing like a national champion. There’s one phase that’s playing the best and I’d have to put them against any team in the country that’s our punt block and punt return.”

Florida ranks eighth nationally in punt return coverage. The Gators have allowed just 38 yards on 12 returns- a paltry 3.57 yards per return. That’s impressive considering Florida has faced five of the top eight return men in the Southeastern Conference.

The Gators shut down Kentucky and Georgia, who rank third and fourth nationally in punt returns to a minimum. The Wildcats returned one punt for five yards. Georgia finished with just two yard average. The Gators have maintained exceptional discipline staying in their lane and carrying out their assignments. The Florida cover team is the only squad ranked among the top 15 nationally who have caused a fumble and taken it to the house for a score.

On the season, punter Eric Wilbur has punted 33 times for a 43.6 yard average. He ranks 17th nationally. Wilbur has hit 16 of his punts (48.4%) inside the opponents’ 20 yard line.

South Carolina is ranked 94th nationally in punt returns with a 6.38 yard average.

Prior to the Auburn game, the Gators kickoff coverage had been very good. Florida has faced two of the top 15 kick returners nationally in Auburn’s Tristan Davis (12) and Kentucky’s Keenan Burton (18). Burton was held nearly 15 yards below his average. The Gators were not as effective against Davis, who secured five returns for 124 yards (24.8 avg), which was still just over three yards short of his average.

Florida has found a gem in return specialist Brandon James (5-7 180). The true freshman from St. Augustine High School burst onto the scene against arch-rival Tennessee with an electrifying 89 yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back for a bogus block in the back penalty. James was once again spectacular last weekend. He has three punt returns for 38 yards, including a 66 yard touchdown return that was called back for a bogus illegal block on Nick Brooks.

James has returned 17 punts for an average of 9.2 yards. He is also Florida’s primary kick return specialist currently averaging 20.0 yards per return. However, James was in a boot for two days after spraining his ankle. His status for Saturday’s game is probable.

Florida kicker Chris Hetland hit only his second attempt of the season when he nailed a 29 yard field goal last weekend. On the year, he has hit only two of eight. Both were within thirty yards.

Hetland did not get a field goal attempt until the Tennessee game where he missed 47 and 52 yard attempts respectively. His next attempt came two weeks later when he missed on a 36 yard attempt. A senior should be able to maintain his confidence despite not being called upon to kick until the third game of the season. However, I’d be willing to bet that the Florida coaching staff will get kickers into position to make an attempt in the first or second game from this point forward- just to make certain that they’ll be prepared before a big game against an arch-rival.

Head coach Urban Meyer said that he would open things up every week in practice. He said that if another kicker were to equal Hetland’s practice efforts that kicker would be the starter this weekend in Nashville.

Analysis: South Carolina kicker/punter Ryan Succop has hit 12 of 13 field goals. That is a huge advantage over anything Hetland has been able to accomplish this season. He has also been a very good punter for the Gamecocks.

Florida has the edge in all facets of the return game and punt coverage. That is especially true in field position. The Gators had better hope that Hetland continues “the streak” or they don’t have to count on one for the victory.

SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida

Florida 31, South Carolina 20

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