After compiling a 7-6 record in his first season as head football coach at the University of Florida, Will Muschamp was feeling the heat last year from Gator Nation.
In his first speaking engagement this summer, Will Muschamp was asked to sing, “We are the Boys”, a request he gladly fulfilled. After finishing the song Muschamp said to the crowd, “ ‘in all types of weather we all stick together’” Muschamp said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Some of y’all didn’t hang with that the first year, shame on you.” He was kidding of course, kind of.
Muschamp’s team improved in his second year, surprising just about everyone on the way to an 11-2 finish. That turnaround was due in large part to improving the team’s turnover margin, developing a dominating run game and the defense.
The defense, which was the driving force of the team throughout the season, lost a lot of key playmakers in the offseason. Even with the losses, Muschamp’s defense looks poised to reload rather than rebuild and will once again be counted on to be the strength of the team.
With another tough SEC schedule and two in-state games against rivals Florida State and Miami on tap in 2013, let’s take a look at the top-10 players the talented Florida defense will have to stop as they try to lead Florida to Atlanta and back to another BCS bowl game.
10. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
Dorial Green-Beckham was one of the most highly rated recruits in 2012 and had a scholarship offer from just about every college that fields a football team. He chose to stay close to home and attend Missouri, a decision that didn’t exactly pay dividends in his first season.
Missouri finished just 5-7 (2-6 SEC) and Green-Beckham caught just 28 passes for 395 yards.
Despite not being as productive as most anticipated, he still has elite size and speed and should be one of the best receivers in the conference in his second season. Green-Beckham is somewhat limited in what he can do based on his quarterback but he presents a size/speed mismatch for any corner back than lines up across from him.
9. Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, OT, Tennessee
Florida’s defensive line is going to give opposing offensive lines fits all season long. One offensive lineman that looks like he may be up to the task of stopping, or at least slowing down the Gators line, is a player ironically nicknamed Tiny. At 6’6” 332 pounds, Richardson is anything but tiny.
It was Richardson’s performance against Jadeveon Clowney that almost allowed Tennessee to upset South Carolina last season.
Richardson will have his hands full trying to keep Ronald Powell, Dante Fowler Jr., Jonathan Bullard and Dominique Easley in front of him but he won’t shy away from the challenge.
As Butch Jones brings more of a run-first style of offense to Rocky Top, Richardson will be a pivotal part of Tennessee’s offense in 2013.
8. Odell Beckham, WR, LSU
LSU’s leading receiver from a season ago almost made the play of the game last year against Florida. Instead, due in part to an amazing effort from Matt Elam, Beckham ended up on the wrong end of the play of the game.
There’s no Matt Elam in Florida’s secondary this season and Beckham will attempt to exact his revenge in front of a home crowd in Baton Rouge.
Beckham finished his sophomore season with 43 receptions for 713 yards and two scores. He added 325 yards returning punts along with two more touchdowns.
Beckham will again be featured both on special teams and receiver for the Tigers and will give every team he faces a tough match up, Florida included.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State
Greene not only led the Noles in receiving last season with 57 receptions for 741 yards and six touchdowns, but he also averaged over 15 yards per punt return and added two more punt return touchdowns.
Green led the Noles in receiving last year against the Gators with 5 catches for 65 yards. He’ll miss E.J. Manuel throwing him passes but all the reports out of Tallahassee are that red shirt freshman Jameis Winston is ready to pick up where Manuel left off.
6. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Duke Johnson gave Miami fans something to cheer about as the Canes stumbled through a 7-5 season. Just a freshman, Johnson carried the ball 139 times for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Heading into his sophomore season, Johnson will become the feature back and look to surpass the 1,000-yard mark rushing. He didn’t carry the ball more than 16 times in a single game last season as he shared time with senior running back Mike James but that should change in week one next year.
5. James Wilder Jr., RB, Florida State
James Wilder Jr. came to Florida State as a standout on both sides of the ball. Wilder has settled into his role at running back but shares the workload with Devonta Freeman. However, with a redshirt freshman at quarterback, the Noles will likely look to run the ball more this season and there will be plenty of carries to go around.
FSU hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in almost 20 years, so it’s hard to project that kind of a season for Wilder but he has the skill set to be that type of runner.
Wilder carried the ball 110 times for 635 yards and 11 scores as Florida State’s primary goal line back and he should continue to get those carries near the goal line in 2013.
4. Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia
Another sophomore-to-be running back cracks the top 10 (and he isn’t the last). Marshall formed one half of the Georgia running back duo nicknamed “Gurshall”.
Despite dealing with a lingering hamstring strain, Marshall carried the ball 117 times for 759 yards and 8 touchdowns.
With his entire offensive line, quarterback and running mate coming back this season, Marshall will look to improve upon his numbers from a year ago and eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark as a sophomore.
3. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt has been an ascending program ever since hiring James Franklin. Players like Jordan Matthews are the reason that Vandy isn’t Vandy anymore.
Matthews led the SEC in receptions with 94, and finished with the second most receiving yards (1,323) in the SEC.
Matthews has owned the Gators the past two seasons more than any player not named Jarvis Jones. In two games against Florida, Matthews has 17 receptions for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray would have likely been the first quarterback drafted had he decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. He chose to stay in school and Mark Richt has to be pleased with that.
Unlike the aforementioned Matthews, Murray hasn’t played well against Florida. Actually, Murray has had some of his worst games against Florida.
The opportunity to win a championship was the driving force behind Murray returning to school and he’ll have to go through Florida to get that opportunity. With that kind of motivation, along with what could be the most complete offense that Murray has had since arriving on campus, he just might have the tools to finally win a championship at Georgia.
1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
The third sophomore-to-be running back and third Georgia Bulldog on the list, Todd Gurley is the best offensive player the Gators will face in 2013.
Gurley bursted on the scene last season, drawing comparisons to Hershel Walker, rushing for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. Both of those were good enough to place him second in the conference behind, you guessed it, Johnny Manziel.
Gurley and Marshall will share the load again this year, which should keep them both relatively healthy and fresh throughout the season. The tandem, led by Gurley, should easily surpass 2,000 yards rushing again this season as they both could rush for well over 1,000 yards on their own.
Gurley has an elite mix of size, speed, quickness, agility and acceleration that makes him a dangerous offensive weapon.