Lists of “players to watch” have become quite popular during the long offseason waits. In the past, I have avoided the urge but hey, why not? This is a big season for the Florida Gators for so many reasons but none more than the fact that it will dictate whether Florida is on the verge of being “back” or on the verge of ushering in a new era of Florida football. Therefore, the emergence of new stars is critical for this team. Everyone knows that the Gators need more production from the quarterback position, an improved offensive line and some of the young talent in the secondary to step up and make that unit a team strength and not a liability. But, here are three players that I think could have a big effect on the 2014 season.
Jonathon Bullard: I have absolutely no doubt that Dante Fowler JR will be a beast for the Gators this season as long as he remains healthy, but just how disruptive he is will depend on somebody else on the defensive line keeping teams from constantly double and triple teaming Dante. In my mind, that will have to be Jonathon Bullard. Bullard has the size and speed to do just that. He has seemed right on the verge of stardom since he arrived in Gainesville but has yet to achieve that status. If Leon Orr is as solid inside as expected, a tandem of Fowler and Bullard could help hide the youth and inexperience in the secondary.
Bullard had five more tackles in 2013 than in 2012 but tackles for loss dropped from 5 to 2.5. While he has been solid, Jonathon has not been the dominant defender his lofty five star recruiting status would seem to have suggested. Coming into his junior season, now is the time for him to make his statement. If Bullard can reach the potential he came to Florida with he can take some of the heat off of Fowler and this defense could be as good as any in the country. If your defensive line can overwhelm the line of scrimmage, every other unit of your defense immediately becomes more effective. While depth is still a concern along the defensive line, if Fowler and Bullard are both dominating things will go well for the Gators.
Andre Debose: I know, we’ve seen this movie before haven’t we? Debose has had a less than stellar career at Florida so far despite holding the record for kick returns for touchdowns with four (which also ties the SEC record). Andre has a measly 29 catches in three seasons of play. He missed all of 2013 with a knee injury. There has been an assortment of reasons for his lack of production in the passing game including injuries, attitude and his failure to take coaching. But, make no mistake that this young man has the talent to be a playmaker. Even with his limited production, Debose has three touchdown catches of 65 yards or more.
In Kurt Roper’s offense, Debose has the potential to be a lethal weapon for the Gators. He can stretch the field and the opponent’s defense not only creating playmaking opportunities for himself but also opening up space for other Florida playmakers like Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fullwood and Kelvin Tayler. Andre claims to have a different attitude coming into 2014. If that is true, he could be the x-factor for the Florida Gators this season. Much has been made of the need for improvement by quarterback Jeff Driskel and nothing helps generate that kind of improvement better than playmakers. Andre Debose could very well become that player on offense that opposing teams have to account for on every play. If so, he would be the first such player in the Will Muschamp era.
Adam Lane: Kelvin Taylor is the starting running back. That much is a given. However, in the SEC you need a stable of running backs not one elite back. Matt Jones and Mack Brown both hope to see their opportunities increase in Roper’s up-tempo offense and that should happen. Personally, I think Lane is going to make it difficult to keep him off of the field. I went back and watched the Orange and Blue game again recently and one player that stood out for me was Adam Lane. He was extremely difficult to tackle. He was a good target as a pass receiver out of the backfield. Much more importantly, he picked up blitzes like he was a veteran. The one thing that keeps young running backs off of the field more than anything else is the failure to learn how to block effectively at this level. Lane did not look just adequate but adept at the task. It would not surprise me at all to see him pass both Jones and Brown on the depth chart. Adam will probably never have the kind of big play ability that Kelvin Taylor does but he could well be that bruising back that gets those critical first downs late in close games that are often the difference between winning and losing.
So there are my three “players to watch”. It is not quite the same list you are likely to see elsewhere but I think these three players can all be game-changers (or game-savers) for the Gators. More than anything, I am just ready for the summer to be over and there to be football on Saturdays. I hate wishing any part of my life away but Labor Day weekend cannot get here soon enough.
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