English physicist Sir Issac Newton outlined in Principia Mathematica three basic principles of motion. It is not often that I can compare the football and Newton, but one of those laws plays perfectly into a situation the Florida Gators presently find themselves. Netwon’s third law of motion states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Comparatively, when a college football team does well, it will often lose its best players to the NFL Draft.
For example, the Gators went 7-6 in 2011 and had zero players enter the draft early. The 2011 Gators lacked upperclassmen leadership on both sides of the ball and poor recruiting, evaluation and development by Urban Meyer left Will Muschamp with an empty stable of talent.
Fast forward to 2012, the Gators went 11-2 and earned their first BCS bowl berth in three years. With that, Florida is losing four juniors to the NFL Draft, including its leading receiver and its two best defensive players.
As the offseason begins and fans start looking toward 2013, the Gators need to focus on how to fill the role of their lost juniors.
Many expected this was Matt Elam’s last year with the Gators before the season started. The headhunting, hard-hitting safety did not disappoint. A first-team All-American, Elam was second on the team in tackles, led the team in interceptions and was second on the team in tackles for loss. The two-year starter was one of the most feared safeties in the country this season and is expected to go in the late first round or early in the second round.
Florida has recruited the secondary very well over the past few seasons and has a few players primed to step in. Unfortunately, the Gators lost talented safety De’Ante “Pop” Saunders to transfer, but Florida has three players that could vie for Elam’s lost playing time. Freshman nickelback Brian Poole at 5-foot-10, 206 pounds has the size necessary to provide run support and is a converted cornerback that had excellent coverage ability in both high school and during his first season at UF. Poole finished the 2012 season with just three tackles in limited playing time. Redshirt freshman Marcus Maye at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds looks the part. The former four-star safety was redshirted due to depth this past season but was ranked as the fifth best safety in the Class of 2012 by Rivals. Maye is both fast and hard-hitting with great hip speed and incredible instincts that could make him a star. Finally, the Gators have to be looking forward to incoming freshman Keanu Neal. At 6-foot-1, 203 pounds Neal has the size to make an impact, the speed to close in on receivers and the instincts to cause turnovers. Neal was impressive at the Under Armour All-America Game with three tackles and was compared to NFL safeties by those in attendance.
The loss of Sharrif Floyd will be tough for the Gators, as the junior defensive tackle was disruptive in the middle and lead the team in tackles for loss with 13. With Floyd contributing three sacks on the season, Florida is going to need a few new recruits to step up and help to fill the void of his loss.
Opposite of Leon Orr, who will likely start with the departure of Omar Hunter, upcoming senior Damien Jacobs will initially fill the role. The former junior college transfer totaled only 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks on the season. Although limited in playing time in 2012, the Gators are going to need to see the rise in Jacobs’ play. The 6-foot-3, 284-pound tackle will likely be a full-time starter. Jacobs struggled in getting off blocks and wrapping up in tackles but showed potential at times. The Gators will also look at Darious Cummings, a junior college transfer. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive tackle originally signed with Florida State out of high school, but ended up at East Mississippi Community College. Cummings was a top-150 player in the country two years ago, according to ESPN, coming out of high school. Last season, Cummings had 28 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble. Finally, the Gators will need Caleb Brantley, the eccentric incoming freshman. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound tackle is ranked as the seventh best tackle in the 2013 class, according to Rivals. As long as Brantley makes it to campus, he will be asked to step in and make an immediate impact.
The biggest surprise junior departure was the Jelani Jenkins. The redshirt junior only had 29 tackles on the season at linebacker and missed four games due to injury. He was expected to return for his final season and graduate, but Jenkins decided it was time to head to the NFL and accomplish a dream.
Antonio Morrison, a talented upcoming sophomore, will replace Jenkins in the lineup. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound linebacker had 33 tackles on the season and showed flashes of brilliance during his freshman campaign. Morrison is a hard-hitting, physical and rangy player who is best known for his hit on EJ Manuel during the Florida-Florida State game. Muschamp said before the Sugar Bowl that Morrison, “is a violent, physical football player. He’s a guy that knocks the ball off a lot of people.” Further, the Gators will look at freshman early enrollee Daniel McMillian to make an impact. McMillian was a standout at Jacksonville First Coast, was a Rivals top-100 player and the No. 5 linebacker in the country. McMillian is known for his quickness and coverage ability, while being a solid tackler. McMillian could have a Morrison-type season for the Gators next season, and enrolling early will allow him to maximize on his potential.
The Gators were not known for the prolific passing attack in 2012. The Gators amassed just 1,902 yards passing and only 13 touchdowns, ranking 116th and 105th in the country, respectively. Leading the Gators aerial attack was tight end Jordan Reed with 45 receptions for 559 yards and three touchdowns. The Gators also graduated their third, fourth and sixth best receivers in Frankie Hammond, Jr., Omarius Hines and Mike Gillislee.
With the loss of four of their top six receivers, the Gators will need a host of players to step up, and someone will have to take the reins from Jordan Reed as the leading, go-to possession receiver. The first option is Quinton Dunbar. Now, I understand that Jordan Reed was a tight end, but he was only a tight end by formation, as he was often running “go routes” rather than staying back to block or check down as a fourth option. Dunbar was second on the Gators last season with 36 receptions for 383 yards and four touchdowns. As the Gators leading “X” receiver, Dunbar was raved about during the pre-season and did OK, but will be relied on much more with the loss of Reed. Kent Taylor is the next logical option. The upcoming sophomore played in six games this season for the Gators and amassed only two catches for five yards and one touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. However, the former No. 1 ranked tight end will be required to fill the role that Reed is leaving in formation. The 6-foot-5, 223-pound Taylor is considered a possession tight end that has great size and good hands. Finally, the Gators will look to Demarcus Robinson, a freshman hailing from Fort Valley, Ga. While only committing to the Gators earlier this week, Robinson will immediately be relied upon to be a major possession threat for the Gators. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound receiver was heralded as the best wide receiver at the Army All-American Bowl and has great hands and route-running ability to match his speed. Robinson has just as much an opportunity to be the next big wide receiving threat, as his biggest competition (Stephen Alli, Latroy Pittman, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades) remain relatively unproven or unreliable.