Gators eager to finally face Idaho, put 2013 to rest for good

Vernon Hargreaves (1) and the Gators have a healthy amount of optimism for the coming season.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Vernon Hargreaves III understands why he continues to get asked the same questions over and over.

"It happened," Hargreaves told reporters this week.

Yes, 4-8 happened. No bowl trip happened. A season full of injuries and disappointments happened.

In a symbolic move, the Gators wrote "4-8" on a piece of paper, dug a hole on the practice field, and tossed the paper away forever. The players wanted closure.

"We buried it as a team," Hargreaves said. "We’re moving on."

Finally, come Saturday night, fewer and fewer questions about last season will be asked. A new season is here, and nothing triggers the aura of a fresh start like the first game of the season.

Gators coach Will Muschamp enters his fourth season and if you listened closely to Muschamp during camp, it’s obvious he is excited about the 2014 Gators.

The program added a strong recruiting class, several players lost to injury last year are healthy, and as far as camps go, Florida’s ran about as smoothly as Muschamp remembers any during his coaching career.

Much of Muschamp’s optimism that 2014 will be better than 2013 is based on the offense’s improvement. First-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper came to UF from Duke and provided instant hope that better days are ahead.

Still, you’ve got to have good players to produce positive results, and Muschamp is confident the Gators have what they need.

Gators notes

"There’s a lot of newness," he said. "We’re more talented, that’s number one. We could line up and run the run-and-shoot for all I care.

"We are more talented at running back than we’ve been. We’re more talented at receiver, we’re more talented at tight end, we’re better up front and we’re better at the quarterback position. So it starts with talent … and then I like what we’re doing schematically."

The first test is Saturday against Idaho, which finished 1-11 a year ago and lost its final seven games. The Gators dropped their final seven games.

They are ready to snap that streak and start a new one.

It’s a new season and can’t get here fast enough.

"We’re all excited. We can’t wait," Hargreaves said.

FIVE STORYLINES

— Starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is back after playing only nine quarters last season. The receivers showed significant improvement in camp. The backfield is deep and talented and the offensive line appears solid. Meanwhile, Roper’s up-tempo spread offense has been a big hit with the players. Roper hopes the Gators put on a performance Saturday that is a hit with the fans. Needless to say, everyone in The Swamp will be watching the offense closely.

— Florida’s first losing season in 34 years was difficult on Muschamp and the players. The fans took it hard, too. By the end of last season a sour tone hung over the program. However, the passing of time has alleviated some of that and the next step is for the Gators to get a win. Muschamp needs one. The players need one. And yes, the fans need one.

— Idaho coach Paul Petrino, entering his second season, plans to play two quarterbacks Saturday: Chad Chalich, who started the first seven games last season before a shoulder injury, and redshirt freshman Matt Linehan, whose father Scott Linehan is a former Idaho quarterback and is now the passing-game coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. Since former Vandals quarterback Nathan Enderle graduated in 2010, Idaho has started seven different quarterbacks.

— While much of the focus will be on Florida’s offense Saturday, UF’s secondary is untested compared to recent seasons. Hargreaves is the most talented of the group, but there will be several newcomers in the mix and some veterans taking on more prominent roles than in the past. Look for a lot of defensive backs to get playing time as Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin try to find the right combinations.

— It’s impossible to properly put in context Florida’s nightmare in 2013 without factoring in the rash of injuries that including season-ending injuries to 15 players, including 10 starters. The Gators broke camp with redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye (hamstring) as the only player on the injury report. If the Gators can get a win and remain healthy Saturday, the season will be off to a promising start.

TALKING POINTS

GatorZone.com senior writers Scott Carter and Chris Harry discuss the Gators as they prepare to open their fourth season under head coach Will Muschamp…

CAST OF CHARACTERS

— Gators freshman Treon Harris was named the back-up quarterback and is expected to play. Harris won two state championships at Booker T. Washington High in Miami and gives the Gators a different look than Driskel in certain packages.

— Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Alex McAlister has packed on around 40 pounds since coming to UF. He is one of the young players on defense the Gators expect to play a bigger role.

— Idaho punter Austin Rehkow led the nation in punting as a freshman and his 47.8-yard average was an NCAA record for a punter with 75 or more attempts.

— Florida fans get their first glimpse of fifth-year senior tight end Jake McGee, who transferred from Virginia and can stretch the field vertically with his nice blend of size and speed.

— Offensive lineman Chaz Green returns after missing the 2013 season due to shoulder surgery. Green is atop the depth chart at right tackle.

TOPICAL TWEET

THE QUOTE FILE

— "Something that we have focused on is being more physical, being nasty, finishing blocks, taking the next bite. That’s something that I’ve always done. That’s just been the type of vibe that we had on the offensive line, the type of culture that we tried to create. We just want to really see that on the field this year." — Gators center Max Garcia on offensive line’s mentality

— "My three years at Florida, we’ve been 19 and 3 when we won or tied the turnover margin. We’ve been 3 and 13 when we’ve lost the turnover margin. That’s a team status. Not just about offense, taking care of the ball. Defensively, getting the ball off people." — Muschamp on importance of turnover battle

— "I’m anxious to get back out there Saturday. Even when I walk past going to class, I look at the field. I can’t wait until those stands are filled up. I’m ready to go." — Running back Matt Jones, who missed second half of last season with a knee injury

— "He’s got a great look in his eye. I think where you see the confidence growing is in understanding what we’re doing offensively. The more understanding you have, the faster you can make decisions, the faster you can play, which you have to be able to play fast and be decisive. I see his confidence growing in that realm." — Roper on Driskel

— "If you don’t play with emotion on defense then you are just playing like a zombie. You can’t literally be a successful defense doing that. I feel like we’ll have a chip on our shoulder, but we’ll know what we have to do to win." — Gators linebacker Michael Taylor

FEELING GOOD

The folks at GatorVision put together a creative hype video for the start of the season. Check it out. A nice blend of music and highlights await your senses …

10 QUICK HITTERS

— Idaho played as an independent last season as it transitioned into the Sun Belt Conference for 2014. The Gators have never faced Idaho but are 9-1 all-time against Sun Belt teams.

More Florida Gators news

— The Gators are seeking their 25th consecutive season-opening win. Florida has won 24 consecutive openers, the second-longest streak in the nation behind Nebraska’s 28-game streak.

— Idaho’s secondary was shredded regularly a season ago. The Vandals allowed 40 touchdown passes in 2013, eight more than any other FBS school according to the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review. Seventeen of those touchdown passes went for 30 yards or more, so Driskel could have some open shots down the field.

— Former Gators linebacker Bam Hardmon, an all-SEC player at UF, returns to his alma mater as Idaho’s defensive line coach. Hardmon joined Petrino’s staff after spending last season as an assistant at Charleston Southern.

— Frankie Velez and Austin Hardin could both get opportunities Saturday following a close battle in camp. Velez hit 6 of 8 field goals in 2013 while Hardin connected on just 4 of 12.

— Muschamp said as many as 20 redshirt and true freshmen could play Saturday. Defensive backs Jalen Tabor, J.C. Jackson, Nick Washington, Marcell Harris, running back Brandon Powell, offensive lineman David Sharpe and receiver C.J. Worton are among that group.

— Senior receiver Quinton Dunbar enters the game with a school-record 28 consecutive games with at least one reception. Dunbar broke Carlos Alvarez’s school record (25) late last season.

— Garcia, Dunbar and defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. are the only three Gators who started every game in 2013.

— Idaho is playing a game in Florida for the third time in school history. The Vandals lost 41-10 at UCF in 1997 and 80-14 at Florida State last season.

— Petrino recruited Driskel during his time as an Illinois assistant in 2010. Perhaps his biggest recruit at Idaho — figuratively and literally — is 6-foot-5, 346-pound junior-college transfer Alfonso Hampton. A standout at Southwestern (Calif.) College a year ago, Hampton joined the Vandals midway into camp and is a run-stopper inside.

BOTTOM LINE

The Gators are heavy favorites in this one and eager to get back on the field. Florida is the much deeper team and barring injuries to the entire offensive line and Driskel opting to go hunting rather than show up for the game, expect the Gators to get back in the win column.