Gators prepping for high-tempo Toledo attack
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Gators linebacker Ronald Powell toiled down the lonely road of rehab for much of the past 18 months. Recovering from a pair of knee surgeries, Powell could only watch as Florida's defense set the tone during an 11-2 season and trip to the Sugar Bowl last year.
Powell missed out on an opportunity to play on a Gators defense that finished ranked fourth nationally and had two players -- defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam -- go in the first round of the NFL Draft.
On Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Powell makes his long-awaited return when the Gators host Toledo in the season opener (12:21 p.m.).
Powell has watched enough film of the Rockets to realize his first game since the 2012 Gator Bowl won't be a leisurely stroll in the park. Toledo has talent, starting with senior left-handed quarterback Terrance Owens.
How does Toledo look on film?
"A lot better than we want them to be," Powell said. "A lot better than we want them to be only because the quarterback is an athletic guy, a scramble guy."
Owens and Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel have more similarities than differences. Owens is the same height (6-foot-4) as Driskel but doesn't have Driskel's bulk. He is listed at 205 pounds to Driskel's 239. Both are former baseball players keeping their options open.
Driskel signed with the Red Sox over the summer and Owens signed with San Diego after the Padres took the left-handed pitcher in the 2012 MLB Draft.
Both will be the center of attention Saturday in Toledo's first game against a team from the Southeastern Conference.
The Mid-American Conference Rockets finished 9-4 last season and lost to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Toledo's football history does include a pair of notable upset wins on the road, including a victory at Michigan in 2008 and a win at Penn State in 2000.
The Gators are geared for a high-tempo offense reminiscent of the one they faced in last year's season opener against Bowling Green. Owens (2,707 yards passing, 395 rushing), receiver Bernard Reedy (88 catches, 1,113 yards) and running back David Fluellen (1,498 yards) give second-year Toledo coach Matt Campbell some nice tools to use in the playbook.
For a defensive-oriented coach like Gators head coach Will Muschamp, the trio is more like a potential headache.
"They snap it quick. They get off a lot of snaps," Muschamp said. "They're a team that wants to snap it about 80 times a game. You've gotta maintain the ball offensively to be able to maintain possessions and keep them off the field. And defensively, you've gotta create some three-and-outs where you get off the field and put their defense back on the field."
The task of slowing down Owens and Co. will be Florida assistant D.J. Durkin's primary focus in his first game as defensive coordinator. Durkin will rely partly on the Gators' defensive line to play smart and keep Owens in check.
Sophomore defensive ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., and defensive tackle Dominique Easley must be patient in their pass rush up front.
"What they do is really good and puts you in stressful situations," Durkin said. "[Owens] can run around and scramble real well. You can't give up pass-rush lanes. He can make you pay when you get out of your lanes and do some things up the field. That will be a challenge for our defense. That's something they really rely on to move the ball."
While the Rockets should test Florida's defense, the Gators' offense will be watched closely as always by those at The Swamp for the early start.
Driskel enters his second season as the full-time starter. He'll be working behind an offensive line that is missing two of its projected starters in right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Chaz Green to injuries. Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore is expected to start at right tackle and veteran Kyle Koehne in Halapio's spot.
Florida's offensive line, deeper than in Muschamp's first two seasons, will go against a Toledo defensive line projected to start four players without a career start between them.
"That's certainly going to be a great factor in this game," Campbell told The Toledo Blade. "Here's a very talented offensive front with what they have coming back. They're physical. They do a great job. I'm really excited to see what we have on the defensive line."
Florida fans want to see what the Gators do minus starting tailback Matt Jones (viral infection) and with a group of freshmen receivers highlighted by Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. Both players had strong camps.
Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease faced Toledo in 2011 when he was at Boise State, winning 40-15 on the road.
Pease is optimistic, despite the absence of Jones, that the offense will be productive Saturday. Running backs Mack Brown, Mark Herndon and Valdez Showers will carry the load without Jones available.
"It's a little bit of an unknown," Pease said. "We're comfortable where we're at, but the kids have got to step up and perform. [Running the ball] is going to be something I think we're good at, but it might be a little more of a role by committee."
Driskel's progress since last year's season opener when he went 10-for-16 for 114 yards and a touchdown – his 50-yard touchdown pass to Frankie Hammond early in the fourth quarter gave the Gators a cushion in their 27-14 win over Bowling Green – is primarily responsible for Pease's optimism.
Driskel has better command of the offense and has developed as a stronger team leader. He also looked sharp and noticeable more confident during fall camp.
"He is going to be better at this job," Pease said. "We've got some talent. We've got some kids that are experienced now. I expect things to run a lot smoother for us to be able to do a lot more. Really, our execution factor should be a lot higher."
So, while Toledo's offense grabbed Powell's attention on film, Pease is looking for the Gators' offense to put together more highlight-worthy plays in Year 2.
Muschamp approves that plan. The unveiling happens Saturday shortly after noon.
"There's no question when you have your quarterback back and a guy that won 10 ballgames for you a year ago, you're further along," Muschamp said. "And I feel good about the talent level around him. Certainly the comfort level with what we're going to be offensively is there."