Gators' season one to remember and forget
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida's 2012 season doesn't officially kick off until Sept. 1 when the Gators host Bowling Green.
However, for those players on the current roster, the season technically began Monday morning when head coach Will Muschamp held a half-hour team meeting.
A week after capping the program's 24th consecutive winning season and 32nd consecutive non-losing season with a 24-17 win over Ohio State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, the Gators reconvened on the first day of the spring semester.
Muschamp outlined the expectations as the program moves forward into his second season. Much of that plan over the next several months will be carried out in the weight room under the direction of new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman, who joined the program the day after the Gator Bowl.
One of Muschamp's primary goals is to build a UF team built on toughness. One that plays with a physical style. One that can take over games by dominating the line of scrimmage.
"Anybody can state the problems," Muschamp said. "It's my job to solve the problems. A third grader can tell you what the issue is, but you've got to find out how to solve the problem. I think we've made tremendous strides in some areas."
The Gators did show signs of improvement — especially on defense — as the season progressed. But like Muschamp told the Gators in the locker room after the win over Ohio State, they didn't come to Florida to finish 7-6 and neither did he.
Before saying goodbye to the 2011 season for good, let's take one last look back.
TOP 3 MOMENTS TO REMEMBER
-- The win over Ohio State tops this list. It might not go down as one of the great wins in school history, but it was the 2011 team's signature victory. The Gators didn't want to be the first Florida team since 1979's 0-10-1 squad to finish with a losing record. And yes, there was that guy named Urban Meyer looming over the game. It was Meyer's former team against his future team. The past won, which made the immediate future a little brighter for the Gators.
-- A 4-0 September seemed like years ago by the end of the regular season, but in Muschamp's first season as a head coach, the Gators took care of business with wins over Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee and Kentucky. Senior running back Chris Rainey had the best game of his career in the win over the Vols, joining Percy Harvin as the only two players in school history to rush for 100 yards and have 100 yards receiving in the same game. Oh, he also added a blocked punt.
-- For a guy who took his fair share of blame during his two seasons as Florida's starting quarterback, John Brantley had the best game of his career in a 54-32 win over Furman in late November. The Paladins sprinted out to a 22-7 lead to shock the crowd at The Swamp, but Brantley stayed calm and threw for a career-high 329 yards — the only 300-yard game of his career — and four touchdowns.
TOP 3 MOMENTS TO FORGET
-- Remember that 4-0 September? Well, it was followed by an 0-4 October. From the moment the schedule was released, the Gators knew a month that included a home game against Alabama, road games at LSU and Auburn, then the annual Georgia game in Jacksonville offered a monumental challenge. When Brantley went down late in the first half of the loss to Alabama and missed the LSU and Auburn games, the Gators took a hit that staggered them until a Homecoming win over Vanderbilt to open November.
-- When Brantley went down right before halftime of the Alabama loss, you wondered if his career was over. He needed around-the-clock physical therapy from a high ankle sprain to make it back in time for the Georgia game. It wasn't until the Gator Bowl that Brantley was totally healthy again. While we'll never know if the Gators would have played better with Brantley in the lineup at LSU and Auburn, it's doubtful they could have played any worse offensively, especially in the 17-6 loss at Auburn that was there for the taking if the Gators could have made a couple more plays.
-- Florida closed the regular season at home with a 21-7 loss to Florida State. The defense did its part, limiting the Seminoles to a paltry 95 yards of total offense. However, Brantley threw three early interceptions before leaving the game with a concussion. The game also featured perhaps the scariest moment of the year when linebacker Darren Kitchens suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff of the second half. Kitchens had to leave the field on a motorized cart while trainers attended to him for nearly 15 minutes on the field.
The nod here goes to Andre Debose's Gator Bowl-record 99-yard kickoff return against Ohio State. His school-record third career kickoff return for a touchdown was the turning point in a much-needed win.
One of the leaders of Alabama's bruising defense is linebacker Courtney Upshaw. His sack of Brantley with less than two minutes to go in the first half of Alabama's 38-10 win on Oct. 1 not only ended Brantley's night, it altered the Gators' season.
TOP 3 SIGNS OF HOPE
-- The Gators finished ninth nationally in total defense, and with 10 of 11 starters returning this group provides a solid foundation entering Muschamp's second season. The young defensive line trio of Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd showed promise, and true freshmen defensive backs Pop Saunders and Marcus Roberson earned starting jobs. Safeties Josh Evans and Matt Elam are solid, as are linebackers Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray. This group should only get better.
-- Other than offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' departure to become head coach at Kansas, Muschamp's inaugural staff returns intact. A replacement for Weis is expected to be announced this week, and Dillman is someone familiar with the blueprint Muschamp is working off. Staff stability was an issue late in Meyer's tenure as several of his assistants left for head coaching jobs.
-- Florida's special teams continue to excel. "D.J. Durkin does the best job in the country on special teams," Muschamp said following a Gator Bowl victory that included Debose's kickoff return and a blocked punt by Rainey that was returned for a touchdown by freshman Graham Stewart. In addition, kicker Caleb Sturgis (22 of 26 field goals) was a Groza finalist and returns next season.
TOP 3 QUESTIONS
-- Brantley's injury forced true freshman quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett to play more prominent roles than expected. Driskel started the season as the backup, but Brissett took over as the starter when Brantley went down. Both have a lot of upside, but it's too early to say which one will be the starter next season. Brissett is considered the better passer at this point, and Driskel the better runner.
-- The loss of senior running backs Rainey and Jeff Demps strip the Gators of their top two playmakers. Rainey (2,464 yards) and Demps (2,474) each finished in the top 10 on the school's all-time career rushing list. They also contributed in the passing game and on special teams. While Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown return at tailback, this is an area of emphasis in recruiting. The Gators also lose receiver Deonte Thompson, who caught a touchdown pass in the Gator Bowl. Debose is the leading candidate to become the team's top playmaker next season and prior to his departure, Weis talked about finding a permanent position for quarterback/tight end/running back Trey Burton.
-- The Gators worked with a patchwork offensive line much of the season, including the Gator Bowl when injuries forced little-used Nick Alajajian and James Wilson to start on the left side in place of Matt Patchan and Dan Wenger. The right side is expected to be anchored by guard Jon Halapio and tackle Chaz Green, and Jon Harrison is back at center. However, expect plenty of competition among this group in spring practice and in fall camp.
2012 GAME TO CIRCLE
The Gators will be tested right out of the gate with a road game at Texas A&M on Sept. 8 in the Aggies' first SEC game. Muschamp said Kyle Field has an SEC-like atmosphere. The Aggies also have a new coach in former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin.
4: School-record bowl winning streak for the Gators
398: Career completions for Brantley, moving him into 10th place all-time in school history, one spot ahead of Steve Spurrier (392)
3: UF coaches to win a bowl game in their first season (Muschamp, 2011), Ray Graves (1960) and Meyer (2005)
28: Sacks by the Gators in 2011 — Powell had a team-high six — seven more than 2010
7: Gator Bowl wins, breaking a tie with FSU for most in the game's history
2: Players in school history to lead UF in rushing and receptions in the same season (Rainey, 2011; Emmitt Smith, 1989)
14: Turnovers forced by the Gators in 2011, a number Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn want to see increase significantly next season
94: Tackles for junior linebacker Bostic, which led the team
6: Career blocked punts by Rainey, a school and SEC record
27: Yards per catch for Debose, which included an 80-yard reception and two 65-yarders
46: Career field goals for Sturgis in 60 attempts (76.6 percent)
11: True freshmen to play in 2011
ODDS AND ENDS
-- Easley (knee) and Roberson (neck) are the two biggest injury concerns entering the offseason. Easley was hurt in the FSU game and required surgery; Roberson started the first 10 games at cornerback before missing the final three games. Both are expected back in time for next season.
-- Redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Brown, who started 10 games in 2010, missed the season due to a knee injury. If Brown is healthy next season, he could provide a strong addition to the secondary.
-- Scott Holsopple, who spent five seasons at UF as an assistant strength coach, left after the Gator Bowl to become the director of strength and conditioning at Kansas. In addition, offensive intern Jeff Blasko has joined Weis' staff at Kansas and special teams intern Coleman Hutzler recently joined Bob Davies' staff as a full-time assistant at New Mexico.