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July 26, 2008
THE SCHEME: The Gators use a spread attack, but there are numerous formations – some with a fullback, some with two tight ends, some with four and even five wide receivers. Mostly, though, it's a one-back set, with three receivers and a tight end.
STAR POWER: Junior quarterback Tim Tebow and junior wide receiver Percy Harvin are as lethal a duo as any in the nation. Tebow unquestionably makes the team go, but Harvin is the Gators' most talented player. Tebow proved to be an excellent passer last season (3,286 yards, 32 touchdowns, six interceptions, 66.9 completion percentage) and also was the Gators' leading rusher (895 yards, SEC-record 23 TDs). Tebow carried the ball more than twice as many times as any other Gator. His rushing total should come down this season. Harvin can score from anywhere, at any time. He averaged 11.4 yards every time he touched the ball (83 rushes, 59 receptions).
IMPACT NEWCOMER: There's a few to choose from, but we'll cheat a bit and go with two running backs – redshirt freshman Chris Rainey and sophomore transfer Emmanuel Moody, who sat out last season after leaving USC. Rainey is a little guy (5 feet 9/177 pounds) who will get limited touches because of his size, but he has game-breaking speed. Rainey will be used in the backfield and the slot. It doesn't appear as if Moody will be the every-down back coach Urban Meyer craves, but he has the best combination of size and speed in the backfield. He had fumbling issues in the spring, though.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior wide receiver Riley Cooper has great size (6-3/209), tremendous speed and good hands. But he also has an injury history and missed time in the spring playing baseball. Pro baseball may be in his future, so if he's going to do anything on the football field, this is it. UF has a receiver spot open, and Cooper needs to grab it.
STRONGEST AREA: For a team loaded with skill-position talent, the line still is the strongest part of the entire team. Three starters return, and the Gators also get back tackle Phil Trautwein, an All-SEC candidate who missed last season with an injury. Tackle Jason Watkins blossomed into another potential All-SEC talent last season, and guard Jim Tartt is the type of mauler in the middle that Meyer loves. The sophomore Pouncey twins – center Maurkice, who played guard last season, and guard Michael, who was a defensive tackle – are physical and aggressive and should be all-league guys in the future. Depth is OK.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The running backs on the roster have incurred Meyer's wrath almost from the moment he stepped on campus. He and his staff have used a committee approach in the past and likely will do so again this season. The difference this season is that there appears to be a lot more talent on hand. "Appears" is the key word. Incumbent starter Kestahn Moore is a journeyman talent who has had fumbling issues. But Moore can run between the tackles and is a good receiver. Rainey is a breakaway threat. A lot is expected of Moody. And mighty-mite Brandon James – all 5-6, 179 pounds of him – could see spot duty, as well.
OVERVIEW: The Gators averaged 42.5 points per game last season, third in the nation, and the offense should be better this season. If the running backs come through – as in combine to run for, oh, 1,800 yards – Florida will have the nation's best offense. Tebow is a beast when he runs, yet also has great touch on his passes. Harvin is a big-time playmaker, and there is a stable of complementary receivers led by speedy senior Louis Murphy. Senior tight end Cornelius Ingram has great hands, good speed and is a matchup nightmare. Ingram's backup, sophomore Aaron Hernandez, had a superb spring. And the line has a chance to be the best in the SEC and one of the four or five best in the nation. Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen have a lot of reasons to smile.
THE SCHEME: The Gators run a 4-3 set and like to attack. A shaky secondary could make things tough for coordinator Charlie Strong, though. Strong had shared coordinator duties with Greg Mattison, but Mattison left for the Baltimore Ravens. Former Iowa State coach Dan McCarney was hired to replace Mattison as line coach. McCarney was the line coach at USF last season.
STAR POWER: Junior linebacker Brandon Spikes was part of UF's "holy trinity" of recruits in 2006, and what do you know – he, Harvin and Tebow have lived up to the hype. While Harvin and Tebow played key roles on UF's national title team as true freshmen, Spikes didn't emerge until last season. A year ago, Spikes had 131 tackles - including 16 for loss. Spikes seemingly always is talking. But he backs it up and should be an all-league guy this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: For Florida to be as good as it can be, the impact newcomer better be one of four tackles – redshirt freshman John Brown, junior college transfer Troy Epps or true freshmen Omar Hunter and Matt Patchan. Hunter, a five-star recruit, was the linchpin of UF's recruiting class. Meyer gushed about him on National Signing Day. Patchan was more heralded as an offensive tackle, but he enrolled early, wanted to play defense and had a great spring. He's still a bit on the light side, though. Epps was brought in to provide immediate help, but struggled a bit in spring ball. Frankly, if he's not at least a second-teamer, UF coaches have wasted a scholarship. Finally, Brown was one of the key signees in 2007. He sat out last season to get his academics in order, then didn't do much in the spring.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior end Jermaine Cunningham is the only proven commodity among the linemen. He was overshadowed by first-round pick Derrick Harvey last season, but still had his moments - including a 17-tackle performance against LSU and 2.5 sacks against Kentucky. Cunningham finished the season with 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He has added weight in the offseason, but it doesn't appear as if he has lost his quick first step. He must be a consistent pass-rush threat this season.
STRONGEST AREA: All three starting linebackers return, headed by Spikes. The other incumbent starters are Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones. The one thing these guys can do well is run. Depth is good for a change, and Jones needs to make sure he doesn't lose his job. Backups Ryan Stamper, Brandon Hicks, Lorenzo Edwards and John Jones will see time, as well.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There will be a first-time starter at strong safety, and we haven't even mentioned the cornerbacks - who seemingly were burned weekly last season. Still, we're going with tackle. At least eight guys – and maybe nine – will be vying for time there. It wouldn't be a surprise to see UF coaches rotate six. Inexperience is a factor: Of the nine, just one - returning starter Javier Estopinan - is a senior and he is coming off a torn ACL. The only other upperclassman is Epps, who is a junior college transfer. Unless Estopinan starts, the Gators will have no senior starters on this side of the ball.
OVERVIEW: The potential exists for Florida to have a solid defense, and with that offense, all the Gators need is a solid defense. Doe, Spikes and Cunningham are really the only proven commodities, though. Hopes are high for cornerback Joe Haden and end Carlos Dunlap, two sophomores. True freshman safety Will Hill is another young guy who will play immediately. But until questions at tackle, cornerback and strong safety – especially tackle – are answered affirmatively, this defense is a bit of a mystery.
James may be the best return man in the nation. He averaged 28 yards on kick returns, but the little guy truly makes his mark on punt returns. James averaged 18.1 yards per pop last season and has returned one for a touchdown in each of the past two seasons. Punter Chas Henry did a nice job as a freshman last season. He averaged 39.3 yards, but he put 14 inside the 20 and kicked high enough so that 19 were fair-caught. That means UF opponents – incredibly – returned just five punts, for 22 total yards. The kick-coverage unit was just OK. The big question is at kicker, where freshman Caleb Sturgis is expected to win the job. Coaches hope his strong leg will lead to more touchbacks on kickoffs, but his accuracy on field goals is a concern.
Meyer has had great success in each of his three coaching stops, capped off by the national title in 2006 in his second season in Gainesville. His version of the spread offense definitely works in the SEC, and he and his staff have been great on the recruiting trail. Mullen is a bright offensive mind who works well with Meyer. There will be more pressure on Strong this season because of Mattison's departure, and he may not have all the pieces in place to do what he truly wants. Running backs coach Kenny Carter (hired from Vanderbilt) and cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford (Michigan) are the other new assistants this season.
The schedule is set up nicely for a run at the SEC title – and the national title. Hawaii and Miami are the first two games, but Hawaii won't be nearly as good as it was last season and Miami has a long way to go before it regains elite status. Only one road game, Sept. 20 against Tennessee, looks truly dangerous, and the Vols still will be breaking in a new quarterback that early in the season. Another plus: The Gators are off the week before they travel to Knoxville. Auburn is off the schedule, replaced by rebuilding Arkansas. The season ends with a trip to Florida State, a team the Gators beat by 33 points last season. The Oct. 11 matchup with LSU is huge; the winner of that annual game has gone on to win the national title in each of the past two seasons. Oh, yeah: There's also the little matter of the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" on Nov. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla.
The offense is in great shape with Harvin, Tebow and all their friends. It's a title-worthy offense. The defense has some issues, though, and those issues could keep Florida from playing for its second national championship in the past three seasons. Florida has talent on defense, but it's young talent that needs to prove itself, especially at tackle. There are three big tests: at Tennessee, vs. LSU and vs. Georgia. The one thing the Gators know for sure already about those three opponents is that each loves to run the ball right up the gut.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.