Gator Football Spring Practice Week 1 Wrapup

March 30, 2009

The Offense

Florida is experimenting with a fast-paced, uptempo offense. It is partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Oklahoma offense in the national title game and partially as a result of seeing Kevin Wilson’s Northwestern offense in 2001.

I took a look at pace earlier this offseason, and I projected that the Gators would have scored about 55 a game last year if they played at Oklahoma’s pace. Urban Meyer may or may not have seen a similar figure from his stats guys, but he seems most interested in the way that an uptempo offense disrupts defenses.

The other big difference is that Tim Tebow will be taking some snaps under center. Tebow says it’s happening because it’s the way Scot Loeffler is influencing the offense, while Meyer says it’s happening to get Tebow more comfortable with it since he’ll have to do that in the NFL. It’s not that one is wrong and one is right, since the offense has always been a team effort under Meyer.

Many have pointed out that packages with the quarterback under center existed in Meyer’s offense in 2005 and 2006 when Chris Leak was running the show. That is true, and the I-formation is also coming back if they can find a fullback.

Behind Tebow, redshirt sophomore QB John Brantley is looking sharp.

Receivers

The question on everyone’s mind comes down to this: who will replace Percy Harvin? Meyer said around national signing day that he sees incoming freshman Andre Debose in that role. So far, that appears likely because no one has stepped up to take control of that role so far. Deonte Thompson, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps are the other candidates for that position.

Carl Moore was the invisible man for a lot of last season, which was odd for someone touted as a five-star guy from junior college. He’s been looking a lot better this year, now that

David Nelson and Aaron Hernandez have also looked good catching passes. Justin Williams has been practicing with the first team offense along with Thompson and Nelson. Riley Cooper is playing baseball and is not participating in spring football practice.

Personally, I’m thinking that the 2008 receiving corps is not going to be the best analogue for the 2009 corps in terms of fitting guys into roles. To me right now, 2006 seems like a better comparison given the personnel and likely ball distribution. Having Nelson as Dallas Baker, Thompson as Bubba Caldwell, Debose as Harvin, Moore as Jemaille Cornelius and so on feels a little more right. We’ll see.

Running Backs and Offensive Line

With Rainey rehabbing from surgery and Demps running track, Emmanuel Moody is the only scholarship running back at practice. Fortunately, he’s been playing very well so far though the defense has been stuffing him in goal line scenarios.

A probable cause for that is the fact that the offensive line has not been great. Partially that is because both Pouncey brothers are sidelined with injury right now, and the only other returning starter (Carl Johnson) is at a new position.

The younger guys who haven’t played much haven’t stepped up a whole lot. Things will get better when the Pounceys come back, but they alone won’t solve all the problems. It took half the season for last year’s line to gel, but hopefully this year’s crew will work themselves out a little sooner.

Defense

The defense has been dominating so far, but Meyer says that’s “usually” the case at this early stage of spring practice. It makes sense considering the offense is working through a lot of issues with new schemes and personnel while the defense is enjoying complete continuity.

The defense won the first scrimmage.

Defensive Line

Things are great at defensive end. They are so good and so deep that redshirt freshman Earl Okine has been moved to the inside.

With Torrey Davis kicked off the team and John Brown deciding to transfer, depth is again an issue at defensive tackle. Even the vaunted 2006 line needed Ray McDonald to move from the outside to the inside for depth.

As it turns out, things at tackle have been fine so far. Jaye Howard is bigger than ever and looking like a solid backup to starters Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders. Okine has been adjusting well so far. Omar Hunter, the guy Meyer called the Tim Tebow of the 2008 recruiting class, is finally in shape, healthy, and contributing.

Linebackers and Secondary

Brandon Spikes is happy to be back, and the Gators are happy to have him. He will be the unquestioned leader of what should be one of the top defenses in the country. This position is one of the best and deepest on the team, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Spikes, Stamper, and Jones are the first teamers right now, while Doe, Lorenzo Edwards, and Lerentree McCray are the second teamers.

The secondary is very crowded, especially at safety. Starters Ahmad Black and Major Wright are back, and both are playing well. Fifth year senior Dorian Munroe, injured all of 2008, wants his starting role back. Will Hill has been making plays. Dee Finley is finally on campus, and he’s looking athletic. It’s crowded back there.

Not much has been reported about the corners, other than that Janoris Jenkins has been taking some reps as a punt returner thanks to Brandon James being out. Freshman Adrian Bushell intercepted Tebow as well, and that’s about it.

I would expect that the position will be just fine with Joe Haden and Jenkins locking things down as the starters. The depth at secondary is something any other team in the country would be envious of.

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The Difference in Gator Football is All About Pressure

November 6, 2008

Call me Bernoulli, because today I’m talking pressure differential.

The Florida offense spent much of the first four games struggling to fulfill offseason expectations. It flowed freely against Hawai’i and Tennessee for the most part, but it did not do all that well against Miami and Ole Miss. In fact, the Gators turned it over three times in the loss to Ole Miss, equal to the number of lost turnovers in the rest of their games.

Tim Tebow’s play had a lot to do with it. He was not executing well at the beginning of the year, often slinging medium passes low and overthrowing all his deep balls. Something clicked in the fifth game though; I mean, look at this:

Tim Tebow, Games 1-4
Comp % 60.78%
Pass Yards/Att 7.92
TD/INT 6/0
Rush Yards/Att 2.55
Rush TDs 2
Sacks Taken 6
Tim Tebow, Games 5-8
Comp % 69.33%
Pass Yards/Att 10.15
TD/INT 8/2
Rush Yards/Att 3.13
Rush TDs 6
Sacks Taken 5

That’s a huge difference. Some of it had to do with different play calling, and some of it had to do with the emergence of running threats in Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Most of it, I’d say, had to do with pressure.

The Guy Who Made the Difference

One substitution made a lot of the difference: putting Carl Johnson at left guard. The coaches were grooming to be a tackle next season, as both starting tackles are fifth-year seniors, but injuries led the coaches to try him out at guard.

Jim Tartt has been injury-plagued, and Marcus Gilbert did not get the job done and eventually also got injured. Johnson stepped in, and it took about three quarters before things fully came together. Once it did though, the difference was dramatic.

You can see the difference in the passing game above. Tebow has only taken one fewer sack in the last four as opposed to the first four, but the timing of those sacks is different. Nearly all of those five sacks in the second four games came when Florida had a 20-point lead or more; in the first four games he was taking sacks when games were very much in doubt still.

The Running Game

Thanks to injuries to Percy Harvin and Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps played a lot in the game against Hawai’i. They did not do a whole lot more in those first four games because Harvin carried the load in games two and four and Moody was the primary back in game three. The re-injury of Moody and the loss to Ole Miss prompted the coaching staff to try out the little guys again.

They instantly made an impact. Running behind the revamped line with Johnson, Rainey and Demps became the first pair of backs to rush for over 100 yards in the same game under Meyer.

It wasn’t that they were suddenly calling a bunch of different plays; Demps’ first big run came on a basic read option play and Demps’ second long run along with Rainey’s 75-yard run came on basic handoffs up the middle. There was no trickeration going on, there simply were holes to run through finally.

Holes were difficult to come by against Miami, Tennessee, and Ole Miss. Florida averaged no more than 3.77 yards per carry against those teams. The Gators relied primarily on rushing against the Vols since they got up big so early in the game, but the inability for the line to create holes against Miami and Ole Miss led UF to pass a lot.

In those games, Florida ran the ball just 43.55% and 47.95% of the time, respectively. The next lowest mix was against Hawai’i, when Florida ran 69.09% of the time. Compare that to when Tebow threw just five passes in the first half against Georgia, for instance, and only 13 times all game. In the last four games, Florida has averaged over 5 yards per carry in three of them and no less than 4.87 yards per carry.

It’s not just than Demps and Rainey have been used more because you can see above that Tebow’s rush average has increased too. Rainey also got as many carries against Tennessee as Moody did and was not as effective as the USC transfer was. On top of that, Tebow and Harvin were the most successful runners against Georgia before Moody took over in garbage time.

The difference in the play calling has been subtle with the extra running threats in the backfield. They use fewer empty sets, although that also has to do with what I will describe later. They run a little more triple option, and they run pass plays for Demps out of the backfield, where Harvin used to be the only one with designed pass plays out of the backfield.

It’s not like the play calling is fully, drastically different than the beginning of the year or last year though. After all, on Florida’s only scoring drive against Georgia that went for more than 56 yards, the most effective plays were either carries or receptions by Percy Harvin and a triple option carry by Tebow. The handoffs to Rainey and Demps never went for more than five yards.

Make no mistake; Rainey and Demps are a big reason why the rushing game has improved. Don’t assume though that they are the only reason. The guys paving the way for all ball carriers have gotten much, much better as the season has gone along.

Defenses

Opposing defenses do have a say in the matter too. No matter how good an offense is, the opposing defenses always play a role in performance.

The two worst games by the Gator offense were the games against Miami and Ole Miss. It should come as no surprise that those were games where the opposing defenses blitzed more than half of the time. Those teams sold out on stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, and they were able to do it. Miami backed off on the blitzing in the fourth quarter though, and we all know what happened then.

Hawai’i was not a good team, but they got a surprisingly large amount of pressure. Which is to say, they actually did get some pressure occasionally. Tennessee chose not to blitz as much, and the Gator offense basically did whatever they wanted to. Arkansas and Georgia also did not blitz over half the time, and the Gator offense did well in those games. I didn’t analyze the LSU or Kentucky games for blitzing patterns since they were such large blowouts and because the UK defense was so banged up, but I don’t remember much pressure being applied in those games.

Part of the difference in blitzing patterns have to do with the philosophy of the opposing defensive coordinators, but the fact is that from the Arkansas game on, Florida did more things to combat blitzes. Johnson being in helped for sure. Keeping a running back in more often (as alluded to above) helped too. Beginning games with quick passes, running more standard instead of read option, and rolling the quarterback out all contributed as well.

With more blitz-busting techniques being employed, the incentive for defenses to blitz lessened. Without them blitzing as much, the offense could run longer pass plays more effectively since Tebow had time to throw. He had more time to work through his progressions as well. The real threat of passing opened up the run more, which opened up the pass more, and it became a positive feedback loop.

The Rest of the Season

It will be interesting to see how things go from here on out. Meyer seemed pleased with Moody at the end of the Georgia game, so he may see more meaningful carries. Florida has often had issues winning comfortably in Nashville, and you can make the case that South Carolina field the best defense Florida will have faced all year. On top of that, FSU doesn’t look hopeless anymore.

With the Gators in the thick of the BCS race, which is always a beauty contest, there will be pressure on them to keep the big wins coming. I haven’t even mentioned the defense and special teams, which have been giving the offense short fields. I mean, only three of Florida’s seven scoring drives started in UF territory, and two of the others were 56 and 66 yards. Sure it’s up to the offense to convert those to points, but they’ve been a big help.

Ultimately, this could go down as one of the four or five best offenses in Florida history. It certainly didn’t look that way early in the season, but the changes they made to take the pressure off of the quarterback and running game have made all the difference.


Gators Working Through Injuries

October 6, 2008

It’s pretty remarkable how banged up the Gators were last Saturday.

They already had the five guys who tore ACLs in the offseason, most notably likely starters Cornelius Ingram and Dorian Munroe. Jim Tartt, Marcus Gilbert, and Maurice Hurt are all offensive guards that did not play (Tartt did for a couple plays before coming out permanently). Then you had running backs Emmanuel Moody and Kestahn Moore out with ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively. Even Tim Tebow admitted to being hurt or sore “a little bit;” I did notice him with a band aid on his left index finger after Brantley came in, but I don’t know if that’s what he was referring to.

Over on defense, the top two weakside linebackers were out with Dustin Doe and Ryan Stamper. Backup strong safety Will Hill apparently missed the game as well.

According to Urban Meyer, we can expect to see Stamper, Moore, Gilbert, and Hill play against LSU. Moody and Tartt are questionable right now, and Doe is definitely out until after the bye week, having just had surgery for a double hernia.

The guys that were missed most against Arkansas were Moody and Stamper. Tartt is a big loss for sure, but at this point he’s never going to be better than questionable for any game. For all the running up the middle the coaches wanted to do, Moody would have been perfect. Stamper is also great in run defense, something the Gators could have shored up last Saturday.

Kestahn Moore was able to run up the middle pretty reliably against LSU last season. That is until he fumbled of course, at which point Captain Hook benched him for the rest of the game. It would sure be nice to see Moody back for this one Saturday, and failing that to see Moore get another chance. LSU has some of their interior linemen a bit banged up, just like a season ago, and there could be opportunities for gains there.


The Arkansas Game Summed Up in a Picture

October 4, 2008

The Gators pulled away late to put some lipstick on this pig of a game, but it was still a frustrating thing to watch. The biggest difference from last week was that Arkansas was a hopelessly overmatched opponent instead of a talented and hungry squad looking for a signature win.

I’m sure another look at it will make it seem not so bad and the game never really was in doubt, but this did not feel how it should have felt. They definitely missed Moody badly.

More to come tomorrow.


No Turnovers Yet

September 22, 2008

For all the gnashing of teeth going on right now about Florida’s offense and how it hasn’t looked as good as last year’s did, there is one positive side effect of having an overall conservative scheme. A very positive side effect.

So far, the Gators are the only team in the country not to have turned the ball over yet. For comparison, over the last four seasons only one team that played 12 or more games has finished the year with fewer than ten turnovers on the season: 2004 Oklahoma State.

Tim Tebow is in the middle of the longest streak of pass attempts without an interception in school history, and so far none of the running backs have fumbled. Urban Meyer apparently still gets on Emmanuel Moody’s case in regards to fumbling, thanks to has spring game butterfingers, but his performance against Tennessee was nice to see: nine carries, 6.1 yards per rush, no fumbles.

On the positive side, the Gator D has forced nine turnovers so far, a very encouraging number considering they had just 20 takeaways last season. A hallmark of the 2006 national championship team was getting big turnovers at big junctures, and they certainly replicated that against the Vols.

I’m going to go more into detail regarding the offense later this week, but one thing is for sure: if they’re not turning the ball over, how many long plays they break off becomes less important.


Moody’s Issues

September 11, 2008

Emmanuel Moody was supposed to be the guy to solve Florida’s running problems and take the burden off of Tebow and Harvin. So far, his number has been two: two games, two carries, two yards.

He missed time against Hawai’i after turning his ankle, but the coaches chose not to play him against Miami. That’s pretty serious considering how lackluster the Gators’ ground attack was in that game.

Meyer says it’s time to get him involved: “We’re expecting a lot out of him. Yeah, we’re going to get going.”

The main quote from Meyer I’ve seen thrown around about him is this one: “We’re force-feeding it [the offense] pretty hard core to him right now. The thing about this offense, people say it’s complicated, and it is. There’s a lot of stuff to it and it works. It’s not real hard to turn around and hand it off and the tailback runs into big piles. We expect our guys to learn a lot.”

One way to interpret that is a swipe at Moody’s former offense out at USC, as though Meyer thought all the running backs do out there is take handoffs and run into piles. Based on the high amount of respect he gives to Pete Carroll, I think that’s not the likely explanation. Plus, given the reverence Meyer has for guys like Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and Earle Bruce, I don’t think he’d be one to toss out insults against the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense.

The likely explanation of it comes from the Orlando Sentinel‘s Jeremy Fowler.

Fowler has a “reliable source” who says that “Moody wasn’t always picking up the right blocks, blitzes and other fully-functional stuff you need as an RB in the spread leading up to the Miami game.” Given the Gators’ overall issues with blocking and picking up blitzes against Miami, that certainly rings true.

In preseason camp, Meyer said that Moody was “close to special,” and “special” is a word he hasn’t thrown around much in Gainesville. It appears that Moody’s problem is not with running the ball, but everything else a running back does.

After seeing Tebow rack up a bunch more hits and the overall running game sputter, Meyer probably feels a sense of urgency to get Moody involved. He’s no fool, and he knows what a great runner can mean to the team. I have a feeling that Moody will be spending this bye week and next week in a crash course for blocking, and I’d expect to see him get between five and ten carries if he passes.


Gator News Roundup: Game Week Edition

August 25, 2008

Captains named

Urban Meyer does captains a little differently than most coaches do. He has his players vote on who will be captains for the year, and then each week he selects players from that group to be go out for the coin toss. They’re all technically captains the whole year, but only a few get to be captain for a particular game. It’s kind of confusing, but they make it work.

This year’s captains are: senior DT Javier Estopinan, injured senior TE Cornelius Ingram, senior RB Kestahn Moore, senior WR Louis Murphy, senior long-snapper James Smith, junior LB Brandon Spikes, junior LB Ryan Stamper, senior OG Jim Tartt, junior QB Tim Tebow, senior OT Phil Trautwein, and senior OL Jason Watkins.

The captains for each game are announced during the week leading up to them.

Wide receivers

Percy Harvin has been back practicing again, though not participating in everything. Tebow remarked that Harvin looks extra fast because he hasn’t been practicing as much as everyone else. Harvin already knows the offense and has great rapport with his quarterback, so the lack of practice is not really a concern. Being fully healthy is the most important goal, so Meyer has yet to fully commit to Harvin playing against Hawaii.

JUCO transfer Carl Moore had a rough spring, which he attributes to the complexity of the Florida offense compared to his junior college offense. Murphy took him under his wing a bit during the offseason, and now Moore is said to be one of Tebow’s favorite targets. Meyer has gone so far as to compare him to Dallas Baker. Urban is very reluctant to compare players to his favorite guys from past teams and Baker was certainly one of those favorite players, so that says a lot.

Moore, Murphy, Riley Cooper, and Deonte Thompson have separated themselves from the rest of the receiving corps, and along with Harvin make up perhaps the most formidable top-five receivers of any team in the country.

Running backs

For the first time in his tenure at Florida, Meyer has said he is excited about the running backs. Meyer hasn’t been completely pleased with Emmanuel Moody, saying there is room for improvement. However, he also has indicated that up to four running backs could be used regularly, and Chris Rainey has said the goal is to get the backs as a unit over 1,000 yards collectively.

Kestahn Moore and Moody figure to be the workhorses, with Rainey and Jeff Demps as speed backs. If either Moore or Moody catch fumblitis or otherwise upset the coaches, Mon Williams could step up in place. We also know that Harvin will be getting carries, potentially up to 15 a game, and Tebow of course will be doing some running of his own.

Defense

Meyer thinks DE Jermaine Cunningham was just OK last season, but he should be “better than OK” in 2008. Freshman DE Earl Okine will probably redshirt thanks to some lingering injuries and the emergence of fellow freshman DE William Green.

It is almost certain at this point that Major Wright and Ahmad Black will be the starters at safety, with highly-touted freshman Will Hill as a backup. It is partly due to strong play by Black and partly due to inconsistency in Hill’s play.

Special teams

The Gainesville Sun put up an excellent article on the Gators’ special teams. Did you know UF led the SEC in punt blocks last season with four?

Brandon James will still be returning kicks and punts. He was so effective a season ago that opponents began kicking away from him or doing squib kicks to keep him from ripping off a long return. Rainey and Demps are also expected to put in some return work.

Meyer says that senior Brandon Phillips is slightly ahead for the starting place kicker job. Competitor Caleb Sturgis should see the field regardless doing kickoffs since he has the stronger leg of the two.

Et cetera

The quarterbacking situations for the Gators’ first two opponents is looking shaky. Newly-named Hawai’i starter Brent Rausch has missed recent practice with a strained arm, a serious deal for the leader of a pass-heavy offense.

Meanwhile, Miami redshirt freshman Robert Marve has been suspended for the first game against Charleston Southern because of an arrest last Halloween. The coaches did not tell him until last Friday that he would be suspended so as not to affect his motivation in trying to win the starter’s role over true freshman Jacory Harris.

The Gators did not practice last Thursday due to Tropical Storm Fay. Practice on Friday was in sloppy conditions, but no one complained or slacked, much to the coaches’ delight. There have been many reports that last year’s team did not handle the recent success well and didn’t always put forth maximum effort in practice. Giving good effort in adverse conditions is a great sign for this year’s team.

Offensive Coordinator Dan Mullen has been getting help from Dirk Koetter in understanding the new NFL-style 40 second play clock. Koetter is a former head coach of Boise State and Arizona State and is now the offensive coordinator for the nearby Jacksonville Jaguars.

For whatever it’s worth, Florida is a 34 1/2-point favorite over Hawai’i. I don’t gamble, but personally I’d take the over. The Gators put up 59 on Troy, Tennessee, and FAU last season. This year’s offense (which will be even better) should be able to put up 60 or 70 on Hawai’i if they want to, and the defense isn’t going to let the Warriors get to 30 points.

Raycom Sports (formerly Lincoln Financial Sports and Jefferson Pilot Sports before that) has renewed its partnership with Yahoo! Sports this season. If you don’t have a Raycom affiliate in your area and would like to see the Gators eviscerate Hawai’i, you can stream the game live from here.