by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Now that Will Muschamp’s brief “honeymoon period” is over following his inauspicious debut in 2011, Gator Nation will expect serious improvement from a squad that finished only 7-6 last season, failing to beat a major team with a winning record. No, former mentor Urban Meyer didn’t leave the cupboard bare, but Muschamp knows that transforming the football team from what is was to what it needs to be isn’t going to happen overnight. “It’s coming,” he says. “We’re getting there. I like the players we have. I like the team we have a lot better than the one we had last year. We’re getting better.”

Gainesville sources report that fiery Muschamp ran a much more physical camp in the spring, and he has tried to upgrade both lines of scrimmage with a solid incoming 2012 recruiting class. Yes, this still remains one of the premier football programs in America, but 11 losses in the last two years isn’t acceptable for a team that lost a total of 10 games from 2004 to 2009!

With blazing, prime-time weapons Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps hanging up their cleats, coaches are seeking playmakers on a experienced offense (7 starters back) that never took flight last year under former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who left to take over the head coaching job at Kansas.

Good riddance! The choppy attack produced only 25.5 ppg and 328.7 ypg (105th nationally), mustering a mere 12 points or fewer vs. Alabama, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina and Florida State. First-year o.c.Brent Pease, formerly of Boise State, mentored record-breaking Kellen Moore at Boise and will look to provide a similar touch to whomever wins the QB competition between 6-3 soph Jacoby Brissett (right) and 6-4 soph Jeff Driskel. Both young triggerman can move around in the pocket and have strong arms. The Gators had trouble establishing the run under finesse-minded Weis, but there should be marked growth in 2012, with powerful Mike Gillislee (328 YR, 5.9 ypc) and/or promising soph Mack Brown pounding behind a veteran OL (4 starters back) that could get a boost from LT Xavier Nixon (he’s up to 309 pounds) after struggling to maintain weight (as low as 250 pounds) while dealing with assorted injuries last season. And coaches are counting on more big plays from a talented but previously-underachieving stable of WRs, jr. Andre Debose (only 18 catches LY), sr. Frankie Hammond Jr. (15) and dazzling soph Quinton Dunbar (14), who could have a breakout season in the revamped offense. Versatile TE Jordan Reed (28) owns the skill set to be a legit Mackey Award candidate.

Even with star DE Ronald Powell sidelined with a torn ACL suffered in the eary spring, the veteran defense (20.3 ppg; 10 starters back) should still be one of the best stop units in the SEC after impressively ranking eighth in the nation in total yards last season (299.6 ypg) and second nationally in third-down percentage allowed (mere 27.3 %). The DL should be a real strength, with NFL-prospect 6-3, 305-pound DT Shariff Floyd consistently stuffing the run. Heavy-hitting LB duo of Jon Bostic and Jon Jenkins (combined 169 tackles LY) should shine in their senior campaigns, while sturdy jr. SS Matt Elam (78 tackles) and rising soph Marcus Robinson spearhead an athletic, aggressive secondary focused on reducing costly pass interference penalties.

The platoon, however, must find a way to force more mistakes (only 14 takeaways in 2011!) after finishing a lowly 113th nationally in TO margin LY, going six straight games in a row without even forcing a fumble! That unit figures to move up dramatically in that crucial area under second-year d.c. Dan Quinn, who noticed less thinking and more reacting in the spring, a product of players becoming more comfy with the scheme into his sophomore season.

Special teams will be strong, featuring PK Caleb Sturgis (22 of 26 FGs LY), a Groza Award finalist, and elusive KR Andre Debose, who already holds the school record with three kickoffs returned for TDs on only 40 career tries.

Summary...With UF in the rare role of flying under the radar now that Georgia and South Carolina are grabbing the lion’s share of the attention in the SEC East, we won’t be surprised to find the talent-rich Gators right back in hunt for the division crown come November. UF has a couple of tough (but winnable) SEC away games in back-to-back weeks in September (Texas A&M & Tennessee), but LSU, South Carolina and Missouri must all visit “The Swamp.” Moreover, the defending national champs Alabama has been dropped from the schedule, and Muschamp’s crew enjoys back-to-back breathers (UL Lafayette & Jacksonville State) before the annual Florida State showdown on Nov. 24. If one of the soph QBs can quickly take charge of the attack and keep miscues to a minimum the more physical, new-look offense should march on more time-consuming drives, which will help out a fast, fast, fast defense hell-bent on creating miscues this campaign.


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