Andy from Alligator Army was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions for A Sea of Blue about Saturday's game between Kentucky and Florida. What he says about Joker Phillips may surprise you. If you do the Twitter he can be found @AlligatorArmy. Thanks to Andy for his detailed answers. Now to the questions:
Heading into this season what were the general expectations by the Gator fan base, and what is the generally accepted explanation for last season's record? Do Florida fans see this roster in a state of slight rebuild, was the team a victim of poor coaching, and/or was last season viewed more as poor luck due to injuries? Maybe something else entirely?
I think Florida fans want a team good enough to contend for the SEC East, and to know Will Muschamp's the guy, or one bad enough to allow for a soft reset of the program, especially after a year wracked by injuries, bad offense, and bad luck allowed the worst taste in the mouth most younger Gators fans have ever felt to linger for a full offseason.
I'd argue that injuries were Florida's most damaging bit of adversity in 2013, with those injuries contributing substantially to the dereliction of the offense the Gators might have run under Brent Pease had Jeff Driskel stayed, and thus the deterioration of their offensive attack. (And Florida also managed to lose key players on defense, most notably first-rounder Dominique Easley, that left it susceptible to the run late in the year, and especially so to Georgia Southern.)
I speak for myself more than others on that point, though. There's still enough division on the how and why of 2013 that it became a most divisive topic this offseason, and most Gators want mostly to move on at this juncture.
I'm sure last Saturday's offensive explosion against Eastern Michigan was cathartic for many Florida fans. How are Florida fans reacting to the result, and has the general opinion of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper shifted at all due to the game?
Ecstatically, really. I think a lot of folks realized what keen-eyed observers have been predicting all offseason in regard to Roper: He's good, and he's going to run his offense, Florida's recent history be damned. (Muschamp's reputation for Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football has always rested on a faulty foundation -- because grinding offense was how Florida had to win in 2012, the presumption that it was also how Florida wanted to win under Muschamp became pervasive.)
I think the optimism for Roper that was there before last week's result is now much stronger.
You wrote a thoughtful post this summer that examined the challenges Will Muschamp faces with some elements of the Florida fan base. Not only is he expected to win, but for some he has to do it "the correct way". If you would entertain a negative scenario for a moment: Florida struggles to make a bowl game this season, but averages 30 points a game. Would high offensive production that is exciting give Muschamp insurance in the form of an additional loss or two?
I think Muschamp's right on the edge of the blade with a 7-4 season (8-3 is probably enough to keep him safe, given the ridiculous strength of schedule Florida must deal with), but I don't think losing shootouts helps him much more than losing close games does, really. It might sway fans, but Jeremy Foley's going to be Muschamp's judge, jury, and, if necessary, executioner, and he's not going to look at points per game and record alone.
Florida will won't have starting offensive tackle DJ Humphries on Saturday; meanwhile, UK feels pretty good about its defensive ends. Is there concern for quarterback Jeff Driskel's blind-side, or is the back-up ready to step up?
Considering that Florida's chosen to slide over senior Chaz Green, maybe the most dependable lineman Florida has, I don't think there's too much concern for Driskel's safety there, though Green has mostly started at right tackle in his collegiate career. In fact, I'm more worried about Kentucky DEs stunting inside: Florida's interior linemen were the players that conceded pressures, few though they were, against Eastern Michigan.
Which of Florida's offensive skill players should UK fans be aware of heading into the game, and how did Driskel look against Eastern Michigan commanding the new offensive system?
Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor could be Florida's version of thunder and lightning in the backfield this year, though Jones isn't quite thunder -- his soft hands and good feet make him a really good option out of the backfield -- and Taylor, more quick than fast, isn't quite lightning. And Florida's wide receiver corps is at its deepest in years, with Demarcus Robinson flashing last Saturday, Quinton Dunbar looking as reliable as and more comfortable than ever in Roper's spread, and a host of other players, from Latroy Pittman to Andre Debose to Ahmad Fulwood, likely to contribute on a weekly basis.
Driskel looked fine, and maybe a little better than fine at some points, especially in regards to his improved deep accuracy. One thing he didn't do much was run; that should change going forward. We might also see more running from Treon Harris, who dazzled with two throws on Saturday, but had theoretically more promise as a runner and read-option triggerman heading into that game.
Muschamp has regularly had great defenses at Florida, but this year's iteration won't have Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd, and Matt Elam to the NFL. Which players are looking to take their mantle, and what would you say is the 2014 defense's biggest question marks?
[Cornerback] Vernon Hargreaves III and [defensive end] Dante Fowler, Jr. are the two boldface names to know on Florida's defense, and each will be in the NFL after their junior seasons (Fowler's is this year, Hargreaves's next), but beyond that, there aren't any household names. Yet.
However, Neiron Ball provided much-needed pass rush opposite Fowler against EMU, DT Caleb Brantley had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his first game as a Gator, and Duke Dawson topped even Hargreaves's auspicious 2013 debut with the first pick-six by a true freshman in his first Florida game ever. I think the middle of the line is Florida's biggest weakness, but "weakness" may be a relative term.
Florida's performance against Eastern Michigan rendered special teams play a moot point except for maybe the kick-off and extra point teams. With that in mind, what's your view on their special team personnel this season?
Florida should be one of the nation's best teams on special teams this season -- and, really, any season. The depth of talent ought to give the Gators the raw materials for great coverage teams, and the presence of D.J. Durkin and Durkin protege Coleman Hutzler should ensure that the coaching is top-notch.
But we thought that last year, too, and Kyle Christy underperformed after being a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2012, losing first-team duties to a true freshman, while Austin Hardin scuffled so much as a kicker that he essentially lost his job to a walk-on. Christy's rebounded since, and looks far closer to his 2012 form than he ever did in 2013, while that walk-on who pipped Hardin, Frankie Velez, made three field goals for Florida last week. Cautiously, I think the Gators are closer to "will be" than just "should be," when it comes to greatness on special teams, but I'm relying on a small sample size.
Florida has recently had several coaching ties to UK. Notably in the hire, and later dismissal of Joker Phillips, but also with former UK offensive line coach Mike Summers. I'm a huge fan of Summers and the work he did while at UK. How do you view the performance of Phillips and Summers at Florida?
Phillips is an interesting case: Brought on as a recruiting coordinator and a wide receivers coach, I and many others thought he was going to be better on the trail than the practice field. But Joker never quite landed a signature prospect, and his end was an inauspicious one brought on by his own misdeeds. Where he did succeed was as a teacher: Phillips helped make Florida's 2013 receiving corps significantly better at its craft than the 2012 edition, even if that didn't fully translate into box scores, and his loss may still be felt later this year.
Summers, on the other hand, is a technician -- listen to any Florida lineman talk about him, and that word will invariably be used -- who doesn't have the same sort of recruiting responsibilities, and his job is almost entirely about improving on-field performance. Through one game in which Driskel and Harris stayed upright and unencumbered for all but a few snaps, I think he's done his job well.
What's your prediction on the score, outcome, and impact players?
I think Florida wins this one easily, by something like a 41-14 count, and I think Driskel and Fowler are likely to be the stars of the game. Not only is Kentucky facing a Florida team that still far outstrips its talent at virtually every position, the 'Cats are facing that team in a virtual makeup for its cancelled night game, and The Swamp is sure to be seething.