Eyeing the Gators Backfield

Two months before the kickoff of the 2011 season and it is time to start looking ahead at just what the Gators have to offer. New Florida head coach Will Muschamp refuses to call this a rebuilding year, but the gators have a lot of holes to fill and spots to improve, albeit with some talented players in almost every position on the team. We will first take a look at the Florida backfield.

The Florida offense was a mess last season trying hard to fit square peg into a round hole. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Significant injuries to fullback Stephen Wilks who saw his career come to an end as well as tight end Jordan Reed who missed all of preseason practice and a slew of injuries on the offensive line meant the Gators scrapped a lot of their attempt at a pro-style offense and ran quite a bit of spread option style plays that just did not fit the playing style of junior John Brantley.

Before too long, the wheels came off and the offense was changing this and that until any sense of continuity was lost and they played not to hurt themselves instead of trying to move the ball and score points.

This year we will find out what Brantley is made of. After looking awful a year ago in an offense that didn't fit him, he gets his chance at an offense that is supposedly suited for his style of play. The redshirt-senior has the ability to make every throw in the book and can run. He isn't a runner, but has some speed.

Brantley will get the nod at the start of fall practice and will be asked to nurture the offense along, not make mistakes, and grow into the passing schemes with a fleet of talented but relatively inexperienced receivers (more on them in the next article).

Brantley only threw for 2061 yards in 13 games or 158.5 yard average, but more importantly he only threw nine touchdowns on the season. To contrast, in a total backup role for the three previous seasons, Brantley threw 10 touchdown passes. Again, it wasn't his entire fault. The Gators usually pulled the junior signal caller when the ball got in the red zone and opted to run the ball with more option oriented quarterbacks at the helm. Still, Brantley needs to show he can make plays and at the same time manage the offense in a way that is efficient.

If Brantley can't step up his game, a trio of players will get a shot to do so. The first one being redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy. A big question mark for the fans because he never had a chance to do anything in front of the fans, Murphy showed promise and an exciting style of play in the spring scrimmage in front of a large crowd at The Swamp. Murphy can add a little mobility to the position as well and he showed that sprinting out on a few passes during the spring game.

Two true freshmen are also waiting in the wings. Jeff Driskel arrived in January from Oviedo's Hagerty HS and came to campus as the number one rated high school quarterback in the country for the 2011 class. Driskel has all the tools and if he can grasp the offense and show poise at the same time, the Florida staff will be hard pressed to keep him off the field. Driskel is a dual threat and with the best arm in high school football, he may very well have the best feet of any quarterback as well. That combination has to have offensive mastermind Charlie Weis wondering just what he can cook up for defenses to worry about.

Arriving in June was Army All-American quarterback Jacoby Brissett of Dwyer HS in Palm Beach Gardens. Brissett is a big timer and was personally recruited by Weis. He has everything that Weis usually looks for in a quarterback and will certainly get a chance to compete in year one for playing time.

The bottom line is the staff has a lot to work with at the quarterback position and guys with different skill sets to make the offense work. At the same time, they can't move too fast with this group, even Brantley who is in his fifth year of college football.

How can they take their time? They will rely on a running game led by senior tailbacks Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Demps and Rainey are both big time speed burners and they both possess the ability to catch the ball and make a play.

Demps comes into his senior season with a career 1901 yards and a very good 7.1 yard per carry average to go along with 17 rushing touchdowns. Demps also has 41 receptions to his name for 309 yards and a touchdown.

Rainey also averaged the same 7.1 yards per carry to accumulate 1603 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He also has accounted for 38 catches for 414 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

Both guys are multi-faceted and bring the speed to the field. The quarterbacks have a nice crutch with these two.

Behind them are junior Mike Gillislee and sophomore Mack Brown. Both guys are harder straight ahead runners that can run through tackles and have the speed and quickness to also make some miss.

Gillislee has a career 592 yards and a very nice 6.7 yards per carry average to go along with seven touchdowns on the ground. With limited time on the field he has also notched seven receptions for 23 yards.

Brown has just three carries to his name and amassed 23 yards on the three carries in the win over South Florida in 2010.

Both Brown and Gillislee, if they can soak up the offense, can be big time contributors in 2011. They need to be.

I don't think people realize just how much of a loss Wilks was to the offense a year ago. The blocking he was expected to provide would have gone a long way in helping Brantley. Of course we can't put him on the same scale as a Billy Latsko, but just imagine the 2006 Chris Leak led offense without a working fullback. The loss of Wilks truly hurts.

That's why this position could be a big X-factor for 2011. The number one guy at the moment is sophomore utility guy Trey Burton. At 6-3, 225 pounds he is certainly big enough for the position and we all know of his athleticism.

Burton ran for 349 yards and a 4.7 yard average when the going was tough and Florida needed short yardage. He amassed 11 touchdowns on the year as well. Like Rainey and Demps, Burton can catch the ball and did so from the tight end position a lot last year. He caught 32 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown.

Behind Burton will be sparingly sophomore Gerald Christian, and two freshmen in A.C. Leonard and Hunter Joyer.

Christian has yet to really find a home and keeps getting bounced from position to position. He spent all of his time in the spring on defense after spending his freshman year on offense. After the spring, Muschamp has said he will be moved back to offense.

Joyer is the nation's top fullback coming out of high school and is a prototype blocker at the position. He has good feet for a guy that is pushing 250 pounds. He may very well be the strongest man on the football team right now. He has a lot to learn, but should see the field as a freshman.

We will talk more about Leonard as a tight end, but he showed me a lot in the spring game. He has fine-tuned his blocking game and did very well at that back in April. He is also a threat to catch the ball and very athletic

What To Expect:

Believe it or not the amount of success on offense and in the backfield in general could revolve around that fullback position. Trey Burton is a dynamic play maker and because of that he will be a threat to do something with the ball every time he is in the game. He's a guy that Muschamp has lauded as being able to pick up anything thrown at him and play at a high level, so with his strength and athleticism I expect him to become a good blocker in this offense as well. With Burton and any tailback on the field at the same time, you have two dynamic playmakers just begging to make a big play.

With Burton being a capable runner, the tailbacks can spread out as a receiver at any time and they have already shown their versatility in that regard, then burton could be the lone back and make plays that way. Still, it is the tailbacks that the offense will lean on and should. A lot will depend on the blocking up front of course (again, another article), but these guys have shown they are dynamic.

The quarterbacks can't and won't duplicate a nine touchdown ten interception season, no one even thought that was possible before last year. I am not sure who will be the starter at the end of the year, but Muschamp is very sure of Brantley and that is the way I lean right now as well. However, for the future, if not now, another quarterback will have to play significantly in my opinion.

The quarterback has enough tools around him to not have to be dynamic. He should have a solid defense that will keep them in any game. But, he has to be a bit more productive than a year ago, and I fully expect that.

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