The Florida Gators open up their season on Saturday, when they play host to UMass. The Minutemen ended last year 3-9 and are just 8-40 since moving to the FBS five years ago.
"Coach [Mark] Whipple, obviously, is a guy who’s won a national title there when they were I-AA," said UF had coach Jim McElwain. "He’s a guy that I’ve obviously studied over the years, his NFL background, things he’s done offensively. Got a ton of respect for, when he was at Miami with Randy [Shannon]... I think he just does an outstanding job."
Like the Gators, not only is UMass breaking a new man under center, but they are also one of the youngest teams in the country, not fielding many seniors.
UMass relied heavily on its passing game last season and the partnership between quaterback, Blake Frohnapfel and wide receiver, Tajae Sharpe. Both of them are now gone taking with them 1,319 yards and five touchdowns. The wide receiver group is mostly unexperienced, with five of last year's receivers gone.
The visitors will now hand the keys to the offense to sophomore quarterback Ross Comis. He backed up Frohnapfel last year, and in six appearances completed 15 of 21 passes.
"They spread the ball around. They're very versatile with what they do," said Florida defensive backm Marcus Maye. "They have a pretty good quarterback. They've got one or two receivers that are tall and can run. They've got a great running back. They do a lot of different things, so we've got to be prepared for if they try to do tricks and stuff."
Their ground game was nothing spectacular last season only amassing 142-yards on average. Whipple will now rely on running back Marquis Young. Young ended his rookie season with a splash, ending the season with 960 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 6.3-yards per carry.
"We watched him on film. He's a physical guy," said Maye about Young. "He can run. He can do a lot. They try to give him the ball as much as they can out of the backfield. We've just got to rally around him and tackle him."
“They do have a good back and he has good speed on him," said Florida defensive end Jordan Sherit. ""He plays well in their offense and he's got good speed, so we've definitely got to account for that and wrap up him and tackle him to the ground. That's kind of how you attack every running back. They do certain thing as far as formation wise that we can key on, certain runs and stuff like that, so we're going to do that. At the end of the day if we stay in our gaps, if we all play the same defense, I don't see much to worry about."
"We’ve been able to key on some of the stuff they’re doing on offense, we just have to play and take what they give us," added Sherit. For the defensive ends that’s reading the tackles, reading the formations. It’s next level stuff the coaches have us doing. We’re trying to look at the entire formation and get tips from the play even before it happens. That’s a big key for us and I think that will help us a lot going forward.”
Another player to watch will be tight end, Adam Breneman. Breneman is graduate transfer from Penn State. With the Nittany Lions he caught 15 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Brenenman had limited playing time for PSU due to a chronic knee ailment.
Whipple's rebuilding job is not just on the offense. UMass has only three starters returning, however, the Gators are not taking their inexperience lightly.
“As you look at them on defense, I think it’ll be a great test for our offensive line with their line movement and the things they do up front, bringing five guys from all kind of different angles and different looks," said McElwain. "A lot of voided zone stuff. Luke’s [Del Rio]really going to have to do a great job of keying safeties, to know what’s going on."
"There's bigger things to worry about, such as the game plan," Del Rio said. "UMass has a very talented defense. The coach uses a multiple scheme and they do a really good job with their players. I'm more focused on executing the game plan than anything."
Four of the team's top five tacklers are gone from the team leaving just veterans: defensive ends Shane Huber, Sha-ki Holines and Peter Angeh. Another player to watch is safety Khary Bailey-Smith. The veteran defensive back is back for his fifth season for the Minutemen after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the second game of the year last year.
Stay tuned to FightinGators.com as we continue to preview the Gators opening game against UMass.