All eyes will be on Florida’s offense when spring football practice begins today and well they should be considering two straight finishes outside the NCAA top 100 in total offense. Under most circumstances, there would be equal concern about the defense, but Randy Shannon seems to have quelled those worries for the moment.
Shannon showed what he’s all about in Florida’s 30-3 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl when he took over the defense from Geoff Collins, who accepted the HBC job at Temple. Yes, Iowa was offensively challenged, but Shannon wasn’t playing with a full deck. Injuries forced him to play freshmen and a walk-on linebacker but the kids dominated, giving up only a first quarter field goal while holding the Hawkeyes to 226 yards (just 55 passing) and forcing 3 interceptions.
From the 2016 defense, the Gators have lost tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivey along with defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye. All eight of those players will earn paychecks on Sunday somewhere next season. At most places, that would be a devastating loss but as we saw in the Outback Bowl, the Gators have plenty of young talent. This will not be a rebuild but a reload.
Shannon is a brilliant defensive mind and a tremendous motivator. How he shapes up the Florida defense for the 2017 season could be his springboard to another head coaching job.
Here are five players to watch on the defensive side of the football this spring:
1. Chauncey Gardner, CB: He was the MVP of the Outback Bowl with two interceptions. He should become the next in Florida’s outstanding line of lockdown corners.
2. Vosean Joseph, LB: Brandon Spikes once told me, “This is what I do. I hit people and they go down.” Joseph hits like that, too. He’s got sideline-to-sideline ability.
3. Duke Dawson, CB: He’s played safety, nickel and corner in his three years at UF. Now he becomes a full-time corner who can hit and has nice ball skills.
4. Taven Bryan, DT: The Wyoming Wild Man gets his chance to be an every down player. He’s got the quickness and the ball instincts to be really, really good.
5. Jeremiah Moon, LB: He’s a freaky athlete with size and speed to run ball carriers down. He played in two games but got a medical redshirt for 2016. He would have played a lot in 2016 and could start in 2017.
Spring Wild Card: Former walk-on Cristian Garcia started against Iowa in the Outback Bowl and recorded 5 tackles. He got to the hole, made the hit and put people on the ground. He will have a chance to prove he’s not a one-game wonder in the spring.
GATORS REMAIN #12 IN USA TODAY COACHES POLL
The Gators (23-6, 13-3 SEC) loss to Kentucky on Saturday didn’t hurt the Gators in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll. Florida remained #12 while Kentucky moved up one spot to #9.
1. Kansas 26-3
2. UCLA 26-3
3. Villanova 27-3
4. Gonzaga 29-1
5. North Carolina 25-5
6. Oregon 26-4
7. Louisville 23-6
8. Arizona 26-4
9. Kentucky 24-5
10. West Virginia 23-6
11. Baylor 23-6
12. FLORIDA 23-6
13. Notre Dame 22-7
14. Duke 22-7
15. Butler 23-6
16. Purdue 23-6
17. Florida State 23-6
18. Saint Mary’s 26-3
19. SMU 25-4
20. Cincinnati 25-4
21. Wisconsin 22-7
22. Wichita State 27-4
23. Virginia 19-9
24. Iowa State 19-9
25. Miami 20-8
OTHER GATOR SPORTS IN THE RANKINGS
Men’s Track: Although the Gators finished in a 3rd-place tie at the SEC Indoor Championships, they remain the top ranked team in the nation followed in the top five by Arkansas, Oregon, Texas A&M and Georgia.
Baseball: The Gators (6-1) remained #2 behind TCU in the D1Baseball.com poll. Florida State is #3 followed by LSU and South Carolina.
Gymnastics: The Gators remain #3 in the College Gymnastics Association poll, trailing Oklahoma and LSU.
Lacrosse: After knocking off then #3 Southern Cal, the Gators advanced one spot to the third position in the Inside Lacrosse Poll, trailing Maryland and North Carolina.
Men’s Golf: The Gators are ranked #3 behind Vanderbilt and Illinois in the latest Golfweek.com poll. LSU is ranked #4.
Softball: The Gators (15-1) could move back to the #1 ranking this week when the polls come out later today. Previous #1 Florida State lost a game to Texas A&M and tied Michigan (Florida beat Michigan already) in a California tournament while #2 Auburn lost to James Madison on Sunday.
Men’s Swimming: The Gators at #6 are the highest ranked SEC school in the CSCAA Coaches poll. The Gators are followed by #7 Georgia, #8 Auburn and #9 Alabama in the top 10.
Women’s Golf: The Gators hold down the #6 spot in the latest Golfweek.com rankings. Ahead of UF are Stanford, Florida State, Southern Cal, Arizona State and Alabama.
Women’s Track: The Gators dropped one spot to #12 in the latest USTFCCA poll. Oregon is #1 followed by SEC schools Georgia, Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky in the top five.
IT’S REALLY COMPLICATED AT OLE MISS
For the moment, at least, Ole Miss AD Russ Bjork seems to be standing by head football coach Hugh Freeze even though the additional 9 very serious NCAA allegations have the making of a deal breaker. Ole Miss has self-imposed a 1-year bowl ban and reduced scholarships by 11 but considering the number and seriousness of the allegations some speculate that might not be enough. Still, given how the NCAA withheld lack of institutional control and essentially exonerated North Carolina men’s basketball in wake of the worst academic scandal in years – perhaps ever – Bjork may be onto something.
One thing for sure, plenty of people including the media are calling for Freeze to be burned at the stake. Although he claims he didn’t know what was going on, plenty of people ask how could he have not known? And, as we’ve seen with the investigations at Baylor, coaches who do the see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil routine can be guilty as sin.
What may decide this long before the NCAA has to wrestle with any decision is the high cost of doing business. Ole Miss has already spent $9.4 million and the cost will rise significantly if, as Bjork suggests, there is a vigorous defense to fend off lack of institutional control allegations. The 1-year self-imposed bowl ban will cost Ole Miss its share of the SEC bowl money, expected to be in the neighborhood of $7.8 million per school next year.
Does Ole Miss have the deep pockets boosters willing to ante up whatever money is necessary to mount a successful defense? It might cost another $5-6 million but Florida State, Miami and North Carolina have spent the money to fight back and have been rewarded with slaps on their dainty little wrists. Would the NCAA view Ole Miss in the same light it viewed those three?
Or does Bjork offer the NCAA Freeze’s head on a platter in exchange for lighter penalties? That’s usually the first reaction of athletic directors. Butch Davis was fired at North Carolina and while the Tar Heels took a hit, it could have been much worse. But there have been other instances – Alabama in 2001, for example – when the coach was fired, the program bleached and the NCAA still dropped the hammer. With the NCAA you make your best deal and you still might find yourself bent over, grasping your ankles.
There is one final consideration. When the NCAA went after UConn basketball and Jim Calhoun and then Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, both schools stood by their men. While the NCAA didn’t back down completely – both coaches were suspended a number of games and their teams missed a year of postseason play – both Syracuse and UConn probably staved off worse punishment by their willingness to stand up and fight.
If Ole Miss stands by Freeze, maybe the lack of institutional control charges are dropped but Freeze almost certainly would get some sort of suspension. You can bet the farm Ole Miss is asking right now if Hugh Freeze is a good enough coach to stick by him through thick and thin.
SEC FOOTBALL AND OTHER SPORTS NEWS
Alabama: Alabama football netted $47,794,452 million profit off $103,871,075 million in revenue for the 2015-16 academic year. Thanks to football, the Alabama athletic department showed a net profit of $18,732,379 million with total revenue of $164 million.
Arkansas: Traditionally, Arkansas has played at least one home football game in Little Rock and the governor is trying to keep it that way but War Memorial Stadium seats only 54,000 while Donald W. Reynolds Stadium in Fayetteville seats 72,000 and is being expanded. The difference in revenue might signal the end of games in Little Rock when the current contract to play once a year expires in 2018.
Auburn: If Auburn (17-12, 7-9 SEC) can score a couple of wins this week (roadie to Georgia, homer with Mizzou) and then win one game in the SEC Tournament, Bruce Pearl would have the Tigers in contention for an NIT berth, a significant step forward for the basketball program.
Georgia: Georgia pays both offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker $850,000 per year. Sam Pittman makes $650,000 and is one of the highest paid offensive line coaches in the country.
Kentucky: Something unusual will take place at Rupp Arena Tuesday night when Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 SEC) takes on Vanderbilt (16-13, 9-7 SEC). They will hold Senior Night and Kentucky has three seniors – Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Muldar – and all of them scholarship players
LSU: Having lost 15 SEC games in a row, the buzzards are flying around the Maravich Center. Most people agree Johnny Jones has to go, but can LSU (9-19, 1-15 SEC) afford to fire him after forking over all the buyout money for Les Miles and other assistants in the football program?
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen, who has taken Mississippi State to a school-record 7 consecutive bowl games, has been awarded a 4-year contract extension that will pay him $4.5 million a year. Mullen is 61-42 at MSU, just 12 wins behind Jackie Sherrill, the all-time winningest coach at the school.
Missouri: When the Tigers (7-21, 2-14 SEC) play host to Texas A&M tonight, it’s expected to be the final home game for basketball coach Kim Anderson. The Tigers are 8-44 in SEC play in Anderson’s three years at the helm.
Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy has the Rebels (18-11, 9-7 SEC) in position to move into the NCAA Tournament discussion if they can knock off Alabama on the road tomorrow and South Carolina at home on Saturday. The Rebels probably need a split to be in the thick of the NIT conversation.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have already gone through two of their 15 spring practices. Jake Bentley is clearly the #1 QB. Backup Brandon McIlwain is a full-time baseball player this spring but he’s fitting football in whenever time allows.
Tennessee: Misdemeanor drug charges were dismissed in Knox County against UT wide receiver Jauan Jennings after he paid court costs ($350.25) and underwent a drug and alcohol assessment. Jennings caught 40 passes for 580 yards and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore last year.
Texas A&M: By knocking off Alabama, 56-53, Saturday, basketball coach Billy Kennedy probably assured that he will be around to coach at least one more year in College Station.
Vanderbilt: With 5 wins in their last 6 games, the Commodores (16-13, 9-7 SEC) have played themselves onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. If Scott Drew can coach a win out of the Dores at Lexington tonight, he might kick the NCAA door open … Backup quarterback Wade Freebeck is no longer listed on Vanderbilt football roster as spring practice begins.
Unlike most paroled prisoners, O.J. Simpson won’t have to find a job bagging groceries or doing menial labor to survive. He couldn’t collect his NFL pension (nearly $300,000 a year) while in prison in Nevada so it has been collecting interest. It’s estimated he will have nearly $2.7 million waiting on him and once released he can resume collecting his pension. Because of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, neither Simpson’s creditors nor the Goldman or Brown families will be able to touch the money.
Joel Embiid, who missed his first two NBA seasons (2015 and 2016) recovering foot surgery, is out indefinitely and will have an MRI on his injured knee. With Embiid’s history of injuries and surgery, you have to wonder why the Philadelphia 76ers traded away Nerlens Noel.
Just when North Carolina looks like a team that can win the NCAA title, Virginia locks down the Tar Heels and holds them to 43 points. That brings me to the conclusion there are a lot of very good teams this year, but I’ve yet to see a great one.
Adidas has a deal for anyone who can break Chris Johnson’s 4.24 time in the 40 from 2008 at the NFL Combine. Break the record and adidas will give the athlete the choice of an island he can call his very own or $1 million. There is a catch. The 40 has to be run in adidas 2017 adizero 5-Star 40 cleats and agree to endorse adidas shoes for the entire 2017 NFL season.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Three-part question about the defense as the Gators start spring football: (1) What positions are the greatest concern for you; (2) overall which position do you feel is the strongest; and (3) who is your spring breakout player?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
“Morning Dance” is the song that got me listening to jazz back in 1979. I’ve been listening ever since. Jay Beckenstein started the band in 1974. They recorded their first album in 1978 and followed that up with the “Morning Dance” album. They will be playing the Florida Theater in Jacksonville Sunday night (I’ll be there). Today’s music is a live performance from Jazz San Javier in 2016.