2004 Florida Gators Football Season Preview

<b>Head Coach:</b> <A HREF=[PlayerNode:1021913]>Ron Zook</A> (3rd year; 12-4, 16-10 overall) <br><br> <b>Last Season's Record:</b> 8-5 (6-2 SEC, Eastern Division Co-Champion, No. 24 AP, No. 25 ESPN/USA Today) <br><br> <b>Last Bowl Appearance:</b> 2004 Outback Bowl (37-17 loss to <A HREF=http://iowa.TheInsiders.com>Iowa</A>) <br><br> <b>Key matchup(s):</b> Sept. 18 @Tennessee, Oct. 9 LSU, Oct. 30 Georgia,Nov. 20 @Florida State

Star Power: Chris Leak QB 6-0 200 SO; Mike Degory C 6-5 314 rsJR; Ciatrick Fason RB 6-0 212 JR; Andre Caldwell WR 6-1 190 SO; Channing Crowder LB 6-2 241 SO; Marcus Thomas DT 6-3 274 SO.

Notable Additions: Brandon Siler LB 6-2 226 FR; Tony Joiner S 6-0 190 FR; Kyle Jackson S 6-0 199 FR; Drew Miller OL 6-5 307 FR; Markell Thompson TE 6-7 310 JR (transfer SW Mississippi).

Notable Subtractions: Ben Troupe TE; Max Starks OT; Shannon Snell OG; Keiwan Ratliff CB; Guss Scott SS; Daryl Dixon FS.

Notable Returnees: Lance Butler OT 6-7 311 rsJR; DeShawn Wynn RB 5-11 224 rsSO; O.J. Small WR 6-1 232 rsSR; Dallas Baker WR 6-3 194 JR; Joe Cohen DE 6-2 266 SO; Earl Everett LB 6-2 223 SO; Dee Webb CB 5-11 187 SO; Matt Leach P 6-1 197 SR; Eric Wilbur P 6-1 195 SO.

09/04/04Middle Tennessee State
09/11/04Eastern Michigan
10/09/04Louisiana State
10/23/04@Mississippi State
11/13/04South Carolina
11/20/04@Florida State
Offensive Overview: Larry Fedora takes over as the Gators full-time offensive coordinator this season. He has been on the Florida offensive staff since 2002, serving first as run game coordinator (2002) and most recently, perimeter passing game coordinator (2003). Thus, Fedora is very familiar with this group and isn't likely to be given an early season Mulligan by Florida fans. Up front, All-American candidate Mike Degory (6'5 314) leads an offensive line group that should be the deepest since Ron Zook's arrival. Lance Butler (6'7 311), Randy Hand (6'6 305), Jon Colon (6'7 316), and Tavares Washington (6'3 307) have each started at tackle for the Gators. The guard positions return limited experience with Mo Mitchell (6'7 367), who has seemingly been on campus since the Gators wore Orange jerseys, Steve Rissler (6'3 302), Anthony Guerrero (6'1 334) and Ron Dowdy (6'4 288). Don't be surprised if true freshman Drew Miller challenges for playing time as well. The Gators lost their best receiver in tight end Ben Troupe, but are very excited to see if junior college transfer Markell Thompson (6'7 310) can continue Florida's tight end pipeline to the National Football League. Senior OJ Small (6'1 232) will lead a talented, but inexperienced group of wideouts. Everyone is hoping yet again that Dallas Baker can utilize his talents and become a go-to guy. Super sophs Andre Caldwell (6'1 190), Jemalle Cornelius (5'11 177), and Chad Jackson ((6'1 206) also figure to play a key role.

Florida has a talented stable of running backs who will figure heavily in Fedora's system. Ciatrick Fason (6'0 212, DeShawn Wynn (5'11 224), and Skyler Thornton (5'11 210) combined for 1,203 yards on just 207 carries (5.9) and 23 receptions for 224 yards (9.7) in 2003. All three were just getting their first taste of SEC football and should be even better in '04. They are expected to prove equally dangerous as receivers. Fason took a pass to the endzone every 3.6 receptions last season.

Freshman Offensive Player of the Year Chris Leak will get the opportunity to pull the trigger for an entire season. Leak completed 190 of his 320 attempts (59.4) for 2,435 yards. He also threw 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Leak should benefit playing behind a physical offensive front with more depth and throwing to a group of talented and speedy group of skills position players.

Defensive Overview: Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong appears to be one year away from claiming a group as good as any other in the Southeastern Conference. Strong and the Gators lack experience and depth in some key areas. He'll have a couple of games to get his charges aligned before the heat gets turned up for a mid-September battle in Knoxville.

One of the most improved areas is expected to be along the defensive line. Florida actually has a bit of depth to go along with some talent. Sophomore Ray McDonald (6'3 280) earned All-Freshman recognition at defensive tackle. McDonald recorded 54 tackles, including eight tackles for loss, four sacks, and two forced fumbles Fellow soph Marcus Thomas (6'3 274) progressed nicely throughout the ‘03 campaign and earned All-Freshman kudos from the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Thomas finished with 47 tackles, nine against Florida State. Junior Kenny Parker (6'2 306) spent the ‘02 season on the shelf after back surgery, but returned to start six games in ‘03. He and Eric Holcombe (6'2 304) will certainly see plenty of action this season.

A youth movement will take place at defensive end. The battle begins in August for depth chart position. The thought is that the talented group should perform as well as the group of departed veterans, who underperformed in ‘03. JUCO transfer Jeremy Mincey (6'3 258) is expected to provide a stiff challenge for a starting role. Sophomore Joe Cohen (6'2 266) moves from fullback to end where he earned All-American honors two years ago at Palm Bay High School. The battle also includes MacKenzie Pierre (6'3 258), Steven Harris (6'4 257), Tranell Morant (6'5 256), and Julian Riley (6'3 276), who are all expected to see playing time

The Gators return Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Channing Crowder (6'2 241), fellow award winning sophomore Earl Everett (6'2 223), Todd McCullough (6'5 229), and senior tweener Travis Harris (6'2 251) at linebacker. However, the Gators have to hope for the continued good health of these young men because the depth chart absolute inexperience. If these guys stay healthy, Florida should prosper. Regardless, Orlando Evans signee Brandon Siler (6'2 226) and South Miami's Javier Estopinian (6'2 242) will see plenty of playing time. Walk-on Richard Brown (6'0 219), who saw action in a couple of games last season, should also work into the rotation.

New Florida secondary Coach Dan Disch comes to Florida with a highly respected resume'. He'll need it. Disch has to replace the entire lot. Disch's former pupil at Ed White High School Dee Webb (5'11 187) is expected to be one of the leading contenders for a starting role. Also expected to challenge are Reynaldo Hill (5'11 187), DeShawn Carter (6'0 210), Nick Brooks (6'0 207), and Vernell Brown (5'8 155).

Safety Cory Bailey (5'11 190) returns with the most experience in the Florida secondary. Bailey has seen extensive action the past three years as a reserve and in the nickel packages. Terrance Holmes (5'11 195) moved from wide receiver last season and garnered plenty of attention on the scout teams and into this spring as he unloaded on unsuspecting wideouts. Jarvis Herring (5'11 198) saw limited action last season. True freshman Kyle Jackson (6'0 199), and Tony Joiner (6'0 190) will also have an opportunity to catch the coaches eyes. Disch and the Gators don't face a proven, experienced passing threat within the conference until October 30th in Jacksonville.

Special Teams Overview: All three of Florida's kickers return for the 2004 season. Placekicker Matt Leach hit 21 of 27 last season. This spring, Leach worked to improve on his range, as five of his misses were from 45 yards out and beyond. Long snapper Casey Griffith also returns for his third season as the Florida point man.

Head hunter Matt Piotrowicz returns as the Gators kickoff man. He tallied eight tackles in ‘04, and he again returns eager to sprint downfield in hopes of blasting an overzealous return man. Punter Eric Wilbur was named All-Freshman by several publications for his outstanding performance in 2003. Wilbur finished second in the SEC with a 44.8 yard average. He recorded the longest punt in the conference last season when he ripped a 75 yarder early against Tennessee.

Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson, Vernell Brown, Skyler Thornton, and possibly freshman Markus Manson will battle for kick return duties. Of the group, Caldwell is the only one with any real repetitions. The sophomore brought back 22 kicks for an average of 20.6 yards per return. Vernell Brown appears to be the odds on favorite to return punts. Brown returned seven last season averaging 13.6 yards per return.

The schedule is little kinder to the Gators... who drop Miami and Ole Miss, and insert struggling Mississippi State. Playing in Florida's favor is the fact that five of the first six games are in "The Swamp", provided the Gators re-create the Swamp mystique. Road trips to Knoxville and Tallahassee will be difficult. If Florida can conceal its' weaknesses and outscore opponents, they should finish 9-2 or 8-3. Zook can benefit from getting the freshmen ready to play earlier. Anything less will result in another fall migraine in North Central Florida.
TheInsiders.com 2004 College Football Preview
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