Zook has assembled an awesome array of speed and talent at the skill positions, headed by quarterback Chris Leak, but the offense will have to get its jump start from an improved offensive line which will have to show more consistency protecting the passer. Leak and Gator quarterbacks were sacked 25 times last year, a number that Zook and offensive coordinator Larry Fedora are counting on to drop considerably.
Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was stymied last year by the inability of the front four to get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. He has more depth this year and the overall speed along the defensive line is upgraded. Still, it's a very young group with only one junior and one senior among the top 12 defensive linemen.
Here's a look at the prospects for improved play on both lines for 2004.
The starting five looks to be the best the Gators have put on the field in the Zook era. The potential is there for this unit to mesh together as one of the best in the Southeastern Conference. It's not the starters, though, that raise the concerns for offensive line coach Joe Wickline. It is the backups who will have to prove capable of stepping in if there's an injury and to give some rest during the games. Wickline has more talent to work with overall than he's had in his previous two seasons, and the first unit has played in the preseason better than either of the first two O-lines that the Gators fielded under his tutelage. The backup talent is a mix of underachieving upper classmen and freshmen.
If the first team line can stay healthy and continue to make the progress that was shown in the preseason, the offense could prove to be one of the most explosive in the entire conference. With only one senior (Jon Colon) among the starters, the future looks very good.
Center Mike Degory (junior) ranks with LSU's Ben Wilkerson as the best center in the SEC, and those two very well may be the best two centers in the nation. Degory is 6-6, 305, mobile, intelligent and with a mean streak. He's hit the weights hard in the past year, producing a leaner, more muscular body. His quickness has improved but more importantly, he's improved his upper body strength which should allow him to dominate just about every nose tackle in the league.
Lance Butler was the surprise of the year at right guard last year. He's moved to the left side this year, and his improvement has continued. He's trimmed down 11 pounds (6-7, 300) while improving his upper body muscle mass. In preseason scrimmages, he's once again shown the quickness and hustle to get upfield as the lead blocker. The book on Butler last year was excellent run blocker, so-so pass blocker. Preseason drills would indicate that pass blocking is no longer his weakness.
Randy Hand (6-6, 305, junior) is a fixture for the third year at right tackle. He has been dominating in preseason drills both as a run and pass blocker. Hand was handicapped last season by a broken hand, so his pass blocking suffered. He was outstanding on the run, teaming with Butler as the right side of the line consistently produced the holes that resulted in the longest gains. Hand looks quicker this year, and with healthy hands, he's able to move defensive ends with ease.
The question marks on the line are left tackle and right guard. At left tackle is Jon Colon (6-7, 315, senior), oft-injured with problematic knees and a bad back. The knees and back are still suspect, but Colon is playing at a better level than at any time since he's been at UF. He's had some tightening in the back a couple of times at practice, and a sore knee once or twice, so getting him through an entire season remains a hold your breath issue. If Colon can't make it through the season healthy, Wickline has three options. He can bring in Tavarous Washington (6-3, 307, senior) who should be ready to go game one after spending most of the preseason rehabbing a bad knee. Washington came to UF out of junior college with a lot of hype, but he couldn't handle pass rushers last year so he languished on the bench most of the season. He had a strong spring, however, so if he's healthy, he would be the most likely backup option to Colon. A second option would be to move Butler outside to left tackle. He's a natural lefthander and has cross trained at tackle, so the move could be facilitated. Butler moving over would result in right guard Steve Rissler moving over to the left side and Mo Mitchell taking over at right guard. The final option would be to move Hand to the left side and play Washington on the right. Hand is the superior pass blocker and the left side safeguards Chris Leak's back.
At right guard, Rissler (6-3, 300, sophomore) has supplanted Mitchell (6-7, 370, senior) at right guard. Rissler has been consistent throughout the preseason, and along with Butler, gives the Gators a pair of very mobile guards who can get out in front of a sweep. The question with Rissler is not talent because he's certainly got the talent, mobility and attitude to play the position, but experience. He will have to grow up fast to solidify this line. Rissler's backup is Mitchell, who has proven a superb straight ahead run blocker. Mitchell's problem is his mobility and his ability to handle a quick defensive tackle in pass blocking situations. Late in games with the Gators trying to run the ball, Mitchell would be an excellent addition, but it remains to be seen if he can acquit himself in passing situations on a regular basis.
Washington, Mitchell and Anthony Guerrero (6-1, 334, senior) are the experienced depth on the O-line although none has shown any consistency. Guerrero has filled in adequately in the preseason at both guard slots and occasionally, has taken some turns at right tackle on days when Colon couldn't go and Washington was still rehabbing his knee. Guerrero is a proven commodity as a run blocker with only average pass blocking skills. Billy Griffin (6-3, 290) is a senior backup at center. Like Mitchell, he's a decent enough run blocker, but in preseason drills, he had problems handling pass rushers. Griffin is very intelligent and can handle all the line calls if he were required to fill in for Degory, but he has to prove his ability to snap the ball and pick up a pass rusher.
True freshman Drew Miller (6-5, 292) is a backup at both guard positions. He is the strongest of the true freshmen and ready to play in a backup role now. True freshman guard Jim Tartt (6-3, 305) has a world of ability, but rehab from shoulder surgery may force him to redhsirt. True freshman Phil Trautwein (6-6, 280) has been running second unit at right tackle. His performance in the preseason has been a big surprise. He's stronger and more mobile than anyone expected. Jason Watkins (6-7, 280), another true freshman, and redshirt freshman Carlton Medder (6-5, 320) have vast potential, but have yet to distinguish themselves. At this point, neither is ready to step in to play more than a few snaps in mop-up roles.
Last season, defensive line coach Red Anderson had experienced but underachieving defensive ends and inexperienced freshmen defensive tackles. The tackles are still young, but they have a year of experience under their belts. While the defensive ends are young and inexperienced, they have played with tremendous intensity in the preseason. Depth is still a defensive line issue, but there is no question that the past two recruiting classes have resulted in an overall upgrade in the available talent.
As is the case with the offensive line, the defensive line can ill afford injuries, particularly at tackle. The increased size and speed should result in a better effort stopping the run this year. Last year, UF gave up an unacceptable 3.9 yards per carry on the average, and with the exception of departed Bobby McCray, there was rarely any pressure on the passer from the front four. The defensive ends will be an upgrade and the Gators should have the ability to putt significant pressure on the passer.
Junior college transfer Jeremy Mincey (6-4, 258) has been Florida's most dominating defensive end in the preseason. He came to UF in the spring with a bigtime reputation as a pass rusher, but it his ability to stuff the run that has coaches very excited. Mincey plays with tremendous energy that seems contagious along the defensive line. He will team with sophomore Joe Cohen (6-2, 280) as the starting defensive ends. Cohen came to UF as a running back. He saw some action at fullback last year, but in the spring, asked to move to the defensive side of the ball. He started to show his potential in the second scrimmage. Cohen has the natural strength to handle defensive tackles, and his speed will make him a mismatch looking for a place to happen.
Backing up Mincey and Cohen are Steve Harris (6-4, 267, sophomore) and Tranell Morant (6-5, 257, redshirt freshman). Both have shown excellent pass rushing skills but have been inconsistent against the run. Harris has been moved inside on occasions as a backup defensive tackle. Coming on strong toward the end of preseason camp was McKenzie Pierre (6-4, 255, sophomore) who had two sacks in each of the two scrimmages. True freshman Derrick Harvey (6-4, 227) has tremendous quickness and a long wingspan. Look for him to move up the depth chart as the season progresses.
Ray McDonald (6-3, 285, sophomore) and Marcus Thomas (6-3, 290, sophomore) could be one of the better defensive tackle tandems in the SEC by season's end. McDonald has shown the ability to split two offensive linemen to get into the backfield, while Thomas is exceptional against the run. They have speed, strength and big play potential.
Depth is once again a problem at defensive tackle. Kenny Parker (6-2, 298, senior) has been given a sixth year by the NCAA. His back won't allow fulltime roles, but he could prove to be valuable if spotted in the right situations. Look for him to get 10-15 snaps at most each game. Redshirt freshman Clint McMillan (6-1, 280) came on strong in the preseason, emerging as a second unit defensive tackle. He's got excellent upper body strength and surprising quickness.
Redshirt freshman Michael Hill (6-2, 285) and true freshmen Branden Daniel (6-3, 302) and Michael Brown (6-4, 290) will all have to play some snaps every game. Hill has exceptional quickness and is further along than Daniel or Brown at this point. Daniel enrolled in January so he's had the advantage of going through a spring practice. He has the ability to command a prominent place in the rotation if he continues to improve. Brown will see action but needs a year in the weight room to resculpt his body before he's ready to be an every down player.