The offense figures to be better in 2006. It almost has to be. A rash of injuries at wide receiver last year forced the dumbing down of the offense at midseason. The Gators have a healthy corps of wide receivers coming into the 2006 season and this year there is quality depth at the position. Plus, Chris Leak will be in his second year of running the same offense for the first time since he's been at Florida so it only figures he's going to be better than last year when he posted good (20 touchdowns, only six interceptions) but not spectacular numbers.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are serious questions at one cornerback position and at the strongside linebacker. The Gators may have a defensive line that's as good as any in the nation and there's young talent for the linebacker position. What happens with that one cornerback position may tell the tale for Florida's entire season.
Expectations are high for the Gators, who haven't been to the SEC championship game since 2000. Meyer's first year didn't meet the unrealistic expectations of the Gator Nation but the way the season ended combined with Meyer's second year history at his previous two stops has the fan base expecting great things once again. The schedule is brutal, perhaps as tough as there is anywhere in the nation, but the talent level and depth at most positions is extraordinary.
Leak is back for his fourth year as the starter at quarterback. He's the most experienced quarterback in the Southeastern Conference and that alone should be reason for optimism at Florida. He posted good but not great numbers as a junior while learning the nuances of Meyer's spread option offense. Leak doesn't have to be a great runner in this offense, just one that knows when to take the positive yards. The key for a quarterback in the Meyer offense is understanding that second and five is better than second and ten or second and 14. If he's learned to take the positive yards when the defense gives them to him this year, the Florida offense should flourish under his direction.
Behind Leak is the quarterback everyone has labeled the quarterback of the future, freshman Tim Tebow. Tebow posted Star Wars numbers in high school and was the subject of an intense recruiting campaign between the Gators and Alabama. He seemed like such a natural in the Meyer offense in his first spring in Gainesville that Florida fans may be calling for him to start if Leak is the least bit hesitant in the early going.
At wide receiver, the Gators are stacked. Dallas Baker (52 catches) battled through one injury after another last year but when he was healthy he was almost uncoverable. Bubba Caldwell went down with a broken leg in game three and that had a lot to do with the Florida offense becoming very pedestrian. He is an X-factor, that one player that has to be fully accounted for on every play because he can beat you in so many ways plus he has game-breaking speed. Jemalle Cornelius also battled through injuries but he had a breakout spring. Look for freshman Percy Harvin, rated by many as the nation's top high school player in 2005, to have an impact at this position and look for at least one of this trio --- David Nelson, Nyan Boateng or Louis Murphy --- to step it up and become a reliable option.
Meyer was not pleased with the production or work ethic of his running backs last year and that dissatisfaction remained throughout the spring. Deshawn Wynn is an enigmatic senior, capable of looking like Superman on one play, Lois Lane on the next. Kestahn Moore looked great in the Outback Bowl but he missed the spring with back problems. Markus Manson has tremendous speed and moves but he's got to learn how to stay on his feet after the first contact. Freshman Mon Williams could end up being the man at this spot. He's a combination of size and speed like none other on the Florida roster. Billy Latsko is an outstanding blocker at fullback but he's shown hands and the ability to get tough yards inside when he's given the football. For the spread option to work efficiently, the running game has to improve from last year and that means one of the tailbacks has to take the job and prove he can do it consistently.
Normally, losing four seniors on the offensive line would be a bad thing but there is reason to expect this Florida line to be an improvement. Phil Trautwein came on strong at the end of the spring to solidify the left tackle spot and Drew Miller, a starter at guard last year, was consistently good in the spring. The Florida staff loves the young guards, redshirt freshman Ronnie Wilson and oft-injured but talented Jim Tartt. Another redshirt freshman, Simon Codrington, has a great final 10 days of the spring. He could go at guard or center. Steven Rissler, a part-time starter at guard last year, has moved to center, his natural position. He will be the only senior on the offensive line.
Florida tweaked the offense in the spring, rolling Leak out of the pocket on most passing plays. It was a subtle but effective move. Leak is listed as a generous 6-0. One of the knocks has been that he holds the ball too long. The Florida staff felt that if he could see the field more he would get rid of the ball sooner and that's exactly what happened in the spring. If he can take it upon himself to run for positive yards when they're available, the Florida offense should be one of the best in the SEC.
The Gators ranked ninth nationally in total defense last year, a vast improvement from the previous three seasons. In the Florida philosophy of co-coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison, it all starts up front and that's the strength of this Florida defensive unit. Florida wants to stuff the run and get as much pressure as possible on the passer without having to blitz too much. With this defensive line, that shouldn't be a problem.
There are two names to remember on this defensive front four --- Jarvis Moss and Marcus Thomas. Thomas will be in his fourth year as a starter at tackle where he's one of the league's best run-stuffers. Under Mattison's tutelage, he also showed the ability to collapse the pocket last year. If he's healthy, he will be a real force in the middle. Moss, down to 217 last spring because of a lingering staph infection in the pelvic bone, got healthy during the season last year and by season's end, he was a real force as a pass rusher, leading the Gators with 7.5 sacks. He is 252 pounds now and capable of putting up outrageous sack numbers.
Steven Harris and Joe Cohen provide experience at tackle and junior Clint McMillan had an outstanding spring so he's ready to give the Gators a solid rotation. At the other end, Derrick Harvey has grown to 6-5, 260 so he's ready to contribute. The X-factor on the defensive line is Ray McDonald, who missed the spring with surgery on both knees. If he's healthy (was reported to be 95% of the way back in early June), then he can factor at both tackle and end. Before he went down with a knee injury against Tennessee, McDonald was playing at an All-SEC type level.
In Brandon Siler and Earl Everett, Florida has two linebackers that rank among the SEC elite. The problem position is the strong side where there is senior Brian Crum, a part-timer at several positions in his career, Jon Demps, who missed the spring rehabbing a knee injured last year, and true freshman Brandon Spikes. The hope is that Demps is fully recovered and Spikes is as good as advertised. If the strong side is solid, the Gators should have a front seven as good as there is in the SEC.
In the secondary, Reggie Lewis is very solid at one corner. The other corner? Consider that the $64,000 question. It was thought that Avery Atkins would be solid at that position but his off the field problems have put his status for 2006 into the highly doubtful category. Behind Atkins there Tremaine McCollum, a career standout on special teams, and three freshmen --- Jacques Rickerson, Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis. The Gators are contemplating moving the best athlete on the defensive unit, safety Reggie Nelson, to corner if Atkins can't get his life straightened out. Nelson has the speed and instincts but he hasn't played corner at this level.
Safety is a strong point even if Nelson moves to corner. Tony Joiner is a hard hitter that had a superb spring. Kyle Jackson had an up and down sophomore season but if he returns to the form he showed as a freshman he will be a solid player there. True freshman Jamar Hornsby played wideout and safety in high school. He could move to safety permanently if Nelson moves to corner. He's a big guy, a hard hitter and he has extremely good ball instincts.
THE SPECIAL TEAMS
The special teams were the reason the Gators won three games last year and they should once again be outstanding. Punter Eric Wilbur is back for his fourth year and he's one of the best in the league. Chris Hetland walked on and kicked his way to a scholarship last year, nailing three field goals to put Tennessee away in game three. He's very accurate up to 45 yards.
Florida blocked three punts and a couple of field goals last year. The punt coverage and kickoff coverage units were outstanding. Punt and kick return units should be much better this year with freshmen Harvin and Brandon James.
The only way to put it is brutal. The Gators first three games are against teams that played in bowls in 2005 and then there is a stretch which the Gators play Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia on consecutive weeks.
The season begins with a pair of bowl teams from Conference USA in Gainesville, Southern Miss and Central Florida. Then comes the first road test at Tennessee, which figures to be vastly improved after last year's 5-6 disaster.
That's followed up by Kentucky, Alabama and LSU in Gainesville. The Gators figure to be a solid favorite against Kentucky and at least in the preseason, they should be considered shaky favorites over Alabama and LSU.
The road test at Auburn could be critical to a strong finish for the Gators, who will have a week off before the annual affair with Georgia in Jacksonville.
For this to be a November to remember, Florida needs to start out by making Steve Spurrier's homecoming return with South Carolina a miserable affair. Vanderbilt (Nashville) and Western Carolina (Gainesville) figure to be tune-ups for the season ender against Florida State in Tallahassee.
The Gators have the talent to win the SEC East but the schedule is daunting and full of tough, experienced opponents. A 9-3 outlook is reasonable and a 10-2 record isn't out of the question. The planets and stars may have to align properly for this to be an 11-1 season but Meyer's second year history says that isn't out of the question.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of 2006 outlooks of Southeastern Conference football teams as provided by the football writers of Scout.com SEC sites.