While Tebow may have been the face of Gator football the past three seasons (when Tebow was a freshman there was a guy named Chris Leak who led UF to the 2006 national title and is the alltime SEC total offense leader), there was an amazing supporting cast both on offense and defense that helped create that 48-7 overall record.
If you want to get a firm grasp on not only how good the Gators were the past couple years, but on how much talent will be missing from the 2010 squad, all you need to do is review the recent NFL Draft. Florida led the country with nine players picked, tied a school record with three first-round selections (cornerback Joe Haden, center Maurkice Pouncey and Tebow) and added three more second-round picks (defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Brandon Spikes).
So does that mean the 2010 season will be a rebuilding year? Hardly. There is no such thing as a rebuilding year for the Gators. They have stockpiled some of the country’s top recruiting classes during Urban Meyer’s five-year Florida tenure and emerged from the latest round of recruiting with the nation’s top-rated class. But that doesn’t mean Florida won’t be going through a major transition process this year as it unveils redshirt junior quarterback John Brantley to lead a team with a solid core of experienced veterans on both sides of the ball and a plethora of tremendous young talent that’s ready to begin making its mark too.
Brantley, a 6-3, 220-pound redshirt junior, has been biding his time the past three years and will finally get a chance to show off what may be the finest passing arm of any UF quarterback in the past 30 years--- and who knows, maybe ever. He was brilliant during the few opportunities he got last year, posting an amazing 194.88 passing efficiency rating while completing 36-of-48 passes for 410 yards with seven TDs and no interceptions.
There is no question the Gator offense will take on a somewhat different look with Tebow gone and offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will try and take maximum advantage of Brantley’s arm strength and accuracy. Yet don’t expect Florida to come out and start winging the ball all over the field. The Gators displayed tremendous offensive balance last season, rushing for 222 yards and throwing for 236 yards per game on their way to leading the SEC in total offense and scoring 36 points per contest.
Speedsters Jeff Demps (763 yards, 7.5 per carry) and Chris Rainey (595 yards, 6.5 per carry) plus Emmanuel Moody (390 yards, 6.5 per carry) return along with sophomore Mike Gillislee, who averaged 8.6 yards on 31 carries as a freshman and was a standout during spring practice. While the Gators lost All-America center Maurkice Pouncey to the NFL, his twin brother Maurice made the decision to stick around for his senior year and will take over for his brother in the middle, anchoring a veteran offensive line that returns four other full or part-time starters in seniors Marcus Gilbert, Maurice Hurt, Carl Johnson and junior James Wilson.
A somewhat untested receiving corps will be led by junior Deonte Thompson and senior Carl Moore, who had a tremendous final two weeks of spring, with redshirt freshman Andre Debose and sophomore Omarious Hines also expected to be major targets for Brantley.
On the defensive side, there is still plenty of talent despite the loss of five starters to the NFL draft plus senior linebacker Ryan Stamper, last year’s leading tackler. The defensive backfield still has Janoris Jenkins at corner plus Ahmad Black and Will Hill at the two safety positions. Redshirt freshman Jelani Jenkins was the team’s best sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the spring and sophomore John Bostic is also ready to step into a starting role. Up front, Lawrence Marsh, Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter are solid at the tackle spots with Justin Trattou, William Green and spring standout Duke Lemmens expected to take over for Cunningham and Dunlap at the end positions.
And then there’s the incoming set of freshmen linemen, considered to be the country’s finest group of recruits on the defensive front. Sharrif Floyd (6-2, 315) was Scout.com’s top-ranked defensive tackle, Ronald Powell (6-4, 242) was the No.1 ranked defensive end and Dominique Easly (6-2, 275) was the No. 2-ranked defensive tackle. Any one or all three of this trio could get significant playing time early in the 2010 schedule.
With All-America punter Chas Henry returning along with junior placekicker Caleb Sturgis (22-of-30 field goals including a long of 56 yards), the Gator special teams again figure to rank among the nation’s best.
Expectations can’t possibly be as high as they were last year, coming off a national title and returning 17 starters, including all 11 on defense, but that doesn’t mean the Gators won’t be in the middle of the national title talk again this season. It won’t be a surprise if Florida and Alabama reprise their Oct. 2 meeting in Tuscaloosa with a rematch in Atlanta in December that could determine the SEC’s annual participant in the BCS National Championship Game.