Tiger Opponent Preview: Florida Gators

On Saturday (6:00 P.M., ESPN2), the Missouri Tigers (4-2, 1-1) play at the Florida Gators (3-2, 2-2).

On Saturday (6:00 P.M., ESPN2), the Missouri Tigers (4-2, 1-1) play at the Florida Gators (3-2, 2-2).

Missouri is coming off of a 0-34 home loss to Georgia, while Florida is coming off of a last-second 27-30 home loss to LSU.

“Florida is a very, very good football team,” said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel. “And, the Swamp is a great place to play.”

Florida has won a pair of close East division home games, 36-30 over Kentucky in triple overtime, and 10-9 over Tennessee. And, the Gators have lost to West division foes Alabama and LSU.

A couple of weeks ago, Florida Head Coach Will Muschamp brought 5’11” 190-pound Treon Harris in at QB during the 2nd half against Tennessee, and the true freshman sparked the Gators to a come-from-behind win over the Vols. Last week, Harris watched from the press box after he had been suspended and then re-instated later in the week following an incident which resulted in his being investigated for a sexual assault.

Earlier this week, Coach Muschamp announced that 6’4” 230-pound red-shirt junior Jeff Driskell will probably start against Missouri, but that he will also play Harris at the position during the game.

“They both will play this week and we’ll work through the week, and we’ll see how things go,” said Coach Muschamp. “Right now, Jeff will probably start, but they’re both going to play………………………………………….. We’re going to see who has the hot hand. And, we’ll see who’s going to help our football team, and gives us the best opportunity to win. And, we’ll make that decision as we go through the game. Both guys have earned the opportunity to play………………………………….. (We’ll) sit down Friday morning and make a final decision on what we need to do.”

In very limited playing time thus far, Harris is 4-6-0 for 165 yards and 2 TDs through the air, and has also rushed 7 times for 25 yards. Driskel is a running QB who has started 20 games for the Gators. This season, he is 90-164-8 for 878 yards and 6 TDs as a passer, and has rushed for 184 yards and 2 TDs on 53 carries. He is Florida’s second-leading rusher.

“Both of those guys run the same offense from the film we have,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Florida’s quarterback duo of Jeff Driskel and Treon Harris. “I’d expect to see both of them in there (on Saturday). As far as one running different plays than the other, from what I’ve seen, they run the same type of offense.”

Florida’s leading rusher is 6’2” 226-pound junior running back Matt Jones, who this season has rushed for 383 yards and 3 TDs on 76 carries (5.0 yards/carry). Florida has depth at the running back position, but of late, it appears that 5’9” 177-pound freshman Brandon Powell has moved ahead of 5’10” 214-pound sophomore Kelvin Taylor and 5’11” 215-pound fifth-year senior Mack Brown.

“Brandon’s a guy that’s got really good hands,” explained Coach Muschamp. “And, he’s a guy that we trust a little bit more in the passing game………………………………………… He plays extremely well in space. He’s very reliable in protection. He catches the ball extremely well. He’s a very smart football player.”

Characteristic of the high-level athletes that the Gators are able to acquire from their talent-rich home state, the Florida receivers possess elite-level speed and explosiveness. The Gators have just one receiver with more than 13 receptions on the season, but 14 different players with at least 1 reception. That one receiver is 6’2” 201-pound sophomore Demarcus Robinson, who has 30 receptions on the season for 476 yards and 4 TDs.

“He’s a big play guy,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Robinson. “He’s a guy that can turn a 10-yard gain into a 40-yard gain. He’s very athletic and can go up and get the ball in traffic. He’s a real good player.”

No other Florida receiver has more than 1 TD reception. Neither 6’2” 194-pound fifth-year senior WR Quinton Dunbar (10 receptions, 122 yards), nor 6’4” 250-pound senior TE Clay Burton (13 receptions, 94 yards), has a TD reception this season. The Gators’ 6’0” 187-pound fifth-year senior WR Andre Debose is an extremely dangerous player with the ball is his hands. He has just one reception on the season, for a 3-yard loss, and he has just 1 rushing attempt on the season, for 35 yards. But, he’s averaging 30.3 yards/punt return, and 22.6 yards/kick return. He’s electric in space with the football.

“There’s no question (Debose) is an electric guy with the ball in his hands,” said Coach Muschamp. “He’s a guy that’s got tremendous top end speed. He’s a one-cut runner. He gets the ball vertical. And, he’s just got a knack in the return game………………………………………….. Every time he touches it, he can score.”

The Gators often bring Debose in motion across the backfield, and the 35-yard run was a hand-off on the speed sweep. They also like to fake that sweep, and run the inside zone. DeBose and Driskel are like having two more running backs in the backfield.

Statistically speaking, Florida appears to be fairly well-balanced between the run and the pass. But closer examination reveals that in addition to a slight predilection for the run, much of the Gators’ passing game is short, horizontal, and close to the line of scrimmage. Florida does get big plays in their passing game, but often those are just short passes that their fast, elusive backs and receivers turn into big gains after the catch. But with Harris in the game at QB, Florida may have the ability to get the ball down field more effectively through the air.

As talented as Florida is on offense, they are even more talented on defense. The athleticism of their defensive personnel resides at an elite level. Defensively, it’s especially evident in the Gators’ team speed and in their depth of quality athletes.

The Gators play a lot of people on defense, but two guys repeatedly stand out above the rest, and as two of their top pro football prospects. Up front, there’s 6’3’ 266-pound DE Dante Fowler, Jr.. He’s Florida’s leading pass rusher (2.5 sacks, 9 QBHs) and play maker behind the line of scrimmage (5 TFLs). He’s projected to be a high first-round draft pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.

“It starts with his motor,” said Coach Muschamp, speaking of Fowler. “He’s got a great motor.”

He's also extremely athletic.

Fowler is joined on the opposite side by 6’6” 245-pound red-shirt sophomore Alex McCalester, who leads the Gators with 4 sacks, and is tied with Fowler for the team lead with 5 TFLs. McCalester is an elite-level athlete who came to football late, and is on his way to becoming a future pro. Another productive player up front for the Gators is 6’3” 260-pound red-shirt sophomore Bryan Cox, Jr., who has 3 sacks and 3 QBHs, to go along with 4 TFLs.

Florida’s top interior defensive lineman, 6’5” 310-pound fifth-year senior Leon Orr was “questionable” earlier in the week for Missouri, according to Coach Muschamp. Orr, who is coming off of a knee injury, was going to try to practice midweek, so his availability for the Missouri game is still in question, though if he does play, he “may be limited a little bit”, according to Coach Muschamp.

At the linebacker position, 6’1” 230-pound junior Antonio Morrison has been very productive for the Gators. He leads Florida with 46 tackles. Another productive LB for the Gators who plays fast, and is very physical is 6’3” 235-pound fifth-year senior Neiron Ball.

“I thought Antonio Morrison played his best football game (against LSU),” said Coach Muschamp. “A lot of times in situations, he’s in the hole with a blocker and he’s getting off the block and making a play, which is very difficult to do.”

Besides Fowler, Florida’s other elite-level pro prospect is 5’11” 192-pound sophomore corner Vernon Hargreaves, III. He’s got 6 pass break-ups and 1 interception, but mostly, teams don’t throw the football in his direction.

“(Florida) plays a lot of man coverage,” explained Coach Pinkel. “They lock down on you a lot. That’s what they do. They’re very good at it.”

At safety, 6’1” 203-pound sophomore Keanu Neal is another DB who has been very impactful for the Gators. He leads Florida with 3 interceptions, and he has 23 total tackles, to go along with 2 pass break-ups. And, 5’10” 205-pound junior DB Brian Poole leads the Gators with 7 pass break-ups, in addition to 1 interception and 22 tackles.

“Keanu (Neal) has got really good ball judgment,” said Coach Muschamp. “He can finish on plays. He’s a very good tackler. He has very good instincts in the box, and in the deep part of the field…………………………………….. I’ve coached a bunch of good safeties, and he’s going to be right up there with them at the end of the day.”

The Florida defense is loaded with talented athletes who can really run. And the Gators have played tough, physical defense against very strong competition.

The entire Florida team seemed to respond to the insertion of Treon Harris at QB against Tennessee. The Gators offense is a run-oriented spread, but with Harris at the controls, it could become more balanced, or even more effectively pass-oriented. The threat of Florida possibly having a QB who could effectively distribute the football to their talented play makers in space is kind of scary.

It was interesting that the insertion of Harris at QB also seemed to spark the Florida defense, as well as their offense. From what little I’ve seen of him, he appears to throw the ball more accurately and effectively than Driskel. He can run the football, as well, although I’d refer to him as more of a dual threat, rather than a running QB like Driskel.

I expect that Missouri will see a lot of Harris at QB, unless the Gators are able to get a sizable lead, in which case Coach Muschamp may want to feature the more experienced QB, who is probably also the stronger runner.

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