If Saturday’s 2013 Orange & Blue Debut was any indication, the Florida Gators still have a long way to go to get their passing game on track for the start of the season.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp had plenty on his plate this spring as began to fill in holes created by the departure of 13 starters, but he and offensive coordinator Brent Pease have also been focused on ensuring that the Gators improve a passing offense that was ranked 114th in the nation a year ago.
During the 2012 campaign, Pease’s first year at Florida, the team averaged just 146.31 yards per game through the air. UF was only one of two programs in the country to average fewer than 150 passing yards and boast a winning record (Navy).
How poor was the Gators’ passing attack? Florida ranked 111th in total passing yards (1,902) and 110th in yards per reception (10.39). The Gators were also just one of two teams in the nation to rank in the bottom seven for passing offense and not boast a top-six rushing offense (Temple) to off-set the lack of yardage.
In other words, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Unfortunately for Florida, getting better and wanting to get better are two totally different things. The Gators will entering 2013 without four of their top six pass catchers, players that combined for 58 percent of the team’s receptions and 66 percent of its receiving yards. While that may seem like a dire prophecy, the change in personnel may actually benefit Florida in the long run.
“We have more guys that can stretch the field,” junior starting quarterback Jeff Driskel said on Saturday. “We have good speed at the receiver position.”
The Gators’ leading returning receiver, redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar, finished with just 36 catches for 383 yards and a team-high four touchdowns a year ago. Yet no pass catcher has drawn more rave reviews from the coaches for his continued improvement and increased consistency.
“Quinton continues to make some plays for us. He’s a guy that I know – talking to our cover corners – runs extremely well and finishes routes down the field,” Muschamp said.
Dunbar made a couple of nice plays during Saturday’s open practice but was overshadowed a bit by freshman Demarcus Robinson. Despite playing with a heavily wrapped foot due to a high-ankle sprain, Robinson made some big catches during one-on-one drills and looked as talented as advertised coming out of high school. He is exactly what Florida needs to take the next step in the passing game.
“Obviously Demarcus Robinson is a guy that’s going to help us. He had a bad ankle [Saturday],” Muschamp said. “I’ve seen Demarcus Robinson [show out] at times when he was healthy. The tough thing with Demarcus is he injured his ankle on the third or fourth day and then he misses eight practices and he’s a high school senior. … I think the guy, athletically, is what we want.”
“He’s going to be a big-time player, and he’s definitely going to show up next year,” added Driskel.
But Dunbar and Robinson are not the only receivers who have improved. Junior defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy, who will see some snaps on offense throughout the season, has also drawn his share of praise. Sophomores Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades are also on the rise and even redshirt senior Andre Debose made some nice plays during one-on-one drills Saturday.
“We got to continue to develop the position though,” Muschamp cautioned. “It’s not exactly where we want it to be, but I know we’ve improved and I’m looking forward to seeing those guys continue through the summer.”
Of course, whenever one looks at the successes or failures of a passing game, the onus rests on the shoulders of the starting quarterback. Though Driskel did toss 12 touchdowns (running for four more) while only coughing up five interceptions (three in one game), he only threw for 1,646 yards (6.72 yards per attempt) and completed just 63.7 percent of his passes.
“I’ve been really pleased with Jeff’s progress through spring,” Muschamp explained. “He’s commanded the offense and what we’re doing. We just got to continue to improve around him. I think we’ve made some good steps; we’ve got to continue to do so.”
The signal caller’s newest receiver seems to feel the same way. “He got way better. He’s throwing way better,” Purifoy said of Driskel on Saturday. “He’s got targets he can throw to now. He’s leading the offense and we’re going to be behind him 100 percent.”
Both Muschamp and Driskel understand that the Gators are going to need to stretch the field vertically in order to be successful and are under the impression that Florida will be able to do that more consistently in 2013.
“We will continue to be able to put ourselves in situations to spread the field and throw the football,” Muschamp said, “and we will be able to do that much more effectively in the fall, in my opinion.”
Driskel added: “[We need to] make more vertical plays. Last year it was more of hand the ball off, hand the ball off, third down, get the conversion. It’s hard to put drives together consistently when you’re doing that. You have to hit big plays to score touchdowns, and we need to do that more.”
Driskel received his share of criticisms in 2012. Early in the season, he would hang on to the ball too long in an attempt to take something happen when he otherwise should have thrown the ball away and tried again on the next play. He also had his fair share of inefficient outings and drew the ire of certain fans on occasion.
“That’s how it goes for a quarterback. You’re going to get too much credit and you’re going to get too much blame,” he said. “But we did win 11 games.”
Part of the reason Driskel was chosen as the starter ahead of then-teammate Jacoby Brissett was his proficiency as a runner. Driskel picked up 408 net yards on the ground and proved that he can make plays even when the receivers fail to get open. But with Brissett no longer in the fold and his back-ups still fighting for the second-string job, Driskel may not get as many opportunities to carry the ball this season.
“You pick your spots when you’re going to run at quarterback. That’s a huge part of what we do,” Muschamp conceded. “When Matt [Jones] and Jeff are standing back there, that’s two full-grown men that can carry the football for you. But we need to pick our spots when we’re going to carry Jeff as we to develop the position behind him.”
One major difference for Driskel from a year ago is the most obvious: experience. Though he picked up a pair of tough road victories in his first two official starts in 2012 (at Texas A&M, at Tennessee) and rattled off six-straight victories to begin his tenure as the primary signal caller, he only threw for more than 150 yards in 5-of-11 starts and actually toss for fewer than 100 yards in four of those other six contests.
His comfort level should go a long way to helping his production this season, and Driskel believes his ability to lead will keep Florida focused throughout the summer.
“[We have to] just continue what we did during spring, get good timing in the passing game, getting guys to get good separation and get good spacing in the routes,” he explained. “Spacing is going to be critical for us. We can’t have guys that are in the same level and same window. We’re just going to have to stay together and keep moving forward and keep building on what we did in [spring] camp.”
Some pieces appear to be in place for the Gators to break out in the passing game this season but with plenty of room for improvement and only so much practice time available beginning Aug. 1, only time will tell how much of the gap Florida can fill.
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press