The 2007 season was arguably the worst the Florida Gators have played since head coach Urban Meyer took over the program in 2005. That is often what happens when a team’s starting quarterback (Chris Leak) graduates, it loses the majority of its defensive starters to the NFL Draft (defensive linemen Jarvis Moss, Ray McDonald, Marcus Thomas and Joe Cohen, safeties Reggie Nelson and Ryan Smith, linebacker Brandon Siler) and a few other key pieces leave as well (wide receiver Dallas Baker, running back DeShawn Wynn).
Considering the departures following the 2009 season (QB Tim Tebow, WR Riley Cooper, tight end Aaron Hernandez, center Maurkice Pouncey, cornerback Joe Haden, DE Carlos Dunlap, S Major Wright, LBs Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham) appear eerily similar (if not greater) to those that occurred before 2007 got underway, many might expect the Gators to experience a similar downfall. Perhaps they will go from back-to-back one-loss seasons to a similar 9-4 record, 5-3 performance in the Southeastern Conference and maybe even a bowl game loss?
Here is why those that think the sky is falling may be too reactionary…
Meyer’s ability to win a National Championship during his second season in Florida was simply remarkable. He accomplished that feat by supplementing his veterans with talented youngsters (Tebow, WR Percy Harvin) as he continuously attempted to re-work the roster in his own image. Fortunately, the 2006 season was a quick fix somewhat put together and assembled on the fly; unfortunately, 2007 was the byproduct – a year void of leadership due to an extreme roster turnover, a lack upperclassmen and (as Meyer himself said at the time) without talented enough seniors to carry the team on their shoulders through tough times.
Since the completion of that season, Meyer made it is goal to even out the roster, citing that the change in guard that had taken place a few years earlier did not allow the program to maintain the continuity he had hoped to achieve from the get-go.
Three years later – with another title and a one-loss season occurring in-between – Meyer has found the balance for which he had been searching. In 2007, only 26 percent of the roster was made up of upperclassmen; now he has 35 percent of his players as upperclassmen with 54 percent participating in the program for their third year.
Defense wins championships – it also makes up for offensive deficiencies. And it is one reason that, no matter how effective Tebow was in 2007, Florida did not have much of a chance from the get-go.
The most talented players on that 2007 squad were the youngest – no doubt due to Meyer’s terrific recruiting efforts. As guys like Haden, Wright, Dunlap, Spikes, Cunningham and senior S Ahmad Black were waiting in the wings or just gaining their footing, S Tony Joiner, S Kyle Jackson and DE Derrick Harvey were already entrenched as starters who had earned major playing time.
Though the Gators lost plenty of talented players once again via the 2010 NFL Draft, plenty remain on the roster: Black, juniors CB Janoris Jenkins and S Will Hill, redshirt seniors LB A.J. Jones and DT Lawrence Marsh, and seniors DE Justin Trattou and LB Brandon Hicks – just to name a few – are all upperclassmen.
The offense was not the problem in 2007 but with everything on the shoulders of a sophomore signal caller, it was most certainly unbalanced. Unlike Tebow, redshirt junior QB John Brantley comes into his first year as a starter with three years of practice and familiarity in Meyer’s system under his belt. He will be looking downfield – not at the offensive line in front of him – and has two very different backs in junior Jeff Demps and redshirt senior Emmanuel Moody to help change the pace when necessary.
Meyer may be the master of the spread offense, but he also likes to run the ball effectively – by taking it out of his quarterback’s hands and having a pair of dynamic rushers, that will almost certainly come into play.
However, if Florida allows the following two factors to affect them throughout the year, 2010 might resemble 2007 more than many would hope…
Looking ahead at the schedule, there is one striking similarity: the Gators will be tested on the road against the toughest SEC West opponent out there (LSU in 2007, Alabama in 2010). From there though, the 2010 team is faced with a much more difficult feat.
In 2007, Florida squared off against Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State at home. However, for 2010, UF will go on the road against Tennessee, Alabama and Florida State – only facing LSU at home. That’s not to mention the fact that FSU will likely be stronger than they have been in recent memory.
There is also the initial test of the first two weeks of the season to consider. 2007 began with consecutive 46- and 26-point victories against Western Kentucky and Troy, respectively. The Gators will likely win their 2010 openers as well but must face stiffer competition in Miami (OH) and South Florida to start the season.
After winning the title in 2006, Florida returned their entire coaching staff – a type of continuity that most championship teams do not experience. Of that staff, only four – including Meyer – remain on the team as of press time. One of those four is running backs coach Stan Drayton, who comes back to Florida after leaving a few seasons ago.
This year, the Gators are faced with a huge coaching turnover with former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s departure as the marquee vacancy that needed to be filled. Teryl Austin – who has never before held the position – takes over Strong’s spot. Also joining the staff (along with Austin and Drayton) are linebackers/special teams coach D.J. Durkin and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
Everything may be running smoothly with the staff right now as recruiting has not skipped a beat and the players are adjusting nicely, but how the coaches actually work together during the season and in-between games may have a great impact on the level of achievement this team can experience.