10/3: Quinn thinks defense can only get better

No. 10/11 Florida Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn met with the media on Wednesday to discuss a number of topics concerning his unit including its personnel as well as how it is preparing for Saturday’s game against the No. 4/3 LSU Tigers.

IT CAN ALWAYS GET BETTER

Florida may be rolling into Saturday’s showdown ranked No. 17 nationally in total defense (305.00 yards per game) and No. 10 in scoring defense (12.75 points per game), but the team is bested by LSU in both categories (fourth at 217.80 YPG and ninth at 12.60 points per game, respectively).

As far as Quinn is concerned, the Gators have plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. And on Wednesday he detailed the areas in which he thinks the unit can improve.

“From a coverage standpoint, I think there’s been some good matchups in terms of how the guys are playing routes and that way. From a communications standpoint on the back end, we would like to still see that improve where you play some no-huddle teams that move fast and that type of thing,” he explained. “In the run game, I’d like to see that area squared up at the line of scrimmage where we just didn’t maybe fit a run exactly like we needed to. And then the final phase for our area of improvement is getting the ball back.”

Florida’s 1.25 turnover margin (seven gained, two lost) is 18th best nationally. UF being able to take the ball away from LSU, which has coughed up the ball eight times already this season, could go a long way in helping fuel the upset.

THUMBS UP AT LINEBACKER

As head coach Will Muschamp announced during the weekly SEC teleconference on Wednesday, redshirt junior Will linebacker Jelani Jenkins returned to practice and has been cleared for game action on Saturday. Quinn said that Jenkins is already relatively comfortable with the cast he is wearing on his thumb (some of his other fingers are free) and is once again bringing experience and talent to the defense.

“I think the more they have it on, you kind of get used to it. It might be harder the first time you go out and practice. I think he would absolutely take it over not playing, so it’s good to have him back,” he said. “Through practice this week I’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen from him.”

Jenkins returning to the lineup means that linebackers redshirt sophomore Michael Taylor and freshman Antonio Morrison will see fewer reps than they have been used to over the last two-plus games. Quinn is still confident that they will be able to contribute plenty this week.

“With the other guys who backed him up, I really have a lot of trust in those guys, in Mike an Antonio. In that way, no differentiation for us with whose in the game,” he said. “I think what Jelani adds in experience and playmaking ability, he adds value for us and we certainly need to get him in there. But we’ll certainly still play Mike and Antonio in the ball game.”

STEPPING UP AT THE RIGHT TIME

Redshirt senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter claimed on Tuesday that winning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week following the Kentucky game was not a big deal for him. However, the award was indicative of the vast improvement he has made this season, going from underperforming reserve to the fourth-leading tackler on the team. Quinn said Wednesday that Hunter’s improved strength and pop off the ball has made a major difference this season.

“His practice preparation leading up into Kentucky, into the bye week and going into LSU week – he’s been really practicing well. His pad level, his hand placement, all the things you’re looking for in a defensive tackle he’s been doing in practice. And that’s why, for him, it’s carried over into the game,” he noted.

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10/3: Muschamp, Miles on SEC teleconference

No. 10/11 Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp made an appearance Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference‘s weekly coaches teleconference and touched on a number of topics surrounding his team and its upcoming game against the No. 4/3 LSU Tigers on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. live on CBS.

VETERAN LINEBACKER RETURNS

After sitting out two games and three total weeks with a broken thumb he suffered in the first quarter against Texas A&M during the second week of the season, redshirt junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins has been cleared to play on Saturday.

“I feel very comfortable that he’ll be able to go and how much will sort of depend as we progress from here to Saturday,’’ Muschamp said. “We’ll still determine that through the week, but he’ll be able to play in all situations. We wouldn’t necessarily limit it right now in my eyes as we move forward. If he can play, he can play. That means he can play on 1st-and-10 and he can play on third down.”

Jenkins, who has notched 25 career starts and is one of the defense’s main leaders, will be a welcome addition back to a unit that has been relying on underclassmen to fill the void over the last two games.

FLORIDA: IMPROVED IN EVERY WAY

It is tough to find an area in which the Gators are not better than they were one year ago. Florida has a healthy starting quarterback, more effective running game, stronger offensive and defensive linemen, and a defense that is starting to come away with the turnovers that Muschamp has been demanding since he took over the program.

LSU head coach Les Miles, who also spoke with the media Wednesday, admitted as much when asked if he has seen UF take a step in the right direction.

“This team is more prepared, more competitive. They look like a very, very quality Florida team,” he said. “I don’t want to bemoan the other two teams because, to me, those guys were pretty good, too. I think they’re certainly very representative of some of the best teams that Florida’s had.”

He continued, “I think they have a nice tailback, guy that’s averaging 100 yards a game. I think they’ve been physical, and I think that they’ve demonstrated that not only this year but in each of the years that we’ve played. I think [Muschamp is] well down the road, in my opinion. I think he’s improving the team.”

The Tigers have a two-game winning streak over the Gators heading into Saturday’s contest. Florida is looking to prevent LSU from capturing three-straight wins, which has not been accomplished in the series between the two teams since UF won four-in-a-row from 1998-2001.

The Gators will try to do that with their increased physicality at the line of scrimmage, something Muschamp once again admitted was not a characteristic the team could boast in 2011.

“We weren’t physical enough on the line of scrimmage to compete and play in this league. Our depth was part of that issue because of the way we practiced,” he said. “Some of the things I wanted to do, and I felt like we needed to do, we couldn’t do because of numbers and attrition. We didn’t practice the way we always wanted to practice. And then as we went through the season, my realization of where we were sort of came to a head. We weren’t physical enough on either side of the line of scrimmage.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Muschamp on the skill of tackling being down overall in college football and what he does to combat that with his team: “We tackle every day defensively. You can’t be a good defensive football team if you can’t tackle and learn how to leverage the ball. So we tackle every day. Now we may not take a guy to the ground, but we do what we call ‘thud tackling.’”

» Muschamp on the impact Florida-LSU can have on recruiting: “I’ve never felt like one game impacts recruiting at all. It’s over a test of time. Recruiting is building relationships with people and building trust with people. One game will not determine, hopefully, where a young man goes. If a young man is being determined off of one game, I don’t know if you want him on your roster.”

» Miles on the key to making fake kicks and punts work when other teams know you call those plays often: “To be honest with you, trying them a lot is not something I want to do, I promise you. I don’t really know exactly. I think it’s more of our kids accepting a part of the game plan and making it work. […] It’s more about the skill of the player and what he sees he can do. Many times we go into game weeks without a plan [to run those plays]. It’s kind of specific to each year.”

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LSU a big test and great opportunity for Florida

The No. 4/3 LSU Tigers are undefeated on the 2012 campaign, hold a two-game winning streak in the annual series and boast an 18-game regular season winning streak, all of which will be on the line Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when they are visit the No. 10/11 Florida Gators.

Yet while LSU has gotten the best of Florida in each of the last two meetings – fighting hard for a 33-29 victory in The Swamp in 2010 before thrashing UF 41-11 in Baton Rouge, LA last season – Gators head coach Will Muschamp still sees Saturday’s showdown as simply his team’s next against a Southeastern Conference opponent.

“This counts as one game,” he said Monday during his weekly press conference. “It doesn’t count any more than that. They’ve got a good football team, certainly a team that we’re looking forward to playing. We got a great opportunity sitting in front of us here at our home stadium at 3:30 p.m. That’s the way I look at it.”

The opportunities Florida is faced with include legitimizing its top-10 national ranking, earning the team’s first victory against a top-five team in the regular season since Oct. 10, 2009, and taking back The Swamp by defeating a rival with an above- .500 record at home for the first time since Nov. 28, 2009 (Florida State).

Accomplishing those feats on Saturday will be a tough task for the Gators, especially considering how talented the Tigers are on offense, defense and special teams.

“The thing that jumps off the film at you, as every year with LSU, is the physicality of their football team in all three phases and how they play the game,” Muschamp said. “They’ve got an outstanding staff and some really good football players.”

Read the rest of this post…after the break!
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Gators at No. 23 in USA Today preseason poll

Despite falling short of the 2012 BCS National Championship, the LSU Tigers earned the No. 1 spot in the USA Today preseason coaches’ top 25 poll released Thursday, which has the Florida Gators slotted in the bottom fifth of the rankings at No. 23.

LSU received 18 of 57 possible first-place votes with Alabama (20), USC (19), Oklahoma and Oregon rounding out the top five.

Other Southeastern Conference teams ranked by USA Today this preseason include 2011 SEC East champion Georgia (No. 6), South Carolina (No. 9), Arkansas (No. 10) and Auburn (No. 25). UF’s in-state rival Florida State came in at No. 7.

Florida also began 2011 at No. 23 in the USA Today poll (No. 22 in the Associated Press top 25) but concluded the season unranked after finishing 7-6 (3-5 SEC).

The Gators are one of five unranked teams to receive recognition in the poll this preseason, joining USC (sanctioned), Texas, Notre Dame and Auburn.

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SEC announces new football, basketball schedules; Florida remains rivals with LSU, UK

Concluding the 2012 Southeastern Conference Spring Meetings in Destin, FL on Friday, the league announced that an agreement has been reached on new football and basketball schedule formats beginning in the 2013 and 2012-13 seasons, respectively.

The SEC will continue playing eight conference games in football but will shift from a 5-1-2 format to a 6-1-1 format now that two additional teams have been added to the league and each division has expanded to seven teams.

Under this format, each conference team will play all six of their divisional opponents, one permanent cross-division rival and one cross-division opponent on an annual rotation. The previous rotation consisted of two teams on a home-and-home series.

The Florida Gators and LSU Tigers will continue being cross-division rivals in football and extend a consecutive games streak that dates back 41 years to 1971. UF is 30-25-3 all-time against LSU (23-16-2 since the teams restarted their annual game).

The other six permanent cross-division rivalries (West-East) include: Alabama-Tennessee, Arkansas-Missouri, Auburn-Georgia, Mississippi-Vanderbilt, Mississippi State-Kentucky and Texas A&M-South Carolina. Arkansas and South Carolina were paired before Texas A&M and Missouri joined the conference.

Conference basketball schedules will expand to 18 games and also feature a permanent opponent with Florida taking on the Kentucky Wildcats twice each year. Teams will play eight of the 12 remaining SEC schools once and four others twice in home-and-home series on a rotating basis each year.

UK leads the all-time series against UF 93-33; the two teams have played a home-and-home series for 48 consecutive seasons dating back to 1965.

The other six permanent rivalries in basketball include: Alabama-Auburn, Arkansas-Missouri, Georgia-South Carolina, LSU-Texas A&M, Mississippi-Mississippi State and Tennessee-Vanderbilt.

An adjustment was also made to the SEC Tournament in basketball which will now feature double byes for the top four seeds and begin one day earlier on Wednesday. The opening round will consist of two “play-in” games between the four teams with the worst league records (No. 11 vs. No. 14, No. 12 vs. No. 13).

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TWO BITS: baseball falls again, softball splits

1 » Falling to 8-8 in their last 16 games dating back to March 30, No. 2/5 Florida Gators baseball (31-10) was edged 5-3 by the South Florida Bulls (28-14) at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Tuesday. Florida fell behind 2-0 in the top of the second after a fielding error by sophomore third baseman Cody Dent allowed the inning to continue and two runs to eventually score. Freshman right-hander Johnny Magliozzi (4.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 K) was replaced by sophomore left-hander Daniel Gibson in the fifth but things did not get any better for the Gators on the mound. Gibson gave up solo homer in the sixth, but Florida immediately answered with a pair of dingers from juniors shortstop Nolan Fontana (2/5, HR, RBI, R) and catcher Mike Zunino (2/5, HR, 2 RBI, R) to tie the game 3-3. However, Gibson (1.1 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 2 BB) allowed a lead-off walk in the seventh that eventually scored and registered as the game-winning run. USF added another bomb in the top of the eighth to increase their lead to two runs and UF faltered late offensively by stranding six runners on base over the final three innings (Zunino grounded out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth).

2 » No. 2/4 Gators softball (42-6, 19-3 SEC) split a Tuesday doubleheader with the LSU Tigers (33-16, 14-8 SEC), winning the afternoon contest 2-1 in eight innings before dropping the evening game 1-0. Sophomore RHP Hannah Rogers (25-3, 8.0 IP, 4 H, ER, 2 BB, 5 K) went the distance in the extra innings affair that saw Florida fight tooth and nail for a victory. The Gators trailed 1-0 after Rogers allowed a run to score in the top of the seventh but evened things out in the bottom frame when junior right fielder Ensley Gammel (1/3, HR, RBI, R) homered to right. Rogers then forced three ground balls in the eighth with her defense completing a 1-6-3 double play to end the inning and give the offense another shot. Senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie (2/4, RBI) responded to the opportunity, doubling down the left field line to knock in the game-winning run. The latter contest was a true pitchers’ duel with freshman RHP Lauren Haeger (12-3, 7.0 IP, 6 H, ER, 3 BB, 9 K) and LSU’s Brittany Mack (7.0 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 8 K) both tossing complete games. The Tigers scored after a triple was driven home in the second and the Gators’ offense stalled just like the baseball team’s did down the stretch by stranding five runners on base over the final two innings.

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FOUR BITS: gymnastics, baseball, softball, tennis

1 » No. 1 Florida Gators gymnastics advanced to the 2012 NCAA Championships on Saturday by winning the NCAA Raleigh Regional title with a team score of 197.325. Florida took down Ohio State (196.225) to win the event and also surpassed N.C. State (195.975), Penn State (196.650), North Carolina (194.025) and Kent State (193.575); finishing second, OSU also earned an opportunity to compete for the title. Four Gators won five total event titles on Saturday with junior Ashanée Dickerson posting a season-best 39.65 to claim the all-around for herself. Dickerson shared the vault (9.95) and uneven bars (9.90) titles with sophomore Alaina Johnson and cheered on as junior Marissa King picked up the balance beam (9.925) title and freshman Kytra Hunter won the floor exercise (9.95). Johnson (second), King (fourth) and Hunter (sixth) all finished high in the overall standings, and Florida posted the highest team total in every individual event as well. The victory was UF’s 12th regional title overall and their eighth in the last nine years. The NCAA Championship will be decided from April 20-22.

2 » Likely to lose their top ranking on Monday, No. 1 Gators baseball (25-7, 7-5 SEC) has continued its slide by dropping a home series over the weekend to the No. 7 LSU Tigers (25-7, 8-4 SEC). Florida has now lost five of their last seven games including consecutive three-game series for the first time since 2008. The Gators scored six or more runs in all three games but struggled with their pitching and defense in both the opener and series finale. Florida fell 7-6 to LSU on Thursday as junior left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson (4-1) gave up six earned runs on seven hits with a walk and just two strikeouts in four innings. The Gators rebounded with a 7-0 win Friday thanks to a great performance from sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford (3-1, 6.0 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 4 K). Sunday’s game started on a positive note with UF leading 7-2 through three innings. However, Florida’s bullpen gave up six unanswered runs over the final six innings to drop the heartbreaker. Sophomore RHP Karsten Whitson started but only lasted an inning after hitting two batters, giving up two hits and allowing two runs (one earned). The Gators bullpen combined to allow six earned runs on 13 hits as the Tigers fought back for the victory. Already having won the series’ first two games, Florida will look to close out Florida State on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Tallahassee, FL.

3 » No. 6 UF softball (35-4, 15-2 SEC) had a much more successful weekend, sweeping the Ole Miss Rebels (16-21, 3-11 SEC) to extend their winning streak to six games. The Gators got it done on the mound and at the plate, outscoring the Rebels 28-4 in the three games. Sophomore RHP Hannah Rogers (20-2) started the first two games and posted a pair of solid performances by allowing just one earned run on four hits with four walks and nine strikeouts in 11.0 innings (including a complete game effort on Friday). Freshman RHP Alyssa Bache (5-0) concluded the weekend for the Gators by giving up three earned runs on three hits but registering five strikeouts in five innings. Though Florida’s pitching was dominant, the plate work of freshman designated hitter Bailey Castro was even better. Castro combined to go 4/7 with three home runs, eight RBIs, five runs and three walks. She hit two bombs on Sunday including her first career grand slam while registering a career-high seven RBIs. UF will travel to face Central Florida on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Orlando, FL.

4 » No. 2 Gators women’s tennis (17-1, 10-0 SEC) continued their march to the postseason while clinching at least a share of the 2012 SEC Championship for the regular season with a pair of 7-0 sweeps over the weekend. Florida took down the No. 40 Arkansas Razorbacks (10-10, 2-7 SEC) on Friday and No. 39 LSU (11-10, 4-5 SEC) on Sunday with their players winning all 30 sets they competed in over the weekend. UF has now swept four consecutive opponents and 13 of 18 this season. The Gators will look to win the SEC regular season title outright on Saturday at South Carolina. No. 9 Florida men’s tennis (13-8, 6-4 SEC) was not as successful as their female counterparts, taking down Arkansas (14-10, 1-8 SEC) 7-0 on Friday before falling 4-2 to No. 27 LSU (13-9, 4-6 SEC) on Sunday. The Gators won 15 of 16 sets and were successful in a pair of tiebreakers in the former contest but were beat handily to close out the weekend. UF will host USC on Saturday at 1 p.m. to end the regular season.

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TWO BITS: Neiron Ball’s health, annual LSU game

1 » Florida Gators redshirt sophomore linebacker Neiron Ball (vascular condition) wrote Thursday evening on Facebook that he will be able to rejoin the team for the 2012 season after receiving medical clearance from team doctors. “Got GREAT news today!!!I am CLEARED TO PLAY FOOTBALL AGAINl!This is one of many God’s Blessings….I am so thankful and excited!PRAISE GOD!,” he wrote. Florida has not officially announced that Ball has been cleared (he is not currently listed on the Gators’ 2012 roster) though head coach Will Muschamp said last month that he expected all to go well with his player’s evaluation. “Our medical staff is [reevaluating him]. They’re going to do that in March,” he said. “They certainly feel like he’s on schedule. That’s all I know at this point. He looks great but that’s something that will be totally up to our medical staff.” Ball was hospitalized last February after a blood vessel in his brain ruptured. He was diagnosed with a congenital vascular condition and released four days later but was forced to sit out the 2011 season as he recovered.

2 » In a story published Thursday by the Baton Rouge Advocate, LSU Tigers athletic director Joe Alleva said that the annual game between his team and the Florida Gators could come to an end as the Southeastern Conference looks for ways to tweak and adjust the league’s football schedule going forward. As part of his comments, Alleva said that both schools were “interested in ending” the annual series that began in 1971. However, CBSSports.com’s Brett McMurphy reported Thursday evening that the feeling is not mutual on UF’s part as “Florida sources” told him “that the Gators have given no indication they want their series to end with LSU.”

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