Each week, as time and my DVR permits, I will rewatch games from the past weekend with a close, critical eye. Now up: Florida's game against Miami University.
When I left the stadium on Saturday, I thought the team had all kinds of issues all over the field. I found that not really to be the case after watching it again yesterday evening. There aren't too many issues, but the ones that exist were really, really deep.
I don't know that I can grade the team as a whole because of the large disparity between how the offense and defense played. The defense gets a B+. It wasn't as dominant as those of the past couple years (and never was going to be), but it held Miami to four yards rushing on 22 carries and under five yards per pass attempt. The offense gets a solid D: terrible, but not unredeemable.
The bad snaps and fumbles need to be fixed. Period. However, there's not a whole lot else to say on the matter, other than that they disrupted the proceedings and made it impossible for the offense to find a rhythm.
For the most part, blocking was the issue of the day. I'm not even sure where to begin, but I'll start up front.
Thanks to injuries (LTs Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan) and suspension (LG Carl Johnson), everyone on the line was either new or playing a new position. Mike Pouncey was in his first game at center. RT Marcus Gilbert played his first game at left tackle. LG Maurice Hurt played tackle for the first time ever. RG James Wilson slid over to left guard. Red shirt freshman OG Jon Halapio played his first snaps with anything but the scrubs.
If it looked like these guys had never practiced before, it's because the largely hadn't. Only Pouncey was in the spot he's been practicing since spring, and this particular set of five spent almost no time together as a unit if training camp practice reports can be believed.
As a result, the blocking schemes were very basic. The guards almost never pulled, and pulling guards are a staple of Florida's normal run blocking. The guys on the line almost never made it into the second level to block on running plays, which is also a defining characteristic of the scheme. Then you had the guys at fullback/H-back. One was red shirt freshman T.J. Pridemore, who played very much like a freshman. The other, thanks to Jordan Reed being injured, was freshman QB Trey Burton. He has practiced the position for about two weeks. The new blocking tight end in the jumbo package is DE Earl Okine, and one fourth down play got blown up because he double-teamed a blocked lineman instead of picking up the linebacker who breezed right by him.
When Jeff Demps broke his 72-yard touchdown run, it wasn't some kind of face-saving fluke. It was perhaps the first running play all day that was perfectly blocked. Everyone found his man, and all Demps had to do was beat the safety from the other side of the field. In fact, blocking was better across the board in the fourth quarter, which is why the team suddenly began moving the ball.
One final note of the topic: this year's set of receivers is not exactly the best blocking unit I've seen so far. As a whole, they just didn't finish blocks well. Deonte Thompson gives lots of effort at it, but he can't seem to hold a block longer than about two seconds. Carl Moore was very inconsistent at even engaging defenders, but that may have been natural tentativeness in his first game back after missing all of '09 to injury. Omarius Hines at times quit on his blocks too early. Burton tried but clearly didn't really know what he was doing. Frankie Hammond is likely coming back from suspension this weekend, and he's reportedly one of the better blockers. He had better be for Florida's sake.
John Brantley was fine when he got the snap firmly in his hands. He had a couple of overthrows, but other than that he was never far off target. He also showed good pocket awareness, using his scrambling ability to avoid getting sacked on the day. His biggest issue was not following the ball into his hands on shotgun snaps, which resulted in one fumble and some bobbling other times.
After that, there was just the minor problem not being patient. The line, for all its issues, was actually fairly good at pass blocking. He had plenty of time in the pocket, and a little more patience would have helped. The best example was on a fourth down play where he threw short to Chris Rainey and failed to pick up the conversion. As he was beginning to throw to Rainey, another receiver was breaking free in the same area behind the defense. A pump fake and a longer, completed throw would have gotten the first down.
Here comes the good news for the Gators. The defense looked all right.
The secondary is clearly the strength of the entire team. Janoris Jenkins showed almost no difference from Joe Haden now that he's taken over Haden's spot. Ahmad Black looked every bit the All-SEC player he was picked to be in the preseason. True freshman Matt Elam looked at least like a sophomore, and Jeremy Brown didn't look terribly rusty after missing the last two seasons to injury. The only bad news was senior CB Moses Jenkins hyperextending his elbow, which will put him out six weeks. There's not a whole lot of depth, though the front line is great.
At linebacker, things were a little less clear though still positive. A.J. Jones at times looked like he was playing with the cheat codes on, which is what you want to see against a team like Miami. Jon Bostic appeared to have a clear lead over Jelani Jenkins for the middle linebacker spot. While Jenkins is startlingly fast for the position, he doesn't wrap up on tackles like Bostic does. Bostic was all over the place (in a good way), and even snared an interception. He looks like the guy to continue the Crowder/Siler/Spikes line of great MLBs at Florida.
The line play was encouraging in some ways, though in others not. There clearly is not a Carlos Dunlap-type freak on the team this year, as starting ends Justin Trattou and Duke Lemmens didn't get anything easy on the day. The starting defensive tackles finally look like a real strength though. Omar Hunter and especially Jaye Howard had great days, constantly getting in the backfield and causing trouble. Howard even picked up 2.5 sacks on his way to becoming SEC lineman of the week.
Schematically, there wasn't a whole lot different between what we saw on Saturday and what Charlie Strong ran. As I said in the overview, it wasn't as dominant as previous years' squads have been. A lot of that has to do with the personnel losses. Most of it, really.
Some part of it also had to do with the fact that the coaches emptied the benches on defense, throwing in nearly everyone they had healthy at some point. They're clearly still evaluating who they have and deciding on how the rotations will work. Miami had a terrible time at moving the ball on the starting unit, and it picked up most of its yards when the ratio of freshmen to vets rose.
This game, more than anything else, exposed what kind of depth issues Florida has. Guys were missing due to injury and suspension all over the field, and they did miss a few beats.
On the positive side, it gave a lot of the young bucks on defense a chance to see the field. They did give up some yardage, but they never allowed the RedHawks to get into the end zone. The present and future of the Gator defense looks pretty secure.
On the negative side, we got a horror show on the offensive line. Pouncey proved that moving to center is a bit more complex of an issue than moving to any other spot. The last minute shuffling of players lead to many circumstances where it appeared that the line's job was just to hit anyone in white in front of them. It just goes to show that, even against an overmatched opponent, it's hard to do anything well if you can't block worth beans.
So where does this leave Florida going forward? Pouncey and Brantley said that they got the snapping situation sorted out at Sunday's practice. We'll see about that; they also said it was never a problem in training camp too. Ball security is a big concern, but there are drills for that. Getting Johnson and likely Nixon as well back is the most important thing, as it will allow everyone on the line to fall back into their normal roles. Once that happens, a lot of Saturday's problems will work themselves out.
Ultimately though, this team is going to find itself leaning on its defense a lot. Nearly every SEC team does. The defense appeared to be capable carrying the offense for stretches, and it will be even more capable with Will Hill coming back from suspension. It's not going likely to be up to the standard of the '06, '08, or '09 crews, but it's far better than the '07 unit. Depending on how the young guys progress, it could approach some of those high bars by the end of the year.
I can't stress it enough though: the blocking has to improve. Has to. Otherwise, this team will probably end up Urban Meyer's first eight-win team since his debut at Bowling Green in 2001.