Some of you seemed to enjoy the orange sun and blue sky metaphor in our wrap on Florida's 2012 basketball season. That's good: I liked it, too, and it actually dates back to January 2009, when I was blogging in the hinterlands of the Internet.
But I like it mostly as a metaphor for optimism, and I like optimism in general, and so I'm kicking off our Orange Sun, Blue Sky feature, which will run on Fridays (Fridays are the perfect day for optimism) and argue that Florida is in good shape in ... well, whatever the topic of the week is. I will not be sure that the things I write in these posts will happen, but I promise that I'll make compelling, logical cases for the most optimistic possible scenario.
This week, by request: the Florida football offense, under new management in 2012.
Florida's offense was not good in 2011. The Charlie Weis approach — run Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps into nonexistent holes, take deep shots dependent on John Brantley somehow grafting a howitzer onto his right arm, and forget that wide receivers not named Andre Debose exist — did not work, not against the meat of Florida's schedule, and the Gators put up just 19 touchdowns in their nine games from October on, seven in a come-from-behind win over Furman.
The ideal Florida offense would be more likely to get 19 touchdowns against Furman and seven in every game from October on, of course, because most Gators fans revere Steve Spurrier's "hang half a hundred" philosophy above all else, but Will Muschamp isn't that kind of coach, and Brent Pease, brought in from Boise State, isn't likely to mold the talent he has into a whirring death machine just yet.
But will Florida's offense be much, much better in 2012? Absolutely.
The core of Florida's problems in 2011 was the core of nearly any mediocre offense's problems: a leaky offensive line. Xavier Nixon did a fine turnstile impression, but his regression from the sort of form he showed in 2010 was troubling. Matt Patchan's injury issues remained, for he is Matt Patchan. The trio of James Wilson, Dan Wenger, and Jon Halapio did yeoman's work in the interior of the line, but were neither exceptionally good or miserable, and the tackles on either side of them were getting whipped so often that it rarely mattered.
The bad news is that all of those players, excepting Wenger and including Chaz Green, maybe Florida's best offensive lineman in 2011, are back; the good news is that the people in charge of those linemen are not, with offensive line coach Frank Verducci let go and replaced by Tim Davis and strength and conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti, who left for Ohio State, replaced by Jeff Dillman. Davis and Dillman have drawn praise from Muschamp for their toughness, and both are the sorts of no-nonsense grinders Muschamp seems to love having on his staff. (Possibly as important: Both guys are Muschamp hires, while Verducci was seen as a Weis lieutenant and Marotti was an Urban Meyer holdover.)
Davis has a long, decorated resume, and Dillman's training regimen is already working on a Florida team that was (and played) soft at junctures in 2011, bulking up linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins significantly, but those two will have better clay to mold, too: Nixon and Patchan being closer to fully healthy helps, and Wilson getting a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA helps, but the reason to be excited about Florida's offensive line is the presence of freshmen D.J. Humphries and Jessamen Dunker, both of whom have the talent to be immediate rotation players. Humphries, if he can bulk up before the beginning of fall camp, could also push incumbents for a starting spot; he's that good. Better, stronger players, better coaching, and more depth will make any line better, and Florida's should be in 2012.
The line getting better will only help the rest of the Gators offense. Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett both have enough mobility to extend plays that Brantley couldn't, but were often forced to make snap decisions by missed blocks, and that compounded the freshman skittishness both were prone to; Driskel was especially nervous in his limited action, which likely helped elevate Brissett to second on the Gators' depth chart last fall. The quarterbacks can now focus less on wondering where imminent maiming is coming from and more on winning the rare quarterback battle between two highly-touted and eminently talented players.
Neither QB has distinguished himself, either in game action or spring practice, as a clear-cut No. 1, but both have arms and legs superior to their predecessor, and each still has a chance to become the next great Florida quarterback. From what little I've seen in practice and heard from it, Brissett's been less like the caretaker he was last fall, and is taking more shots, while Driskel's settled down and refined his pocket passing. (Driskel, I tweeted from practice, reminds me a lot of Brantley, but it's in a good way: He makes reads. Brantley, you'll recall, had the Gators hanging with Alabama, the eventual national champion, because he was making reads.)
No matter which quarterback emerges, Florida will almost certainly be in better hands than it was in 2012. And the guy taking snaps will have a better range of weapons at his disposal.
Rainey and Demps were both unique and dangerous players: Rainey's quicksilvery east-west running was exasperating to watch at times, but it beguiled defenses, and Demps was one of the best nothing-but-green-in-front-of-him straight-line burners Florida has ever had. Their size limited them, though, and the injuries both sustained, partly because they were thoroughbreds miscast as mules, made them less and less effective. Florida won't have that problem in 2012 because there is only a tiny chance of miscasting any of the running backs remaining on the roster.
Mike Gillislee should be the starter, provided he can bring his pass protection up to par, but he'll be the most important runner and could be Florida's first 1,000-yard back since Ciatrick Fason. That tag gets attached all the time, of course, but Gillislee's the rare sort of back who has burst and power, and his phenomenal 6.81 yards per carry in three seasons attests to that. All the #FreeGilly hubbub may have made his puzzling bench habitation the central peg of his narrative, but Gillislee's really, really good, and could be a star with a starter's usage.
Behind him is Mack Brown. He is big, and there's no mistaking him for anything but a big running back . Behind Brown are Omarius Hines, an athletic freak who has been looking for a position for two years, and Trey Burton, a slightly less athletic freak who has been doing the same. Keeping both of them at running back and asking them to do running back things that they can do (both can catch the ball and win one-on-one battles with defenders in space). And behind them is Chris Johnson, a fleet defensive back turned running back. And somewhere in the mix will be Matt Jones, a hulking freshman who adds size.
That this all sounds a lot better than the terrifying "TREY BURTON IS OUR SECOND-STRING BACK" worries from last fall did is a good thing on its own; that it's possible that Pease will be able to do more without the handicap that was Weis' stubborn refusal to scrap his attempts to make Demps and Rainey fit into much bigger backs' roles is a very good thing.
Pease doing more than Weis did with the only marginally changed Florida roster is going to be the theme of this fall beyond just the running backs, though. He's got plenty of experience with that situation at Boise State, where he helped take three-star talent and make five-star offenses with the Broncos, and he's especially experienced with wide receivers, which makes Florida's glaring weakness at wide receiver something he'll at least be able to address.
He's been working with those wide receivers, and he'll continue doing that, trying to turn Andre Debose into something other than a terror on go routes, Quinton Dunbar into a reliable possession receiver, and Frankie Hammond into a dangerous slot option, but he'll also have an infusion of size and talent in Ja'Juan Story and Latroy Pittman. These Gators aren't going to be a fully operational aerial assault from the first game under Pease, but Stefon Diggs and Nelson Agholor wouldn't have made them that, either, and the most important possible development for Florida's passing game in the fall will be the emergence of reliable options to balance a running game that could be very good and move the chains to keep the Gators' fearsome defense rested.
That's where the embarrassment of riches at tight end comes in. Jordan Reed looked like he understood the importance of staying on the ground while catching passes toward the end of the 2011 season, and if that carries over, he will be a reliable option for Florida in 2012. But he's far from the only one in orange and blue: A.C. Leonard could be very, very good if he resolves his legal issues and commits himself, and Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor are blue-chip players who could contribute as freshmen. If there's a position that is not cause for even the slightest bit of concern among the Florida faithful, it's tight end, and Thompson is already the sort of impact blocker who could effectively be a sixth offensive lineman on some plays.
The Gators could be mining similar veins for unexpected contributions and putting pieces in different places to solve their puzzles all fall as they figure out the third new offense in as many years. But if Florida can lean on its strengths and shore up its weaknesses, the Gators' offense will rebound in a big way in 2012.