Running the National Recruiting efforts of SB Nation affords me two pretty cool opportunities: 1) to continue to write about Florida State and manage Tomahawk Nation, and 2) to talk with Bill Connelly, one of the top football minds in the country. A lot.
Bill has now finished up almost all of his team previews. They are ridiculously detailed, each about 4,000 words, and something you need to check out.
All of FSU's opponents have been previewed. I'll highlight a key point or two from each, and then you can click on the team name to head over and read the rest. Do make sure to read the rest.
Bill thinks that Pitt is a top-40 team. It's beginning to take on the identify of a Paul Chryst team -- one that pounds the football, throws off play action, and plays opportunistic defense. Pitt is definitely not a pushover, but its defense does seem a lot better than its offense. Florida State is currently favored by 10 over Pitt, with about a 78% chance to win. according to Vegas.
6. The fleecing of the skill positions
I can talk all I want about how Pitt has perhaps been better than you thought over the past few years, but it's hard to get too excited about the offensive two-deep this time around. There are a lot of new pieces playing major roles. The Panthers do still have Devin Street, and that's a very good thing -- he caught a combined 21 passes for 241 yards against Syracuse and Louisville, then caught six for 140 against Temple. He is a legitimately solid No. 1 receiver who averaged nearly 10.0 yards per target last season.
The problem comes in everything after Street. The No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts are gone, as is tight end Drew Carswell. Sophomore tight end J.P. Holtz was excellent in limited opportunities last year, and junior tight end and Wisconsin transfer Manasseh Garner joins the team as well, so that's something. But returning wide receivers not named Street combined to catch just 12 of 24 passes for 134 yards (fewer than Street had vs. Temple) last year. There is potential in players like true freshman Tyler Boyd, but you'd like to have a few more proven quantities heading into the fall.
And of course, this says nothing of a running game that must replace 28 carries per game in the backfield and an all-Big East center up front. Ray Graham graduated, and star freshman Rushel Shell transferred, changed his mind, and ended up at a (former) rival school anyway. Shell was a four-star recruit, and he was certainly fine last year, but he was hardly irreplaceable. Isaac Bennett and Malcolm Crockett have both had their moments in camp, but again, they have proven almost nothing on the field. They'll be running behind a line that does return four players with starting experience (54 career starts) but was only average last year and loses center Ryan Turnley.
This offense seems like Street... a big dropoff ... and other players. Pitt's run game should be better, given that it is their second year in the system, and
3. And then the defense clicked
One reason for optimism in 2013: This defense that will have to pick up the slack for the offense this fall, already got used to doing so over the last couple of months of the season. After allowing an unacceptable 5.4 yards per play to Youngstown State in the shocking season opener, then allowing 7.9 to Cincinnati and 5.7 to Virginia Tech (almost as bad as allowing 5.4 to YSU), the defense began to figure things out, only twice playing at a below average level after September 15.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Pitt 35.3, Opponent 32.9 (plus-2.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 10 games): Pitt 29.6, Opponent 22.9 (plus-6.7)
The Panthers held mostly steady against decent offenses (Notre Dame averaged 5.0 per play) and dominated some lesser ones (Rutgers averaged 3.3, USF 2.4); the defense even did its job in the bowl loss versus Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to just 4.5. When Pitt struggled late, it was usually because of an offense that is getting a forced makeover this fall.
Pay attention to Nevada! They project as a team on par with opponents like Wake Forest, Maryland. They are not equal to FSU's other non-conference opponent, Idaho (Idaho is horrible, as you'll see).
Nevada's offense could be pretty good, but it does lose a star running back, and will have to throw more. Nevada is a good opponent, stylistically, to have before playing Clemson three weeks later. They operate a fast-paced, wide-open offense from the pistol.
4. You know Cody Fajardo, right?
One of the easiest hires Polian probably made was that of Nick Rolovich as offensive coordinator; he had to work hard to keep Rolovich from accepting a job at Temple, but he succeeded. Rolovich was Ault's O.C. last year after spending nine years at Hawaii. He has a rather pass-heavy background, but he is both predictably and wisely keeping the Pistol in place in his second year in Reno. This is wise, both because of the program's identity (the Home of the Pistol would probably be well-served in maintaining it for a while) and because of the quarterback. Cody Fajardo is not Colin Kaepernick; his legs are not eight feet long, he does not have the world's best play-fake, and as far as I can tell, he has no visible tattoos. But if Kaepernick is the perfect Pistol quarterback, Fajardo isnearly perfect. His read ability on the option is top notch, he reaches full-speed quickly, and in 2012, under Rolovich, his development as a passer took a lovely step forward. His per-attempt average didn't really change (from 7.1 in 2011 to 7.0), but his negative plays decreased (his sack rate fell from 5.2 percent to 3.7, and his interception rate fell from 2.8 percent to 2.4). And the fact that his averages held steady despite an increased work load is nice in and of itself. If Rolovich does increase the passing load a bit, it is conceivable that Fajardo could be ready for that, especially considering the fact that his top three targets from last year return, along with a big-play tight end (Kolby Arendse) and some interesting newcomers.
Fajardo is a really, really fun quarterback to watch, and it would have been a damn shame if he hadn't gotten to work from the Pistol for another couple of years.
Its defense, however, was bad last year and is unlikely to be better in 2013. They're going to try to run Tampa Two, which isn't great at stopping the run.
7. The weaknesses return, and the strengths are gone
If you take a quick look at the stats of Nevada's returning defensive linemen, your first thought might be that this looks like a pretty disruptive group. The top two returning ends combined for 17 tackles for loss, and the top three returning tackles pitched in another 6.5? That's not bad, right? Well...
A) Almost all of those TFLs were sacks. And hey, that's important. But Nevada was the worst team in the country at forcing negative plays on the ground. The Wolf Pack ranked 124th out of 124 in Stuff Rate (negative rushes), 122nd in Power Success Rate (short yardage), and 123rd in Passing Downs line yards per carry. The front four was truly awful against the run, and if you can't stop the run, your pass rush doesn't really make much of a difference.
B) The line was indeed decent at generating a pass rush, but the linebackers combined for just three sacks, and the secondary pitched in one. Nevada was a terrible blitzing team, and forcing the issue with the blitz opened up running lanes on passing downs. The linebackers were solid in run support (10.5 of the starters' 13.5 tackles for losses were non-sacks) but were relatively one-dimensional in that regard. The secondary, with star corner Khalid Wooten and safety Duke Williams, did what it could to pick up the slack, but it couldn't do much.
So now the line returns virtually everybody while the linebacking corps and secondary hit the reset button. The top four linebackers are gone, as are the top three defensive backs. Perhaps a new set of LBs can blitz a little bit better, but will improvement there come at the cost of run support?
9. Missing Khalid Wooten
Khalid Wooten was an outstanding cornerback, picked last weekend by the Tennessee Titans in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. He defensed (intercepted or broke up) 17 passes last year; returning Nevada corners combined to defense two. But as valuable as he was in the secondary, he was even more valuable as a punt returner. His 15-yard average was one of the best in the country and allowed Nevada to generate excellent field position on rare punts by opponents. Wooten left big shoes to fill in a couple of different units.
BC played last year like it didn't give a damn under fired coach Frank Spazianni. BC quit on him, and there is renewed enthusiasm under new coach Steve Addazio. However, this is a transition year, with Addazio wanting to run a power spread, and having West Coast personnel on offense. He'll have to wait to install his stuff. I do expect BC to stick with the run a bit more, however.
4. You've got to be able to run a little bit
BC's offense bore a strange resemblance to Mike Leach's Washington State O last year: pass-happy and incapable of even pretending to run the ball. The line was awful, and the running backs were only semi-capable of taking advantage of the blocks they got. The Chase Rettig-to-Alex Amidon pitch-and-catch combo was pretty stellar, but BC rushed for more than 100 yards just four times all season, two of the four were against Maine and Army. Big Andre Williams, who missed most of the last four games of the season, had a lovely game against Army (21 carries, 191 yards) but averaged just 3.6 yards per carry the rest of the way, then-sophomore Tajh Kimble was hurt, the line was, again, awful ... this was just a bad experience all the way around.
A strong ground game has long been a professed priority for Addazio and offensive coordinator Ryan Day (who was also his OC at Temple), and even last year with a shaky offense, Temple still ranked 21st in Rushing S&P+ (strangely enough, with former Boston College running back Montel Harris playing a major role). It will be interesting to see how much they are able to improve this unit in just one year. A healthy Williams has solid explosiveness for his size, and frankly, the line almost literally cannot be worse. And if the Eagles are at least competent on the ground, that could open up opportunities for not only Amidon, but also junior Spiffy Evans, who is almost too good a return man to be as bad as his 2012 stats suggest.
Defensively, BC had one glaring weakness it will try to fix. If it does, a defensive bounceback is very possible.
BC made a tremendous hire in coordinator Dom Brown, formerly of UConn and Maryland. He should bring renewed energy and a scheme that FSU will have to prepare for, or risk getting its quarterback whacked due to confused protections. Big play opportunities will also be there, or should, anyway.
6. BC couldn't rush the passer? BC?
BC hasn't always had a Matt Ryan offense at its disposal, but defense was long a strength for the Eagles. And even last year, they were perfectly decent on standard downs, preventing big plays and playing at a top-30 level overall. But thanks mostly to the country's worst pass rush, BC was a passing-downs abomination, almost completely incapable of closing drives and getting off the field.
That's right, the nation's worst pass rush. UTSA ranked 110th in Adj. Sack Rate, Wyoming ranked 116th, UMass ranked 118th, Kansas ranked 120th, Texas State ranked 121st, New Mexico State ranked 122nd, and Eastern Michigan ranked 123rd. BC ranked lower than all of them. BC recorded four sacks in the first four games, which is a pretty bad total. The Eagles then recorded two sacks in the final eight games. TWO. BC defensive ends combined for 3.5 sacks. BC linebackers combined for two (both from Kevin Pierre-Louis). And that's pretty much it. You almost have to trying NOT to get the QB when you're only bringing him down 1.2 percent of the time on passing downs.
Maryland is a very tough team to read, mostly because it lost FOUR SCHOLARSHIP QUARTERBACKS TO INJURY, resulting in a freshman linebacker playing quarterback. Poorly, of course. The offense will be a lot better, thanks to having a quarterback. Also, they have Stefon Diggs and an electric JUCO in Deon Long.
I preached all during 2012 Maryland week about how the defense was very underrated. If it's good again in 2013, it will be one hell of a coaching job.
7. Poor timing
A switch to Brian Stewart's attacking 3-4 defense paid off instantly for a Maryland defense that had quite a bit of experience in the front seven. Injuries slowed the progress down (of course they did), as did the simple fact that the D knew it was going to get no help from the O, but in players like Joe Vellano (one of the more under-appreciated players in the country), Darius Kligo, Darin Drakeford and Kenny Tate, Maryland had some personnel perfectly suited for new positions in a 3-4 structure.
Unfortunately, Vellano, Drakeford, and Tate are all gone. Last year's defense with this year's offense could have made one hell of a combination -- one that could definitely have gotten Maryland to a bowl game -- but while the offense looks to take a step forward, the defense might give away those gains.
Bill is high on Clemson, but not as high as the national media, which believes the Tigers are a top-10 team.
4. Who's No. 2?
I can't really get too worried about the running back position. For one thing, as long as he's healthy, Boyd will play a role in the running game. For another, the line should be rock-solid -- four-year starting center Dalton Freeman is gone, but six players with starting experience return (64 career starts), as do a wealth of exciting freshmen and sophomores. And for another, Andre Ellington was good but reasonably replaceable. He wasn't incredibly explosive last year, at least not any more explosive than presumptive new starter Roderick McDowell, and depth should be nice with "a bigger, bulkier Andre" (Tyshon Dye) coming off of the bench. So yeah, a solid running game (26th in Rushing S&P+ last year) should be reasonably solid again.
But Clemson makes its bones with the pass, and while Sammy Watkins is incredible when at full strength (1,225 receiving yards, 9.9 per target, as a true freshman in 2011), the Tigers benefited significantly from having DeAndre Hopkins around, first as a tremendous No. 2 in 2011 (when Watkins erupted), then as an even more tremendous No. 1 in 2012 (when Watkins was struggling). As good as we all know Watkins can be, he needs help.
Hopkins, tight end Brandon Ford, and Jaron Brown all averaged at least 8.6 yards per target, and all three are gone. Adam Humphries was a solid pitch-and-catch guy last year, and four-star juniors Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant could be ready for a step up. But the best news for this unit could be if redshirt freshman Germone Hopper and freshmen Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett keep making plays like they did in Clemson's first fall scrimmage. There are former four-stars galore here, which means the odds are pretty good that somebody will step up in to the No. 2 role. But we won't know somebody can do it until they do it.
I dug up this stat from Bill's data.
DeAndre Hopkins' 12.8 yards/target on passing downs in 2012 is the best for any receiver w/ at least 50 targets since 2005. His 21.3 yards/catch on passing downs in 2012 is the highest for any receiver w/ at least 55 targets since 2005.
THE BEST RECEIVER WHEN THE DEFENSE KNEW THE OFFENSE HAD TO PASS ON ANY TEAM IN THE LAST EIGHT SEASONS. Clemson was really damn good at converting those situations.
Clemson is almost certainly going to be less effective at converting 2nd & 7/ 3rd & 5 or more situations this year. The key will be running the ball better and staying out of those downs, which with an improved offensive line, should be doable. Ellington's loss is being overrated, as Bill notes -- he really wasn't anything special.
The line is ready
There is no guarantee that the back seven will be any better in 2013. But before we get there, let's talk about how loaded the front four is. Pass rusher (and nothing else) Malliciah Goodman is gone, but everybody else returns, including a junior (Vic Beasley) who was actually better at the pass-rush-only role in 2012 than Goodman was. Clemson returns a trio of strong junior tackles and a couple of solid every-down ends in Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes; the Tigers also welcome three four-star freshmen to the mix, including Shaq Lawson, last season's No. 1 prep school recruit (according, of course, to Rivals). This is the advanced Roster Management class (201, I guess?), with a healthy load of stud juniors, sophomores, and freshmen coming down the pike, one after another. And perhaps best of all, there's not a single senior. Even if somebody leaves early, this line is only going to be better in 2014.
With new head coach Dave Doeren (from NIU), and offensive coordinator Dave Canada, look for big changes from N.C. State's offense.
5. Finding a running game
Between Doeren and Canada, the odds are good that NC State will look to run the ball as much as it is able to do. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack weren't that able in 2012; they ranked just 100th in Rushing S&P+, with minimal ability to either break off a big play or keep Mike Glennon out of obvious passing situations. If there's quality to be found here, Doeren and Canada will probably unearth it, but it's hard to get too excited about anything regarding this running game.
Shadrach Thornton (suspended for the season opener) and Tony Creecy showed next to no explosiveness on the rare opportunity that they got to the second level of the defense, and the line is now tasked with replacing four two-year (or more) starters who combined for 137 career starts. Now, because of injuries and shuffling, NC State still returns four players with starting experience (41 career starts), including former five-star recruit Rob Crisp.
But this line was average at best last year, and there's nothing saying it will be any better this time around, especially since new offensive line coach Mike Uremovich is in his first year of coaching the offensive line. Sometimes you can just assume certain coaches are going to have quality lines; we have no data for assuming anything, good or bad, of Uremovich.
Defensively, State will still run a 4-3.
7. Weakness is strength
O'Brien and company tried to keep things pretty aggressive on defense, but it was a lot more difficult to do that after two awesome linebackers -- Audie Cole and Terrell Manning, who combined for 28 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 12 passes defensed, and eight forced fumbles in 2011 -- left. State's Adj. Sack Rate fell from 16th to 42nd, and a defense that made a living on picks in 2011 didn't reel in quite as many. (This was expected, of course: David Amersen picked off 13 of his 18 defensed passes in 2011, which unsustainable. That ratio dropped to a still strong five of 17 in 2012.) Thirty-nine takeaways in 2011 became 24 in 2012. Considering turnovers are worth, on average, about five points of field position, that's nearly six points per game that State wasn't benefiting from in 2012.
That said, the pass defense was still a relative strength for NC State; the Wolfpack's biggest problems came up front, where they ranked 88th in both Rushing S&P+ and Adj. Line Yards. They still made plays behind the line -- they were 10th in the country in tackles for loss -- but allowed too many opportunities to opposing rushers.
To the extent that experience can help this, experience will help this. The top four linemen, and five of the top six, return. Ends Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman combined for 12 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last season, and tackles T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal combined for 18.0 TFLs themselves. New defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable (yes, Huxtable) led a Pittsburgh unit that was at least a little bit less all-or-nothing on the ground, and if he can teach these upperclassmen some control, good things could happen, and a weakness could become a strength. And while Rickey Dowdy was a hell of a play-maker at linebacker, there should be enough returning talent at linebacker to do well, as long as the LBs aren't asked to clean up quite as many messes.
Miami should be the third or fourth toughest game on the schedule (depending on how much you think of Pitt). This is an extremely veteran team, with basically its entire offense returning, and well, almost its entire defense as well. Your opinion of Miami probably depends on how much you value experience (it matters a lot) v. overall talent. Bill C. projects Miami as the 25th best team.
Miami's offense was 46th nationally last year, though it did improve late.
3. Maintaining aggression
Say this for former Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch: He was not a wallflower. Fisch, now the O.C. for the Jacksonville Jaguars, went for the throat as often as anybody in the country, and he occasionally succeeded. Only four teams had offenses more explosive than Miami's on standard downs, and while the Hurricanes weren't goodenough at being aggressive on passing downs, there's something to be said for taking what you want instead of taking what the opponent gives you (namely: "It's fun.").
Miami's offense was more admirable than successful, however, at least before November. Explosiveness is awesome, and Fisch featured quite a bit of it, but inefficiency still caused the 'Canes to stall out at times.
Now, new coordinator James Coley will try to smooth out some of the rough edges without dulling the offense's big-play capabilities. Coley was the head offensive assistant under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, but Fisher has always been the play-caller there. At Miami, Coley will get to make the calls; while he is known as a stellar recruiter and motivator, we don't know much about him in this regard. It will be interesting to see how he deviates from the Florida State attack, which, like Miami, moved at a leisurely pace but also ran the ball quite a bit more. (With Duke Johnson at running back, running more might not be the worst idea in the world. But we'll get to him.)
Quarterback Stephen Morris' 13.7 yards per completion were among the highest averages in the country; if Miami moves to more of a ground-based operation and features shorter passes, will it kill last November's buzz?
Defensively, a big improvement should be expected due to the defense. They'll have to stay healthy, however, because the backups are either experienced or talented, but not both.
at Wake Forest
Wake fell apart last year, but should improve a good bit.
5. You need five healthy linemen
It's a good sign that Grobe is still willing to tinker and make changes in a hungry search to move the ball. His misdirection running game indeed had a decent amount of success early in his Wake tenure, and it was certainly time for a change. But the change will only matter if the line can both stay healthy and improve. Between injuries and youth, the line fell apart in 2012, especially in terms of run blocking. It couldn't create chances for its backs, it couldn't keep defenders out of the backfield, and it couldn't convert in short-yardage situations. That's three strikes.
In 2013, six players with starting experience do return (50 career starts). That's certainly a good thing. The line is big and experienced. But how much can a line improve in one year, especially when a bit of a system change is involved?
I am not optimistic that Wake's offense will rebound in 2013. But the defense very well could be enough to get them back to a bowl.
6. The defense was not the problem
The 2012 Wake defense certainly wasn't very good, but it wasn't that bad either. The Deacs were reasonably efficient on standard downs, and a light but active line was able to make quite a few plays in the backfield. But even if the defense could leverage opponents into passing downs, the back seven wasn't able to make enough stops. Injuries were a hindrance -- each of the top three linemen all missed time, as did three of the top six defensive backs -- and the unit certainly regressed as the season went on. If the D can stay healthy, and if it can at least get some sort of help from the O, then there is enough experience here to at least shoot for a top-50 or -60 Def. F/+ ranking.
My take on Syracuse is that almost every personnel loss for Syracuse is a big, big loss.
It's hard to know what to make of this team. There are potential stars at running back and linebacker, and there is at least one stellar receiver in the rotation, but the quarterback position is a question mark, the offensive line loses its two best players, the defensive line got thinned out quite a bit, and the secondary is still a bit of a mystery. (The special teams unit is experienced but wasn't that good last year, either.)
4. What is GeorgeBall?
When Shafer hired George McDonald away from Arkansas, where he had just been named receivers coach, to run his offense, it was seen as a pretty big deal. McDonald has built a reputation as one of the nation's better recruiters, and he's certainly a fantastic Twitter marm. He oversaw quite a few big-play receivers at Miami. For a first-time offensive coordinator, McDonald has a quality résumé.
That's what we know. What we don't know, however, is what the hell a George McDonald offense is supposed to look like at this stage. McDonald was Bill Cubit's first offensive coordinator at Western Michigan, where he ran a spread-out, pass-happy attack. But after two years, he moved on to the first of many stints as a receivers coach: Minnesota in 2007-08, Cleveland Browns in 2009-10, Miami in 2011-12. One assumes he likes to pass. But the more he wants to pass, the less his plans will jive with the remains of the Syracuse offense.
Ryan Nassib is now a New York Giant, and Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon, one of the nation's more prolific (1,937 receiving yards, 9.4 per target) and frequently targeted (46 percent of Syracuse's passes were thrown in their direction) duos, are also gone. Only one returning wideout was targeted more than 20 times last year, and returning quarterbacks combined to throw one pass.
Meanwhile, running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who combined for 2,001 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, return. They'll be running behind a line that was awesome but must replace both members of a stalwart left side. What McDonald wants to do and what he's able to do in 2013 could be at odds, especially if dual-threat sophomore Terrel Hunt holds onto the starting job he appeared to win in the spring.
Oh, and Syracuse also lost its two top offensive linemen.
I took two snippets about the offense, so you'll have to read about the defense, which could again cause troubles for opposing offenses.
Idaho is awful. This is one of the worst 124 teams in D1. This is an excellent opponent for senior day, and should allow Florida State to dedicate some of its practice time for playing Florida the next week.
I'm generally a hopeful kind of guy. I was, after all, able to come up with quite a few encouraging things to mention about New Mexico State this week. But when it comes to Idaho, it's pretty difficult. The Vandals will have a strong offensive line and, potentially, a decent defensive line. They might have some interesting receivers for the system at hand. But they're starting over at quarterback, running back, linebacker, defensive back, and special teams. And the schedule isn't particularly forgiving: While Idaho does face six teams projected 97th or worse, they play four of those teams on he road. Home games versus Texas State and Old Dominion appear to be the most winnable available, but a)Texas State might actually be pretty damn good in 2013, and b) ODU has gone 21-5 at the FCS level over the last two years.
I'm not going to predict an 0-12 season, but I'll just say that Paul Petrino has his work cut out for him. The underdog role might look good on him, and he may end up a perfectly fine hire, but he probably has some work to do just to get Idaho up to underdog status.
Bill is very high on Florida, due to its talent level and defense. I can't really disagree too much, and Florida is a 3.5-point favorite over FSU right now.
4. Red zone paradox
For all of this team's running strengths -- and no matter how you slice it, 10th in Rushing S&P+ is damn strong -- Florida was strangely awful in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. The Gators ranked 86th in Red Zone S&P+ and 118th in Power Success Rate; they broke a lot of big runs, mostly against gassed defenses, but they were terribly ineffective at throwing in short space, and opponents were able to gang up on the run. Florida attempted 29 field goals, eighth-most in the country, and scored just 39 touchdowns (82nd). In six trips inside the Georgia 40 in their only regular season loss, the Gators kicked three field goals, fumbled, threw a pick, and turned the ball over on downs.
Good run games are often associated with the ability to finish drives well, but that was not an accurate association for Florida in 2012, and it cost the Gators a spot in the SEC (and potentially BCS) title game.
6. Will the passing game improve?
Of course, receivers getting open could also help Driskel to avoid holding the ball too long. And hey, at any point, the former four- and five-star recruits in the Florida receiving corps could start acting like four- and five-star players. There is a ton of them, from the go-routes-only Andre Debose to Solomon Patton, who was much more running back than receiver from the WR-Z position (14 carries, three targets).
But unless you double down on potential, it's hard to rationalize Florida's passing game getting better, considering three of last year's top four targets are gone, and only one returnee averaged better than even a poor 6.6 yards per target last year. Tight ends Clay Burton and Kent Taylor and fullback Hunter Joyer combined to average 1.9 yards per target in 2012; five average passes to these three still wouldn't have gained a first down. I don't even understand how your average can be that low unless you're doing it intentionally. The passing game definitely isn't going to get worse, but yeah, throw the ball away, Jeff.
Despite passing game issues, the combination of Driskel rollouts, delays, draws, and screens to the running back, and camp-out-at-the-first-down-line passes to tight end Jordan Reed gave Florida better passing-downs success than one might have expected. If someone can replace Reed as ace in the hole, Florida could still figure out ways to move the chains once it falls behind schedule.
And a solid (from a run perspective) line should once again ensure that, by the third or fourth quarter, the Florida run game is getting more and more effective, even without Mike Gillislee.
7. Passing was your only shot
Florida didn't even have the decency to put a flashy, fun defense on the field. The Gators went with the Alabama-esque, submission-holds-instead-of-flying-elbow-drops style of defense. With a great push from the middle of the line and fast linebackers and safeties in pursuit, Florida leaned on its athleticism and adaptability in 2012, and the results were impressive.
Athletic offenses could occasionally find room to work (Texas A&M and Louisville in the first half, to name two), but if you didn't have enough speed or depth, you would quickly find yourself in passing downs, and you would likely find yourself getting picked off soon thereafter.
The only chance offenses had came through the air, and opponents knew it. Florida's pass rush was a bit passive, so quarterbacks usually had time to get passes off; that was better than the running back getting gang-tackled two yards downfield (or getting lit up by tackle Sharrif Floyd behind the line of scrimmage). The problem with passing was that opposing quarterbacks were throwing into spaces with a lot of fast defenders nearby, and the Gators were frequently able to break passes up or intercept them.
(Actually, they were a bit lucky in the number of interceptions they pulled in. They picked off 29 percent of their defensed passes; the national average is 21 percent, so they nabbed about 5.5 more INTs than they probably should have.)
The names are changing, but the defensive identity probably won't. The run stuffs will still be there -- Floyd and Omar Hunter are gone, but Dominique Easley and Leon Orr made 14 of their 32.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- and there is help at tackle coming from junior college transfer Darious Cummings. And sophomore ends Dante Fowler, Jr., and Jonathan Bullard should only get better after showing well in their debut seasons. Florida should once again get a hell of a push up front, which will do a green back seven quite a few favors.