Philadelphia, PA – The start of the 2013 season brought an abundance of hope for the Florida Gators, as they were fresh off a Sugar Bowl bid and eager to make a run at their first SEC Eastern Division crown since 2009.
However, after a disappointing loss to Miami and a couple of devastating season-ending injuries, it may be time to hit the panic button in Gainesville.
The Gators already have the worst scoring offense in the SEC, putting up just 23.7 ppg, and their prospects for improving certainly took a hit when news came down following last Saturday's win over Tennessee that quarterback Jeff Driskel would miss the rest of the season with a broken fibula. Driskel won the starting job last year as a sophomore and has won 12 of his 15 career starts, and he showed improvement in completion percentage from 2012 (.637) to 2013 (.689), albeit a significantly smaller sampling this time around.
"Very disappointed for Jeff," Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. "That's part of the game, but it's very difficult to deal with. I'm really hurt for him and his family and for us as a football team."
If the early part of Florida's week wasn't bad enough, the news got even worse following Tuesday's practice when Preseason First Team-All SEC Defensive Tackle Dominique Easley went down with a torn ACL in his right knee. The senior, who has 18.0 TFL and 5.5 sacks in his career, is less than two years removed from suffering the same injury in his left knee in late 2011. Easley recovered from that setback to draw rave reviews for his play here early in the 2013 campaign and was pegged by some to be a top-10 pick in next year's NFL Draft, which makes this unfortunate turn of events especially heartbreaking.
The squad's injury woes started during the preseason when it lost right tackle Chaz Green (18 career starts) as well as wide receiver/kick returner Andre Debose (2,254 career all-purpose yards, eight TDs). Add to the lengthy injury report for this week's contest against Kentucky cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, receivers Demarcus Robinson and Latroy Pittman, offensive tackle Tyler Moore and defensive tackle Leon Orr, and the Gators can't seem to catch a break.
It will be an uphill battle for Florida from this point forward, there's no doubt about that. It has one of the nation's most difficult slate of games ahead, with matchups against nationally-ranked LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State occupying the back-half of its treacherous schedule, but let's not eulogize the Gators just yet. They are, after all, 1-0 in the SEC -- technically still in control of their own destiny in the SEC East if they can find a way to knock off Georgia and South Carolina -- and they have a couple of winnable games coming up (Saturday at Kentucky, Oct. 5 versus Arkansas) for its new quarterback to get his feet wet.
It's expected that Tyler Murphy will be UF's new starting signal called in a changing of the guard that could ultimately prove to be a much-needed shake-up what has been a stagnant offense. Even though Driskel showed better accuracy, he was hardly outstanding, throwing more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). He was also, surprisingly, a non-factor scrambling out of the pocket. After rushing for 413 yards and four scores in 2012, Driskel was averaging just 12.7 rushing yards per contest before suffering the injury.
Murphy, a junior, never saw game action prior to his relief duty last weekend, and against an improved Tennessee defense he was able to lead the team to victory by completing 8-of-14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 84 yards and a score.
Luckily for Muschamp and his staff, Murphy possesses a similar skill set as Driskel, so there shouldn't be much of a learning curve for the offense, and despite his team's recent string of bad luck, the coach is optimistic about the future with Murphy running the show.
"He's really taken a step forward," Muschamp said. "We thought he had a solid spring and obviously had a great summer, but you know, when you get thrust into the spotlight at the beginning of training camp, and how he responded in that time the confidence began to grow with us as far as him handling the job. He's improved tremendously as a passer, taking the ball to the right spots. He's always been a very intelligent guy, a really good athlete. We will not change much of who we are offensively."
"Knowing Tyler, he won't approach it any differently from the standpoint of being the starter," he continued. "He may have a couple more butterflies here and there as far as starting the game, but other than that, he's a pretty calm, cool, collected guy as you saw on Saturday. He'll handle it like a champion."
As for the defense, there's simply no replacing a guy like Easley -- a 6- foot-2, 280-pounder who is equally strong at stuffing the run as he is at creating pressure on the quarterback. Luckily, the defense seems much more equipped to handle its loss than the struggling offense, as the unit ranks second in the nation in yielding just 212.3 ypg. Without Easley, expect Dante Fowler, Jr. (4.0 TFL, sack, two FF), Ronald Powell (4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, four QB hurries), Antonio Morrison (13 tackles) and Orr (2.0 TFL, sack) to step up in the front seven, while Vernon Hargreaves (two INTs), Brian Poole, Marcus Maye and Purifoy continue to wreak havoc in the secondary.
Whether or not Florida can overcome these injuries to remain a viable threat in the SEC remains to be seen, but Muschamp won't waste any time feeling sorry for himself, knowing that great teams have the ability to climb even the most challenging mountains.
"That's part of the deal -- man down, man up -- and our guys understand that," the head coach said. "They understand that when their number is called they have to prepare themselves the right way and I think we've gotten that for the most part."