GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida's offense has been mostly stagnant since the Tim Tebow era.
The Gators have spent the last three seasons near the bottom of the country in total offense, failing to create big plays and struggling to find consistent playmakers.
It's been a head-scratching issue in Gainesville — one that was somewhat overlooked last year thanks to 11 wins and a dominant defense — and a troubling trend the Gators would like to reverse in offensive coordinator Brent Pease's second season.
"We need to be more balanced on offense," coach Will Muschamp said. "We need to be more efficient throwing the football. We need to be able to create more explosives. We need to score more touchdowns in the red zone."
Pease agrees, pointing out several reasons he believes the offense will be better in 2013. He expects quarterback Jeff Driskel, who's recovering from an appendectomy, will make strides in his second year as the starter. He thinks the offensive line will provide better protection with the return of three starters and the addition of transfers Max Garcia and Tyler Moore. And he anticipates the receivers flourishing under newcomer Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience as a receivers coach.
And then there's the whole Year 2 thing, when players are expected to have a better grasp of the offense and its concepts.
"The kids understand the calls, but they understand the calls for a reason: How we're trying to attack the defense, where we're vulnerable at times and what they have to do to make it work or getting ourselves into the correct play," Pease said Wednesday. "The kids are playing confident. There's more instinct with what they're doing. They understand the calls. They're not thinking. It's more reactionary now."
The Gators were one of the most dynamic teams in the country during Tebow's tenure (2006-09), moving the ball on just about every defense and scoring points in flurries.
But Florida's offense came to a screeching halt without the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner.
The Gators ranked 82nd in the nation in total offense in 2010 and fell to 105th in 2011. They weren't much better in Pease's first season, finishing 103rd in total offense and 114th in passing. Florida averaged 334 yards a game and scored 35 offensive touchdowns in 2012 — about 100 yards and at least 20 TDs shy of Tebow's heyday.
The most noticeable difference was the lack of big plays, especially in the passing game.
Florida has just one 300-yard passing game — John Brantley against lower-division Furman in 2011 — in its last 39 outings. That's one 300-yard passer in the last 1,315 days. By contrast, the Gators had 53 300-yard passing days in former coach Steve Spurrier's 12-year tenure.
Sure, Muschamp runs a completely different offense, a run-first scheme designed to wilt defenses into submission.
But when the Gators have tried or needed to pass, it's been a problem. No one at Florida wants to point fingers, but it was clear last season that Driskel had accuracy issues, that receivers ran imprecise routes and that the offensive line wasn't solid against formidable fronts.
"We're going to have to throw the ball more and we'll have to be more efficient throwing the ball," Driskel said. "We're going to have to hit more big plays. We can't run the ball 50 times a game like we did last year at points. We're still going to run the ball effectively and we have an offensive line that loves running the ball, and we have some explosive backs. That's still going to be a big part of our game, but we do have to make more plays throwing the ball, which I think we'll do."
Of course, that depends on Driskel, his protection and, maybe most importantly, finding playmakers at receiver.
The Gators are counting on contributions from freshmen Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson. But of the 61 true freshmen receivers who have played at Florida since 1990, only four — Reidel Anthony (1994), Ike Hilliard (1994), Andre Caldwell (2003) and Percy Harvin (2006) — have caught more than seven passes in their first year.
"The freshmen are very talented kids," Pease said. "Now, the knowledge of just learning their plays consistently and understanding what all the calls are is where the mistakes come from. But as far as running and catching and their abilities, they are a very, very talented group."