By David Wisener
The horrifying wreck that was Florida Gator football 2010 ended its regular season Saturday night with a 31 – 7 defeat at the hands of the Florida State Seminoles, giving the Seminoles renewed hope and a recruiting edge in a rivalry Florida had come to dominate over the last six years.
Continuing the theme I started exploring in my last column, I am still asking myself how the Gators came to find themselves in this humiliating position, two years after a national title and a year after losing only one game (though they are not alone in this riches to rags story: see Longhorns, Texas). I have posited a few suggestions for the downturn, largely concentrating on changes among the assistant coaches. I think there’s more to the story, though. Let’s attempt to put it all together, shall we?
Florida won the national title in 2006, but that is not a team to emulate
As we know, Coach Urban Meyer’s mantra when he inherited Ron Zook’s team in 2005 was that, despite wanting to run his own version of the spread-option on offense, he and his offensive staff would make the Florida offense match the skill sets of the personnel. This was a good line for him to use while inheriting another man’s team, but not while creating his own team.
Gator fans will recall that the offenses of 2005 and 2006 were often difficult to watch with Chris Leak, a pro-style quarterback, running the show. Yet, since the Gators did win the 2006 National Title with this offense (and destroyed Ohio State in the championship game), one can hardly blame Meyer for thinking he could model a similarly-successful team around pro-style quarterback John Brantley.
Simply put, this was a bad idea. The 2006 team won the national title in spite of the offense, not because of it. The team had a stifling defense that flat-out dominated opponents. That defense was led by co-coordinators Greg Mattison (now Baltimore Ravens Defensive Coordinator) and Charlie Strong (now Louisville Head Coach). Defenses that are as dominant as that one don’t come around every year.
Let’s also look at the scores in league games that year: Tennessee, 21-20; Kentucky, 26-7; Alabama, 28-13; LSU, 23-10; Auburn, 17-27; Georgia, 21-14; Vanderbilt, 25-19; South Carolina, 17-16; FSU (out of conference), 21-14; Arkansas, 38-28. A lot of close games, and a lot that could have gone either way. A few that were won by either a handful of plays, or even one play. Take Tim Tebow off the team, and the Gators probably lose to Tennessee. Take Percy Harvin off the team, and they probably lose to Arkansas. Jarvis Moss’ hand won the South Carolina game.
One can’t count on that many lucky bounces happening regularly. A more consistent offensive threat is needed to help the defense out, if nothing else. And obviously, this year’s defense is a far cry from that of 2006.
Why, John Brantley, why?
The following is not an indictment of Brantley, as he seems like a quality kid and genuinely does have loads of talent, even if his confidence right now has been violently shaken. Yet, of the quarterbacks Meyer has recruited, Brantley is the only one who does not fit his system. Meyer has not signed any other quarterback who was not a dual threat. In that regard, it really does look like Meyer has indeed recruited for his system but for this one exception. So, why the exception?
What follows is purely speculation on my part, but it is educated speculation. Meyer places an incredible amount of value on tradition, loyalty, and legacy. Other than simply being concerned with producing a winning football team, more importantly and to his credit, Meyer is interested in being an upstanding guy and honoring people, families, and values that go beyond the football field.
John Brantley is Gator royalty: his father and his uncle both played for UF, and the family ties to the university are strong and deep. Meyer most certainly would have respected this.
Despite this family connection, Brantley committed to play for Texas coming out of high school. Most likely he did so because Texas runs an offensive system suitable to his pro-style playing strengths. Meyer really hadn’t put much effort into recruiting Brantley, even though he played in nearby Ocala and was the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year during his senior season. I surmise Meyer didn’t do so because, like Brantley himself, he understood the quarterback’s skill set wasn’t an ideal match for the Florida offense.
Then, something strange happened: very late in the recruiting process, Meyer offered Brantley a scholarship. I can only guess that somebody talked with Meyer (Jeremy Foley, perhaps?) about the importance of Florida football to the Brantley family and how it would be a good gesture for the integrity of the university, its tradition, and keeping the Brantley family in good graces (significant because John’s father would have some impact on future recruiting as he was and is a high school head coach, not to mention the untold effects a perceived slight could have on boosters) to just offer John a scholarship. Unexpectedly, though, John decommitted from Texas and accepted the offer.
I want to suggest that Meyer was surprised when Brantley committed to UF and really had not planned on the possibility that he would. After all, he already had commitments from Cam Newton (sigh) and junior college transfer Bryan Waggener. Most unfortunately of all, Meyer had unwittingly painted himself into a corner: it’s one thing to sign a kid who has family ties and let him be a career back-up if he isn’t that talented, but when the kid is actually really good and potentially has a future in football, and you still want to be an upright guy and respect him and his family, you have to play him.
And it’s even more unfortunate when the position that kid plays happens to be quarterback, the single most important position on a football team.
Meyer’s offense has been figured out
I have been just as hard on Offensive Coordinator Steve Addazio as many Gator fans, as the guy unfortunately seems in way over his head. I feel for Meyer, as he may be right that Addazio could be a very good head coach one day and he doesn’t want to hurt his potential (or lose him as an assistant) by demoting him. I’m realizing, though, that there is a deeper, more disturbing issue at the heart of Florida’s offensive woes than the Addazio dilemma: the cat’s out of the bag on how to stop Meyer’s spread-option.
At first, I hesitated to come to such a drastic conclusion, but the proof is in the pudding when looking at the history of the last couple of seasons and at what, exactly, is at the heart of Florida’s current offensive ineptitude.
I contend that the single most important factor in the downfall of Meyer’s offensive attack is the awful state of the intermediate and deep passing attack. On first blush, one would think this really isn’t that big of a deal for the spread-option because, after all, the bread-and-butter for this offense is the running and short passing games. While it is true that the offense can still function with some success without a solid passing game (see the success of dual threat quarterbacks Tebow and Jordan Reed; but, again, Reed is limited because of the quagmire regarding Brantley, mentioned above), it will not succeed against top-notch defensive competition, which any championship-aspiring team like Florida will inevitably face.
Explaining how this kills Meyer’s offense is probably best accomplished by reviewing highlights of what’s transpired the last several seasons, but let’s first take a more in-depth look at Meyer’s offensive philosophy than the glimpse provided in my earlier column.
Many of Meyer’s critics call his offense gimmicky, but that is a simplistic analysis. His offense isn’t very complicated, but its philosophy is really quite sound.
The foundational belief that Meyer holds is that you get the ball in the hands of your best players. Additionally, he chose the spread because he feels he is best able to attack a defense when all of his best players could potentially get the ball on any given play and, more importantly, because the flexibility of running multiple types of plays out of the same offensive formations allows the offense to react to how the defense is playing without tipping its hand to the defense pre-snap.
Some elaboration: the spread, in theory, allows the offense to run a short option run play, or an intermediate pass play, or a deep pass play, or any other combination of plays out of the same, select number of pre-snap formations. So the defense may see only a handful of offensive formations in a game, but because of that, it has no idea what type of play is going to come out of it. The defense is kept off-balance this way.
Likewise, the play that will be called by the offense is dictated by what formation the defense lines up in. Of particular importance is where the safeties position themselves: if they play deep, they are respecting the threat of the vertical passing game, which sets the offense up for a run. If they play shallow, they are respecting the running game and opening up the deep passing game. There are several more variations to consider, but that’s the simplest way of looking at it. It’s also the reason Florida calls a lot of audibles, as the coaches are attempting to call the right play according to what they believe the defense has lined up to stop.
Meyer’s offense operated quite flawlessly in 2007 and 2008 with Tebow running the show and Harvin acting as a dynamic play-maker. Then, something unexpected happened against Tennessee in 2009: it appears that Monte Kiffin took Meyer’s mojo.
Kiffin basically begged Tebow to beat the Volunteers deep. He moved his safeties up in a position where they could support against the run but also double-cover receivers running short routes, and left receivers on deep routes isolated in single coverage. This type of defense is a tremendous set-up to strike on pass plays covering 30 yards or more, as long as the receivers can beat the single coverage and the quarterback can deliver the ball to them. Steve Spurrier salivates at the sight of these defenses, and his Gator offenses of the 90s would have decimated them.
For some reason, though, the Florida offense could not generate any semblance of a consistent deep passing game against Tennessee, though the team did win the game – such was the power of Tebow. Taking this cue from Kiffin, most competent opposing defenses have run similar variations since. And, since then, the Florida offense STILL can’t get the ball deep in order to open up the entire offense. Defenses are selling out on the running and short passing games and having large amounts of success limiting and sometimes outright stifling the Florida offense.
This means a majority of big plays are eliminated and the offense must rely on methodical means to move the football. This can work against lesser competition, but it does not work consistently against top quality opponents, as demonstrated over the past two seasons. Red zone efficiency decreases, and the chances of the offense making critical mistakes with the ball increase (hello, four turnovers against FSU).
So what gives with the passing game?
A lot of critics last year started blaming Tebow for the struggles, saying that he couldn’t pass the deep ball effectively. Yet, he had successfully completed quite a few deep passes in 2007 and 2008. This year, Brantley, whose primary skill is supposed to be throwing the ball all over the field, has not been successful, either. Strengths and weaknesses of particular quarterbacks therefore can’t be the main factor.
Meyer himself outright said last year the talent level at receiver was not where it needed to be. I’m going to call shenanigans on that. No doubt Harvin and Louis Murphy were missed, but receivers on last year’s team included Riley Cooper, David Nelson, and tight end Aaron Hernandez, who each contributed quite a bit to their new NFL teams this year AS ROOKIES.
As for the talent in this years’ set of receivers, let’s look at the overall rankings of the players when they were recruited out of high school. Admittedly, recruiting rankings can often be misleading, but generally if a team has enough highly-rated players, it is bound to hit big on at least a few of them. Recruiting analyst Web Site Scout.com uses perhaps the most popular method of judging talent, implementing a star rating system that rates a player from one to five stars. Five star talent is incredibly rare, and four-star talent is also considered quite elite. The majority of successful upper-division college teams are built on two- and three-star players.
With that in mind, consider this: there are currently nine Florida receivers and tight ends that were rated four-star players out of high school and one that was a five-star (Andre Debose). Compare this with Oregon, a team that is most likely going to be playing for the national title this year, which currently has nine four-star players on its ENTIRE TEAM. Want more? Boise State, which has an immensely successful passing attack, has zero – yes, zero four-star players on its team.
So a lack of talent is really the issue? No way.
A major culprit for the death of the deep passing game is the offensive line’s inability to effectively pass block. No surprise, the beginning of this regression was when Addazio began stretching his duties between coordinating the offense and coaching the line. The offensive line probably requires the most intensive coaching of any single unit on the team, and to be quite honest, it’s simply dumbfounding how Meyer can justify ANY single person simultaneously being a successful coordinator and line coach.
What else is left to “blame?” Coaching and schematics. All Gator fans know that Offensive Coordinator Dan Mullen left after the 2008 season. The true impact of his loss may be unknowable, but he is currently in the midst of turning around Mississippi State, which suggests he is probably a pretty high quality coach.
What is not as well-known is that after last year, Florida also lost Wide Receivers Coach Billy Gonzales to LSU. He allegedly left (in part if not in whole) over disagreements with Meyer about the offense. Gonzales became the passing game coordinator at LSU, which (coincidentally or not) had one of the worst passing games in the nation this year. Meyer made an interesting comment about Gonzales’ replacement, Zach Azzanni, when he was hired, calling him a “great teacher of fundamentals.”
Do these factors mean that Gonzales just stinks at teaching wide receivers how to run routes, and Azzanni is in the process of rubbing the stink off them? Are the deep routes in the Florida play book not sophisticated enough? Is Florida not calling enough deep routes (I did note that Jordan Reed threw at least three or four passes over 30 yards against FSU, which was a far higher amount of attempts than most Gator games this year, though none of them were completed – and I don’t recall Brantley attempting any)? Is Brantley skiddish at attempting deep passes, especially now that his confidence has been hit (or is he afraid he may just drill the ball through Deonte Thompson’s helmet if he drops another pass)?
Only Meyer has the resources to accurately answer and address these and any other pertinent questions.
As far as the Gator defense is concerned, it wasn’t bad this year. Problem is, it really wasn’t good, either.
Though Meyer stresses that defense is more important than offense, it’s much harder to determine whether Meyer has a similar preference for a particular style of defense as he does for the spread-option offense. One would presume that in many ways he does not, as the stylistic differences between Mattison, Strong, and current Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin are noticable.
This is suprising to me, if indeed Meyer allows his coordinators to impact the scheme of his defenses more than his offenses, especially considering the emphasis he places on defense. Are there types of defensive players that Meyer sets out to recruit, or is it more of a “grab the ‘best’ players available” approach? Is the current Gator defense full of players that don’t fit Austin’s philosophy?
Perhaps it would be a good idea for Meyer to spend as much time determining what type of defense he wants Florida to have as he has mapping out the offense.
The jury is still out on whether Austin has what it takes to be effective, as he has no prior experience as a coordinator at any level of coaching (one reason why this hire was a curious one for Meyer). It sure didn’t seem like his schemes were impressive, nor did it feel like his play calling was inspired. I don’t remember seeing very many blitzes, at least compared to the last few years.
The secondary was, overall, decent this year. Position coach Chuck Heater is a winner, so that shouldn’t be a concern. It’s hard to give an honest evaluation of the secondary, though, as it frequently had to cover receivers much longer than it should have, as the Gator pass rush was largely non-existent the entire season – a major concern.
Perhaps the main reason the pass rush suffered was the disappearance of the linebacking corp. Other than snagging four interceptions earlier in the season, I can’t recall a single big play by any of the linebackers this year. Though Jelani Jenkins was second on the team in tackles and Jonathan Bostic and A.J. Jones were fourth and fifth, respectively, I sure don’t remember seeing any of them in the backfield or otherwise wreaking havoc on the offense.
To be fair, it didn’t seem like Austin tried to get the linebackers involved in the pass rush very frequently. It seems like if extra pressure was dialed up, either the corners or safeties were utilized. How large is the drop off from Charlie Strong as the linebacker coach to D.J. Durkin (who?)? Is Durkin even competent at coaching linebackers, as he is recently removed from being a grad assistant and came from coaching defensive ends and special teams at Stanford?
I thought the defensive line play was fairly solid except for the lack of a pass rush. I found it interesting that I don’t remember seeing very many line stunts or twists – it seemed that by and large the linemen just straight-up tried to beat the offensive lineman in front of them, which I find to be a questionable strategy, especially if the pass rush is weak.
The defensive tackles were more effective than the ends. True freshman Sharrif Floyd looks like a future star and Omar Hunter is finally starting to come along. End Duke Lemmens had a decent year, but the ends seemed to lack a lot of athleticism and ability to get to the quarterback and running backs in the backfield – surprising, considering the talent at the position.
Line coach Dan McCarney had proven to be a good coach the last several seasons. Unfortunately, he just accepted the head coaching position at North Texas, meaning Meyer will have to fill another assistant position for this coming season.
“Obviously, we are down a little bit,” Meyer said after the FSU game. “I didn’t believe we’d be this far down, but we are.”
I want to emphasize, “I didn’t believe we’d be this far down…” I think Meyer anticipated a year in which Florida wouldn’t be at a championship level. He probably had visions of 2005 in his mind, where the Gators went 9-3 with a make-shift offense and a fairly solid defense.
Trouble was, he didn’t compensate for a handful of important distinctions between 2010 and 2005. His quarterback wasn’t Leak, a two-year starter, but newbie Brantley. His offense wasn’t a new thing for defensive coordinators to figure out, but a known (and impotent) commodity. His wide receivers hadn’t been coached by Dwayne Dixon (who coached the stellar Gator wide receivers through the Spurrier and Zook eras; in hindsight, not keeping Dixon may have been one of Meyer’s biggest blunders), but by Gonzales, who may or may not stink as a position coach. He didn’t have two coaches devoted only to his offensive line, but one coach stretched too thin between coordinating the offense and coaching the offensive line. He didn’t have Mullen calling his plays, but the already-mentioned overburdened Addazio. He didn’t have Mattison and Strong running his defense, but unfamiliar and inexperienced Austin.
This team also suffered from a lack of player leadership. I could not identify a single player on offense who was vocally leading or attempting to fire up his teammates throughout the entire year. The only leader I saw on defense was Ahmad Black, but, again, it appeared he wasn’t a vocal leader that demanded a certain level of effort from his teammates.
Take all these factors into consideration before the season began, and I think anyone would realize that the Gators would struggle mightily and would have a record of anywhere from 8-4 to 7-5 (really shouldn’t have lost that Mississippi State game, but, that’s how the ball bounces sometimes).
Of course, hindsight is 20/20.