UF optimistic about uphill climb

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida coach Will Muschamp has a simple way of measuring the success of a football season.

"I think when you don't go to Atlanta, Florida is a failure," he said.

In other words, the season stinks if the Gators don't win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division and play in the league's title game in the Georgia Dome.

And boy did it smell last season, Muschamp's first season in Gainesville.

The Gators went 7-6 -- a record that included a winless October -- and only avoided the program's first losing season since 1979 by beating Ohio State in a bowl game. The offense was a mess, finishing 105th nationally in total offense and 71st nationally in scoring, thanks mainly to injuries to quarterback John Brantley. The defense was pretty good (eighth nationally in total defense), but forced just 14 turnovers, the fewest since the school began keeping fumble stats in 1950.

But it appears Florida has gotten closer to a trip to the Peach State in 2012. The defense returns nearly every starter and has gotten deeper in critical spots, while the offense has a new leader in coordinator Brent Pease, who helped Boise State produce one of the nation's top offenses through the past decade.

The defense should be more comfortable in its second season with coordinator Dan Quinn, and it helps that eight starters are back -- although there is so much more depth to the unit that several of those players might end up losing their starting spot.

The strength of the defense is the secondary, which is led by safety Matt Elam. He had 78 tackles last season and led the Gators in pass breakups (seven), tackles for loss (11) and forced fumbles (two). Sophomore cornerback Marcus Roberson, who started the first 10 games of the season before being sidelined with a neck injury, has gotten stronger and improved his ball skills in the offseason. The other corner likely will be sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who improved throughout the 2011 season and had a fantastic spring. Senior Josh Evans is the other starter at safety.

The Gators are the deepest in the secondary, with three other players who started games last season -- cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins and safety De'Ante Saunders -- vying for playing time.

The linebackers are led by senior Jon Bostic (team-high 94 tackles in '11) and redshirt junior Jelani Jenkins (75 tackles), who form one of the SEC's better tandems.

The defensive line will get a boost from Dominique Easley moving from tackle to end and Sharrif Floyd moving from end to tackle. They played in different spots last season because of injury and depth issues on the line, but they should flourish in their natural positions.

The addition of talented freshman ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. should help bolster a pass rush that struggled against good teams. It will only get better if junior end Ronald Powell is able to return from a torn ACL in October.

Pease and Q's

Forcing more turnovers has been the main emphasis during preseason practices. Quinn starts every meeting by going over the turnovers forced in the previous practice and also started a points system, with certain amounts assigned for forced fumbles, interceptions and recoveries.

Muschamp said the players' increased comfort level with the defense should increase the turnovers.

"I do think being in Year 2, you're a little more comfortable in what you're doing and how you're doing it and you react more than you think on the field," he said.

The Gators are only in Year 1 of Pease's tenure, but they're counting on significant improvements on offense. Pease spent the past six seasons at Boise State -- the first five as receivers coach -- and helped the Broncos finish fifth nationally in scoring and ninth nationally in total offense in 2011, his only season there as offensive coordinator.

Pease does have SEC experience, too. He was Kentucky's offensive coordinator in 2001-02, and the Wildcats' offensive numbers jumped significantly in his second season. That was important to Muschamp.

"He's been through that, when you've got to line up against some of the defenses in this league and figure out how you're going to block those guys," Muschamp said. "You're not seeing it in one or two teams in your league, you're seeing it top to bottom, week in and week out, and [Pease understands] some of the issues you're going to face with some of the matchups you're going to have up front.

"He's been in this league. He's called offenses in this league. It's different."

The Gators are still searching for a starting quarterback. Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett continue their battle that began in the spring, and the competition will likely extend into the season and both will play.

The offensive line, which Muschamp called soft at the end of last season, has improved significantly, Muschamp said. The backfield is stocked with running backs who better fit the pro-style attack Muschamp wants, led by senior Mike Gillislee (930 yards, 10 career TDs).

The receivers are again questionable, but redshirt senior Frankie Hammond Jr. has been solid throughout spring and preseason practices and redshirt junior Andre Debose has flashed big-play potential. All four of Debose's touchdown catches last season came from at leat 64 yards.

Despite those limitations, there is optimism that the Gators will be better on offense because of the amount of motions and shifts that Pease wants to use. No SEC team uses that to the extent that Pease will, and the hope is that it will create confusion on defense and result in mismatches that the Gators can exploit. At the least, Pease is hoping for someone to be out of position when the ball is snapped, for an easy gain.

"I think you're going to see a lot of players involved in it and they'll have some ownership," Pease said. "The more you can do, that helps the offense and it creates matchups and allows that we can be flexible with that particular player in this offense."

An improved defense and the addition of Pease and his offensive changes should make the Gators better in 2012. Everyone should find out early whether that's the case, because they play at Texas A&M on Sept. 8 and at Tennessee on Sept. 15.

Muschamp is eager to get the season started so the Gators can start erasing the stink of the past two seasons.

"[We have a record of] 15-11 at the University of Florida," Muschamp said of the past two seasons. "We need to quit talking and start playing, just get on the field and play. That's what we need to do as a staff and what we need to do as a team.

"'Potential' is a bad word in my profession. Means you haven't done it. But I do think that we have the ability at the positions, but those guys need to learn to do it consistently in our league and that's going to be the challenge for them. I certainly think they are capable, but we need to do it."