Spring question No. 4: Offensive leap

As part of our spring practice preview, each day this week GatorNation will address the five biggest questions facing the Gators. Today we’ll look at whether the offense can make a jump in the second year under Brent Pease similar to what the defense did last season in its second year under Dan Quinn. On Friday we’ll look at the tight ends.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida’s defense was much better in its second season under coordinator Dan Quinn than it was in its first.

The Gators are hoping the offense can make similar improvements in the second year under coordinator Brent Pease. Spring practice will be the first chance to find out.

UF’s offense was not especially productive in 2012. The Gators ranked better than 76th nationally in only one of the four major categories: rushing (39th). They were 76th in scoring, 103rd in total offense, and 114th in passing. That’s not what was expected when Pease was hired away from Boise State.

In his defense, he was dealing with a first-year starter at quarterback in Jeff Driskel, an inconsistent offensive line, and a subpar group of receivers. The two bright spots were running back Mike Gillislee, who became the first player to surpass 1,000 yards rushing since 2004, and tight end Jordan Reed, who led the Gators with 45 catches for 599 yards and three touchdowns.

Gillislee and Reed are gone now, so how is the offense supposed to improve?

The offensive line will be better. Sophomore D.J. Humphries, a five-star recruit in 2012 and one of the Gators’ most impressive freshmen last year, is ready to step in at left tackle to replace the inconsistent Xavier Nixon. The line is also bolstered by the addition of a pair of transfers: Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska). Both were starters at their previous schools.

There are more options in the running game, too. Sophomore Matt Jones (275 yards and three TDs) is joined by early enrollee Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout Fred Taylor and owner of 12,121 career rushing yards.

The biggest questions are at receiver and quarterback. Driskel, who threw for 1,646 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 413 and four scores, has to improve his pocket awareness and down-field accuracy. He also needs to stop staring down receivers and make quicker reads. He’ll benefit from not having to split practice reps 50-50 as part of a quarterback competition.

Having a year of experience with the offense is the key to the unit’s improvement, Driskel said. Instead of thinking, the players are able to just react, and that should mean better production. And now that they know the system, they’ll be able to practice better on their own in the offseason, too.

"Any time you‘re in a system for longer than a year you’re going to be able to do some stuff on your own and get better and know when to get out of things and know when to take your shots," Driskel said. "I’m excited for the future and we have a lot of the same guys coming back so we will be a lot more familiar during the offseason. We will be able to work out a little bit more by ourselves instead of having to be coached through everything."

A year of experience certainly helped the defense in 2012. The Gators improved from 2011 in all but one of seven major statistical categories. They were better in scoring defense (14.5 ppg in 2012, 20.3 ppg in 2011), rushing defense (94.9 ypg, 132.7 ypg), total defense (287.5 ypg, 299.5 ypg), interceptions (20, 8), turnovers (30, 14) and sacks (30, 28).

The only in which the Gators didn’t improve was passing defense. They gave up 192.5 yards per game in 2012 compared to 166.8 in 2011. But that can be attributed to the conservative approach teams took against UF in 2011 because of how much trouble the Gators has scoring points.

"You continue to evolve in the second year and you ought to take steps forward in the second year," UF coach Will Muschamp said.