ESPN’s GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. For 30 weekdays we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.
That’s a lot of pressure on a couple of players who didn’t fare so well in limited playing time last season. It’s not fair or unfair. It’s just the way it is now. If your team doesn’t have a good quarterback, it’s not going to be any good. Gone are the days in college football where teams can ride a big-time running back to a national championship.
That’s why we skipped the quarterbacks when we came up with our list of the top five UF players who are under the most pressure to perform in 2012. QBs are always in that situation. Here is the list, in alphabetical order:
DT Dominique Easley -- Easley is coming off a torn ACL but should be ready by the season opener. It’s a big year for him. He has to prove he has become more disciplined and cut down on his offside penalties. UF needs some pass-rush because of the absence of Ronald Powell (torn ACL), and Easley is good enough to provide it both inside and at defensive end.
RB Mike Gillislee -- Gillislee will finally get his chance to be the No. 1 back after a spring in which he proved he can be counted on as a pass-blocker. UF coach Will Muschamp wants a pro-style attack and a pounding running game, and Gillislee fits. He’s good between the tackles but has enough speed to run away from people. And he’s produced in the limited carries he’s had in his first three seasons in Urban Meyer’s spread-option offense: 920 yards and 10 TDs. He has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his career, which is comparable to what Chris Rainey (6.2) and Jeff Demps (6.7) averaged. The running back position is so thin that the Gators moved WR Omarius Hines and S Chris Johnson there in the spring. If Gillislee can’t get it done, the Gators may turn to true freshman Matt Jones.
LB Jelani Jenkins -- There’s no doubt about Jenkins’ ability to make tackles. He was third on the team with 75 last season. But he’s got to start making big plays, and that starts with catching the football. He dropped six interceptions in 2011, and the one he did catch came against FCS foe Furman. He has gotten noticeably bigger after an offseason working with new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman, but will that translate into more production? The defense is close to being elite. All the Gators are missing are a better pass-rush and turnovers. Jenkins can provide some of both.
OT Xavier Nixon -- Nixon had a good freshman season in 2009, playing in 10 games and starting the final five. But that’s been the highlight of his career so far, because he struggled the past two seasons. UF is counting on a change in OL coaches (Tim Davis replaces Frank Verducci) to make a difference, and it seemed to in the spring. Nixon is the projected starter at LT, and he has to regain his confidence because the Gators are thin at tackle. Nixon has good size (6-foot-6, 309 pounds) but has to work on his technique and foot speed. The Gators’ season unraveled last year because of injuries to quarterback John Brantley. Nixon will be protecting the blind side of whoever starts at QB, and the Gators can’t afford for either of those two to get hurt.
WR Latroy Pittman -- It’s probably unfair to put a freshman who enrolled in January on the list, but it’s a byproduct of how well he played in the spring and how deficient the wide receiver position is heading into next season. Other than Andre Debose -- who has had consistency issues throughout his career -- the Gators don't have anyone who has proven they can make plays. Pittman had a great spring. He’s not the fastest guy (4.64 40-yard dash), but he kept getting behind coverage. He’s not the biggest guy (6-0, 195) but he showed he could block and fight through press coverage. He made plays, and that’s something UF’s receivers haven’t done consistently the last two years. He needs to continue to do so or UF’s passing game will flounder.