At noon ET on Saturday, all eyes will be on Miami QB Stephen Morris as he matches up against a Florida defense that is loaded with future NFL talent. Morris, a 6-foot-2, 218-pound senior, was one of the bigger surprises during our preseason evaluation process. He has a live arm and is one of the more natural throwers in the class. He has a quick trigger and the ball consistently jumps off his hand with plenty of RPMs. Morris displays the ability to push the ball vertically with proper projection and above-average accuracy. He also shows strong pocket awareness. While he isn’t Michael Vick in terms of running, Morris has the mobility to escape pressure and flashes the ability to move the chains with his feet.
Morris does have areas where he can he can improve. He must become a better decision-maker and show more sense of ball security when facing pressure or when he attempts to improvise. Morris will trust his arm too much at times and try to squeeze the ball into coverage. In addition, Morris must learn to get rid of the ball or throw it away when attempting to extend plays. This has led to some issues with strip sacks in the past.
After reviewing the coaches' copy tape from the Morris’ opener against Florida Atlantic, these flaws continued to pop up. To be fair, a few of these mistakes were because of protection issues and miscues from his receiving corps. However, Morris forced more than a handful of throws into traffic. He was able to get away with it against lower-level competition such as Florida Atlantic. He may not be as fortunate this week against a ball-hawking Gators secondary.
Florida will present the toughest challenge Morris will face all season. With a strong showing, Morris has a chance to elevate his stock. Scouts consistently point to a prospect's performance against their best competition. You can believe this tape will be one of the first they review when sitting down to evaluate Morris.
Do the Gators have college football's best defense?
During my travels this past weekend, I had a chance to speak with a group of NFL evaluators who had already been to Gainesville to look at Florida prospects. The first thing they mentioned was the appearance of the Gators defense. On the hoof, from top to bottom, this was the best-looking unit they had seen in recent years. These scouts also raved about the pace, intensity and physicality of practices that head coach Will Muschamp conducted when they were in attendance.
When I sat down this week to watch the coaches' copy tape against Toledo from last Saturday's game, it didn’t take long to interpret what the scouts were seeing. The first thing that jumps out is Florida's athleticism, speed and relentlessness. Their strengths are along the front line, where they have upgraded their pass-rush, and the deep, playmaking secondary. The Gators replaced eight starters from a year ago but they have upgraded at key spots. From a personnel standpoint, there is a legit argument that this is the most talented defense in the county.
DE Dante Fowler Jr. and SLB Ronald Powell are two additions that upgrade their edge defense. Their versatility also provides Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin with a hybrid front changing between three- and four-man fronts. Fowler, a true sophomore, has made strides while stepping into a starting role. He looks quicker and has improved his strength and power in his upper body. Powell -- a redshirt junior who sat out of all of 2012 with a torn ACL -- is finally healthy and flashes the type of explosiveness to be an impactful player.
Fowler, Powell and true sophomore DE Jonathan Bullard’s ability to defend the edges has allowed DT Dominique Easley the ability to slide inside and help cover up the void left by Sharrif Floyd from last season. Easley appears more comfortable in this role as he has the motor and quickness to be highly disruptive on the interior. He is the oil that makes the engine run on this defense, and based on his first performance, Easley could be on similar path as Floyd, who elevated his play in 2012.
In the back end, Marcus Roberson, Jaylen Watkins, true freshman Vernon Hargreaves and Loucheiz Purifoy -- who was suspended last week -- make up the deepest and most talented cornerback corps in the country. Hargreaves was impressive in his debut against Toledo. He has smooth movement skills and made his presence felt early by undercutting a throw for an interception. The return of Purifoy and the promise that Hargeaves has shown will allow Roberson to bump back inside to the nickel back position where he was very effective last year.
Overall, the Gators' ability to disrupt on the front seven and ability create turnovers in the back end is a combination that should give headaches to offenses throughout the season. This defense is good enough to contend for a national championship. In the end, it will come down to how much QB Jeff Driskel and the offense have improved this season to navigate through a brutal schedule.
Three questions for ... the Hurricanes offense
1. How much of a factor will Duke Johnson be?
RB Duke Johnson is Miami’s biggest and most versatile weapon on offense. The 5-foot-9, 196-pound back displays above-average vision and body control to go with top-end speed to hit the home run. Up front, the Hurricanes are massive along the offensive line and have an above-average inline blocking TE in Clive Walford. This group displays strong point-of-attack skills, but as a whole they possess average athleticism. The Gators' quickness along the front line should provide fits for this group. In particular, Miami’s interior offense line will have their hands full preventing Easley from creating penetration.
Florida’s front seven matches up well against Miami and will likely force Johnson to earn his yards. That said, the Gators had some issues with gap control last week and allowed Toledo to pop a few inside runs. The secondary did a nice job of securing the tackle to prevent a home run. This week won’t be as easy, though. If they allow Johnson to get into the open field it could spell problems because he is one of the most dangerous runners in the country when getting into space.
Johnson also has excellent versatility as a receiver. If he is unable to find room in the run game, look for offensive coordinator James Coley to attempt to get him the ball in the passing game. The Hurricanes could throw screens, but also watch for Coley to supplement the running game with quick hitters out of the backfield to get Johnson on the perimeter. Florida had issues setting the edge outside the hashes last week as both Roberson and Watkins missed tackles in the open field. Challenging them in this regard makes sense.
2. Can Miami protect Morris?
Last week, the Hurricanes had some issues in protection. In particular, left tackle Ereck Flowers (6-6, 315) and left guard Malcolm Bunche (6-7, 327) have massive frames but struggle to bend and lack ideal lateral agility. In addition, the Hurricanes had mental lapses identifying and picking up defensive line stunts and blitzes.
This will be a serious issue if they Hurricanes aren't able to resolve these problems on Saturday. First, Powell and Fowler both flash ability to exploit the edges with speed and flexibility as pass-rushers. Second, they are versatile players who have the ability to drop into coverage as well as hold up in space. This provides Durkin with the flexibility to get into multiple fronts and mask where the fourth rusher is coming from. Miami must keep an eye on Powell, who can make an impact from multiple positions along the front seven, including at the middle linebacker position in their three-down linemen sub-packages.
Finally, Durkin was very conservative with his play-calling last week in an effort not to show any of his cards. In fact, the Gators only brought two five-man pressures the entire contest. Don’t expect the same type of game plan this week. Durkin will likely be more aggressive dialing up pressures in an effort to apply heat on Morris, forcing him into a few errant throws, and provide opportunities for his playmaking secondary to create turnovers.
3. Will the Hurricanes' WRs step up?
For Morris to find success on Saturday, he needs help from his perimeter. This receiving corps has talent. WR Herb Waters is a smooth athlete who shows the ability to create after catch. However, this group was plagued by miscues in two key areas last week.
First, dropped passes are still an issue. Last season against Notre Dame, WR Phillip Dorsett was unable to come up with two deep throws in his lap early on. It set the tone for the rest of the contest in the Hurricanes' 41-3 blowout loss at Soldier Field. This past week, true freshman WR Stacy Coley (6-1, 180) had a similar scenario with two costly drops, which would have been touchdowns, in the first quarter.
Second, the Hurricanes must do a better job of reading coverages on the run and maintain better spacing with their routes. This was evident on Morris’ lone interception early in the third quarter. On an underneath hook route, Dorsett failed to slide inside and broke outside, while Morris had already let go of the football.
Florida does a nice job disguising looks and has the flexibility, talent and depth in the secondary to throw multiple coverages at opponents. That said, Morris and his receiving corps must not only get on the same page but must also capitalize on opportunities to make a big play, as they will be at premium Saturday afternoon.