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July 3, 2014

20/14 of 2014: Florida's most important player is...

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20/14 OF 2014 COUNTDOWN: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX

With the 2014 off-season quickly dwindling away, Inside the Gators will count down the 20 veterans and 14 youngsters most critical to Florida's success during the 2014 season. Players are ranked in terms of their importance in the Gators' upcoming season, not pure talent, and ordered into two categories - established returning players and players who are no further along their sophomore seasons and haven't really contributed as of yet.

This 10-part series will give you an idea of who Florida simply can't live without come August.

TOP 20 MOST IMPORTANT RETURNING PLAYERS

No. 2
DANTE FOWLER JR.
Position: Buck
Class: Junior
Size: 6-foot-3, 261 pounds
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Lakewood
2013 season: 50 tackles (10.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one pass breakup, one fumble recovery
  • Why he makes the list: Fowler is considered one of the premier edge rushers in the SEC and a likely first-round draft pick in 2015. Yet only Tennessee had a worse SEC pass rush in 2013 and affecting the quarterback is a major concern in 2014 for a Florida team with a young secondary. Fowler will have to be the player to carry the load. He'll need help from interior linemen, sure, but Fowler will be the one expected to put up the big numbers. He has to be explosive off the edge for Florida to reach its defensive potential.
  • Question to be answered: Was last season all about the loss of Dominique Easley? It's easy to write off the less-than-expected production of Fowler and his associates on the defensive line to losing Easley for the season. But maybe it's concerning the group never truly adjusted. There is talent in place, but if the defensive line was that dependent on a player of Easley's caliber blowing plays up in the middle, what happens in 2014?
  • Best case scenario: Fowler is the Buck of Will Muschamp's dreams; a hybrid defensive end who puts together a double-digit sack season and is a regular in opposing backfields. His constant pressure gives the Gators options for how they manage the defensive line and an inexperienced secondary. The only downside for Florida? Book Fowler as a first-round pick in the next NFL Draft.
  • Best guess: A lot of it might have to do with the health and development of other pieces along the defensive line. But assuming at least one other player can force the attention of offensive lines, Fowler should be in for a monster year. The ability is there and he has never been in better shape.

VOTE: HOW MANY SACKS DO YOU EXPECT FROM FOWLER JR. IN 2014?

No. 1
JEFF DRISKEL
Position: Quarterback
Class: Redshirt Junior
Size: 6-foot-4, 230 pounds
Oviedo (Fla.) Hagerty
2013 season: 42 of 61 for 477 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions; 17 carries for 38 yards and one touchdown; suffered broken leg in the season's third game
  • Why he makes the list: Florida has almost entirely rebooted its offensive staff, adopted an offense it feels best fits Driskel's abilities and the future of Muschamp at Florida just might ride on how well that offense does in 2014. I'd say this is a fairly important season for Driskel, who has responded by slimming down and working closely with Kurt Roper on his technique. The backup situation is more talented but less seasoned than it was a year ago. Driskel needs to stay healthy and perform.
  • Question to be answered: Will he be comfortable? We've seen plenty of sides of Driskel during his time as a Gator. He's shown glimpses of magic and signs of confusion, but he has never appeared all the way capable of grasping the psychological pressure that comes with being Florida's quarterback. To garner confidence from his team, he has to be a more confident leader who can gather himself enough to make crisp decisions at game time.
  • Best case scenario: Driskel stays injury-free for the first time in his college career. The new offense caters to his mobility, and he is equally dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm. His natural ability is complemented by an increased sense of comfort manning the Gators. He emerges as a top-tier quarterback in an SEC that lacks top-tier quarterbacks heading into this season. Florida's offense is the best it has been since 2009 because of it.
  • Best guess: This feels like the kind of year where everything is set up for Driskel to succeed. The more spread-out formations fit his style, something we saw a glimpse of outside of a couple interceptions in the 2013 Miami game. Wide receivers are improved, and the starting offensive line is solid barring injury. Driskel no longer has excuses. He must succeed in 2014.

VOTE: WHAT TYPE OF SEASON DO YOU EXPECT FROM DRISKEL IN 2014?

TOP 14 MOST IMPORTANT NEWCOMERS (THOSE WHO HAVE YET TO MAKE A MAJOR CONTRIBUTION)

No. 1
DEMARCUS ROBINSON
Position: Wide receiver
Class: Sophomore
Size: 6-foot-1, 205 pounds
Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County
2013 season: Five catches for 23 yards; missed four games due to suspension
  • Why he makes the list: Florida does not have an offensive player more gifted than Robinson. As of today, it also doesn't have a single player who has squandered more ability than Robinson. Two separate suspensions showed a lack of commitment and maturity in 2013. Team leaders have made a point of taking him under their wings this off-season, and it will be up to Robinson to determine if he is going to live up to his potential or not. The Gators would be a substantially more dangerous team if he made the wise decision.
  • Question to be answered: Will he grow up? It's clear watching Robinson on the field that he is the kind of electric playmaker out wide Florida has lacked the past five seasons. Then again, he would hardly be the first college football player with mind-boggling upside to throw away his opportunity.
  • Best case scenario: Robinson gets his act together, earns the on-field trust of the coaching staff and either slides into the starting trio of wide receivers or earns enough snaps to where he is essentially a pseudo starter. His presence gives the Gators a big-play ability that it might not otherwise have.
  • Best guess: Florida will monitor Robinson before giving him a meaningful position that he might toss away. The spring was a major step forward, but Robinson will have to prove during fall camp that he has continued to grow and improve. He should be one of the four receivers used most by the Gators this fall. The sky is the limit once he is given his chances.

VOTE: HOW MANY PASSES WILL ROBINSON CATCH IN 2014?





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