There is no question that 2013 fell below standards for a Florida baseball team that has grown accustomed to success. Following three consecutive trips to the College World Series, the Gators struggled mightily to extend their season beyond the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Florida went 29-30, losing its first game in the SEC Tournament and its first two games in the NCAA Bloomington Regional. The season ended in desperate fashion, seeming as if it was almost a relief to the Gators that they no longer had to be locked into the nightmare.
"We use it as motivation, but we don't dwell on it," junior third baseman Josh Tobias said. "It's not something that hinders us."
In hindsight, the Gators had every reason to stumble in 2013. It was the product of two years in which coach Kevin O'Sullivan lost a combined 28 players to the Major League Baseball Draft. The departures have been part-blessing, part-curse for O'Sullivan. He has watched some of his best players leave, but the track record of developing pro prospects has led to one top-notch recruiting class after another.
One year might have been understandable, but it's time for the ship to be righted in 2014. Florida will once again have its fair share of unknowns, but it also has more defined roles than it did one season ago. A 15-person freshman class is loaded with power at the plate and live arms on the mound.
Still, O'Sullivan says the strength of his team will be its athleticism.
"We've been anxious to get back out here," O'Sullivan said. "You learn a lot by failure, let's be honest. It's easy to pound your chest and feel good about yourself when things are going well."
Back again: College baseball hasn't been kind to Karsten Whitson. After famously turning down a $2.1 million offer from the San Diego Padres out of high school in 2010, Whitson's career has been derailed by injuries the past two seasons. Now a redshirt junior, Whitson was selected No. 1,126 overall in last year's draft, or 1,117 spots later than he went in 2010. He's slated to start Sunday's game as a redshirt junior.
Keep an eye on: The pitching star of the Cape Cod League this past summer was a player who made 14 appearances and seven starts for the Gators in 2013. Bobby Poyner surprised college baseball's most prestigious summer league and has carried the success over into practice. He'll get the ball on opening night for the Gators.
Newcomer: Ask any Florida batter which young pitcher he has had the most trouble going up against the past handful of months, and freshman Brett Morales will quickly come up. The 6-foot-1 righty has quickly earned a weekend role. "His fastball has got some mustard on it," Tobias said.
Biggest question: How will the weekend rotation look by SEC play? It's safe to say that nothing is set in stone in terms of how O'Sullivan will handle the starting rotation. If Whitson can show hints of his former self, he's likely the ace of the staff but his recent history made letting him watch a couple games before starting a wise decision.
Sully says: "(Whitson) needs to be good for us to be good. … He's certainly capable, and we're looking forward to getting him back out there. It's been a while."
Back again: There is not a bigger strength on the Gators than the middle of the infield, and that's just the way O'Sullivan likes it with his defense-first approach. Shortstop Richie Martin is back at his natural position after being forced to start 26 games in the outfield because of a broken finger in 2013. Second baseman Casey Turgeon has his sights on batting .300 after a disappointing .268 last spring.
Keep an eye on: Tobias has shortened his swing and hit the weight room hard to gain somewhere between five and 10 pounds of muscle. In return, teammates are raving about his added power. He can be the forgotten man at times alongside Martin and Turgeon, but Tobias is looking to change that.
Newcomer: Freshman A.J. Puk stands 6-foot-7 and just might be the answer at the only infield position Florida hasn't figured out - first base. He's also a left-handed pitcher that could factor in on the mound.
Biggest question: Who is Florida's first baseman? In the recent past, this has been the one spot that O'Sullivan has moved a number of bodies into. Vickash Ramjit came the closest to regularly holding the role, but he has moved on. As previously mentioned, Puk is a favorite.
Sully says: "We're going to lean on (Tobias, Martin and Turgeon). They're kind of our veterans. Obviously, Richie is only a sophomore, but he played in just about every game he was able to last year. Josh and Casey are juniors now and we're going to lean on them. Defensively, we should be real solid in the infield."
Back again: Sophomore Harrison Bader was Florida's best hitter (.312) one year ago, but he will begin the season suspended from all team activities after a scooter accident that reportedly involved alcohol. That leaves junior Justin Shafer as the lone veteran presence in the outfield at the moment. The issue? He also begins the season as Florida's closer.
Keep an eye on: O'Sullivan is not shy about pumping up freshmen when he feels they deserve it. This year, center fielder Buddy Reed is getting plenty of buzz. "He's probably one of, if not the, hardest worker we have. He's got the chance to be a really good player. He's got physical tools that you can't find."
Newcomer: Reed won't be the only freshman thrust into a major role right away. Ryan Larson will be a starter as well, at least until Bader comes back from his suspension. Like Reed, Larson's approach at the plate and defensive ability in the outfield have teammates talking about him like he's been around for two years. His performance will be critical during non-conference play.
Biggest question: What happens when Shafer pitches? It just so happens that the Gators' only trusty veteran outfielder will likely be on the mound in the most critical game situations. That leaves a hole to fill in the outfield that Florida could struggle with for a while. Junior Zack Powers could fill in if needed but has far more experience as an infielder.
Sully says: "(The freshmen) have done good. We've been scrimmaging just like everybody else. We've got, I feel like, a really good, deep pitching staff, and they've seen some really quality arms and they've handled it fine. I'd expect, once the first pitch is thrown, after their first at-bat, they should be just fine."