• Last season: 4-8 (3-5)
• All-time record: 684-395-40
• SEC titles: 8
• Opener: Idaho on Aug. 30
• Thursday: Georgia
Bright spots were scarce during Florida's injury-riddled 2013 football season that yielded a 4-8 record, but cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III was brilliant.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pounder from Tampa had a sensational freshman year that included All-Southeastern Conference first-team honors by both the coaches and the media. He totaled 38 tackles and three interceptions, and his 11 pass breakups ranked fourth in the league.
"He's a guy who's got a burning desire to be really, really good," Gators coach Will Muschamp said last week at SEC media days. "He's constantly in the film room and has all the intangible things you want a player to have. God blessed him with a lot of ability.
"We would like the coaches to take a lot of credit for him, but at the end of the day he has some natural instincts that others of us don't have."
For Hargreaves, the No. 2 player nationally in Rivals.com's 2013 signing class behind Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, last season was an obvious mixed bag of personal success and team disappointment.
"Going 4-8 is not acceptable at Florida," Hargreaves said. "It's not a secret. Everybody knows it. I don't think anybody would have expected that, but it happened and we have to learn from it and move on.
"I played well, but I obviously have to play better, and I have to bring the young guys along."
Florida had an 11-win season in 2012, when the Gators knocked off Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU and Florida State before faltering in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville. Last year's team started 4-1, losing only at Miami when Florida dominated statistically but was undone by turnovers.
Yet the 17 season-ending injuries suffered by scholarship players already had begun to take their toll. Receiver Andre Debose, tackle Chaz Green and defensive end Ronald Powell were lost before the season, and quarterback Jeff Driskel, tailback Matt Jones and defensive tackle Dominique Easley went down before the midway mark.
Florida lost its final seven games, including a 26-20 shocker in the Swamp to Georgia Southern, to finish with its first losing record since 1979.
"When we were 4-1, we were thinking we were going to have a year like the year before when they went 11-2," Hargreaves said. "It didn't really go as planned, and you've got to live with it."
The Gators return seven starters on offense, including Driskel, and have seven back on defense as well. The offense is now under the guidance of coordinator Kurt Roper, who had success at Duke under David Cutcliffe, and is no longer of the chew-up-the-clock-with-a-power-running-game variety.
Florida did not surpass 20 points in any of its last seven games a year ago.
"It's kind of the polar opposite of what we're used to," Driskel said. "We were kind of putting our focus on time of possession, which really worked in 2012 when we limited turnovers, but I think the game is just moving toward having to score points and trying to get as many plays as possible. That's Coach Roper's mindset."
The Gators look to rebound with Muschamp knowingly on the hot seat and with a difficult schedule. Their two cross-divisional SEC games are against Alabama and LSU, and they have to end November in Tallahassee against defending national champion Florida State.
Should the Gators stay healthy and thrive under Roper, they could assemble a record much closer to 2012 than 2013 with a defense that has been stout for the last several seasons. Dante Fowler, Jonathan Bullard, Darious Cummings and Leon Orr return up front after starting last season, while Hargreaves is the unquestioned leader of the secondary as a rather seasoned sophomore.
"The toughest receiver I had to cover last year was Odell Beckham at LSU," Hargreaves said. "He's a great player obviously, getting picked in the first round [of the NFL draft], and I was nervous covering him. He told me to keep my head up, keep working and that I'll get there.
"I love how Richard Sherman plays, and I love how he talks about himself. I love everything about him, really. You have to be confident playing corner."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...