Florida Football: 10 Important Storylines to Watch Develop Throughout 2012
Florida fans should have plenty to be excited about when the season opens on Saturday against Bowling Green.
For starters, there's an ongoing quarterback battle between sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett.
Neither player has emerged as the No. 1 option, and reports indicate that both players will see time in the season opener.
Besides the battle for the starting QB job, the Gators will be without BUCK linebacker Ronald Powell for most of the season.
Senior Lerentee McCray will replace the former No. 1 recruit, but who else will step up as a pass-rusher for the Gators?
There will be no shortage of storylines for Will Muschamp's team in 2012.
Let's take a look at the 10 you need to keep an eye on as the season gets underway.
The Battle for the Starting Quarterback Spot
Jets fans may be frustrated with Tim Tebow, but Gators fans would take him back in a heartbeat.
Whether you support his religious beliefs or not, there's no doubt he was a fantastic college quarterback.
Unfortunately for the Florida faithful, the quarterback play in the post-Tebow era has been wildly disappointing.
John Brantley failed to live up to lofty expectations as a supposedly polished pocket passer, and if last year was indicative of anything, 2012 might be a frustrating year at quarterback.
Former top recruit Jeff Driskel largely underwhelmed when called upon, and the 6'4", 237-pound sophomore hasn't been able to secure the starting spot from fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett.
According to Matt Watts of the Miami Herald, Will Muschamp plans on playing both quarterbacks for a quarter in the first half of Saturday's opener against Bowling Green before deciding on how to move forward at halftime.
The strategy may be frustrating for fans, but hopefully one of the two separates himself on Saturday.
Can Mike Gillislee Carry the Running Game?
It's go time for Mike Gillislee.
The Gators' lone senior running back has flashed in limited playing time, but 2012 will finally be his first opportunity to be the man at Florida.
With a 5'11", 209-pound frame and good speed, Gillislee projects to be a solid starter for the Gators.
However, he hasn't always been the picture of perfect health, so it's safe to wonder if he'll be able to hold up under a heavy workload.
If Gillislee isn't able to be the bell cow, Florida has some intriguing options in redshirt sophomore Mack Brown and 6'2", 226-pound freshman Matt Jones.
But if Will Muschamp has his way, Gillislee will be the team's No. 1 back.
Is Andre Debose a No. 1 Receiver?
If there's a single skill player who can singlehandedly improve the offense, it's Andre Debose.
Now in his fourth year with the team, the ultra-talented former five-star recruit has flashed dynamic ability but has been largely inconsistent.
The 5'11", 189-pounder came to Florida with a lot of hype as the next Percy Harvin, but his 26 career catches pale in comparison to Harvin's ridiculous production at UF.
Debose is an excellent kick returner—as evidenced by his three return touchdowns—but his inability to grasp the playbook and run all the routes has prevented him from realizing his immense potential.
With underwhelming talents like Frankie Hammond, Jr. and Quinton Dunbar near the top of the depth chart, Debose needs to prove why he was so highly sought after in 2009.
If not, it'll be a long year for the offense.
Will the Offensive Line Improve?
Florida has traditionally had a strong offensive line, but 2011 was definitely a step back for the big uglies.
Without veterans like Marcus Gilbert and Mike Pouncey in tow, the unit struggled mightily to protect John Brantley, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett.
The biggest disappointment of the starting five had to be Xavier Nixon.
After a promising start to his career, the former five-star recruit struggled with inconsistent technique and strength issues as a junior.
Now listed at 314 pounds, Nixon is looking to rehabilitate his draft stock as the team's starting left tackle.
The rest of the line is comprised of sixth-year guard James Wilson—Tim Tebow's former high school teammate, redshirt juniors Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio, and redshirt sophomore Chaz Green.
Outside of Harrison, every starter on UF's offensive line weighs at least 310 pounds, and that size will be necessary when facing the big boys like LSU and Alabama.
Can Jordan Reed Realize His Potential at Tight End?
Jordan Reed may not have the polish of Aaron Hernandez, but the third-year tight end could have a similar impact for an offense devoid of established playmakers.
However when it comes to Reed, the word "potential" is starting to grow old.
Blessed with a 6'3", 243-pound frame and 4.62 wheels, the Connecticut native is the prototypical new generation tight end.
Despite his athletic gifts, Reed hasn't established himself as a trusted weapon for the Gators.
In his first year as a starter, he only managed 307 yards on 28 receptions.
Those numbers aren't terrible, but they aren't good enough for someone that talented.
After bringing in two of the nation's top tight end prospects, there may be some pressure on Reed to finally live up to the hype in 2012.
Let's hope he responds well.
How Will Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd Respond to Position Changes?
This year will be a coming home party of sorts for juniors Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd.
The two stud recruits of the 2010 class will be switching positions in 2012 as Easley slides outside to defensive end and Floyd moves back to his natural position at defensive tackle.
Easley—who is working his way back from a torn ACL in December—should excel in his new role due to his rare first step and overall quickness.
He appeared well on his way to becoming an All-SEC player before going down against FSU in the regular season finale.
Floyd—who checks in at a menacing 6'3", 303 pounds—was the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle when he came out of high school.
However, due to injuries and a lack of depth, the Pennsylvania native was forced to play on the edge last season.
Now that he's back along the interior, Floyd should wreck havoc and should emerge as a force in the SEC.
How Badly Will the Gators Miss Ronald Powell?
I won't sit here and pretend that I'm a huge Ronald Powell fan.
However, when the Gators lost their starting BUCK linebacker to a torn ACL in the spring, it definitely hurt.
Powell may not have been the All-American many projected him to be after coming to Florida as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, but he began to show glimpses of his talent by the end of last season.
Any progress he made was stunted when he suffered the serious knee injury in Florida's spring game, and it might be a stretch to think he'll make any impact this season.
The 6'4", 244-pounder has been working hard in rehab and seems to have the right mindset despite the tough-luck injury.
Even though he only put up six sacks last year, it'll be interesting to see if the Gators defense takes a step back without him in the lineup.
Which Freshman Pass-Rusher Will Make an Impact?
It turns out swaying Dante Fowler, Jr. from FSU to UF could pay immediate dividends.
The 6'3", 277-pound freshman is listed as Lerentee McCray's backup at the BUCK linebacker spot, but it's safe to assume the pass-rushing phenom should see the field in 2012.
Although he wasn't as highly-touted as fellow freshman Jonathan Bullard, it's interesting to see that Fowler is one of only three true freshman listed on the Gators' two-deep depth chart for defense.
Bullard—who measures in at 6'3", 271 pounds—just arrived on campus at the beginning of the month, but for a player who was rated as the nation's sixth-best overall recruit, it'll be tough to keep him off the field.
Whether it's Fowler, Bullard or another one of the Gators' several freshman defensive linemen, Florida will need a boost from its freshman class along the defensive front.
How Good Will UF's Linebackers Be?
Between speedy weak-side linebacker Jelani Jenkins and rugged middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic, the Gators feature a pair of devastating future NFL defenders.
Each player brings his own strengths to the team—Jenkins has elite sideline-to-sideline ability, while Bostic brings toughness and size.
Both players have added significant strength since arriving at UF and look poised to be SEC stars in 2012.
However, while senior Lerentee McCray will attempt to fill the void at BUCK linebacker, the strong-side spot will feature little-known Darrin Kitchens.
Checking in at 6'1", 229 pounds, Kitchens' biggest play at UF was actually quite a scary one as he was carted off the field against Florida State last November after suffering a concussion in a helmet-to-helmet collision.
The junior was a standout special-teamer, but will make only his second start on defense when the Gators host Bowling Green on Saturday.
Although Jenkins and Bostic are known commodities, it remains to be seen whether McCray and particularly Kitchens can produce on a consistent basis.
Who Emerges as a Shutdown Corner?
Whether it was Joe Haden or Janoris Jenkins, the Gators have been blessed with a shutdown cornerback for most of the past half decade.
Entering the 2012 season, the potential to find the next All-SEC corner is there, but no one knows for sure who that player will be.
When discussing the candidates for the top spot, sophomore Marcus Roberson has to be mentioned.
The 6'0", 178-pounder became the first true freshman to start at corner since Janoris Jenkins in '08, and the Fort Lauderdale native didn't disappoint.
Although he didn't post gaudy numbers, Roberson showed that he has the potential to be a star in the SEC for years to come.
Another corner who is overlooked but has significant talent is junior Jaylen Watkins.
The brother of Clemson Tigers star receiver Sammy Watkins is another big corner who also brings 4.4 wheels.
Last year, Watkins recorded 34 tackles and five passes defended.
In order to take the next step, both he and Roberson must improve their ball skills as the two combined for just seven passes defended and one interception.
Both players bring excellent length and size to the position, and their development will be one of many important storylines to watch develop in 2012.