Florida Gators Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
The Florida Gators will enter spring practice on March 13th as one of the favorites to win the SEC East Division. This will come a mere two months after Will Muschamp's squad concluded a surprising 11-2 season.
In order for the Gators to duplicate that success, they will need to not only replace key contributors from last season, but also see returning regulars improve their game.
That process starts with spring practice.
Over the next few weeks leading up to the spring games, the Gator coaching staff will get their first real look at the 2013 roster and how each member of that roster has progressed.
Here is a preview of what Gator coaches and fans will see at every position during spring practice.
Unlike one year ago, Jeff Driskel will head into spring practice as the unquestioned top quarterback. The question this year is how he will improve over the next few weeks.
Driskel made strides throughout his sophomore campaign, but there are a few areas he needs to address this season. The most important of these are his pocket presence and touch on deep passes.
If he can improve these two attributes, he will see a spike in his numbers this fall.
The real battle will be occurring below him on the depth chart. Freshman Max Staver will duel with Skyler Mornhinweg to be Driskel's backup. With a strong performance in spring camp, Mornhinweg can gain an immediate edge over Staver for this spot. If Staver had enrolled early, he probably would be considered the slight favorite.
At the moment, however, Mornhinweg has the advantage with his scout team experience.
Florida's biggest strength on offense is its rushing attack. Even with Mike Gillislee departing from campus, the Gators enter the spring with their backfield in excellent shape.
This is because of the potential two-headed monster in the form of Matt Jones and ESPN five-star recruit Kelvin Taylor. Jones is essentially a slightly bigger version of Gillislee. He has good speed, but he is also extremely tough and not afraid to run through contact.
Meanwhile, all Gator fans are extremely excited about Taylor. The son of former Gator and Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor, Kelvin has an excellent skill set. He has the elusiveness to get around defenders, but he also has the power to run through them.
His early enrollment will allow him to become somewhat familiar with the playbook before summer camp, which should improve his chances of being a valuable contributor early on in the upcoming season.
Junior fullback Hunter Joyer enters the spring with a solid grip on the starting spot.
He was mainly used as a blocker last season, but he has offensive potential. He only has two touchdowns during his college career, but they both came in 2011. If he can emerge as a good pass-catcher, he can add another dimension to the Gator offense.
With Jones and Taylor in the Gator backfield, however, Joyer should have a role similar to that of last season. He will mostly be asked to clear space for the talented Gator runners.
The Gators are in need of a reliable wide receiver for Jeff Driskel. They are hoping that someone can embrace this role in the coming weeks.
Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose are the two best options available from Florida's returning pure wide receivers.
Dunbar at least proved he can catch passes with regularity last season. He finished with 383 yards, second only to Jordan Reed. Meanwhile, Debose caught only three passes, the lowest output of his Gator career. He will need to improve his attitude and work ethic in order to see extensive time at the receiver position.
Someone to keep an eye on is freshman Demarcus Robinson. By enrolling early, he has given himself an immediate opportunity to earn playing time during the early part of next season. He has good speed and route-running skills. With a strong performance during the spring, he can even make a case to be a starting candidate.
Jordan Reed emerged last season as one of the most athletic tight ends in the SEC. He led the Gators in both receptions and receiving yards and was a weekly contributor. His departure leaves a wide-open race set to begin during spring practice.
One candidate to fill the void is Kent Taylor. The large and imposing Taylor did little on offense last season, catching only two passes. His athleticism, however, makes him an intriguing player. He has even drawn comparisons to former Gator tight end Aaron Hernandez. He could be ready for a breakout season.
A more likely scenario, however, is a platoon in which Taylor and the other Gator tight ends share the position. Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook are solid blockers, but they are no threat offensively.
Meanwhile, Colin Thompson can be an effective target, particularly in the red zone. Because each of them has differing strengths, it would only make sense that they could potentially rotate in and out of the lineup.
Unless one of these four can separate himself from the pack during the spring, the Gators may be left to find a creative method for filling in the hole left by Reed.
The Gators improved in two key areas last season.
First off, they improved their rushing attack. In addition, they eliminated the vast majority of the muffed snaps that had plagued them in recent years. One of the main reasons for this improvement was center Jonotthan Harrison.
The redshirt senior had a very successful 2012 season. He was even named the Gators' Offensive Player of the Game against Texas A&M. The tall and athletic center consistently won battles at the line of scrimmage, allowing the Gators to run the ball effectively.
Harrison has no immediate competition for the starting role. His return should make the Gator rushing game dangerous once again.
The Gators' situation at the guard position is a tale of two opposites.
At right guard, Florida has Jon Halapio, one of the team's most consistent linemen over the past couple of seasons. Although he has struggled in pass protection on occasion, Halapio is excellent as a blocker in the running game. His status as a starter is all but cemented as spring practice begins.
Meanwhile, the picture at left guard is quite muddy. James Wilson's departure leaves the door open for either Max Garcia or Jessamen Dunker. Garcia's experience as a redshirt junior might give him the immediate edge, but the race is really too close to call at this point. With a solid spring performance, Dunker can easily gain the upper hand.
It will be interesting to see how that battle plays out during the next few weeks.
Like the offensive guard position, the tackle position is clear on one side and a little distorted on the other.
On the left side, D.J. Humphries is the logical replacement for Xavier Nixon. Right behind him, however, is junior college transfer Trenton Brown. Even though Brown is not likely to win the starting job, his immense size all but guarantees his presence on the Gator offensive line in 2013.
At right tackle, Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore will battle with Chaz Green for the No. 1 spot. Green has a slight edge entering the spring, but Moore was impressive as a freshman for the Cornhuskers. If he can immediately make a good impression on the coaching staff, he may be able to leapfrog the sometimes inconsistent Green.
The Gators need to find a replacement for future first-round draft pick Sharrif Floyd at the defensive tackle position. In the search to find the next menacing presence on the defensive line, two candidates stand out.
The first one is Dominique Easley. The two-year starter has the experience and size needed to be the Gators' next feared tackle. He only has 5.5 career sacks, but Easley is talented enough to match that number this season. Leon Orr will be the likely backup to Easley and see playing time in limited amounts.
The other standout is Damien Jacobs. He has been much more consistent than the aforementioned Orr, and he proved last season that he can be a meaningful player, even in a limited role.
As long as Easley and Jacobs have a solid spring, they will be the ones leading the charge.
The Gators enter spring practice with three players who can become dominant at the defensive end position.
Ronald Powell is the first of those names. Before missing all of last season, he was very effective while playing at the hybrid "BUCK" linebacker position. He recorded six sacks during the 2011 season. If the rust has worn off and he is completely healthy, Powell can be dangerous.
The other two big names are Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler. Bullard is a particularly intriguing defender. As a true freshman, he recorded five tackles for a loss last season. With a couple of tweaks to his game, he can become a dominant figure on Florida's line over the next couple of seasons.
There are other names on the Gator depth chart, but these three begin spring practice as the favorites to earn a majority of the playing time.
Another position that currently holds great importance for the Gators is linebacker. The loss of both Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic leaves the team with an interesting dynamic entering spring practice.
The obvious replacement for Jenkins is Antonio Morrison. Morrison was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after a season in which he registered more than 30 tackles. He looks to be a potential mainstay on the Gator defense. Neiron Ball is another returning linebacker who can earn a spot in the lineup with a solid spring and summer camp.
The more interesting story during the spring, however, will be the performances of both Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian. These two early enrollees are athletic enough to start during their freshman year. Anzalone is a five-star prospect according to Rivals.com, and his explosiveness is noticeably better than that of most other recruits. McMillian, meanwhile, is gifted enough to play both inside and outside linebacker.
Their development during the spring could very well determine the extent of their roles next season. No matter how things play out, however, they are two of the athletes to watch through March and April.
A strong case can be made that cornerback is actually the position at which the Gators currently have the most depth.
At the top of the list are Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins. They are two solid corners with good ball skills and defensive instincts. Loucheiz Purifoy is another name that belongs in this group. However, his athleticism has led the coaching staff to attempt to give him a role on offense. if this experiment works, his effectiveness at corner will be limited.
All three of these corners have to be worried about Vernon Hargreaves III. Hargreaves has not enrolled yet, but he is so talented that he may be good enough to earn a key role with limited reps during the summer. Also in the mix are Brian Poole and Cody Riggs, who missed much of last season with an injury.
Any one of these six players could be a starter on most FBS teams. No matter who impresses during the spring, the Gators are in good shape at cornerback.
Two of the Gators' best defenders in 2012 were safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. Unfortunately for the Gainesville faithful, they are both preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft.
As things stand, however, there are a few candidates who are good enough to replace them.
Brian Poole is an intriguing secondary member who can play both safety and corner. He has been more than serviceable during his playing time thus far and has tremendous upside.
Valdez Showers and Jabari Gorman are also in the mix for a starting spot as spring practice begins. Gorman is not a particularly big safety, but he is quick and reliable in coverage. Showers has mostly been a special teams member, but he could emerge with a strong performance over the course of the next month.
Although the Gator safeties are inexperienced, they have the talent to keep opposing receivers in check.
Caleb Sturgis, who broke the school record for most field goals from fifty-or-more yards with eight successful attempts, is no longer in the special teams equation.
Therefore, it is essential for the Gators to find out who will replace him, even as early as spring practice.
The likely replacement is redshirt freshman Austin Hardin. He was rated as a three-star prospect by ESPN out of high school and has a very strong leg. One problem he must fix, however, is his accuracy from long distances.
All of his misses during his senior year of high school came on kicks longer than fifty yards. Still, he's a promising prospect who could develop into a kicker of Sturgis' caliber.
His only competition looks to be Brad Phillips. The senior has made only two field goals during his Gator career, but he has the benefit of actual game experience. This is a plus for his chances entering the spring.
Ultimately, however, this is Hardin's job to lose.
The Gators head into spring knowing that they have one of the country's best punters in Kyle Christy.
The 2012 Ray Guy Award finalist set a school record last season with an average of 45.8 yards per punt. He was arguably the most reliable Gator at any position during the entire campaign. His strong leg and effective directional kicks always seemed to give the Gators an advantage when it came to field position.
As long as Christy does not injure himself during the spring, Florida will not need to worry about the punter position.