Florida Football: 7 Most Important Spring Practice Position Battles
There was no mistaking the most important battle during the spring of 2012 for the Florida Gators. It was the battle to be the team's starting quarterback. Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett waged a neck-and-neck battle that carried not only into the summer, but also the first game of the season. As all Gator fans are aware, Driskel emerged and led the squad to a resurgent 2012 season.
One year later, Driskel has an all but unbreakable grasp on the same position. However, there are a few other positions at which conflicts over starting nods are bound to emerge. They will include players on offense, defense and even special teams. In each case, the ultimate goal will be to find someone that can contribute to a winning formula on par with that of last season.
Here are seven of the most important position battles that will be waged during Florida's spring practice.
#2 Starting Wide Receiver
Based on his performance in the latter half of the 2012 season, Quinton Dunbar has the first starting wide receiver position essentially won. The other starting spot, however, is completely up for grabs as spring practice begins.
Andre Debose and Latroy Pittman are the two returning Gators with the best odds to earn the starting role. Debose is one of the fastest and most talented players on the entire roster, but his work ethic and poor attitude has made him completely ineffective on offense. Pittman, meanwhile, caught only two passes during his first season in Gainesville. He has potential, but his lack of production in 2012 essentially puts him in the same category as a new freshman who is unfamiliar with the playbook.
The interesting piece of this puzzle, however, is Demarcus Robinson. The early enrollee enters off-season practice as an extremely talented receiver with great speed and hand-eye coordination. If he works hard enough to learn Florida's scheme and refine his route-running abilities, Robinson could sneak his way into the lineup.
No matter who gets this spot, the Gators are hoping they can find a reliable target opposite Dunbar. It would greatly help Jeff Driskel and the rest of the offense.
Will Muschamp and Brent Pease are now left with the task of replacing their most consistent receiver from 2012: tight end Jordan Reed. Depending on the type of tight end they want to employ for the majority of the season, the battle can go in multiple directions.
If they deem it more important to have someone who can block for Jones and the other Gator athletes, they can go with Clay Burton or Tevin Westbrook. Burton proved effective in this regard last season. However, the fact that he only had two receptions cannot be overlooked.
Offensively, the two main options are Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor. Thompson can potentially be a solid red zone target, but his medical redshirt last season has kept the end result a mystery. Taylor found the end zone only once in 2012, but he is one of the most athletically-gifted players on the roster. This bodes well for his stock.
With no one person standing as the odds-on favorite, this group may even end up platooning at the position. In any case, this battle will be one of the most intriguing during camp.
With the departure of James Wilson, the race at left guard is about to heat up. The two obvious combatants are Max Garcia and Jessamen Dunker.
Garcia will return to the field after sitting out last season due to his transfer from Maryland. With two years of eligibility remaining and starting experience under his belt, he has the immediate edge. In 2011, he was one of only five Terrapins to start all twelve games. This shows he has both talent and durability. He should be able to replace Wilson if called upon.
Dunker, meanwhile, does not have any game experience. He does, however, have size and athletic ability, and he was a valued recruit out of high school according to ESPN's experts. If the Gator staff decides to move forward with youth, Dunker can begin his development into a respected lineman.
Muschamp needs to find a guard capable of protecting Driskel and providing solid run blocks. Hopefully, Dunker or Garcia can fulfill this role.
The Gators will have a ton of depth at cornerback for the upcoming season. This is why the battle for starting spots should be entertaining as the following weeks progress.
At the top of the list are Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins. Roberson finished second in the SEC last season in defended passes after getting in the way of 14 throws. Watkins was superb as well, notching three interceptions during the 2012 campaign.
They will both be feeling the pressure, however, when Vernon Hargreaves III joins the team over the summer. The MVP of the Under Armour All-America game is one of the consensus top recruits in the entire country. He is talented enough to immediately contend for playing time.
Another wild card is Loucheiz Purifoy. Because he is expected to see an expanded role on offense, Purifoy's effectiveness as a defensive back could be hindered. However, he was an exciting playmaker last season and should see time at corner no matter.
In any case, the Gators are set at the cornerback position. The only question that remains is who will be anchoring it throughout the season.
Jon Bostic became a mainstay on the Gator defense after starting every game over the course of the past two seasons. His performance and leadership on the field made him a favorite among his teammates and Gator fans. Now that he is headed for the NFL Draft, however, a huge emphasis should be placed on finding his replacement.
Antonio Morrison arguably played the best of any returning Gator linebacker. However, he will more than likely end up in Jelani Jenkins' spot on the outside. This leaves Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor as likely replacements. Kitchens and Taylor are more experienced, but Ball has shown a propensity to make big plays. Overall, the race is wide open.
It will also be interesting to see what Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian have to offer. I doubt they will come anywhere close to earning the starting role, but they are two of the most talented freshmen in the country at the linebacker position. They could take the first step towards significant playing time during the spring.
Each of these potential replacements has the talent to win a starting role during their Florida career, even as early as this season.
The Gators enter spring festivities after losing their two best safeties from the 2012 season. Matt Elam and Josh Evans will likely hear their names called on draft day in April. One of the main objectives for their former team will be finding candidates worthy of filling in their vacated spots.
One potential candidate is Brian Poole. The former Scout.com 5-star recruit saw limited on-field action last season, but he did not look out of place. He also has a tremendous amount of upside.
Valdez Showers and Jabari Gorman are also possibilities. Although neither of them have a significant amount of game experience, they both have potential strengths. Gorman's speed and coverage skills stand out in particular.
Much like the case at tight end, the Gators' safety play will probably take a small dip next season. As long as two can emerge as players capable of limiting the damage, however, the dropoff will not be as severe as some might think.
One of the positions at which there has been little drama for the Gators in recent years is kicker. Caleb Sturgis proved himself to be one of the most reliable kickers in the country, let alone the SEC. Now that he is graduating, however, the battle to replace him is heating up.
The first candidate is Brad Phillips. As he enters his fourth season as a Gator, Phillips holds only a slight advantage in the experience department. He has only attempted four field goals in his collegiate career and converted on two of those attempts. Phillips has also shown that he can be serviceable on kickoffs.
His competition, however, is younger and thought to have a stronger leg. I am, of course, referring to redshirt freshman Austin Hardin. The Under Armour All-America game alumnus was ESPN's top-ranked kicker in last year's high school class. He is an unproven player, but ultimately he has much more upside than Phillips.
Ultimately, this battle will come down to whether or not the Gator coaches are afraid to hand the job to a second-year freshman. Because the potential reward outweighs the risk, however, I expect Hardin to come out on top. In any case, Florida's kicking game should lose some of its effectiveness next season.