Florida Football: Winners and Losers of Spring Practice
Saturday's Orange and Blue Debut marks the official end of spring practice for head coach Will Muschamp and his Florida Gators. Although the event's format will be markedly different from that of previous versions, it promises to be an interactive and informative experience for Gator fans.
During the weeks of preparation that led up to this date, many Gator players experienced various highs and lows that are a part of playing SEC football. Some used a strong work ethic and excellent play to stand out among the rest of their teammates. Meanwhile, injuries and poor performance left their impacts on others.
As the curtains close on another edition of Gator spring practice, here is a look at the biggest winners and losers of springtime in the Swamp.
Winner: Matt Jones
After entering the spring as the slight favorite to emerge as the leader of the Gator backfield, running back Matt Jones now stands in complete control of the starting role.
His tough running style and physical build have repeatedly given the defense problems throughout the spring. He has been extremely hard to bring down during full-tackle drills, and he has proven that he will not shy away from contact in the act of fighting for extra yards.
Mack Brown and promising freshman Kelvin Taylor have each made good plays of their own during the past few weeks. Taylor, in particular, has shown that he has the potential to live up to the immense hype he received out of high school.
Jones, however, was consistently effective throughout every practice. Despite ending 2012 on a high note, he went to work and further improved his game.
When the Gators take the field against Toledo in the season opener, fans can rest assured knowing that Jones should be leading the charge.
Loser: Offensive Line
Florida's offensive line has been decimated by injuries during the spring. Essentially half of the line is not in any sort of playing shape. It is for this reason more than any other that the spring game format was altered.
Chaz Green continues to recover from ankle surgery. Jon Halapio is in the same situation, as he is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Starting left guard Max Garcia and reserve guard Ian Silberman are also battling physical maladies.
On top of everything, guard Jessamen Dunker remains in the team doghouse after his arrest in January.
The coaching staff made a good decision to take the competitive element out of the Orange and Blue Debut. The Gators simply can't afford to risk further injury on the line at the moment.
When you are able to attract one of the best recruiting classes in the country, you would hope that some of those freshmen can immediately look the part during their early days on campus. Luckily for the Gators, this has been the case for their early enrollees.
Kelvin Taylor has looked like a future SEC star at tailback. Before his minor injury, Demarcus Robinson had also begun to emerge at wide receiver. They will likely need all of 2013 to fully adjust, but they should still be able to make plays throughout the campaign.
On defense, Daniel McMillian's play at linebacker has been a positive development.
All told, the emergence of these three players is a good sign that the Gators hit the jackpot with their latest class.
Of course, not every freshman has had a great spring...
Loser: Alex Anzalone
Alex Anzalone's time at Florida got off to rough start, as he tore the labrum in his right shoulder in early March. The recovery time for this procedure will keep him off the field until fall camp.
The Rivals.com 5-star recruit looked poised to earn immediate playing time after he chose to enroll early this past January. He was a star on both sides of the ball at Wyomissing Area, where he won a Pennsylvania state championship.
His versatility and athleticism are greatly needed on a linebacking unit that lost Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic.
The injury could have been much worse, but Anzalone should begin fall camp a step behind his freshman counterparts. He will see the field next season, but it will take longer than first expected.
Winner: Joker Phillips
After a disastrous season at the helm of the Kentucky Wildcats, Joker Phillips is coming into his own as the wide receivers coach for the Gators.
His presence has helped Quinton Dunbar to emerge as the unquestioned top receiver on the Florida roster, and he has also been one of the main moderators of the Loucheiz Purifoy "experiment." In addition, he will soon be getting a group of talented freshmen to work with during the summer and fall.
The Gators have had five coaches hold this position over the last five years. With the success Phillips has had thus far, this trend of inconsistency looks to be finally coming to an end in Gainesville.
After being one of the strong suits of the Gators' defense last season, Florida's secondary is now a huge question mark.
Aside from redshirt freshman Marcus Maye, no returning safety has done much to draw consistent praise from any of the Gator coaches. In fact, the situation has forced Muschamp to move corner Jaylen Watkins to safety for the time being.
This move leaves Marcus Roberson as the only set piece at cornerback. Loucheiz Purifoy was assumed to be slated for a starting spot at the end of last season. However, he could lose his effectiveness as a corner by playing on offense.
Freshman Vernon Hargreaves III will add another piece to this puzzle once he arrives on campus.
Luckily, there is time for someone to emerge and take control of a starting position. Right now, however, the picture remains a bit muddy.
Winner: Antonio Morrison
Antonio Morrison has quickly become one of the most exciting players on the entire Gator defense.
Last season, he played exceptionally well in place of the injured Jelani Jenkins. He also provided one of the most memorable moments of the entire campaign with his punishing hit on Florida State's E.J. Manuel.
During spring practice, Morrison has made improvements every week. His high-motor play has drawn the attention of Will Muschamp, who recently told ESPN's Mike DiRocco, "If they don't like sticking their face in the fire, then this isn't the game for them. He (Morrison) likes it.''
Based on his performance in practice, expect Morrison to make his share of plays at linebacker next season.
Loser: Special Teams
Arguably, the Gators' greatest strength in recent years has been their special teams. If this spring is any indication, however, that could change in 2013.
Punter Kyle Christy is hampered by a shoulder injury. He will return for the regular season and should remain a key piece. However, any missed practice time is a hindrance.
Meanwhile, Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips remain locked in a duel for the role of starting kicker. Both have struggled with accuracy issues throughout practice, and both lack any real experience at the position. Hardin is expected to emerge, but a scenario in which he splits time with Phillips is not out of the question.
If this battle is not resolved soon, Florida fans could find themselves longing for the days of Caleb Sturgis in the fall.
Winner: Loucheiz Purifoy
After an exceptional season as a cornerback and a special teams contributor, Loucheiz Purifoy has now emerged as a possible weapon on offense.
Purifoy spent an extended amount of time with the first-team offense throughout Florida's many spring sessions. Some might be surprised to find out that he performed quite well. He was able to catch passes on many different types of routes, and he was able to break from his defender and get open repeatedly.
It is no secret that the Gators have been searching for dependable receivers for the past couple of seasons. Perhaps Purifoy can turn out to be the hidden gem that the team has been hoping to find.
It remains to be seen how much time Purifoy will spend on either side of the ball. No matter what happens, however, he has shown that he can be a difference-maker at any position.
Loser: Backup Quarterbacks
Jeff Driskel is without question the Gators' starting quarterback. He earned it with his solid performance in 2012. Should he need to sit out during the upcoming season, however, Florida could be in dire straits.
Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg are in a virtual deadlock in their competition to become Driskel's backup. Neither one has performed noticeably well over the past month, which is a bit unsettling. Murphy remains the "favorite" based on his three seasons as quarterback of the scout team. However, the race is pretty much wide open at this point.
Although he is not expected to be a factor, Max Staver could also enter the equation once he arrives for fall camp.
Murphy and Mornhinweg both have some upside. However, the reality is that neither of them has attempted a pass as a Gator.