Florida Football: 5 Best Positional Battles in Spring Ball

John PattonContributor IMarch 27, 2011

Quarterback John Brantley and tailback Chris Rainey hope to start for the Gators as seniors.
Quarterback John Brantley and tailback Chris Rainey hope to start for the Gators as seniors.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

OK, so this isn't 2010 and the Florida Gators aren't being asked to find new starters to step in for nine NFL Draft picks, six of whom went in the first two rounds (including three in the first).

But there are a few stalwarts recently hired head coach Will Muschamp must replace.

The three biggest probably are All-Americans Mike Pouncey (center) and Ahmad Black (strong safety)—teammates since prior to their days at Lakeland High School—and punter Chas Henry.

Muschamp's first spring in charge of the Gators began a few weeks ago, and in addition to finding replacements for Pouncey and Black, there are other jobs up for grabs.

Here is a look at five:

1. Quarterback

John Brantley is the returning starter and clear favorite to win the job. However, he was a poor fit in former coach Urban Meyer's spread offense.

He wound up with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a junior attempting to take over for departed fan-favorite Tim Tebow.

With Jordan Reed moving back to tight end and Trey Burton now primarily a running back, Brantley's chief competition this spring has come from redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy and true freshman Jeff Driskel.

Murphy is untested and hasn't thrown an in-game pass since high school. He wasn't heavily recruited out of Wethersfield, Conn., but Meyer and his staff saw something they liked and offered him a late scholarship.

The nation's No. 1 quarterback prospect of 2011, Driskel graduated from Oviedo Hagerty early and is taking reps this spring with the Gators.

He is the best athlete of the group and is a threat with his arm and legs.

A wild card is Jacoby Brissett, a quarterback signee from powerhouse Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer. He will join the team this summer.

2. Center

It's tough enough having to replace one Pouncey. Try replacing two.

One year ago, Mike Pouncey moved from guard to center to take over for twin brother, Maurkice, the eventual 2010 first-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And now, someone has to replace Mike, who bounced back from some early-season long-snap issues to have an outstanding senior year.

The leading candidates are redshirt junior Sam Robey (6'3", 302 pounds) and redshirt sophomore Nick Alajajian (6'4", 295 pounds).

Both are inexperienced and neither gained the confidence of Meyer and his staff, which could have moved Mike Pouncey back to guard last year after his snapping troubles but didn't.

The son of former Kentucky basketball standout Rick Robey, Sam Robey had a strong spring in 2010, but only saw limited action last season.

Alajajian is a former guard who was moved into the middle last fall.

3. Safety

Muschamp, a former safety at Georgia, said he will be hands-on with both centerfield positions this spring.

There, the Gators must replace ball-hawking strong safety Ahmad Black and athletic free safety Will Hill, who elected to leave school a year early to apply for the NFL draft.

However, unlike at center, there are clear favorites at the safety spots.

The leader to replace Black is former prep All-American Matt Elam, a sophomore who recorded 22 tackles as a true freshman.

Meanwhile, Josh Evans brings the same type of size (6'1", 195 pounds) that fellow New Jersey native Hill did.

One serious problem for the Gators this spring is depth at safety. To compensate for that, sophomore Josh Shaw (6'3", 186 pounds) has been moved over from cornerback (though he could eventually switch back), and there has been discussion about giving Burton a look at one of the two safety spots.

More help will arrive in the summer in the form of signees Jabari Gorman of Miami, Chris Johnson from nearby Ocala and Michigan Player of the Year Valdez Showers.

4. Punter

 Signee Kyle Christy already is on campus, and he is the favorite to take over for Henry, who could be the first punter taken in April's draft.

Christy will try to hold off walk-on David Lerner, a longtime Gator fan who grew up in Gainesville.

5. Running back

There are a lot of returnees here, but who will get the bulk of the carries?

The nation's fastest football player, senior Jeff Demps (team-best 551 yards on 92 carries last year) is the leader, but he runs track in the spring and there are questions as to whether he is big enough at 5'8", 181 pounds to take the beating a full-time pro-style back takes.

Another option, fifth-year senior Chris Rainey, has similar issues. He has tremendous speed (once beating Demps in an impromptu 40-yard dash), but also doesn't have prototypical size (5'9", 175 pounds).

Rainey also is listed as a wide receiver on the roster. He played both positions for Meyer last year.

Junior Mike Gillislee (5'11", 198 pounds) has shown flashes of excitement, but hasn't stood out in his previous two seasons.

Redshirt freshman Mack Brown (5'10", 193 pounds) not only has a name Muschamp, the former defensive coordinator at Texas, is familiar with, he also may be the back best-suited for Charlie Weis's pro style.

Burton spent the bulk of his freshman year at quarterback and receiver. He is one of the team's best with the ball in his hands.

Heavily recruited freshman Mike Blakely is enrolled in school, but he had shoulder surgery stemming from a high school injury and is not participating in spring drills.

Muschamp said he is looking forward to seeing what Blakely can bring this coming summer and fall.


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