Curiosity should be at an all-time high when Florida begins practice this weekend. The Urban Meyer era is over, and Will Muschamp's time has
Contending for a national championship is a non-issue in year No. 1 of the Will Muschamp era, but Florida's first goal for every season since 1992 remains in reach. Unranked and unloved following an 8-5 finish in 2010, the Gators can win the weak SEC East even though they played even worse in Urban Meyer's last year than their record indicated.
The key players need to play like stars and guys who have been up and down need to reach their potential. If those things happen - and John Brantley's cliff dive last season proves to be a one-year aberration -Florida will be good enough to beat anyone in the division.
We might as well start that speculation and guesswork here with some lists for you to peruse while you remember what it was like to look at practice.
TIME TO SHINE: If the Gators are to
successfully compete for the SEC East Title, these five players will need to bring their 'A' game.
1. Jeff Demps, Sr., RB: Now that Demps' flirtation with full-time track is over, he needs to be more than a part-time football player. A foot injury hampered him in 2010 after he had an absurd 26 carries against Tennessee, but when healthy he is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. If new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis uses him judiciously, Demps can be a game-breaker and a play-maker all year.
2. Chris Rainey, Sr., RB: Wouldn't it be funny if Meyer's infatuation with small, explosive backs paid off the year after he left. Rainey missed the first five games of 2010 while under suspension and wasted most of the second half at wide receiver, averaging a measly 8.6 yards per reception. He will be much more dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield than as a wide out, and he says he is more comfortable running in a pro-style offense than the spread.
3. Xavier Nixon, Jr., OT: Florida's line was awful last year, but Nixon, who struggled with a knee injury, has the ability to build on his true freshman year, when he started eight games for a 13-1 team. He better be solid because the Gators have a slew of question marks up front.
4. Sharrif Floyd, So., DT: If Floyd is able to build on his debut season, watch out! Despite starting only twice, he made 23 tackles and had eight stops for losses, an incredibly high number for a backup interior lineman. If he makes the normal improvement from the first to the second year, he will dominate the line of scrimmage, making life much easier for the rest of the defense.
5. Jelani Jenkins, So., LB: Some observers expect Jenkins to struggle with the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme, but he is a good enough athlete to excel in any system. He made the wrong read at times as a redshirt freshman but still leads all returning tacklers with 76, had three interceptions and broke up eight passes. Muschamp has an outstanding defensive staff. The coaches will get the most out of Jenkins' ability.
IT'S THEIR TIME: Though these five players have
performed to a certain extent over the years when called upon, none of them have been considered top notch performers thus far. This fall these Gators will all get an opportunity to make
1. Andre Debose, So., WR: Aside from returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, Debose was a non-factor last year, catching 10 passes for 96 yards. Unfairly labeled as the next Percy Harvin when he arrived, he has battled leg injuries in his first two seasons. Look for a totally different player this time. Debose may not be polished, but he will make big plays in the passing game, converting short throws into long gains.
2. John Brantley, Sr., QB: Actually, he falls into the category of now or never. I've never been more wrong in my life than when I predicted he would throw for more than 32 touchdowns (Tim Tebow's high) last year, and I'm skeptical of his ability to recover from the horror show that was his first season as a starter (nine TDs, 10 interceptions). Obviously, going from the spread to a pro-style offense will help him. Hopefully for the Gators, Charlie Weis will restore Brantley's confidence and make me look foolish for a second consecutive year.
3. Ronald Powell, So., DE: Powell irritated UF veterans at times with his attitude last year, but he finished with a respectable 25 tackles. With the coaching change, the past is the past, so now the next step is living up to his 2010 billing as the best high school prospect in the nation. The Gators desperately need a pass rush off the edge, and he is the most likely candidate to provide it despite having only one sack as a freshman. Lining up at Buck, the combo end/outside linebacker spot in the new scheme, he impressed the coaches in the spring.
4. Matt Elam, So., SS: Elam replaces Ahmad Black, who had a team-high 108 tackles and five interceptions, but he is up to the task. He gained experience while making 22 stops as a freshman, improving steadily as the year went along. He is ready for his starting role and will be the Gators' most dependable player in the secondary.
5. Jon Bostic, Jr., LB: Never mind the decent numbers (57 tackles, three interceptions). Bostic was a disappointment last year, looking slow in pass coverage and pedestrian everywhere else. His instincts are too good, though, for a repeat under Muschamp. He earned praise as a quick learner under Meyer and will use those smarts to adapt quickly to the new scheme.
IMPACT FRESHMEN: With the
stellar recruiting of Meyer and his staff year after year, there aren't many spots open on the depth chart for members of this past signing class. So we've gone about it a little differently, adding a coach and redshirt freshmen to the mix.
1. Charlie Weis, Offensive coordinator: OK, we're cheating here, but Weis will have the biggest impact of any newcomer simply because he is the man replacing Steve Addazio. Suddenly, the Gators will put their playmakers in spots where they can help. Weis had two fantastic offenses, one mediocre offense and one dreadful one during his tenure as Notre Dame head coach, but his track record as a coordinator is nearly flawless.
2. Kyle Christy, Punter: He is the only freshman guaranteed to play a significant role. He won't win the Ray Guy award like predecessor Chas Henry, but he has a strong leg.
3. Chaz Green, Offensive Line: The only player listed as a projected starter among the freshmen, Green may have a hard time holding off Matt Patchan but will play meaningful downs. That's more than can be said for most of the freshmen, redshirt or true.
4. Jeff Driskel, Quarterback: We'll take a flyer on him. If Brantley struggles at all, Weis will find a way to get this talented freshman on the field. Driskel is not ready to start, but going through spring drills gave him enough experience to be a spot player.
5. Ja'Juan Story, Wide receiver: Can a freshman receiver be ready for a Weis offense? Probably not, but Story, a 6-foot-3 target and the only wideout in Muschamp's first class, will get an opportunity to crack UF's unimpressive depth chart.
FALL SUPRISES: While these five may not have
done much so far, if there are going to be some pleasant surprises this fall, it wouldn't be at all shocking if they came from this group.
1. Quinton Dunbar, Fr., WR: Yeah, he's my and everyone else's choice. Dunbar wowed the coaches with his ability to stretch the field in the spring and could emerge as Florida's best receiver this year.
2. Matt Patchan, Jr., OT: Plagued by injuries throughout his career, he will beat out Green and start at tackle if he stays healthy. Health, not talent, has been his problem. Patchan will be the primary reason Florida's line plays better than last year's disappointing unit.
3. Caleb Sturgis, Sr., PK: If his back problems of 2010 do not return - and they shouldn't - look for him to regain his 2009 form, when he drilled a 56-yard field goal. He will win a game with a last-second kick.
4. Jordan Reed, So., TE: With no spread, the quarterback experiment mercifully is over and he is free to learn a position where he can start. Weis likes tight ends, so Reid will be a factor in the passing game if he learns the offense.
5. Trey Burton, So., FB: But not in a good way. Burton proved he was a heck of a player last year, but modern offenses have little room for fullbacks. If he does not change positions, anyone expecting big numbers from him will be disappointed.
BATTLE ROYAL: 3 Position Battles to Watch
1. Starting Left Tackle:Green vs. Patchan. Already covered. Patchan is older, stronger and better at this point. He will overtake Green in preseason practice if he is healthy.
The winner is...Again, Patchan remaining healthy is the ke. If he does, he'll win the job.
2. Starting Defensive Tackles:Sharrif Floyd vs. Omar Hunter and Dominique Easley vs. Jay Howard at defensive tackle. Wow. On paper, Florida's potential is underwhelming at several positions, but the two tackle spots are not one of them. Think of it this way, Howard, who had nine tackles for loss last year, isn't even guarenteed of a starting job.
The winner is...The Gators. All four guys, along with Leon Orr, will play heavily, rotating in and out to keep fresh. That should pay huge dividends in the second half.
3. Brantley vs. himself:He needs to be sharp in preseason drills because his confidence can't possibly be high. No amount of spin from Muschamp could adequately justify his 4-for-15 performance in the spring game after his poor first year as a starter.
The winner is...Too close to call. With all spring practices closed, there is no way to know how Brantley fared before the Orange and Blue Game. It's also hard to figure out how much his junior season scarred him. The answer could spell the difference between playing in Atlanta for the SEC title or the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
THE TERRIFIC TEN: Top 5 players on