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Florida's disappointing performance in the Sugar Bowl and a dizzying array of departing defensive players leaves the Gators hard to read entering spring drills.
Was the stunning loss to Louisville simply the product of an unfocused team that did not respect its lower-level opponent or a sign the Gators' impressive breakthrough in year two of the Will Muschamp era was a bit of a mirage? Can any team as statistically poor on offense as the Gators were (103rd in total yards out of 120 bowl subdivision teams) really justify its lofty ranking?
For sure, the spring is loaded with question after question. We won't have any answers by the time it is over since only two non-pads practices will be open to reporters and the public, but the key is whether or not Muschamp and his re-aligned staff do. They have to start addressing the anemic offense and identify capable replacements for a big-time defense (ask Johnny Manziel) that lost seven starters.
Here are a few items to contemplate as you dream about the days when you actually formed opinions about players by watching them practice.
TIME TO SHINE: Five Gators (one coach and four players) who will need to emerge this spring
1) Brent Pease, offensive coordinator:Charlie Weis landed in this spot two spring ago and preceded to have another dismal year before somehow landing a head-coaching gig in Kansas. Just about anyone would have been an improvement on Weis, but Pease's offense was positively Weis-like in its lack of production. Despite quarterback Jeff Driskel's significant improvement from his true freshman performance, the Gators sputtered and stuttered from start to finish, ranking 114th in pass offense and allowing an absurdly high 39 sacks. Was the magical offense Pease had in his one year as a coordinator at Boise State a function of having brilliant senior quarterback Kellen Moore and playing in the weak WAC? Florida's offense looked nothing like Boise State's, and Pease has to do something about the leaky line and limited pass offense for Florida to win the East.
2. Jeff Driskel, Jr., QB: No question, Driskel did some good things last fall, coming through with clutch throws to finish off Tennessee in particular. He also was hamstrung by a horrible pass blocking offensive line. Still, he threw for fewer than 100 yards four times in the last eight games an did not reach 200 yards after the Kentucky game in September. He never learned to get rid of the ball, taking numerous sacks he should have avoided. Those issues need to be addressed in the spring.
3. Quinton Dunbar, Jr., WR: The Gators had nothing approaching a big-time wide receiver last year, and forget about Andre Debose. It might be time to write him off as a lost cause as a wide out and allow him to do what he does best (return kicks). Although Dunbar may never be a star, he could be Driskel's most trusted target if he improves off a 36-catch, 386-yard year. His five catches for 77 yards in the Sugar Bowl were season highs in both categories.
4. Tyler Moore, So., OT: Sticking with the same players who mucked around last year won't cut it, so the Gators have to hope Moore, a Nebraska transfer, is the real deal in the spring. He became the first Cornhusker lineman ever to start as a true freshman in the 2011season opener, and held on to the job for three more weeks. He really, really needs to play well this spring at right tackle, giving Florida a pivotal building block as it tries to put last year's OL woes to bed.
5. Loucheiz Purifoy, Jr., WR/CB:
Purifoy already is a dynamic player, blocking two kicks (including the game-winning punt block against Louisiana-Lafayette), forcing three fumbles and making 51 tackles last year while even getting a carry on a reverse against FSU. Now he has to find his best spot, with Muschamp indicating he will get reps at wide receiver and cornerback in the spring. He had zero interceptions last fall, so he may need to land at a position where he can get the ball in his hands.
BATTLE ROYAL: Three Position Battles to
Watch (er, hear Muschamp talk about)
1. Wide receiver: The Gators were devoid of playmakers here last year, so the spring should be wide open opposite Dunbar, and even he is not assured of holding on to his spot. Purifoy, Debose, sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman (who each had two catches) and freshman Demarcus Robinson are the top candidates. If spring practices were open, all eyes would be on Robinson and Purifoy because they are unknown quantities. The other guys, though a year older now, were part of the problem last year.
The winners are: Dunbar and Robinson. This is purely a guess about Robinson since he has not gotten a rep in college yet, but the bar isn't exactly high. If his recruiting hype was justified, he should leapfrog the older guys ahead of him. As for Purifoy, the potential experiment at wide out likely won't last. Unless the incoming freshmen are ready, while he may lineup on both sides of the ball, look for him to play more cornerback in the fall.
2. Linebacker: With Jonathan Bostic and Jelanie Jenkins gone, Florida has some retooling to do here and plenty of bodies available. Sophomore Antonio Morrison (34 tackles, one sack in 2012)) is the most experience returning player. Senior Darrin Kitchens (14 tackles) started the FSU game. Redshirt junior Neiron Ball, who is limited this spring, had but 11 stops a year ago. Redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell and two early-enrollment freshmen - Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian - will be in the mix, too.
The winner is: Morrison is likely the only player who will emerge from the spring with one of the starting jobs locked down. Other than that, it is anyone's guess. The closeness of the competition should make each of these guys better players.
3. Safety: With Matt Elam and Josh Evans gone, Florida has huge voids to fill at both safety spots. The ultimate battle may not be decided until fall camp, when Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal arrive, but two guys will get a huge leg up this spring. The leading candidates are junior Jabari Gorman, redshirt freshman Marcus Maye and redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers. Gorman, who has 10 career tackles in 25 games, is the most experienced of the trio. Enough said.
The winners are: Gorman and Maye, for now. Gorman, who had an interception against South Carolina, is ready to upgrade from special teams work. Maye, a four-star recruit from Melbourne in 2012, is talented.
BURNING QUESTIONS: Two questions that need to be answered this spring
1. Who will replace Mike Gilislee as a playmaker: That's the scary thing. Florida's offense was bad last year, and the one consistent playmaker, Gilislee, is gone. Matt Jones will get first crack at replacing him, but Gilislee (1,104 yards) came up big in important moments and got stronger as the game went along. Jones might have rushed for 259 yards on 43 carries (5.3 average), but most of that yardage came at the end of games when the opposing defense was already worn down. To this point, he is untested as a feature back. Maybe Mack Brown will have a good spring after a disappointing fall (102 yards, 25 carries). True freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of Fred Taylor, also will get a shot. If none of them is sharp in the spring, Florida could take a step back before it goes forward.
2. Is Austin Hardin the next Caleb Sturgis: The Gators certainly hope so. Sturgis was terrific the past two years, connecting on 46 of 54 field goals and becoming one of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award last season. Hardin, a redshirt freshman, was rated the No. 11 kicking prospect in the country by Rivals.com in 2012, but he has not experienced the pressure of a college game. He won't this spring, either, but it will be interesting to see how he kicks with plenty of people in the stands for the spring game.