GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They have met the new coaches. They have gone over the new plays and new formations. They have a better understanding of the fresh expectations.
Some of the newness has finally worn off for UF football players.
In five days, they get their first opportunity to show what they’ve learned from first-year Gators coach Will Muschamp and his staff in front of Gator Nation. The annual Orange and Blue Debut, presented by Scotts, kicks off at noon on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Gators, coming off an 8-5 season in the final season of Urban Meyer’s six-year tenure, opened spring camp on March 16 and have held 11 practices thus far. As they hit the home stretch of spring football, here are 10 things we’ve learned since camp opened:
---The format of this year’s spring game will be adjusted to compensate for injuries.
With only seven offensive linemen available at one point last week, Muschamp has decided not to divide into two teams and play a traditional spring game.
“We're going to probably have an offense that scores for the Blue and an offense that scores for the Orange,” Muschamp said. “We need to have a good functional day teaching our schemes. No. 1, we're too thin to divide up. No. 2, I don't want a guy matched up in a bad mismatch issue, and you can't get the ball off in some situations. That certainly can happen, especially as thin as we are.
“It's kind of the operation we're going to have. We met as a staff [Friday] morning and talked about the spring game and the procedure we will go through.’’
---The offensive line has been a major focus considering the loss of four starters: Mike Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Carl Johnson and Mo Hurt.
The revamped line includes two players – guard Jon Halapio and tackle Xavier Nixon – who saw significant playing time last season. However, the unit is pretty raw from there, providing new offensive line coach Frank Verducci plenty of challenges.
“Everything’s different,’’ Halapio said. “I feel like I'm starting over again. I just got into college.”
Redshirt freshman Chaz Green (LT), redshirt sophomore Jonotthan Harrison (C) and redshirt freshman Ian Silberman (LG) are getting extended looks to join Halapio (RG) and Nixon (RT) at the top of the current depth chart. Harrison has moved to center, a position he hasn’t played since his freshman season of high school.
Injuries have also played a key role in shaping the line this spring. Nixon has missed time with an ankle sprain and tackle Nick Alajajian suffered cartilage damage in his knee Wednesday and is facing at least three months of rehab following surgery.
---Kicker Caleb Sturgis is back after missing the final nine games of last season due to a back injury.
Sturgis reported early in camp that his back is close to being back to 100 percent and that he will be ready to go at full-strength when fall camp opens.
Sturgis played in the first four games of last season before being a late scratch for Florida’s game at Alabama. Punter Chas Henry took over field-goal duties – including a game-winning field goal in overtime to defeat Georgia – but the Gators missed Sturgis’ ability to kick field goals and handle kickoffs.
“I haven't done kickoffs or anything like that yet,’’ he said. “But I'm feeling real good. Field goals … I'm 100 percent [ready] on those.”
---Senior running back Chris Rainey has impressed the new coaching staff – on and off the field.
Rainey endured some well-documented off-the-field trouble last season that forced him to miss half the season. When he returned, he provided Florida with an instant spark in the backfield against Georgia and provided the Gators a much-needed offensive weapon late in the season.
Rainey is thankful Meyer allowed him to return to the team and that Muschamp has made him feel welcome.
“New team, new leaders, new system,” Rainey said. “That's the way I look at it.”
Muschamp sees a player who can thrive in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense.
“He's a guy that makes an awful lot of plays,” Muschamp said. “Getting the ball to him deeper in the backfield helps him. He's got great vision and cutback ability, and bounce-ability. You've got to be really gap sound on him in the run game.”
---As we mentioned earlier, injuries have played a key role as usual in spring camp.
Running backs Mack Brown (broken fibula), Mike Gilislee (stress fracture - foot) and Mike Blakely (shoulder surgery) are sidelined, leaving Rainey and multi-purpose Trey Burton as the primary tailbacks this spring. Brown and Blakely are expected to be ready by fall camp and Gilislee is being held at more as a precaution according to Muschamp.
Linebacker Neiron Ball has also missed spring after a blood vessel burst in his head recently, leaving his football future in doubt. Senior cornerback Janoris Jenkins (shoulder) is also out after undergoing offseason surgery.
Other players limited because of injuries this spring include offensive linemen Matt Patchan, James Wilson and David Young; defensive tackles Jaye Howard and Omar Hunter, linebacker Kedric Johnson and defensive back Jaylen Watkins.
---The cornerback spot opposite Jenkins features strong competition for playing time between Cody Riggs, Moses Jenkins and Jeremy Brown, who started much of last season.
Muschamp has been impressed by the battle and warned recently not to discount Riggs (5-foot-8, 166 pounds) just because some people view him too small.
“Everyone gets caught up in size, height and things, and I’ve been labeled as a guy that loves height by people that recruit against us,” Muschamp said last week. “It’s not about how tall you are. It’s about if you make plays or not.
“Sure, we’d love to have a 6-3 corner, but is that realistic? How many of those are out there? I don’t see many of them. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with playmaking ability, and Cody’s been very productive throughout the spring. I’m very pleased with where he is.”
Meanwhile, Moses Jenkins was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing most of last season with a serious elbow injury.
---Perhaps no Gator has more reason to be optimistic about the newness around the program than senior quarterback John Brantley, who struggled in his first season as Florida’s starter in Meyer’s spread-option attack.
Weis has installed a pro-style offense reminiscent of his days in the NFL and at Notre Dame, where both of his starting quarterbacks – Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen – put up huge numbers as Heisman candidates.
“Coach Weis is a genius with the offense, and he's going to do great things here,’’ Brantley said. “This is more my style. This is what I do: just drop back and throw it. In high school we did a lot of underneath stuff and play-action, and that's what we're going to do here.”
Muschamp said Brantley is the leader to start and that he has done a good job of grasping the new offense this spring. Muschamp is also taking long looks at freshmen Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy as he explores the options.
Muschamp added that incoming freshman Jacoby Brissett will be looked at closely once he arrives in Muschamp’s philosophy that the player who gives the Gators the best chance to win will play regardless of experience or year. Brissett has been studying Florida’s offense as he completes his senior year of high school at Palm Beach Dwyer so he won’t be behind once fall camp starts.
---The young players along the defensive line are getting ample opportunity to impress defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and defensive assistant Bryant Young, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer who starred at defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers.
With Hunter and Howard slowed by injuries, young Gators such as Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd on the inside and Ronald Powell and Lynden Trail on the outside are being watched closely by the staff.
Muschamp said Easley and Floyd have been impressive as they get significant reps. Both played sparingly last season, though Floyd did start making more of an impact late in the season.
---Former fullback/tight end Gerald Christian has moved to linebacker and has quickly moved up the depth chart according to Muschamp.
“He’s a young man that’s had a phenomenal offseason and had a great work ethic,” Muschamp said.
Christian has worked much of this spring with the first-team linebackers, teaming with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins in a unit lost Brandon Hicks and A.J. Jones from last season’s starting lineup.
---Finally, senior running back Jeff Demps is having another outstanding season for the UF men’s track team, recently winning an NCAA Indoor title in the 60 meters. While he is not participating in spring drills, Muschamp said Demps has already told him that he plans to return for his senior season in football.
“Mentally, he has an idea of what we’re going to ask him to do in the fall,” Muschamp said. “He’ll be involved in that, and when we start camp in August, he’ll be competing for the starting job.”
To stay involved in football, Demps has attended team meetings and other activities as usual.