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Wednesday April 4, 2012Orange and Blue Debut Primer: A look at the Gators as spring camp nears end

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The quarterback situation remains fluid. There will be a new running back and the receiving corps has question marks.

The defense is talented and returns 10 starters, but Florida’s coaching staff has spent a chunk of spring practice trying to identify playmakers on the unit. Special teams offer a mixed bag – Gators head coach Will Muschamp seeks improvement on punt returns but he has one of the country’s top placekickers returning in Caleb Sturgis.

The Gators have spent the past month in search of answers heading into the summer break. They will attempt to find more on Saturday during the Orange and Blue Debut spring game at The Swamp.

The last time the Gators played at home they were beaten soundly by Florida State in the regular-season finale. Afterward, Muschamp said his first Florida team was soft, later calling the admission one of the most difficult statements of his career.

In the wake of the FSU loss, Florida turned up the intensity during preparation for the Gator Bowl. The result was an inspired effort in a 24-17 win over Ohio State and a winning season in Muschamp’s first season.

That same mentality carried over to offseason workouts and spring practice. Several players are noticeably bigger physically than when they walked off the field at the end of the FSU loss, a step in the right direction toward the kind of physical and blue-collar team Muschamp strives to build. While questions remain as spring camp concludes, there is one area Muschamp feels better about.

“The physicality of our football team is much better than a year ago. I can assure you of that,’’ he said Monday.

Muschamp’s comfort zone has expanded along with the Gators’ biceps. As a result, this spring has been a more polished experience than a year ago when the Gators made the transition from the Urban Meyer era.

“Any time you've done something for a period of time, you feel more comfortable doing it,” Muschamp said. “I certainly feel that I know the team a little bit better than I did maybe a year ago. I think it just takes time sometimes.”

With the Gators putting the finishing touches on spring camp, here is a position-by-position look at what we’ve learned over the past month:

OFFENSE

Quarterback

Sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are throwing the ball much better than at any point during their roller-coaster freshman seasons. Each has shown flashes of potentially being the starter next season but Muschamp said the battle for No. 1 will continue into fall camp. Brissett and Driskel have benefited from a more hands-on teaching approach from new offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Also in the mix is third-stringer Tyler Murphy, who isn’t as physically gifted as either Brissett or Driskel, but Murphy has looked sharp when given a chance to run the offense this spring.

What we’ve learned: Don’t expect a starting quarterback named until at least midway into fall camp, perhaps later.

Offensive line

This is a unit that has shown steady improvement, in large part to a more physical presence and better chemistry from last season’s rocky experience. Xavier Nixon is currently the projected starter at left tackle, James Wilson at left guard, Jon Harrison at center, and Jon Halapio (guard) and Matt Patchan (tackle) on the right side. Wilson was granted a sixth year of eligibility and looks in better shape than a year ago, as does Nixon, who is listed at 309 pounds. First-year offensive line coach Tim Davis, who replaced Frank Verducci, has worked to build depth among the group by cross-training several players at multiple positions, including reserves Sam Robey and Kyle Koehne. Talented young tackle Chaz Green is currently working at both tackle spots and true freshmen D.J. Humphries and Jessamen Dunker enrolled early to gain valuable experience.

What we’ve learned: The offensive linemen look bigger and tougher (and with more depth than a year ago), traits that should make them better if they stay healthy.

Running back

Speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are gone, opening the door for Mike Gillislee to take over as the starting tailback. Thus far, Muschamp said Gillislee has separated himself as the main threat out of the backfield.  “It’s tremendously different,” Muschamp said. “We’re able to run with a bigger, physical back that can take more hits. There’s no question it’s going to help us.” While Gillislee ends the spring at the top of the depth chart, Matt Jones will have plenty of opportunities when he arrives in the fall. Former tight end Omarius Hines is also getting a good look this spring and is expected to contribute. Hines and Mack Brown continue to battle for playing time behind Gillislee. Meanwhile, sophomore Hunter Joyer is locked in at fullback and the versatile Trey Burton offers multiple options in the running and passing game. Former linebacker Chris Johnson is also getting a look at tailback this spring to see if he can become a factor.

What we’ve learned: The Gators will have more of a downhill, physical rushing attack in the Fall.

Receivers

One of the top performers this spring has been true freshman Latroy Pittman. Depending on your view that could be a good development or reason for concern. Pittman has good hands and the makings of a talented slot receiver. The group returns veterans Frankie Hammond Jr., Andre Debose, Solomon Patton and Quinton Dunbar. Debose was the team’s best deep threat a year ago. The coaching staff is hoping Dunbar is able to produce more downfield to open up other areas. The tight ends appear the strength of the receiving corps. Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard return – Leonard’s status for the fall remains in question due to an off-the-field incident (he has been cleared to return to physical activity but not cleared for football yet) – but he has made his presence felt since returning to practice. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Clay Burton moved from defensive end and has shown an ability to catch the ball.

What we’ve learned: The tight ends will be a large part of Pease’s offense and the talent is in place for the group to be one of the team’s strengths.

DEFENSE

Defensive line

One of Muschamp’s least favorite words is “potential.” He much prefers to see production from that potential. This group appears on the verge of being special if it can remain healthy and continue to show improvement. Buck rush specialist Ronald Powell has garnered positive reviews from coaches for his spring performance and could give the Gators the consistent pass rusher they have lacked. DE/DT Sharrif Floyd is a formidable player when in shape and is still scratching the surface. DT Dominique Easley is recovering from a knee injury but is expected to be ready in the fall, as is LB/DE Lerentee McCray, who is out this spring after shoulder surgery. Junior-college transfer Damien Jacobs is being counted on to contribute immediately and has shown signs of being able to do that this spring. Meanwhile, Leon Orr is another player on the inside the Gators could use to share playing time with Omar Hunter.

What we’ve learned: Powell appears to have turned a corner. If the rest follow his lead, special things could happen up front.

Linebacker

Starters Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and McCray all return. The unit is solid but Muschamp has urged them to get better this spring. Bostic has added some weight and is working to become more of a physical presence in the middle. Jenkins offers a nice blend of speed and size and McCray splits time on the outside and at buck.  With McCray out this spring, underclassmen Darrin Kitchens and Graham Stewart are getting more reps, as is newcomer Antonio Morrison and returnee Mike Taylor. Neiron Ball remains somewhat of a mystery. He has been cleared to return to physical activity but his football future is uncertain due to a congenital vascular condition in his head.

What we’ve learned: A more physical Jon Bostic has developed into the leader of the group. Depth is a concern but could be alleviated if the young reserves step up behind the veterans.

Secondary

The secondary is young but has significant experience and depth, always a nice combo for a unit expected to be one of the team’s strongest parts. Safety Matt Elam is the potential centerpiece of this group, offering a physical style to help defend the run and enough speed to cover the deep middle. Fellow safety Josh Evans progressed late last season and sophomore Pop Saunders saw significant time as a true freshman. Cornerbacks Cody Riggs, Jaylen Watkins, Louchez Purifoy and Marcus Roberson return. Roberson earned a starting job as a true freshman and played well until a neck injury ended his season. He is participating in spring practice but only in non-contact drills.

What we’ve learned: Purifoy and Saunders both could have breakout seasons if they continue to improve after spring.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The kicking game looks in good shape with Sturgis back and sophomore Kyle Christy handling the punting duties. Debose has proven to be an explosive kickoff returner the past two seasons and the Gators continue to be one of the country’s best at blocking kicks, with Patton set to replace Rainey as a perhaps the team’s best player in that role. Muschamp specifically addressed the punt-return game on Monday. He said that’s an area he wants to see improvement in to help in the field-position game.

What we’ve learned: The mix to return punts is deep, including Debose, Purifoy, Saunders, Roberson, T. Burton and Hammond.

 

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