GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They both look the part. Sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel finally get to play the part on Saturday in the Orange and Blue Debut spring game.
In Monday’s scrimmage inside The Swamp, both Brissett and Driskel flashed signs that they are truly grown-up versions of the two young quarterbacks who struggled to move the Gators’ offense last season when starter John Brantley went down with an injury.
Brissett stood tall in the pocket on one scoring drive, and when the rush pressured him to the outside, he scrambled and then floated a perfect pass down the sideline to running back Omarius Hines. On another play, Driskel threw a strike in the back of the end zone for a touchdown to tight end Clay Burton.
Two plays in an early April scrimmage won’t mean much when the Gators host Bowling Green in the season opener in September, but they showed the progress that Florida head coach Will Muschamp and first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease have discussed repeatedly over the past month during spring camp.
They were the kind of plays Brissett and Driskel didn’t make a season ago as wide-eyed freshmen.
As he worked to wrap up preparation for his second spring game at Florida, Muschamp will have his eyes focused all over Florida Field on Saturday afternoon. For those in the stands watching, much of their attention will be focused on Brissett and Driskel.
The script won’t stray much from what it has been throughout camp in regards to the quarterback battle, which Muschamp reiterated this week is too close to call heading into the summer break.
“We have tried as best we could to split the reps throughout spring and all of our team drills and group drills,’’ Muschamp said. “We will certainly look for the same thing on Saturday as far as giving those guys equal opportunity to prove they are worthy of being the starting quarterback of Florida. Both of them are. I think we can win with both of them. I’ve said that plenty of times.
“First of all, they are both really good leaders. They both positively effect people around them. They have an air and presence about them in a positive way.”
Coming off a 7-6 season capped by a victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, the Gators reunited this spring focused on several goals, topped by a quest to become more physical, develop Brissett and Driskel, implement changes in the offense after Pease’s arrival from Boise State, and to stay healthy.
Based on what the coaches and players have said over the past month, the Gators have made significant progress in those areas.
They finally get to show off their efforts in front of fans on Saturday. Muschamp said avoiding injuries is the No. 1 goal. After that, he is looking for progress.
“I want a good productive scrimmage, that’s why we’re leaving offense vs. defense,’’ Muschamp said. “We’re not going to do a draft this year. We probably could with our numbers a little better than in the past, but I want to go out there and really function well with our football team on offense and defense and execute and be clean in what we’re trying to do.”
With that said, here are 10 points of interest for fans to keep an eye on Saturday:
DID WE MENTION THE QUARTERBACKS?
Regardless of the circumstances the quarterback is usually the center of attention. That is magnified when you have two highly touted and unproven players battling for the position.
As camp came to a close, Pease is confident he has the talent to get the job done – starting with the Brissett-Driskel battle but also including third-stringer Tyler Murphy, considered perhaps the one with the highest football IQ at this point in their young careers.
“Brent is really impressed with him,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m happy for Tyler that he is getting an opportunity to go out and do some things. Tyler has done some nice things given the opportunity, which he hasn’t had much of.”
While they continue to adjust to Pease’s offense and make tweaks from the one Charlie Weis installed last season, stability and growth began to emerge in the final stage of camp.
“They have really made strides in these last three or four practices,’’ Pease said. “They’ve all got something about them that is a little different. Summer is going to be key for them and all through fall camp.”
If the quarterbacks take care of the ball, show good management of the huddle and make some plays downfield, Pease will consider Saturday a success.
Same goes for Muschamp.
“It’s a total big-picture look at the whole situation – managing our team, being productive, getting us in and out of the right runs, protections, taking the ball to the right spot – there’s a whole laundry list of things we’ve got to do well at that position,’’ he said.
CHANGES ON OFFENSE
In a recent meeting with the defense, Muschamp asked if some of the quick shifts and motions installed by Pease cause problems.
“The whole defense echoed yes,’’ he said.
While Pease’s offense is a pro-style system rooted in much of the same philosophies Weis used, the biggest difference is the way the Gators get to plays. If you have seen Boise State play the past few years, you get the picture.
Lots of movement. A wide range of formations. A quick tempo to keep the defense from being able to substitute as effectively.
“It’s hard [to defend], said Muschamp, who climbed the coaching ranks as a defensive coordinator. “What it does is that it vanillas a lot of defenses. It’s great for our football team from the standpoint that presenting issues defensively, we’ve got to be able to adjust and handle. Our players have done a nice job.”
Still, at its core, the goal is the same as a year ago.
“We want to be a physical run team,’’ Pease said. “We’ve got to establish that so that we have an identity. That in turn will set up what we do with players and where we can position them to create some explosive plays.”
FAST AND PHYSICAL PLAY ON DEFENSE
The Gators want to walk off the field Saturday healthy, but they also plan to make their presence known. That means challenging each other physically.
For the defense, an effort similar to the one the Gators used to defeat Ohio State in January comes to mind.
“I’d like to see us show our improvement on tackling and all the effort and emphasis on there is taking place,’’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “And I’d like to see us get our hands on some balls. More than anything, just hardcore, tough fundamental defense.”
The spring game always serves as a final release for the players. With so much emphasis placed in the offseason on new strength coordinator Jeff Dillman’s Olympic-style weightlifting program and with 10 starters back on defense, the Gators sound like a team with renewed confidence.
A chance to show it can’t come soon enough.
“We can’t wait to show like how better we got,’’ defensive end/tackle Sharrif Floyd said.
RUN MIKE, RUN
The loss of running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey opened the door for reserve Mike Gillislee to take over as the featured back. When the Gators struggled in the run game during their four-game losing streak in 2011, fans constantly asked to see more of Gillislee.
They should get their wish on Saturday. Gillislee, Mack Brown and Hines, who moved from tight end, received the bulk of the work at tailback this spring. Muschamp has pegged Gillislee at the top of the depth chart heading into the summer after seeing improvements in many areas, including the classroom and consistency on the field.
“He is doing things right in all phases,’’ Muschamp said. “Mike needs to understand he is going to be the guy and he’s going to be a guy who needs to be able to carry the ball multiple times in big games and stay healthy for us throughout the season.”
A NEW-AND-IMPROVED JAMES WILSON
The offensive line appears to be one of the team’s most improved areas.
“We are much better up front,’’ Muschamp said.
As of now, the starting lineup looks like this: Xavier Nixon at left tackle, James Wilson at left guard, Jon Harrison at center, Jon Halapio at right guard and Matt Patchan at right tackle.
If at the end of last season you struck out on Wilson being a starter, you would not have been alone. However, a sixth year of eligibility and renewed commitment to his health has helped Wilson drop around 15 pounds and made those aching knees that have sidelined him often in his career stop throbbing.
“I really think it has a lot to do with Coach Dillman,’’ Wilson said. “I really feel a lot stronger. I wasn’t really satisfied with my career. I knew I could do a lot better. I didn’t want to go out like that. This is the first spring I’ve ever made it through healthy.
Six players enrolled early and all have received significant reps in spring drills.
Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Jessamen Dunker, receiver LaTroy Pittman, linebacker Antonio Morrison, cornerback Willie Bailey and defensive tackle Damien Jacobs, a transfer from East Mississippi Junior College, all figure into the picture according to Muschamp.
Humphries and Dunker arrived with the kind of physiques and skills that can earn them playing time right away. Pittman has drawn as much praise as any receiver in camp, Jacobs is being counted on to help the defensive line immediately, and Bailey, while not as physically developed as the rest, has shown the kind of toughness and cover ability that Quinn and Muschamp look for at cornerback.
As for Morrison, get used to seeing plenty of him on the field.
“He will play for our football team in the fall,’’ Muschamp said. “He is tough and instinctive. He will stick his hand into the fire. All six of those guys will help our football team in the fall.”
POWELL PUSHES FORWARD
Defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell arrived two years ago with the hype and accolades of one of the nation’s top recruits. He began to deliver the expected production in the second half of last season and hasn’t let up.
Quinn uses Powell in the buck position, a spot created to rush the quarterback and cause chaos. Powell appears to have adjusted to the role perfectly entering his third season.
“Powel is on a mission,’’ Quinn said. “He is playing faster, just like you want an outside rusher to play. I’m encouraged about where he’s headed.”
HELP WANTED: RECEIVERS WHO CAN MAKE BIG PLAYS
Other than quarterback there may be no bigger question than who is going to be the go-to receiver on the outside.
Pittman has impressed early, but he is more of a natural slot receiver. The hope is that either Andre Debose or Quinton Dunbar – or better yet, both – become the type of dangerous downfield receiver that can strike once the running game is established.
“I really want to go out and run the football [on Saturday],’’ Muschamp said. “I look for somebody to step up outside and make some plays for us. I don’t know who that is going to be. I’ve seen some flashes.”
Frankie Hammond Jr., Stephen Alli, Solomon Patton and redshirt freshman Ja’Juan Story are others who can apply for the job.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The spring game is a showcase for everyone to make a case for playing time, but here are three players on each side of the ball coaches will be watching closely:
TE Jordan Reed: He has the physical tools to be an elite tight end and should get plenty of balls thrown his way if he stays healthy.
OL Matt Patchan: Injuries have derailed much of his career, but Patchan is healthy and starting at right tackle. Reserve Chaz Green is right there if needed.
RB Omarius Hines: While Gillislee has improved, Hines has the look of a player out to make his mark after being used sparingly last year at tight end.
DT/DE Sharrif Floyd: He was slowed early in camp by a hamstring injury but has worked his way into better shape and the coaches want to see him at full speed.
LB Mike Taylor: Quinn likes the improvement Taylor has shown in camp. He has good instincts and is developing into a good blitzer.
CB Loucheiz Purifoy: His name has been mentioned a lot and with some injuries plaguing the secondary, Purifoy has an opportunity to shine.
We won’t know until game time, but look for the offense to be creative against a defense that will be missing regular starters DT Dominique Easley (knee), LB Lerentee McCray (shoulder) and CB Marcus Roberson (neck, non-contact through spring). While the defense is usually ahead of the offense during the spring and early fall camp, both sides have had to adjust to some of the changes Pease’s offense brings. And in case you have forgotten, everyone will be watching to see how Brissett and Driskel have progressed from a year ago.