Your focus may be on the Florida Gator Men’s Basketball team this time of year, but that’s not the only thing happening in Gator athletics. Gator football began spring practice last week, and they will have their first full scrimmage this Saturday the 29th. The team you watched put together a miserable 4-8 season is trying to put all of that behind them. That starts by getting back to work during spring ball.
I’ve been to all of the open spring practices so far. Here’s everything you need to know about Florida Football this spring.
The biggest change coming in 2014 is the new spread offensive scheme, which is being implemented by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. The offense will be much more suited to redshirt junior Jeff Driskel’s skillset under center.
2014 is Driskel’s year. Roper’s system is a much better fit for him than Brent Pease’s was. Head coach Will Muschamp even scheduled the start date of spring football around when Driskel would be 100% fully recovered from his broken fibula he suffered against Tennessee last year. This could be his chance to have a true breakout season at quarterback.
His numbers in 2012 although impressive, didn’t reflect how little he threw the ball. That season had a ground and pound offense led by senior tailback Mike Gillislee, who racked up 1,152 yards on the year. The second leading rusher in 2012 was Driskel with 408 yards.
Roper in a press conference on Thursday said he’s impressed with what he’s seen from Driskel so far.
“He’s talented, folks. I mean we’re sitting here talking about a guy that’s really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It’s not his first rodeo. ” Roper said.
A lot of hype has surrounded early enrollee quarterback Will Grier from the moment he stepped on campus in January. Some fans have even speculated that Grier may beat out Driskel for the starting spot.
Make no mistake, Grier’s high school numbers were very impressive—and he was deserving of the No. 2 ranking among quarterbacks in this year’s recruiting class. But Grier is 6-2 and only 190 pounds. Running a spread offense means he’ll likely need some time in the weight room and a redshirt before getting the opportunity to start. Muschamp stated Tuesday that Driskel has clearly set himself apart from backups Grier and redshirt sophomore Skyler Morhinweg.
“Right now I think those guys will continue to split reps, and Jeff has certainly distanced himself at this point. But those guys have done some nice things at times. Jeff’s been through change before, so I think the more times you go through that stuff you kind of can handle it and move forward, the maturity takes over.” Muschamp said.
If you watched any game from last season, it was clear that Florida was in desperate need of playmakers at wide receiver. Solomon Patton, the leading receiver, has graduated and entered in this year’s NFL Draft. The offense finished the year ranked 116th in passing yards per completion. Driskel’s breakout year can’t happen without receivers to throw to.
Redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar has been the most impressive of the group so far, and has caught some nice balls when matched up with corner no. 1 Vernon Hargreaves III. Valdez Showers, Ahmad Fulwood and Latroy Pittman have been consistent too. Sophomore Chris Thompson has held his own and made plays catching the ball in space. Senior Andre Debose was cleared for non-contact on Thursday. Roper addressed what he likes from the group so far.
“Obviously we play a lot of three-wide-receiver sets, so that’s fun to watch. But I think we’ve got some talent there, some experience there, some speed there, and it just has to keep growing. We’ve got guys at just about every position that have played a lot of football here, been in a lot of tough battles on the field.” Roper said.
The tight ends are being utilized a lot more in Roper’s system. Seniors Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook and early enrollee DeAndre Goolsby are getting a lot of reps. The TE position has been virtually nonexistent at Florida for the past few seasons—Westbrook and Burton combined for just four catches…all season last year. Production at tight end means more options for Driskel this fall.
The running backs this spring include sophomore Kelvin Taylor, redshirt senior Mack Brown and junior Mark Herndon. Junior Matt Jones is out for spring still recovering from his torn meniscus he had last season. Roper says the group is adapting well to the new offense.
“The footwork takes time. What we call the mesh or the exchange between the quarterbacks and the running backs takes time and working out all the little fundamentals. In most exchanges of offense, you see the quarterback looking at the pocket of the running back and putting the ball on his belly. But in this run game, there’s a lot.” Roper said.
The first team offensive line is coming together under new offensive line coach Mike Summers. Redshirt senior Max Garcia is repping at center, senior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, Trip Thurman at left guard, Tyler Moore at right guard and Chaz Green at right tackle. Roper says there are a few guys that are stepping into leadership roles this season.
“I think Chaz is a guy that, he’s every day. He’s really impressive to me, but the whole group, that first five, they’re working. I think you’ve got guys with experience in Chaz and Max and Hump, to a degree that they are taking to what coach Summers is asking them to do, effort, intensity and physical play and all that. It’s fun to watch.” Roper said.
On the defensive side of things, the Gators are looking to fill big voids in the secondary, specifically at cornerback and safety. The corner spot opposite sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III is open, and the two safety spots aren’t set in stone yet.
Competing for the open corner spot is junior Brian Poole and early enrollees Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson. Poole has the upper hand simply due to experience, but Tabor and Dawson are responding to coaches in practice well. Muschamp talked about how both Tabor and Dawson’s coach-ability makes them better players.
“Now, the great thing about both of them is they’re very coachable. They’re listeners and they listen extremely well. They take it from the meeting room to the fields extremely well. They adjust very well on the run, which we have to a lot on our defense and what we’re trying to do. But I’ve been very pleased with both players.” Muschamp said.
At safety, there are a few key guys repping at the position. Senior Jabari Gorman, Keanu Neal, Marcus Maye and Marcell Harris could all compete for a starting role. Maye saw action at the position early last season, but inconsistencies caused him to be replaced by Jaylen Watkins. Harris redshirted last year due to a knee injury from high school. If Neal can stay healthy, he could surprise some people this season.
It was announced Friday that redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins would be moving from receiver to safety, having played defensive back in high school.
Muschamp addressed Gorman’s senior leadership role this spring. He had seven pass breakups and an interception last season.
“Jabari’s very smart; he’s a guy that gets it. He understands and learns well. He’s seen the game; it’s slowed down tremendously for him over the years. He’s played a lot of football for us, played well for us last year.” Muschamp said.
Vernon Hargreaves has been his usual one of the best cornerbacks in the country self this spring. He’s a true lockdown corner, and has added more of a leadership aspect to his game. Muschamp highlighted this as something he needs to do a lot of this season.
“He’s got great respect in the locker room because of his playmaking ability, but also the way he is as a person, the way he leads his life off the field. He’s a great example of what’s good about college football, and god has blessed him with a lot of ability, but he has certainly taken advantage of his blessings.” Muschamp said.
Along the defensive line, there are several guys that can play both inside and outside. Redshirt sophomore Bryan Cox Jr. looks better at defensive end for now, while junior Jonathan Bullard can play at tackle and end. Redshirt senior Leon Orr will be back this fall, likely at defensive tackle.
The tackle spot hasn’t been consistent ever since it lost Dominique Easley to a torn ACL last season. Redshirt freshman Jay-Nard Bostwick is more of an inside guy and sophomore Joey Ivie can play end and tackle. Junior Dante Fowler Jr. leads the pass rush at the BUCK position—a hybrid linebacker/defensive end.
Muschamp addressed how critical having a pass rush is for a defense. While Florida has had elite defenses during all three of his seasons, there hasn’t been a truly consistent pass rusher. Fowler could be that guy.
“It’s the best pass defense in America if you can rush the passer. Well, I think we have a special rusher in Dante. There’s no doubt about that. So you build off that. You find different ways to create some situations for him.” Muschamp said.
The surefire way to move on from a 4-8 season? Simple: get back to work on the football field. And that’s exactly what Florida Football is doing this spring.
Morgan Moriarty is a third year Telecommunications major at the University of Florida. She has been an OTB contributor since 2012. She covers college football and recruiting for Florida Sports Talk Radio/NBC Sports. She is the lead recruiting reporter for The Alligator. She is also on the University of Florida Women’s Club Water Polo Team. Follow her on Twitter @Morgan_Moriarty