It’s less than two weeks from the start of the 2013 football season for the Florida Gators who come in at #10 in the AP preseason poll. Preseason camp broke last weekend and now begins the arduous task for the coaching staff of deciding who will be the guys they go into battle with. Not only starting jobs, but backups, the entire depth chart including special teams.
The Gators lost a lot of experience after last season to graduation and a few talented juniors who made an early start on their NFL careers, notably safety Matt Elam who went to the Baltimore Ravens with the 32nd pick of the first round of last season’s draft as the replacement for long time all pro Ed Reed, and defensive tackle Shariff Floyd who went to the Minnesota Vikings with the 23rd pick of the first round. The most notable losses to graduation were all time Gator leading placekicker Caleb Sturgis who replaces Dan Carpenter in Miami and Jon Bostic the heir apparent to long time Chicago Bear linebacker Brian Urlacher.
In all the Gators lost both starting safeties, both starting inside linebackers, both starting defensive ends, and Driskell’s main target tight end Jordan Reed. However, while they lost a ton of experience they seemingly gained a lot of depth with a number of true freshman who gained valuable experience last season returning, the return of injured Buck linebacker Ronald Powell from injury, and the addition of key true and redshirt freshman ready to step in as well as a couple of offensive linemen transfers in Tyler Moore, from Nebraska by way of St. Petersburg College and Max Garcia who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland.
Arguably the two biggest question marks coming into preseason camp were at safety and placekicker. At safety the concern was so great that they had moved two year starting corner Jaylen Watkins to safety during spring practice. After preseason camp however, it looks as though Watkins will likely stay at corner. The reason is the emergence of former corner Cody Riggs, redshirt freshman Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman, and true freshman Keanu Neal. Riggs is a little smallish but has the speed and hips to take over for Josh Evans at free safety or play the nickel spot. The coaching staff has raved all summer about the emergence of Maye who has always shown the talent but simply needed to learn the defense and Neal who is a hard-hitting headhunter and poised to fill the shoes of Matt Elam admirably. The four man rotation plus Jaylen Watkins gives them amazing depth for a position that was a question mark going into spring practice.
The kicker position is another story entirely. As big of a pair of shoes the safeties must fill after the departure of first round draft pick Matt Elam, the kicker position might even be bigger shoes after losing all-world kicker Caleb Sturgis who left as the all time leading placekicker and who also set a record for most field goals in excess of 50 yards with 8. The battle throughout spring and preseason camp has been between former walk-on Brad Phillips and redshirt freshman Austen Harden, the nation’s number one ranked placekicker coming out of high school two seasons ago. Both guys have kicked well thus far but lack the consistency that the staff had come to expect from Sturgis. Of the two, Harden appears to have the stronger leg, while Phillips appears to be more consistently accurate. Don’t be surprised if we see both kickers used situationally throughout the season as the staff looks for some measure of consistency out of the position.
Overall, there were more questions than answers coming into summer camp and now it’s time for the staff to put the pieces together of the 2013 version of the Florida Gators. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at a few more positions as we seek to establish a depth chart before the season opener against Toledo. Stay tuned for Swamp Music for the latest in Gator news, analysis, and opinion.