For Florida Gators fans and alumni, the long wait between national signing day and spring practice comes to an end on Monday. With a whole new coaching staff but many of the same players from last season’s 7-6 squad, there are a host of unknowns coming into spring practice.
Of course, the question on everyone’s mind, who will be the starting quarterback, most likely will not be answered this spring. Heck it may not even be settled by the start of next season. So forget about that.
All three quarterbacks, Treon Harris who took over for the failing Jeff Driskel late in the season as a true freshman, Will Grier who redshirted his freshman season after being named Parade Magazine’s national player of the year as a high school senior, and third year scrub Skyler Morninweg will all likely see fairly equal reps through spring practice as offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and head coach Jim McElwain use these 15 practices to evaluate what type of talent they have at the position.
So in the absence of deciding a victor in the quarterback competition, let’s take a look at three important things to look for as the Florida Gators begin spring practice.
1) Who will step up at tight end and how will the new staff utilize the position.
I know everyone’s yakking about the shortage of offensive lineman, there will be only 7 healthy scholarship lineman heading into spring practice, but like the qb competition, nothing will be decided in spring at that spot.
This is where the tight end position could be important. For one, coach Mac and coach Nuss both have a history of utilizing the tight end not only in the passing game but also as extra blockers. They often utilize two tight ends to get extra big bodies in the running game as well work the seams in play action.
Coach Mac alluded somewhat to the importance of the position in last week’s pre-spring practice media conference.
“We’ve got a good group of tight ends,” McElwain said. “I’m talking about from a numbers standpoint, that are going to allow us to kind of move in the direction we want to offensively with those guys kind of handling a lot of load.”
One player likely to compete for the starting TE spot is graduate transfer Jake McGee. The former Virginia tight end sat out last season at Florida after being sidelined by a broken leg injury in the first game and as a result was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
However, while he’s expected to become a starter in Doug Nussmeier’s offense, it won’t happen during spring practice as he is still rehabbing his injury.
“Jake (McGee) will be in a lot of drills, [but] he will not be in any live action,” McElwain said. “He just won’t be in any scrimmage or live drills.”
Behind him, though, is a hodge podge of young, largely unproductive players. True sophomore DeAndre Goolsby (6-4 236) is the only returning player besides McGee who has taken any snaps for the Gators. However, while appearing in seven games as a true freshman, he didn’t record any stats.
Redshirt freshmen C’yontai Lewis (6-4 229) and Moral Stephens (6-3 245) along with true freshman early enrollee Daniel Imatorbhebhe (6-3 225) will all receive plenty of snaps in spring practice and get ample opportunity to impress the staff.
More importantly, perhaps, fans will get a look at how the staff intends to incorporate a position that has been the Gators least productive over the last two seasons into their new offense.
“It is up to us (Gators coaching staff) to strengthen that position,” McElwain said. “We’ve got a great coach (Greg Nord) there that has coached it for a long, long time and part of that reason is I knew what we needed to do at that spot.”
“So it will be interesting moving forward, but we have numbers at that spot,” McElwain added. “That’s one of the spots from pure numbers [which] is actually pretty good.”
2) Who will step up at linebacker?
While the shortage in numbers along the offensive line have been well publicized, the Gators aren’t very deep at linebacker either as they have signed only one player at the position over the last two recruiting cycles.
Compounding the shortage for spring practice, starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison is out rehabbing an injury. What that means is the four linebackers signed in the highly rated 2013 class need to step up big time this spring.
Jarred Davis showed flashes of being a top talent as a true freshman but appeared to take a step backwards last season. Like Morrison, however, Davis is still nursing an injury and it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to go in spring practice.
“They’re (Davis and DE Bryan Cox) injured,” McElwain dead panned when asked about Davis’ status.
As far as availability this spring he responded, “that’s something [for] trainers [to handle] and day-to-day you’ll get the injury report.”
He added, “they’re hurt so there’s a pretty good chance they won’t practice much, but we’ve got to get them healthy.”
Two highly rated guys who’ve done little to this point for different reasons are Daniel McMillan and Matt Rolin.
McMillan was the top guy on the previous staff’s board in the 2013 cycle but head scratchingly hasn’t been able to crack the lineup since arriving on campus. The Gators will need him to step up big time this upcoming season and spring practice is a good place to start.
Rolin has been the victim of injuries. He came to Florida nursing a knee injury which he reinjured before ever starting a down. It may be now or never time for him to get on the field with the linebacker shortage the Gators are facing.
No one, however, may be more important to step up for the Gators than former five star recruit Alex Anzalone (6-3 224). He’s gotten some valuable reps on defense and on special teams but to date he hasn’t been able to produce at the level expected of such a highly rated recruit.
He must become productive if the Gators have a shot to return to past glory defensively as linebacker is certainly the weak link for them. How well he picks up a new scheme and new coaching during spring practice may well determine how successful this unit can become next fall.
3) How will a retooled offense look and who will step up as featured players?
Considering how anemic Florida’s offense has been since the end of the 2009 season, the focus of fans and media will certainly be on the offense and what kind of identity they’ll seek to establish under McElwain and Nussmeier.
Of course, fans shouldn’t be too excited as the shortage of lineman will make it difficult for the staff to fully implement a new system.
In fact, it’s likely the staff will focus more on getting to know each player and their specific abilities and working on fundamentals and player development rather than system installation.
For an offense that has been highly offensive to Gator fans the last few seasons, work on fundamentals is likely of utmost importance right now.
“You want me to tell you what I’m really nervous about?” McElwain said. “I have nightmares about the inability to get out of a huddle. Because some of these guys have never huddled.”
“Taking a snap from center… Is a novel concept,” he added. “[pass] Routes on air, I just hope we complete one. That’s what I’m excited about that first day of practice.”
Despite this, fans should be able to gain a little insight to how the offense may look in the fall.
“The key is making sure we get as much work done as we can with as many people as we can,” Mcelwain said. “To kind of establish who we are, what we’re all about, and which direction we’re going to head with this football team as we move in from spring ball into summer session.”
With a lot of young talent at the skill positions, fans will also be looking to see which players might be featured in the new offense as well.
One player in particular to watch out for is Brandon Powell. The speedy, versatile true sophomore split duties last season as both a running back and receiver. However, McElwain made it clear that they will utilize him primarily as a receiver.
“Moving forward probably [the] biggest [issue] is to kind of figure out exactly where Brandon Powell’s going to kind of fit [in the new offense] from a wide receiver/running back [standpoint],” according to McElwain. “Where he kind of played both a little bit [last season]. Primarily we’re going to put him at wideout and give us an opportunity there. You kind of do a guy a disservice when you try to do both.”
A couple others to watch will be wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. While Robinson has made some significant plays in his time at Florida, Fulwood has been largely overlooked. He’s a big target at 6-4 and both McElwain and Nussmeier have shown a propensity for utilizing bigger, speedy receivers in the downfield passing game. It will be fun to watch how they’re able to utilize these guys.
Football is back in Gainesvile if only for a fortnight, but the excitement levels among fans and alumni are through the roof.
Stay tuned to Swamp Music for the latest updates as we roll through the first spring practice under Coach Mac and company.