It’s here, it’s finally here! Well, sort of.
The Florida Gators football team will awake from their offseason slumber and officially kick off the 2013 Football season when they report on Thursday for the start of fall camp. The players will spend a good part of their first day reporting with the media on Thursday and kickoff practice bright and early at 6 a.m. with the coaching staff on Friday.
Coming off of an 11-2 finish in 2012, there is reason to be excited in Gainesville as the Gators look to build on their performance from a year ago and take the next step – a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game – this season.
With the start of fall camp right around the corner, Gator Country will preview the top position battles and project who will come out on top of the depth chart.
We knew that this would be a heated and important battle the day that news of Jacoby Brissett’s transfer to NC State broke. However, Jeff Driskel’s recent appendectomy thrusts this competition into the forefront and gives it some added urgency.
Behind Driskel, are three players who have combined to throw zero passes at the collegiate level. Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg and Max Staver will all battle for reps and compete over the next 31 days to win the job of Driskel’s understudy. Given Driskel’s injury history during his time in Gainesville, it’s reasonable to assume that the understudy will be called into action during meaningful minutes this season.
Murphy enters fall camp as the leader to win the job, as he is the most experienced player behind Jeff Driskel. Max Staver has been working hard and since arriving a few weeks ago, has garnered attention and praise from people close to the team.
Ultimately, it will be very hard for either Staver or Mornhinweg to overtake Murphy this fall camp and I would expect Murphy to win the backup role initially. I wouldn’t count out Staver though. He has great size for the position and a cannon for an arm. He’ll need to become best friends with his playbook and know it like the back of his hand but he is a dark horse candidate to keep a close eye on this fall.
Backup Running Back
Ok, so two battles in and we haven’t even talked about a starter. Trust me, we’ll get there.
Similar to quarterback, we have an unquestioned starter in Matt Jones but the depth chart behind him is a bit murky. As of now, the depth chart reads Jones, Mack Brown, Kelvin Taylor, Mark Herndon, and Adam Lane.
I would expect Lane to earn a redshirt this season but he could surprise me this fall. From what I’ve heard, things may have clicked for Brown this season. He has struggled to pick up the playbook completely since he has been on campus and needs to improve as a blocker. That is also the knock on Kelvin Taylor.
In high school, Taylor wasn’t asked to block too much. He played at a small school that simply handed Kelvin the ball and went as far as Taylor’s legs would take them. Moving into a new system at Florida, Taylor needs to improve as a blocker as well.
Mark Herndon is the dark horse here. He came out of nowhere this past spring and was very impressive as a ball carrier. Herndon will push both Brown and Taylor, but I don’t expect that he will surpass either on the depth chart.
So it boils down to a battle between Brown and Taylor. Expect to see the depth chart hold a big, fat “or” between those two names, much like it did for most of last season before Jones overtook Brown on the depth chart. I expect to see a very similar situation with Brown and Taylor, as we saw with Brown and Jones in 2012. Will Kelvin be able to jump over Brown like Jones did?
No. 2 Wide Receiver
Everything that we have heard, both publicly and behind the scenes, would suggest that Quinton Dunbar has separated himself as the go-to, No. 1 guy at receiver. That leaves us with a battle for the other starting spot across the field from Dunbar.
The frontrunners here are Demarcus Robinson and Latroy Pittman. Pittman made solid contributions as a freshman, but mainly as a blocker on the outside. Pittman has good hands and is an extremely physical receiver who will compete this fall to be the man opposite of Dunbar.
The coaches and players rave about what Demarcus Robinson has done since he arrived on campus and he appears to be the biggest playmaker the Gators have had since, dare I say, Percy Harvin. I’m not pulling an Urban and anointing Robinson the “Next Percy Harvin” – they are very different players – but Robinson gives Florida a serious vertical threat in the passing game and a very dangerous player with the ball in his hands. He’s also 6’2” and can leap with the best of them, which should give Driskel confidence to just throw the ball up and let Robinson go get it.
Other players who will get a look include Marquis Hawkins, Ahmad Fulwood, Alvin Bailey, Solomon Patton and Andre Debose.
Expect Robinson to come out ahead in the battle and take the other starting spot but, Pittman, Hawkins, Patton and Debose can also contribute this season. Keep an eye on Hawkins, he’s our sleeper pick to surprise people this season.
Florida has four tight ends that are competing for the starting role here. Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook received plenty of playing time last season but were mainly used as blocking options while Jordan Reed played the role of pass-catcher.
Burton enters the spring as the starter on the depth chart and the most experienced player at the position. Burton was an underrated blocker last season but left a lot to be desired as a route-runner and a pass catcher. He worked hard on his hands and route running in the offseason and made noticeable improvements during spring camp. I’ll be interested to see how his progression has continued when fall camp gets underway.
The next in line is Colin Thompson. Thompson suffered a foot injury that sidelined him last season, but he is making strides to return to the form that garnered him a place on the Under Armour All-American team. Thompson is a physical, willing blocker, who enjoys taking on the likes of Dominique Easley, Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard in practice. He is the most well-rounded tight end on the roster and sources close to the team have told me that the staff is very excited about the progress Thompson has made this offseason.
Kent Taylor should be used as a redzone threat and could develop into a player who can stretch the field up the seam. He has a lot of work to do as a blocker, which should keep him from taking over the starting spot.
This appears to be a two-man race heading into fall camp. Chaz Green, the incumbent starter, and Nebraska transfer Tyler Moore will battle to be the man next to Jon Halapio.
Green has a lot of experience having started 18 games in orange and blue. Green struggled to stay healthy last season and his performance suffered because of it.
Tyler Moore became the first freshman to start the opening game of the season for Nebraska in school history two years ago and played his way on to ESPN’s All-Big Ten Freshman team. He spent last season at St. Petersburg community college, where he wasn’t playing football, and spent a good portion of the spring knocking off the rust.
The determining factor here will be Green. Will he return to the form he showed as a freshman and bounce back from a disappointing season in 2012? I think he does and holds on to his role as the starting right tackle when fall camp breaks and the season kicks off.
Leon Orr, Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings make up the top of the depth chart here and have big shoes to fill in trying to replace Omar Hunter.
Orr was listed as the starter heading into fall camp but gave way to Jacobs by the end of spring. With Dominique Easley expected to play a lot of tackle this season, Cummings was also moved over to nose tackle to compete for the starting job.
Orr had the size that you want in a nose tackle but has struggled to be consistent enough in practice to hold on to the starting spot.
Cummings and Jacobs will provide very stiff competition here, but I think Orr will re-take the job and hold on to it. There should be a very fluid rotation at this position throughout a game and the starter may or may not matter much, as players get rotated in and out depending on the situation.
Coming out of fall camp, Jaylen Watkins was moved from cornerback – where he has played for three seasons – to safety in an attempt to replace Josh Evans and Matt Elam. Does this mean that you can pencil in Watkins as a starter? In the immortal words of Lee Corso, “not so fast, my friend.”
The name that coaches and people close to the team keep repeating is Marcus Maye. Maye is a super athletic safety with great closing speed that can lay the wood. At this moment, I think it’s safe to pencil in Maye as one of the two starting safeties.
After Maye, the depth chart is chalk full of talented players who have yet to prove what they can do at safety. Watkins, Cody Riggs, Valdez Showers, Jabari Gorman, Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal all have an opportunity to come out of camp as the starter.
The front-runners should be Watkins, Gorman and Riggs with Harris and Neal as dark horse candidates. I’ve heard good things about both Harris and Neal physically, but the mental part of the game is very hard to grasp, especially in Muschamp’s – a former safety himself – defense.
This is a two-man race between Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips.
Phillips, the senior, has spent most of his career in Gainesville handling kickoffs for the Gators. His competition is a redshirt freshman who most people expected to be replacement for Caleb Sturgis.
Both Phillips and Hardin struggled with consistency and accuracy this past spring, and a clear leader was not established at the close of camp.
I expect Hardin to come out of fall camp as the starter here. He has a bigger leg and is the future at the position.