When the coaching staff announced that four open practices would be open to the public and media this fall, we media hacks did what we do best, we over analyzed.
Why did the coaching staff choose to open practices toward the end of camp? With open practice coming just two weeks before kickoff of the 2013 season, would we see instillation and game planning for the Rockets or would we get a watered down form of practice?
So even though the scheduled four open practices turned into just three, the practices were more revealing than we in the media could have hoped for. With so many positions battles raging on during camp, opening the doors and allowing us to see how reps were being divided up gave us a better understanding of just who was really leading in in the battle to start at multiple positions.
With the final open practice for the media in the books, Richard and I sat down to talk about what we saw and come up with a list of players that impressed us the most over the past week.
Nick de la Torre: All right Richard; let’s start on the offensive side of the ball. Give me one player who stood out to you and why.
Richard Johnson: Nick the person we’ve all been hearing about is Demarcus Robinson and when we finally got to see it with our own eyes for the first time since April, we saw the most physically gifted player in Florida’s receiving corps at age 18. He dazzled with a one handed catch Thursday and exhibited numerous times that he has superb physicality as a receiver. Gator fans haven’t seen someone like Robinson around these parts in quite a while.
ND: Absolutely. After he got such high reviews, I was worried that he might not be able to live up to the hype but he was as good as advertised. This kid is a big time playmaker and he’s going to become a household name sooner rather than later.
RJ: Part of the reason Robinson stands out so much is because it’s been so long since Florida has had a guy that they could just tell to go up and get the ball. A big, physical, dependable target, Robinson has the body and the skill set to be that guy on a position group in such desperate need of production
ND: Robinson appears to be capable of giving the Gators a homerun threat at receiver, that’s for sure.
ND: Another guy that stood out to me – and you being an offensive lineman will like this one – is D.J. Humphries. A lot has been made of him being “undersized” but he has put on good weight and has had some battles with Dante Fowler, Jon Bullard and Dominique Easley. Those are three tremendous talents and the fact that Humphries is holding his own against them is a good sign for Florida and Jeff Driskel’s blind side.
RJ: Nicholas, offensive line is God’s position my friend. The TRUE “skill” position, and Humphries is probably the most skilled lineman, technically speaking, that Florida has. At the size he played at last season — around 265 — he told me at Florida Media Days he had to work around it by developing very good technique. I’m on record as having worries about his size. Those qualms have been put to rest. Now he’s got the technique and has gained around 20 pounds in the offseason. The sky is the limit for Humphries as he continues to put on weight. The players he faces in practice, especially Ronald Powell and Dante Fowler, are among the most skilled edge rushers in the SEC and he’s handled them as well as I could have expected.
ND: Richard, Gator fans got very excited about Xavier Nixon after his successful freshman campaign but Nixon never returned to that form that garnered him Freshmen All-SEC honors. Do you think Humphries could suffer the same fate?
RJ: I think Humphries will be fine, primarily because, like I said, he’s had to compensate for a lack of size with good technique, if you’ve got solid technique you’re gonna be fine.
RJ: Nick what did you see from the guy whose blindside Humphries will be responsible for at QB?
ND: I see some major improvement from Jeff Driskel and that’s something that Florida has to have this season. Listen, Driskel isn’t going to be a guy who throws for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. That’s not what he is going to be asked to do in this offense. However, what he is being asked to do – and taking on at full speed – is becoming a leader. Driskel has become more vocal on the field and is really commanding the offense. His body language is positive and you can tell that the team is behind him 100%. He’s going to make mistakes but what is important is that he cuts down on how many mistakes he makes and he doesn’t repeat them. I think we’re seeing Jeff make big strides in that regard.
RJ: I do think Driskel has improved from what we’ve seen, and many of the issues in the passing game also fell on poor receivers and a shoddy pass blocking offensive line at times. My big thing about Driskel is the bullets aren’t really flying at him right now in practice. When a defensive lineman blows through the line, the lineman will pump the brakes because Driskel is in a red jersey. We all have the fight or flight mechanism in our brain. I want to see if Driskel develops a better pocket presence in year two, as well as better judgment of when to throw it away. It’s important for Driskel to keep a second and ten reasonable and not let it become a drive killing third and sixteen thanks to a sack that could have been avoidable by throwing the ball into the second row of the stadium.
ND: That was probably his biggest issue in 2012. Driskel never seemed to be completely comfortable in the pocket and you’re 1000% right, Florida’s defense is firing blanks at Driskel right now. How will he react when Jadeveon Clowney beats his man and comes flying into the backfield? There are still some questions that need to be answered but can’t until the red jersey comes off. That being said, I think we have seen some solid progression from Driskel this offseason.
ND: Driskel lost his go-to guy in Jordan Reed, who stood out (other than Demarcus Robinson) as a guy that Driskel started to develop a good rapport with?
RJ: The guy who needed to step up and get it done in the receiving corps, Quinton Dunbar. He’s an older guy who can take the younger ones under his wing and is always an offseason superstar that hasn’t been able to translate that into regular season success. He’ll need to this season, and I think the depth of young hungry talent that Florida signed at receiver may push him to be better this fall rather than rest on his laurels.
ND: Dunbar has been very impressive. I still am cautious to jump on the bandwagon because, like you said, he is a player who seems to be the hot name every offseason yet can’t translate the hype to success on Saturday’s in the fall. Still, I think his attitude has changed and he has really embraced that leadership role.
ND: Before we jump over to the defensive side of the ball, are there any more notes you want to add on offense?
RJ: Today Will Muschamp told us the depth chart at running back would include walk-on Mark Herndon backing up Mack brown, surprising many of us. Walk-ons are always feel good stories; it’ll be nice to see him earn his way on the field some time this season.
ND: He’s been one of, if not the most impressive back in Matt Jones’ absence.
RJ: Moving on over to the defensive side of the ball. Who has jumped out to you Nick?
ND: The first guy that jumped out to me was Ronald Powell. We had a ton of questions about Powell, since we hadn’t seen him in action in over a year. Powell worked so hard last year to get in shape and it was all taken away from him after he tore his ACL. He’s back, he’s healthy and he’s the hungriest player out on the field. I expect a big year from Powell.
RJ: RoPo is back and hasn’t lost a step. He’ll be moving over from BUCK to Sam, so he’ll have more of a role in pass coverage. That being said, he’ll still be a guy that can absolutely get after the quarterback when needed.
ND: We know about his prowess for harassing passers but I have been very impressed with what he has shown in coverage.
RJ: Sometime this fall, an unsuspecting running back will catch a pass coming out of the backfield in the flats. He’ll whip his head around at the last moment and see No. 7 in his peripheral. Then he’ll see the sky as Powell flattens him devastatingly onto his back.
ND: Who else has impressed you on what Travaris Robinson called in spring practice, “the dark side?”
RJ: One half of the tandem soon to be known far and wide as the Bash Bros., Dante Fowler Jr. has a very effective speed rush for a guy his size. He whooped Chaz Green a few times with it Thursday night especially. Big Trenton Brown was also no match for it, once Fowler turns his shoulders he is almost unblockable.
ND: Something that has impressed me is his awareness. We saw him bat a pass down today and that’s something that you love to see defensive linemen do. Of course every lineman wants to pick up sacks, but the ability to read a quarterback while engaging with an offensive lineman is special. Being able to jump or get your arms in the passing lane is an underrated skill in my opinion.
RJ: Right, Sharrif Floyd was pretty good at that; he parlayed that skill into a pretty sweet gig on Sundays.
RJ: The D-line is probably the most complete unit on this defense, who else caught your eye up front?
ND: This D-line caught our attention this offseason and I’m sure it will catch the attention of offensive coordinators and offensive line coaches throughout the season. I’m going to cheat and give you two… Jon Bullard and Dominique Easley. Easley is a guy that we sometimes overlook. Not because he’s playing poorly, just the opposite in fact. We’ve come to expect such a high level of play from #2 that when he throws offensive linemen around like children, it feels like it’s just all in a days work for him. Especially when he’s dropping dance moves up until the point where he is mauling 300-pound lineman, he just makes it look easy. Bullard came on last season and showed a lot of potential. He’s turned that potential into production this offseason and I think the sky is the limit for him this fall.
RJ: Bullard and Fowler’s camaraderie is great going forward for Florida. The Bash Bros. should wreak some serious havoc. While the D-line might be the best position group on a whole in Florida’s defense, what about UF’s most loaded individual position, cornerback?
ND: Loucheiz Purifoy had two decent practices on Thursday and Saturday and then he came out on Monday and showed why he has been talked about so much this offseason. Monday he had two interceptions and two blocked punts on top of lockdown coverage all day long. Purifoy was the best cornerback on the field today and that’s saying a lot with all the talent Florida has in the secondary.
RJ: Nick you mentioned Florida’s secondary and that’s a place with a lot of uncertainty surrounding it. The question of who will start at safety was finally answered by Muschamp Monday morning when he told us Marcus Maye will get the nod next to Cody Riggs, what’d you see from him?
ND: We compared Maye to Matt Elam. Maybe not Elam 2.0 but I think we settled on version 1.5. Maye is athletic; physical, has great ball skills and is communicating very well on the back end. That communication is key. That is something that the staff asks safeties to do a lot of. Florida’s safeties have to know what their responsibilities are on each play but they also need to know what the other 10 players on the field are doing on every single play. Riggs is one of the most veteran defensive backs and Maye gives the Gators a great communicator at the position.
RJ: Elam is hard to replace. He’s a very unique talent that was an instinctive playmaker. If he’s half of what Elam was, Florida’s in pretty good shape on the backline.
ND: I think Maye isn’t the same kind of hitter as Elam but he is a sure tackler and plays well in space. It’s a combination that Florida needs at safety and I think Maye has a promising career ahead of him.
ND: Also, he wasn’t one of the most impressive players we saw this week, but it is pretty evident that Austin Hardin is leading and widening the gap to replace Caleb Sturgis. Hardin was the more accurate of the two kickers and he also has a much stronger leg.
RJ: Alright, that’s going to wrap up or open camp observations. Make sure you stick with us throughout the next two weeks and of course throughout the season, as Gator Country brings you the best coverage of your Florida Gators.