The Florida Gators are three practices into their spring football practice schedule and from reports from those that have watched practice, there seems to be a bit of a different air around the facility. There seems to be more coaching; more down field passing; new targets stepping up; and for the first time in a while, a new energy around Florida Gators football.
After a very disappointing 2013 campaign, the Gators are looking to improve in nearly every offensive and special teams category.
With twelve practices and the Orange & Blue Debut to go, what should Gator fans be looking for out of the rest of spring practice in order to feel comfortable heading into the summer?
FINDING A KICKER
The Florida Gators were putrid in place-kicking last season. The combination of Brad Phillips, Francisco Velez, and Austin Hardin were a combined 12-of-22 (54.5%) on field goal attempts, while their opponents were 22-of-23 in field goal attempts, a difference of 30 points over the course of the season. Further, the Gators ranked 77th in the country in kickoffs with a 60.78 yard average, with only 18 touchbacks (35.29%, 58th in the country).
The 116th ranked Gators field goal kicking group returns both Hardin (scholarship) and Velez (walk-on), while adding former Virginia Tech kicker Brooks Abbott, who has only handled kickoffs in his career and does not enroll until June. The Gators have relied on Hardin and Velez to refocus mentally and become a reliable tool heading into the spring.
The Gators, who were 24-of-29 in the previous two seasons, cannot afford to leave points on the board, especially in close games (two missed field goals against Georgia and UF lost the game by three points). The emergence of a place-kicker is one of the most important things that must happen during spring practice.
FINDING A THREAT AT TIGHT END
Last season, tight ends accounted for 2% of all passes caught –a very steep drop from 39% of passes caught the year before. The Gators return seniors Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton, while welcoming freshman DeAndre Goolsby, a player many think can play right away. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds Goolsby helped lead his team to a state championship and racked up 621 receiving yards. He’s more athletic than Westbrook and Burton as a pass catcher, and could prove to be more of match-up problem.
While Gooslby will still be learning the speed of the game and learning the playbook, if he catches on quickly he could become an immediate threat. If not, the Gators could be in trouble entering the summer.
IMPROVE THE PASS RUSH
The Gators 2013 pass rush was the worse UF pass rush in more than a decade. The 2013 Gators only had 19 sacks and 61 tackles for loss, both a large decline from the year before (30 and 88 respectively). With the loss of Ronald Powell (4.0 sacks), Loucheiz Purifoy (2.0 sacks), and Cody Riggs (1.5 sacks), the Gators will only have 61% of their total sacks from the 2013 season back for next season and have very few proven pass rushers.
Florida needs to see an improvement from both the exterior and interior linemen for next season. Primarily on the exterior, Jonathan Bullard will need to step up into a bigger pass rushing role, as he only has three career sacks and 7.5 career tackles for loss. Bullard will need to improve his first step, tackling ability, and getting off the blocker quickly. Dante Fowler, Jr. had a good year last year with 3.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss and this year will move into a role that no longer requires him splitting time with Ronald Powell at the BUCK role. Moving to the interior, the Gators only return four and a half career sacks from returning defensive tackles.
In the spring, the improvement of the pass rush and the development of younger players such as Bryan Cox Jr., Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Alex McCalister and Taven Bryan will be very important this spring.
The Gators have the players, the ability, and the coaching to become an elite rushing force again, but need those players with the ability to step-up to the play. With a loss of 39% of their sacks and 40% of their tackles for loss from last season’s team, who will step-up?
DEVELOPMENT OF THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Just like nearly every aspect of the UF offense last season, Florida struggled mightily on the offensive line. In 2013, the Gators gave up 27 total sacks, ranking 74th in the country in fewest sacks allowed. However, the Gators were never at full strength at any point in 2013 on the offensive line.
So far in spring, Florida is lining up with D.J Humphries at left tackle; Trip Thurman at left guard; Max Garcia at center; Tyler Moore at right guard; and Chaz Green at right tackle. Compared to last season, only D.J. Humphries stays at the same role, as Chaz Green returns to a starting role after injury, and Tyler Moore moves from right tackle to right guard, and Max Garcia moves from left guard to center.
While that starting line has 62 career starts in their career, Moore and Garcia are playing in new roles, so how will they adjust?