Florida is set to kick off its 2011 season in just a few days against Florida Atlantic, but a couple positions are still unsettled on the depth chart.
Muschamp released a projected Florida Gators depth chart for the game, but a couple of positions are still up for grabs this week.
“We still are very unsettled in the offensive line and in the secondary,” Muschamp said. “The bottom line with me is you have to earn the right to start. If a guy doesn’t practice, he’s not going to start. Guys got to get out there and practice and compete and play the right way in order to start the football game.”
While cornerback appears to be the biggest uncertainty based on the depth chart Muschamp released (neither starter had yet been decided), safety appears to be a bigger concern for the first-year head coach.
“Consistency in how we need to play at the safety position is not there,” he said. “We’ve got this week to make sure we get that straightened out. We need to probably reduce what we’re doing to make sure they’re getting in the right spots and making the right checks and making the plays that they need to be able to make.”
At cornerback, it’s not so much an issue of players needing to step up as it is Muschamp and his staff identifying which player is the best option to start in a talented but inexperienced bunch.
“At the corner position, I think we’ve had solid production,” he said. “But again, it comes back to the safety position. In our defense, you’ve got to get the guys aligned and get them in the right spots. The communication has not always been there to my satisfaction.”
As of now, it appears that true freshman Pop Saunders will earn the start at the safety position that has troubled Florida throughout fall camp.
Junior Josh Evans entered fall camp as the starter there, but Saunders has taken a recent lead for the starting job after moving from cornerback early in fall camp.
“I’m very pleased with Pop,” Muschamp said. “He’s got all the intangibles as far as having the instincts to play in the deep part of the field: tackling ability, coverage ability, playing the ball. (He’s) a guy that I’m excited about playing for the Gators.”
Like with most of his team, Saunders’ biggest challenge is playing well consistently enough to hold onto the starting job, which Muschamp said is usually an issue for younger players.
The Florida depth chart is far from set in stone at this point.
“That certainly can change as we work through the week,” Muschamp said. “As far as the continuity is concerned, I think we’ve been hot and cold and we can’t be.”
At cornerback, Jeremy Brown is questionable for Florida’s game with a sprained knee. He’s a probable starter if he can play. In the event he can’t, true freshman Marcus Roberson or sophomore Jaylen Watkins will start.
The offensive line is the other position that’s still somewhat unsettled at this point. Three positions seem to be firmly locked in on the depth chart. Xavier Nixon at left tackle, Jon Halapio at right guard and Matt Patchan at right tackle appear to have their starting spots nailed down.
Muschamp said redshirt freshman Chaz Green is a guy they consider a starter at tackle, and he would be the first option after either Nixon or Patchan.
Wenger has rotated through all of the interior positions, much like he did in his 19 starts at Notre Dame. While with the Fighting Irish, he recorded 15 starts at center, three at right guard and one at left guard.
Wenger has emerged as the starting left guard, taking over for redshirt sophomore Kyle Koehne, who moved inside from tackle and took over there last week.
But left guard is one of the biggest question marks on the team, and Muschamp indicated there could still be more movement there before the season begins.
“Right now at the guard positions, the left guard position especially, we’re a little bit up in the air,” he said. “At the center position, Jon’s done some nice things, but Dan can play both center and guard. Kyle Koehne has done some nice things. He would be our fourth tackle, but he’s also playing guard.”
Redshirt sophomore Nick Alajajian is another player Muschamp mentioned as being involved in the interior rotation. He has been the backup to Halapio at right guard.
“I mean all of those guys have been in that mix of guys,” Muschamp said. “We’ve been able to stay mostly injury-free up front other than some guys with the normal bumps and bruises of camp. We’ve been able to stay healthy for the most part, we’ve just got to continue to get that continuity in how we’re trying to play up front.”
With a handful of positions still unsettled so close to the start of the season, the natural reaction for many fans might be to panic.
Muschamp said he isn’t worried about it right now.
“Well, I guess you could say you would like to have [the depth chart] resolved,” he said. “But you’ve got certain guys that I think are competing very well. They’re competing to be the starter. They all will play, I can tell you that.”
The reason Muschamp hasn’t yet decided on starters at these positions, particularly at cornerback, isn’t necessarily because nobody is producing at the position.
He just wants to see if any player can create a little more separation between now and Saturday.
“Nobody, in my opinion, has separated themselves to be named the starter here Monday before our first game,” he said. “Does that mean that we’re playing poorly? I don’t think so.”
Muschamp simply wants a few extra days to continue to evaluate how his players will respond leading up to the game.
Consistency is key.
“The bottom line is them understanding it’s how you prepare is how you play,” he said. “I’m young, but I’m old-fashioned. Generally how you play is how you practice during the week. That’s the way I view it.”
Whoever practices best will be the guy who gets the honor of representing Florida as a starter. Simple as that.
“Who deserves to be the starter and jog out there to start the game?” Muschamp asked. “We’ll see what happens and how they progress through the week. You can look at it as motivation.”