This spring will be a competition at every single position. Will Muschamp made that abundantly clear this week saying, “Every position’s open. Every position. When you go 4-8 it’s all open.”
That means the door for the nine early enrollees this spring — eight of which are freshmen — is wide open. There is early playing time to be had for a young player who can adjust to life on campus, survive the offseason strength and conditioning regimen without something akin to combat stress reaction, and make a strong showing during the 15 practices allotted for spring football.
With key losses in players like Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, Ronald Powell, Jon Halapio and Jonotthan Harrison, there will be no shortage of available playing time at key positions. It’s all a matter of someone taking advantage of the opportunity.
Despite popular opinion, Muschamp showed last season that he isn’t afraid to play freshmen. In total, 15 true freshmen saw action in 2013, a list that included every early enrollee from a season ago aside from Matt Rolin who tore his ACL before the season began.
Although the opportunity is there for all nine players who arrived on campus in the last two weeks, here are the five players who seem to have the best opportunity to play as true freshmen.
5. QB Will Grier
Grier is listed at 6-2, 186 on Florida’s website. He has good size and a good frame but he needs to get into the weight room. He’s been doing that for more than a week now but Grier would benefit from a redshirt season.
The question is, will he actually be afforded the opportunity to earn that redshirt?
Jeff Driskel has been on campus three years and has missed time due to injury in all three of those seasons. Driskel’s injuries have been varied, so calling him injury prone may be unfair, but not to take note of his inability to stay on the field would be amiss.
After the transfers of Tyler Murphy and Max Staver, the only real options behind Driskel are Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg. Mornhinweg played in three games last season — all losses — and was less than impressive. If Driskel were to go down with an injury at any point next season Grier would likely be the next man up.
Muschamp’s take: “The ability to learn, athleticism. Obviously you look at accuracy as a thrower, being able to throw the ball into tight spots. He’s shown the ability to do that.”
4. CB Duke Dawson
The Cross City product was going to be just one of four cornerbacks on the roster this spring until Jalen Tabor flipped from Arizona.
Still, Dawson will have an opportunity to earn playing time right away.
The losses of Watkins, Roberson and Purifoy leave the Gators dangerously thin at corner. Dawson was a four-year starter at Dixie County High School and is the type of physical corner that Muschamp and the Florida coaching staff covet. Dawson can play both on the boundary or inside at nickel. That versatility will likely make him a player that will get on the field early at Florida.
Muschamp’s Take: “A guy that we feel like had a great senior season and a guy who continued to impress and improve.”
3. TE DeAndre Goolsby
The Gators went from having a tight end lead the team with 45 receptions in 2012 to a less than impressive four receptions for 42 yards in 2013 for a collective that shared the position. A foot injury to Colin Thompson, a lack of progress by Kent Taylor (transferred out) and the fact that the other two players at the position are converted defensive ends played into a drastic reduction in productivity.
Now, with Thompson’s future up in the air with chronic foot issues and still just two converted defensive linemen at tight ends, Goolsby finds himself in a very advantageous position.
Like Taylor, Goolsby is a supremely athletic, pass-catcher. He has some weight to put on to his skinny frame but getting a head start in the weight lifting program should help that. He’s the only tight end on the roster that can vertically stretch the field. That will help him get onto the field but Muschamp has shown that if you play tight end and you don’t block, you don’t play.
Goolsby needs to add strength and refine his technique to become a better blocker but his skill set fits in perfectly with Kurt Roper’s offense.
Muschamp’s Take: “We need some help at the tight end position. He’s a guy that’s going to come in here and be here and certainly get his opportunities.”
2. RB Brandon Powell
Powell flipped from Miami to Florida just days before he enrolled in college. The 5-8, 167-pound back has a ton of speed, acceleration and is a shifty runner. What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed and ability.
Kelvin Taylor will start the spring as the No. 1 running back but with Matt Jones out for an indefinite period of time, the depth chart is open behind him. Powell will battle with Mark Herndon and Mack Brown for carries but has as good of a chance to earn the backup job as anyone else on the roster.
Muschamp’s Take: “Brandon Powell from Deerfield Beach, was a running back we’ve been on and had an opportunity there to get him [late].”
1. Jalen Tabor
Tabor is the highest rated of Florida’s commits and for good reason. The 6-1, 188-pound corner is physical, has great hips and can turn and run with any receiver. He’s smart, dedicated and motivated to come in and play early.
Before Dawson and Tabor arrived, the Gators only had three cornerbacks on scholarship, so there is obviously playing time and a starting spot to be had opposite Vernon Hargreaves III.
If Tabor or Dawson can hold down that spot on the other side of Hargreaves it will allow the coaching staff to leave Brian Poole at nickleback where he had a very successful season in 2013.
Muschamp’s Take: “6-1 corner that’s got a lot of length and athleticism on the top, and he can finish some plays.”