With the Orange and Blue Debut just a day away, GatorCountry.com takes a look at how the Gators have progressed through spring practice on both sides of the ball.
In the first edition of this two part series, we give you a preview of the offense.
The Gators finished the 2012 season with the No. 104 ranked offense in the country. While that’s a slight improvement from 2011 when they finished with the No. 105 ranked offense, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Tasked with replacing Xavier Nixon, James Wilson, Mike Gillislee, Frankie Hammond Jr. and Jordan Reed on offense, Brent Pease has his hands full this offseason.
Let’s take a look at how each position has progressed this spring, who has stepped up and what to expect moving forward.
Jeff Driskel is the unquestioned starter this season. While he had to constantly look over his shoulder last year with Jacoby Brissett behind him, Driskel is the man this year and this is truly his team.
The problem is if Driskel goes down with an injury, he has missed time in both of his first two seasons, the Gators have nothing behind them. Florida’s backup quarterbacks have thrown as many collegiate passes as the entire Gator Country staff combined.
Skyler Mornhinweg and Tyler Murphy have been battling for the No. 2 spot behind Driskel but neither quarterback has been able to take the job outright. Both Mornhinweg and Murphy will continue to battle for the backup job this summer and into the fall but as we stand right now, the Gators are in a lot of trouble if Driskel isn’t under center.
Mike Gillislee developed sort of a cult following his sophomore and junior seasons. Gator fans couldn’t understand why Gillislee wasn’t getting more snaps when he was obviously talented enough to play. Gillislee made the most of his opportunity last season but he’s out of eligibility and now the Gators will turn to a new running back to replace him.
Matt Jones came on late last season and has carried the momentum he built during his freshman season to spring practice.
Jones has been impressive this spring. He’s a big, physical runner who isn’t afraid of contact. Jones has distanced himself from the other running backs and looks to be the favorite to replace Gillislee in the fall.
Will Muschamp has been complimentary of both Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor. While Taylor is still learning the playbook and working on becoming a more reliable pass-blocker, he has undeniable talent and should contribute early.
A surprise player this spring is walk-on running back Mark Herndon. Herndon has impressed the coaching staff this spring and could be a player that finds some playing time this fall.
“Mark Herndon, the walk-on from Ocala, that’s really done a nice job for us on special teams, has become a dependable back.” Said Will Muschamp.
While Jones appears to be in front now, there will be plenty of carries to go around in this offense come fall.
While college and professional teams alike move away from having a traditional fullback, Hunter Joyer is a throwback player. A tough, mean, physical player who is as important to what the Gators can do offensively as just about anyone else on the field, Joyer has been impressive this spring.
He’s not the only fullback that has earned praise from the coaching staff. Both Gideon Ajagbe and Rhaheim Ledbetter were both moved from the defensive side of the ball to fullback and have shined this offseason.
“Very pleased with the fullbacks, really pleased. Rhaheim Ledbetter played extremely well Saturday. Gideon has been really productive for us.” Muschamp said. “We were kinda looking into being a 21 team with a fullback with Hunter– one hit and you’re out of it. So you’ve gotta be careful as a coordinator, with Brent, how you invest your time with a guy that you don’t have much depth at the position. All of a sudden we feel very comfortable about that package.”
The Gators are replacing the entire left side of their offensive line. D.J. Humphries and Max Garcia have replaced Nixon and Wilson at tackle and guard respectively. Humphries played a lot as a freshman in Florida’s jumbo package and filled in at left tackle when Nixon went down with an injury.
Humphries has put on a considerable amount of weight since arriving on campus early last season and he’s striving to reach 300 pounds. Currently listed at 280 pounds, Humphries looks better suited to hold up for an entire season in the SEC with his new physique.
The Gators have struggled to stay healthy along the line of scrimmage. Despite having 11 scholarship linemen for the spring, injuries have left the Gators with just six healthy scholarship linemen.
This has limited the kind of scrimmage snaps the team can get and has altered the format of the spring game.
Looking at the glass half full, the additional reps with each other should help the offensive line build the trust and familiarity they need for the season. Humphries and Garcia look to be an upgrade on the left side and Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio are veteran leaders at center and right guard.
Tyler Moore struggled during the two open practices that we attended but is a versatile player who can play both tackle and guard positions. His versatility will be valuable once the season kicks off.
Jordan Reed led the Gators in receptions (45) and receiving yards (559) last season. Replacing him will be a tall task for the Gators. There isn’t one player on the roster that can match the kind of production that Reed put up, but the coaching staff is hoping to get a group effort to replace Reed.
Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook are thought of as more of blocking tight ends than pass-catchers. Burton has worked hard in the offseason to shed that perception and round out his game. Burton claimed to catch over 2,000 passes in the month of February, in an effort to become a more natural pass-catcher. He was the most impressive tight end during the two open practices.
Kent Taylor is the most similar player, style wise to Reed. Taylor is a talented pass-catcher and at 6’5”, he is a serious redzone threat. Taylor has worked hard in the offseason and Muschamp has taken notice. Muschamp thinks that Taylor poses the same kind of issues for defenses that Reed caused.
“Just the way we use our personnel very similar to what we did with Jordan, we want to make it difficult for the defenses we play. How do you count him? Do you count him as a receiver or do you count him as a tight end?” Muschamp continued. “Do you match him with regular personnel or nickel personnel? So I think all of things are issues you’re trying to pose for a defense.”
The most complete tight end is Colin Thompson. Thompson reminds me of Jason Witten. The way he carries himself on the field and his balance as both a pass-catcher and blocker give the Gators an added dimension on offense.
Last season when Florida would come out in a two tight end set, mostly using Burton and Reed, it wasn’t hard for defenses to figure out what Florida was doing. Burton would stay in to block and Reed would be a receiver in most scenarios. Thompson, more than any other tight end on the roster, can block as well as he can catch and would allow Pease to disguise more packages on offense.
Thompson struggled to stand out during the two practices we attended but a source close to the team told Gator Country that Thompson has really come on this spring and has been impressive.
We can’t forget about Trey Burton. Burton does so many things on offense that it’s hard to put him into just one offensive category.
Burton will continue his role as an H-back in Florida’s offense as well as taking wildcat snaps.
The most wide open position battle this spring has to be at wide receiver. The Gators struggled to get consistent production from the position last season and need marked improvement in 2013.
For the third spring in a row, Quinton Dunbar has drawn praise from the coaching staff. Dunbar is listed as the staring X receiver and this will be his first opportunity as a full-time starter to make an impact. Can he parlay his spring success into fall production? That is the real question.
Latroy Pittman has also drawn praise. The sophomore-to-be is a physical blocker and a sound route runner.
It’s now or never for Andre Debose. Heralded as “the next Percy Harvin”, Debose has yet to live up to the hype. In the past the coaching staff has criticized Debose for his lack of effort and inconsistency. As a fifth-year senior, it’s now or never for Debose.
Florida has lacked an electric, game-changing playmaker since Percy Harvin took his talents to the NFL. Fortunately for the Gators, they may have found a new dynamic weapon in Demarcus Robinson. Before spraining his ankle, Robinson was impressive this spring. Robinson is just a playmaker. With size, speed, route-running ability and great hands, Robinson looks like he can be the kind of game-changer on the outside that Florida has been lacking the past couple of seasons.