- Jeff Barlis, College Football
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.
We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This weeklong series opens with a look at the much-maligned wide receivers corps.
Returning starters: Senior Quinton Dunbar (40 catches for 548 yards) is a solid possession receiver who has improved every year. He had his best season in 2013, setting a school record with at least one catch in 28 consecutive games to break Carlos Alvarez's record of 25 straight games. Dunbar is a consistent, reliable target and will be counted on to bring veteran leadership this fall.
Departures: Senior Solomon Patton had a breakthrough season with 44 catches, 556 yards and six touchdowns -- all team-leading numbers among receivers. Senior Trey Burton had his best season as a pass-catcher with 38 receptions for 445 yards and one TD. Both are hoping to find a place in the NFL, which leaves the Gators with a very inexperienced group of receivers.
Returning reserves: Senior Andre Debose, who missed last season with a torn ACL, has applied for a medical hardship to return for a sixth season. Although he has been wildly inconsistent, Debose has the ability to be the big-play deep threat Florida desperately needs to scare defenses. Rising sophomores Ahmad Fulwood (17 catches, 127 yards), Demarcus Robinson (five catches, 23 yards) and Chris Thompson (two catches, 13 yards) got experience as true freshmen in 2013 and will be counted on to fight for starting jobs. It's now or never for rising juniors Latroy Pittman (two catches, 18 yards) and Raphael Andrades (no catches in two games).
Newcomers: Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins are redshirt freshmen hoping to make a splash in their first spring practices. Both are talented four-star ESPN 300 prospects. Florida also signed a pair of three-star prospects, Ryan Sousa and C.J. Worton, who will arrive this summer and have already been designated as slot receivers for fall camp.
What to watch: Like Florida's offense in general, the wide receiver position has been in disrepair since 2009. The Gators are determined to climb out of the cellar of FBS offenses, and the passing game is clearly the biggest area for improvement. A big factor in Florida's favor is the presence of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who returns for his second year to give much-needed continuity. Phillips is a well-seasoned offensive coach with a solid track record of producing wideouts. In 2014, it will be time for everyone involved to take their games to another level, and that begins in earnest on March 19. Dunbar must be a leader on and off the field this spring, as Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel needs a go-to receiver. But Dunbar will need at least one sidekick. In fact, Florida has enough talented wide receivers that the coaching staff is hoping for a true star to emerge and perhaps surpass Dunbar. Will Debose finally be healthy and consistent? Will either of UF's immensely talented sophomores, Fulwood and Robinson, seize a starting position? Or will we see another spring star flash (only to disappear in the fall) like Pittman did two years ago? There are question marks everywhere you look when it comes to this group of receivers. Given the talent the Gators have been recruiting, surely it's just a matter of time before they truly strike gold and find a wide receiver who brings some fireworks back to the offense.