- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At the beginning of spring practice, GatorNation brought readers' attention to five questions, five guys under pressure and five players to watch.
With 15 spring practices behind the Gators, including Saturday’s spring game, let’s re-examine those questions and decide whether they were answered as well as take another look at those guys to see whether they handled the pressure and made any improvements.
Will there be a clear-cut starter at quarterback by the time spring practice ends?
Nope. Coach Will Muschamp said the competition between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will continue into the offseason -- and likely into fall practice, as well. The two played pretty well in the spring game -- Driskel completed 12 of 14 passes for 147 yards and Brissett completed 9 of 16 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns -- but neither has been able to gain separation.
What will UF's new offense look like?
UF’s offense with new coordinator Brent Pease looks a lot like the offense the Gators ran with Charlie Weis, but with a lot more shifts and motion. The players have said it’s essentially the same offense with different terminology. That said, the Gators are going to run between the tackles more than last season, and there seem to be more downfield throws than in past seasons. The bread and butter will be the power running game, and the offensive line has improved throughout the spring to the point Muschamp is confident the Gators can run the ball effectively.
Can the Gators become better at forcing turnovers?
It’s hard to tell, because the defense was missing several key players during the spring game -- defensive tackle Dominique Easley (knee), linebacker Jonathan Bostic (back), safety Matt Elam (groin) and cornerback Marcus Roberson (neck). But forcing turnovers was a huge emphasis throughout spring. The Gators got only one turnover in the spring game, however: an interception by walk-on linebacker David Campbell. During the two open practices in March, the secondary did a good job of getting takeaways, and the group knocked down two passes Saturday, including Jaylen Watkins’ play on tight end Jordan Reed in the end zone.
Have the Gators become tougher, physically and mentally?
On the offensive line, absolutely. The group made the most improvement from the start of spring practice to the spring game, and it was a much more physical unit than the one at the end of last season. Part of it is the effect of new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman’s Olympic-style weightlifting program, but it’s also because of the much more physical practices this spring. The group has been especially effective in the red zone during practices, according to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. It’s also a more close-knit group that isn’t as critical when mistakes are made. With so many injuries on the defensive front, however, it’s hard to tell how much that group has improved. The real test will come Sept. 1, in the season opener against Bowling Green, but early returns in this area are positive.
Will the defensive line be any better?
The Gators struggled against the run last season -- notably against Alabama, LSU and Furman -- and lost their best defensive tackle, Jaye Howard. However, Omar Hunter has had his best offseason, and Leon Orr has really improved. The unit will get a boost from Easley’s return from a torn ACL. Junior college transfer Damien Jacobs has been a pleasant surprise. The 310-pounder is a run-stuffer who can also provide some inside rush. He has had consistency issues in the spring, but he can give the Gators some much-needed depth in the fall. Once everyone is healthy, the unit should be better than it was in 2011.
FIVE GUYS UNDER PRESSURE
RB Mike Gillislee: The Gators need a No. 1 running back, and Gillislee won the job in the spring. He has proved he can pick up a blitz and catch the ball out of the backfield -- two things that had been holding him back from getting more work. More importantly, he stayed healthy and showed no signs of the ankle injury that has plagued him throughout his career.
P Kyle Christy: Muschamp praised Christy during the final week of spring practice, saying Christy had his best day of practice in his career. The job is definitely his.
OL coach Tim Davis: Davis did a good job of taking a unit that was a question mark and making it the most improved group of the spring. He should get credit for the line’s increased toughness, too. Again, how much the line has really improved won’t be truly known until the season starts, but Davis has already won the players over, and that’s something former coach Frank Verducci didn’t do.
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease: There’s no doubting that Brissett and Driskel look much better now than they did at the end of last season. Part of that is natural maturation, but it’s also due to Pease’s coaching. Both players looked very comfortable running the offense in the spring game, and there were very few procedural issues (late play calls, trouble getting into and out of the huddle, etc.). Pease also has done some work with the receivers, who were not as fundamentally sound as thought when he arrived. It’s a good start for the former Boise State offensive coordinator.
Buck Ronald Powell: Powell had a tremendous offseason and spring practice and appears to finally be close to becoming the dominating player he was projected to be when he signed as the nation’s top recruit in 2010. He was the defensive player of the day in both of UF’s spring scrimmages. He suffered what Muschamp said was a sprained left knee in the spring game. If the injury isn’t serious -- and that was Muschamp’s implication -- and Powell continues to have a good offseason, he could be headed for an All-SEC caliber season.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Andre Debose: Debose’s performance in the spring game was typical of his career. He caught one pass for 44 yards but was pretty much invisible other than that. He’s too good a playmaker to still be battling consistency issues. If he doesn’t start working hard in practice every day he’ll go down as one of the most under-achieving players in UF history.
DB Loucheiz Purifoy: Purifoy all but cemented the starting job opposite Roberson in the fall. He had a great spring and showed the ability to lock down receivers at times in the spring game. The next step for him is to start forcing turnovers -- something he did during the two open practices.
LB Michael Taylor: He followed a solid debut season (36 tackles) with a solid spring. He didn’t really flash in the spring game (three tackles), but he’ll be on the field a lot in the fall. Like all the linebackers, however, he needs to start making big plays when he’s on the field -- turnovers, sacks, tackles for loss, etc. That’s the one thing the linebackers didn’t do much of last season.
G Jessamen Dunker: The coaching staff has Dunker pegged as the eventual replacement to James Wilson at left guard. He played several spots on the line in the spring and probably could be counted on to play a lot if needed, but he needs technique work.
OT D.J. Humphries: Humphries also worked at several spots in the spring and is more ready to play than Dunker, but he too needs to work on his technique. He’s very athletic, though, and has the body type you want in a tackle.