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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Gators' five biggest surprises of spring

By Michael DiRocco

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that Florida has finished spring practice, it’s time to evaluate what the Gators accomplished in the past month.

Through Friday, GatorNation will break down what happened during the 15 practices. We’ll look at surprises, players under pressure to produce, and the most interesting and pressing storylines for the Gators heading into August practices.

Here are the five biggest surprises of the spring:
  1. Running back Matt Jones easily ran away with the starting job. He played well as a freshman in 2012, especially late in the season, when he ran for 183 of his 275 yards in the final five games, but he was supposed to get pushed by early enrollee Kelvin Taylor. Taylor ran for 12,121 yards and 191 touchdowns in his high school career and is the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor. The competition was close for the first few days, but the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Jones quickly separated himself from Taylor and Mack Brown. This isn’t a criticism of Taylor. Rather, it’s a testament to how well Jones performed in the spring.
  2. Daniel McMillian
    Linebacker Daniel McMillian was the most impressive early enrollee in Florida's spring practice.
  3. Freshman linebacker Daniel McMillian was the most impressive of the early enrollees. Tyler Moore pretty much won the starting right tackle job (last year’s starter, Chaz Green, did not practice because of ankle surgery), but Moore started games at Nebraska before transferring to Florida. That’s valuable experience. McMillian should be finishing up his senior year at Jacksonville (Fla.) First Coast. Instead, he was more impressive than any of UF’s linebackers, with the exception of Antonio Morrison. McMillian, who had 4.5 tackles and broke up a pass in the final scrimmage sessions, is going to push Michael Taylor for the starting spot at weakside linebacker.
  4. The Gators have a lot of talent in the secondary, but heading into August practices the two starters at safety are cornerbacks: Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins. Riggs was moved to safety before spring began to bring some stability and experience to the position after the loss of Matt Elam and Josh Evans. That should have allowed one of the younger or inexperienced players such as Marcus Maye, Valdez Showers or Jabari Gorman to take the other starting spot and learn from Riggs. However, none were consistent enough and the communication aspect of the position wasn’t as good as it could be, so coach Will Muschamp decided to move Watkins over to pair with Riggs. UF can do that because it has two other good corners in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson and the emergence of cornerback/nickelback Brian Poole. Plus, highly touted freshman Vernon Hargreaves III arrives this summer and the expectation is that he’ll get significant playing time, too. Watkins and Riggs aren’t as dynamic as Elam, but they are very good players who will solidify the secondary.
  5. Florida’s top pass-catcher at tight end is ... Clay Burton? That’s what it looks like right now, anyway. It probably wasn’t going to be Tevin Westbrook or Colin Thompson, both of whom are certainly much better blockers than receivers. But it’s a surprise that it’s not Kent Taylor. He isn’t an inline tight end but was supposed to be a factor in the passing game because he can line up in the backfield, the slot, or even out wide. But he’s got to get stronger and the staff isn’t happy with his level of toughness, either. Burton has been the most consistent tight end, but the players at this position still need to make significant progress.
  6. Kicker Austin Hardin was supposed to automatically be the replacement for Caleb Sturgis, but the redshirt freshman from Atlanta has been a disappointment so far and is mired in a competition with senior walk-on Brad Phillips. Hardin was ESPN’s top-ranked kicker in 2012 after having a solid career at Marist High School, which he capped by going 13-for-13 on field goal attempts of less than 50 yards and 0-for-7 from beyond 50 as a senior. Hardin was supposed to get work handling kickoffs as a freshman but a hamstring injury early in the season nixed that and he redshirted. He was inconsistent throughout the spring, but the most troubling thing is that he struggled even inside of 40 yards. That should be nearly automatic for even an average college kicker.