Florida Gators: Colin Thompson
The starter: Senior tight end Jake McGee
The backup: Senior tight end Tevin Westbrook
The rest: Senior tight end Clay Burton, senior fullback Hunter Joyer, senior fullback Gideon Ajagbe, true freshmen tight ends DeAndre Goolsby and C'yontai Lewis, and true freshman h-back Moral Stephens
The future: The Gators have had some bad luck in recruiting tight ends. Will Muschamp's second class in 2012 featured two of the nation's top four TE prospects in Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor. But Thompson's career appears over due to a foot injury, and Taylor did little before transferring to Kansas. Muschamp began to restock in the last recruiting cycle with Goolsby, Lewis and Stephens, and Roper believes they are good fits for his scheme. Goolsby is the most advanced after enrolling in January. He has had more time to add bulk and strength to his 6-4, 230-pound frame and got the benefit of a lot of reps in spring practice. Thanks to the presence of McGee, Florida likely will have the luxury of redshirting Lewis and Stephens to allow them time to learn and grow. Roper has said his offense affords a lot of opportunities for tweeners, which is why UF doesn't necessarily have to sign a prototypical tight end moving forward. The 2015 class already has a commit from Camrin Knight, a 6-4, 213-pound prospect with loads of athletic ability, potential to grow and willingness to learn.
Florida coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday announced the Gators will open spring practice March 19 with nine players out of action because of injury, including three starters.
- Junior running back Matt Jones is progressing after a second surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The former starter is on track to be fully cleared on May 1. The Gators will need a healthy Jones this fall, but in the meantime there will be plenty of spring reps for a talented backfield that has good depth.
- Senior starting defensive tackle Leon Orr fractured his wrist late last season and won't be cleared until May 1, but Florida has lots of competition at defensive tackle. "He would probably have been limited reps anyway with as many young guys as we need up front to help us," Muschamp said.
- Senior wide receiver/kick returner Andre Debose, who had been a starter before missing all of last season with a torn ACL, is expected to be medically cleared on March 28 but will wear a noncontact jersey for the last two weeks of spring practice. A healthy Debose will bring speed and experience to a deep but largely unproven group of wide receivers.
- Three linebackers still rehabbing after surgery for injuries suffered last fall -- sophomores Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL) and redshirt freshman Matt Rolin (torn ACL) -- won't be medically cleared until after spring practice. All three could play reserve roles and special teams in the fall.
- Sophomore tight end Colin Thompson has a chronic foot injury that dates back to his high school days. It appears to be threatening his career. "The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely and we'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring," Muschamp said. Although Thompson was just a blocker, Florida needs every available body for its tight end competition.
- Freshman early enrollee running back Brandon Powell has a small fracture in his foot from high school ball. Once on UF's campus, he had surgery to insert a pin and will miss most of the spring. "To that point in January, [Powell] had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills," Muschamp said. "Great change of direction and speed. He's one of the guys we're really excited about."
- Freshman early enrollee Nolan Kelleher, an interior lineman, came to Florida in January with a back issue and has not been cleared for practice. Muschamp said a second opinion would be sought this week. The entire offensive line will be evaluated under new coach Mike Summers, so the competition for roles should be fierce.
Fortunately for Florida, most of the injuries are at positions of depth. Muschamp said that so far this spring, it is nothing like last year, when he was forced to turn the annual Orange & Blue Debut game into a series of drills with a limited scrimmage.
"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that," he said. "I want to have a spring game. ... I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year."
We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.
This weeklong series continues with a look at a fresh face at an important position that got lost in the 2013 offense's epic struggles.
6-foot-4, 240 pounds
Credentials: Goolsby is already on campus as an early enrollee. He was rated a three-star prospect coming out of high school and was the No. 9 tight end/H-back prospect in the nation. On signing day, Florida coach Will Muschamp called Goolsby "a really good athlete at the tight end position" and noted that he's already put on about 15 pounds.
How he fits: He's not an elite talent, but Goolsby has enough burst and athleticism to be a playmaker. He has good hands, can set up defenders in coverage and has enough speed and wiggle to make them miss. "DeAndre Goolsby is a guy we targeted early on," Muschamp said on signing day. "[Tight ends coach] Derek Lewis went out and evaluated him in the last spring evaluation, really liked his movement skills, his growth potential, his toughness, his point of attack and those things. Excited to have him on campus, and [as] a guy [who] can do some different things for you." The biggest reason Goolsby made this list is because he enrolled in January, which gives him much-needed extra time to learn the playbook and work with offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. If Goolsby proves to be a quick study who's coachable, he'll earn loads of opportunity.
Who he's competing with: After a couple of transfers in recent years, the Gators don't have a lot of talent at the tight end position. In some regards, Goolsby won't have much competition this spring. Florida's three incumbent tight ends -- Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook and Colin Thompson -- just aren't natural pass-catchers. Westbrook had three catches last season to lead all Gators tight ends, Burton had one catch, and Thompson was injured for the second straight season. Goolsby will need a lot of work on his in-line blocking technique, but Florida won't bring in any additional receiving tight ends until signees Moral Stephens and C'yontai Lewis arrive this summer.
What needs to happen this spring: It's not easy for true freshmen to make an immediate impact at offensive skill positions, but Muschamp said it best -- "We need some help at the tight end position. [Goolsby] is a guy that’s going to come in here and certainly get his opportunities." To take advantage of the chance to play early, Goolsby needs to keep it simple and worry about learning the plays, running precise routes and catching everything he can. If he can just distinguish himself as the top pass-catcher among UF tight ends this spring, the Gators would call that a success and move forward with plans to involve Goolsby in the offense this fall.
It doesn't get much worse than the nearly complete absence of production from Florida's tight ends last season. Four catches is practically invisible, although some of the blame can be shared with a passing offense that ranked No. 107 out of 123 FBS teams in 2013.
Just one year prior, the Gators got a fine season from tight end Jordan Reed, who led the team in receiving with 45 catches for 559 yards and three touchdowns. Then the bottom fell out.
"It was a very offensive position when Jordan Reed was here," head coach Will Muschamp said recently. "It was an offensive position last year."
This fall, position coach Derek Lewis goes back to the drawing board to develop the players he has. There is also hope that new coordinator Kurt Roper will devise an offense that will better utilize UF's big targets over the middle of the field.
As we've gone through this week's series of the Gators' top positions with room to improve, it's not difficult to notice the focus has been on every offensive group except for running back. Here then is a look at Florida's tight ends.
Strength in numbers: Part of the problem with tight ends at Florida has been numbers. The Gators had just three on scholarship when Kent Taylor transferred after a lost 2013 season. That third tight end was Colin Thompson, who has hardly seen the field due to nagging foot injuries. Like Taylor, Thompson was one of the top tight end prospects in the nation in the Class of 2012. But even when healthy -- if he can get healthy -- Thompson profiles more as a blocker than a pass-catcher.
New on the scene: The Gators acted decisively in signing three skilled tight ends in their 2014 recruiting class. DeAndre Goolsby, an athletic 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, is already on campus as an early enrollee. That's critical because he needs to gain more weight and upper-body strength, and having Goolsby compete in spring practice could give him the best chance of any tight end on the roster at becoming the pass-catcher Florida has lacked at the position. Like Goolsby, C'yontai Lewis has been working to gain weight and is up to 6-4, 230. Lewis caught the coaching staff's eye in camp last summer when he showed good ball skills and athleticism. The third tight end in the class, Moral Stephens, was a big wide receiver in high school who was offered a scholarship at UF when Taylor's transfer opened a spot on the roster. Stephens, is 6-3, 200, so he will need to add some bulk, but the coaches like his playmaking ability and see him as a tight end and H-back.
To do that Florida needs several players to step forward. Unknowns need to become contributors. Depth players need to become starters. Standouts need to become stars.
Here are five Gators who have to step up on offense in 2014.
LT D.J. Humphries: It's no coincidence that everyone on this list struggled in 2013, either with injuries or performance or both. Humphries came to Florida with such pedigree, such advanced technique that he was never supposed to be the kind of player singled out in this manner. But he definitely fell into the third category as he struggled on the field before succumbing to an injury. Humphries started the first six games of his sophomore season before being taken out of the starting lineup against Missouri in Week 7. A sprained MCL cost him the final five games of the season. Now the Gators need Humphries to shake off the memories from those last couple of games and be the stalwart left tackle who protects Driskel's blind side. Humphries should devote his spring and fall practice sessions to polishing his technique, but at 6-5 and 285 pounds, he would benefit greatly from an offseason at the training table and in the strength program to add another 20 pounds and improve his upper-body strength.
WR Andre Debose: After a tearing his ACL in preseason last fall, the senior is expected back for his sixth season of eligibility. As many times as exasperated fans have thought "it's now or never" for Debose, the 2014 season really is it. Debose has teased Florida with his talent throughout a career filled with peaks and valleys. He was the nation's No. 2 receiver in the Class of 2009 and prompted then-coach Urban Meyer label him the "next Percy Harvin" before he ever put on cleats. Debose missed that first season with a knee injury and has just 29 career catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns. He's never started more than four games in a season, but he did prove to be an excellent kickoff returner. He's also a solid deep threat in the passing game, as all four of his career touchdown catches went for 64 yards or longer in the 2011 season. Now, more than ever, the Gators are desperate for a reliable veteran who can make plays at receiver. Debose has never impressed his coaches with his work ethic, but perhaps another long season on the sideline has helped mature a player who is obviously gifted.
WR Demarcus Robinson: Several receivers have come to UF in the last few years as the next big thing. It's almost become a running joke that a freshman emerges every spring looking the part of an instant contributor, if not a starter. Rarely has it carried over in games that count. Robinson did just that last year, following in the footsteps of previous spring stars like Latroy Pittman and Frankie Hammond Jr. and then finishing 2013 with five catches for 23 yards. Along the way, there were questions about his maturity and consistency. But there's no questioning Robinson's size, speed and hands. For Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, the extra attention he'll pay to Robinson this offseason could pay big dividends if he can put it all together in his sophomore season.
In coming up with this list, two positions stood out for very different reasons -- no running backs or tight ends were included.
Florida has a stable of capable tailbacks it can turn to this fall. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor got plenty of experience in 2013. There's a reliable senior backup in Mack Brown. Former starter Matt Jones is a wild card looking to return from last season's knee injury. And redshirt freshman Adam Lane is a promising prospect.
The tight end position, however, is a sore spot that produced all of four catches last season. Florida relies on two former defensive linemen in Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton. Colin Thompson looks the part but has seen his career plagued by a nagging foot injury. Florida's best hope might be an early entry freshman in DeAndre Goolsby.
He wanted him to be a physical blocker to help open holes for the running game and contribute in the passing game -- not catch 45 passes like Jordan Reed did last season.
That’s just fine with Thompson, because that’s how he sees himself anyway.
Thompson was the country’s No. 2 tight end coming out of Warminster (Penn.) Archbishop Wood in 2012 and was on pace to play as a freshman until he broke a bone in his foot on the day the Gators checked into the hotel in which they would be staying for preseason camp. It was the second time he broke that bone and this time it required surgery and cost him the 2012 season.
A completely healthy Thompson is now competing with juniors Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook and sophomore Kent Taylor for playing time at tight end. Burton heads into the Aug. 31 season opener against Toledo as the starter, but Thompson will get significant playing time, especially when the Gators use two tight-end sets to run the ball.
"He’s what we thought. He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy that’s going to be able to block at the point of attack and do some things in the passing game to help us," Muschamp said. "When you sit out of the game for a year it hurts. You’ve got to get back in playing shape, the collision part of it. But he’s done that. He’s done some nice things for us. We’ve got to continue to develop his role.”
Thompson wasn’t much of a pass-catcher in high school -- he had 13 catches for 208 yards and four touchdowns as a senior -- but Muschamp said he has been pleased with Thompson’s receiving skills. Thompson isn’t going to make plays down the field, but he is a viable option in the short passing game.
"He works the middle of the field," Muschamp said. "He does a nice job on all the bounce and the option routes off the linebackers and safeties. He does a good job of getting himself open and creating space from the defenders."
Thompson snagged a couple of short passes during Monday’s open practice. He also was behind the defense for what could have been a touchdown but cornerback Marcus Roberson made a great play when he came off his man and was able to tip the ball just enough so that it wobbled off course and fell incomplete.
Thompson likes being involved in the passing game, but he knows that’s why he’s going to be on the field. When the Gators are in the red zone and he’s sent onto the field, it’s not for him to work the end line or catch a fade pass Rob Gronkowski-style. He’s there to block.
"Last year we ran the ball 27 times in a row against LSU or some unbelievable number," Thompson said. "We need tight ends who can block, so physical play is No. 1. Even running routes, physical play is also key. Being physical in the blocking game and the passing game is important."
The Gators have a lot of production to replace at tight end. Reed caught 73 passes for 906 yards and five touchdowns the past two seasons. He led the Gators in receptions in 2012 (45 for 559 yards) and was second in 2011 (28 for 307). The four tight ends battling for playing time this season have a total of four career catches (two each by Burton and Taylor).
"Obviously Jordan was such an elite athlete and he was such raw talent, a freak of nature," Thompson said. "When it comes to pure athleticism wise I don't know if we have that in the room but when it comes as a collective effort I think we can produce."
The 5-foot-9, 171-pound Patton doesn’t really fit into coach Will Muschamp’s philosophy that bigger is better. Not just on the line of scrimmage, either. Big receivers. Big defensive backs. Big linebackers.
"This is a big man’s league," he said. "When you go pay to watch a boxing match, you don’t go watch the featherweights fight. You go watch heavyweights fight. This is a heavyweight league.
"So we need have a big, physical team. You can still be really fast, but you better be big and physical if you want to win in this league right now."
Muschamp is in his third season and working on his fourth signing class, and he has certainly made the Gators a bigger, more physical team in that short period of time. To see the difference, look at UF’s roster from 2009. The Gators had five starters or key contributors who were 5-9 or shorter: Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, Markihe Anderson and Brandon James.
This year’s team has only one starter that small: 5-9 safety Cody Riggs. Patton is a role player (he’s the jet sweep guy) and the shortest player on scholarship is 5-7 freshman running back Adam Lane -- who weighs 222 pounds.
Muschamp’s philosophy goes further than just the size of the players. He wants the bulk of his 85-man roster to be comprised of what he calls big-skill positions: offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends. He wants 50. Right now he has 42 (see breakdown below).
Muschamp wants 15-17 offensive linemen, and the Gators are close to that number. They have five scholarship tight ends, too. The defensive line is where the problem is. The Gators are short on ends, especially speed rushers. There are eight scholarship defensive tackles, but only three have played in a game (Dominique Easley, Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs), and just two bucks (hybrid defensive end/linebacker).
It’ll take at least a couple more signing classes for the Gators to be as stocked along the defensive line as Muschamp would like. Muschamp believes long-term success at Florida -- and therefore the SEC -- depends on beefing up those defensive numbers.
And not just to compete with Alabama and Nick Saban, either.
"When big guys run out of gas, they’re done," Muschamp said. "We don’t ever want our big guys up front to play more than six or eight snaps in a row and have the intensity you’ve got to play with to be successful in this league. So you can’t ever have enough defensive linemen or pass rushers, especially the way the game’s going.
"You look in our league at Missouri and Kentucky and Tennessee, a lot of schools are going to a little bit of a Big 12 model, like Texas A&M, where they’re spreading the field, and you can’t ever have enough guys that can play in space and rush the passer. The most exerting thing in football is rushing the passer. Those guys are battling against a 315-pound guy and trying to push the pocket, so you can’t ever have enough of those guys."
Here’s the breakdown of what Muschamp calls the big-skill players:
Ideal number: 15-17
Number on the roster: 14. Tyler Moore, Quinteze Williams, Rod Johnson, Octavius Jackson, Cameron Dillard, Trip Thurman, Jon Halapio, D.J. Humphries, Jonotthan Harrison, Chaz Green, Max Garcia, Trenton Brown, Ian Silberman, Kyle Koehne.
Comment: The Gators will lose four players to graduation but have four offensive line commits for 2014, three of whom weigh more than 300 pounds. The line has gotten bigger, stronger and more physical since Muschamp called them soft at the end of his first season.
Ideal number: 8-10
Number on the roster: 8. Damien Jacobs, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Darious Cummings, Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles, Dominique Easley.
Comment: Not a lot of experience here, but the four freshmen (Ivie, Bostwick, Brantley and Riles) will gain valuable experience as part of the rotation this season.
Ideal number: 6-8
Number on roster: 4. Alex McCalister, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox.
Comment: Easley also can play end. This is perhaps the most flexible position, with several players having the ability to play inside on passing downs to get the best pass rushers on the field.
Ideal number: 4-6
Number on roster: 2. Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell.
Comment: This position also needs to be beefed up quickly, with Powell likely leaving after this year if he has a good season. Some flexibility here, too, because Cox and McCalister could spend time here.
Ideal number: 9-12
Number on roster: 9. Michael Taylor, Matt Rolin, Jeremi Powell, Jarrad Davis, Neiron Ball, Darrin Kitchens, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Antonio Morrison.
Comment: UF has one bona fide stud (Morrison) and a mix of veteran role players and freshmen. McMillian is a player to watch. He could become a starter by midseason. This is an important position group because it produces a lot of special teams players.
Ideal number: 3-5
Number on roster: 5. Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Kent Taylor, Colin Thompson, Trevon Young.
Comment: A lot of players, but little production so far. Burton, Westbrook and Thompson are mainly blockers, but there’s optimism that Thompson can develop into someone who can work the middle of the field.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida begins August camp on Friday. Here’s a primer to get you ready:
Three questions the Gators must answer in camp
Can the receivers contribute? It must sound like a broken record, but the development of the receivers is the key to the season. They haven’t been very good for the past three seasons, and that really hurt the Gators in 2012 because of quarterback Jeff Driskel’s inexperience. H-back/wildcat QB Trey Burton, with 69 career catches, will line up at receiver. That will help, but he’s not a downfield threat or someone that scares a secondary. Redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar and sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman must become consistent with their routes, adjustments and blitz reads. At least two of the five freshmen -- including early enrollee Demarcus Robinson -- have to become significant parts of the rotation, too. New receivers coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience and two former pupils in the NFL (Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson), should make a difference. But remember, a chef is only as good as his ingredients.
Can the linebackers hold up their end? The Gators are loaded in the secondary and with pass rushers, and the defensive line should be fine. The question mark on defense is at linebacker, especially with starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison suspended for the first two games. There’s little doubt that Morrison is going to be a big-time player, but there are questions at every other spot. Buck/strongside linebacker Ronald Powell is coming back from a torn ACL and the top two candidates at weakside linebacker (Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor) have been role players throughout their careers. Taylor will likely start in the middle while Morrison is out. That’s a steep drop-off from Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and the Gators need to find playmakers. Don’t be surprised if freshman Daniel McMillian takes over as the starter on the weak side by the middle of the season.
Will either kicker turn out to be reliable? It’s unfair to expect Austin Hardin or Brad Phillips to have the same kind of impact as Caleb Sturgis. He was the best kicker in school history and was accurate from long range. But it isn’t unreasonable to ask either of those guys to be consistent in the 40-yard range, and neither was during spring practice. It’s a battle that will continue throughout camp -- and possibly into the season. Sturgis consistently bailed out the offense in 2012, and the Gators won’t have that luxury if the offense struggles again (see receivers above).
Three position battles to watch
Tight end: Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor are competing for playing time. The group struggled during the spring and Burton has a slim lead. Thompson was more of a blocker in high school, but his size makes him an intriguing option in the middle of the field and the red zone. He’s a better blocker than any of the other tight ends and could win the job if he can show some consistency and prove he’s a reliable receiver. Westbrook is more of a blocker and Taylor is a flex tight end with potential, but the coaching staff isn’t happy with his toughness. There’s not a lot of experience here -- they’ve combined for four catches for 17 yards in their careers -- and it’s unlikely any can be the weapon in the passing game that Jordan Reed was the past two seasons (73 catches, 866 yards, 5 TDs).
Safety: If the season started today, cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs would be the starters. That’s not a bad thing because both are solid players who understand the defense and won’t give up big plays. But what is a concern is that none of the other safeties showed enough consistency in the spring to earn one of the spots. Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman and Valdez Showers have four weeks to prove they can get the job done.
Three players you might not have thought to watch in camp, but really should
Bryan Cox: A redshirt freshman defensive end, he showed flashes of potential in the spring and made a few plays during the final scrimmage. He’s playing behind Jonathan Bullard, so he gets overlooked, but he’s got good size (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and athleticism and could be a breakout player on defense.
Gideon Ajagbe: Hunter Joyer was the only fullback on the roster until the staff moved Ajagbe and redshirt freshman safety Rhaheim Ledbetter there in the spring because the staff was worried about overworking Joyer during the season. Ajagbe adjusted well and should give Joyer some valuable rest and therefore reduce his risk of injury.
Chris Wilkes: It was obvious that the staff wasn’t happy with backup quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, which was one of the reasons UF added Wilkes. He was an Ole Miss signee in 2008 but instead chose to sign a baseball contract with the San Diego Padres. Wilkes enrolled in May and missed spring practice and hasn’t played football in five years, but he’s a former pro athlete and should at least push Mornhinweg and Murphy a bit.
No. 88 Clay Burton
Junior tight end
No. 87 Tevin Westbrook
Junior tight end
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No. 84 Colin Thompson
Redshirt freshman tight end
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Florida signed 23 players in 2012 and several made an immediate impact: offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., and linebacker Antonio Morrison were Freshmen All-SEC. Others, however, didn’t get a single snap of playing time.
Here’s how we see the rest of the class shaping up:
Top of the class
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Ranking UF’s needs for 2014
1. Offensive line
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Here’s the breakdown:
LT: D.J. Humphries (6-5, 285, So.)/Trenton Brown (6-8, 363, Jr.)
LG: Max Garcia (6-4, 307, RJr.)/Ian Silberman (6-5, 290, RJr.)
C: Jonotthan Harrison (6-3, 303, RSr.) /Kyle Koehne (6-5, 314, RSr.)
RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 317, RSr.)/Trip Thurman (6-5, 313, RSo.)
RT: Tyler Moore (6-5, 315, RSo.) OR Chaz Green (6-5, 305, RJr.)
TE: Clay Burton (6-4, 247, Jr.)/Tevin Westbrook (6-5, 258, Jr.) OR Colin Thompson (6-4, 250, RFr.) OR Kent Taylor (6-5, 223, So.)
RB: Matt Jones (6-2, 228, So.)/Mack Brown (5-11, 215, RJr.)
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:
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