Florida Gators: Florida spring position battles

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.

The weeklong series wraps up with a talented but inexperienced group of safeties.

Returning starters: None.

[+] EnlargeJabari Gorman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJabari Gorman has played quite a bit in a backup role the last two seasons and could be ready to ascend into a full-time starting position.
Departures: Senior Jaylen Watkins and junior Cody Riggs were originally cornerbacks, but they converted to safety in 2013 out of need and played well. Watkins moves on to the NFL, while Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame. That leaves a big hole at safety for Florida, as both were very good in coverage and had become leaders on and off the field. Riggs, in particular, started all 12 games at safety last season and seemed well suited for the position. He had 51 tackles, fourth-most on the team.

Returning reserves: With 37 career games and five starts last season, rising senior Jabari Gorman is now the graybeard of this group. He's a solid tackler who finished sixth on the team in 2013 with 48 tackles. He also showed improvement in coverage, breaking up seven passes and intercepting one. Marcus Maye had a solid debut last year as a redshirt freshman and has the all-around tools to make plays in coverage and near the line of scrimmage. He played in all 12 games, made two starts, and recorded 16 tackles and an interception. Backup Keanu Neal got on the field immediately as a true freshman, playing in all 12 games. He was a hit on special teams, tying for the team lead with five tackles.

Newcomers: Marcell Harris arrived at Florida last summer as the No. 7-ranked safety prospect in the Class of 2013, but he redshirted in order to rehab a knee injury suffered late in his senior year of high school. Harris looks a bit like an undersized linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, but he moves well and could become a force at safety. Another freshman who redshirted last season, Nick Washington, will get a look at cornerback but has the size (6-0, 191) to make a seamless transition to safety. Freshman early enrollee Duke Dawson, like Washington, can play corner or safety. Another similar true freshman, corner/safety Quincy Wilson, arrives this summer.

What to watch: Florida always seems to get solid if not spectacular play from its safeties. Perhaps it's because head coach Will Muschamp played and coaches the position. But the competition will be wide open this spring since the Gators have lost four starters in the last two seasons. The two most experienced safeties remaining, Gorman and Maye, will likely get the first crack at starting jobs. But keep an eye on Neal, an underrated talent who got some good experience as a true freshman last season. Ditto for Harris, who will be champing at the bit to make a splash after sitting out his first year. Washington, Dawson and junior Brian Poole will have their chances at cornerback, but any of the three could ultimately prove to be better suited for the safety position and eventually win a spot there on the two-deep roster. Spring is just the beginning of what will be an extended competition.
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 continues with a look at the linebackers. We'll skip the hybrid buck position because no one is likely to challenge budding star Dante Fowler Jr.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Morrison hopes to rebound after a long season.
Returning starters: Some very talented youngsters are starting to come on strong, so this is a big spring for Florida's veteran linebackers. Junior Antonio Morrison looks to bounce back from what was clearly a terrible 2013. On the verge of becoming a team leader, he was arrested twice last summer and then didn't play his best before missing the final three games of the season with torn cartilage in his knee. Senior Michael Taylor started all but two games and led the Gators in tackles. Senior Neiron Ball started seven games at strong-side linebacker.

Departures: Florida graduated senior Darrin Kitchens, a solid reserve who made three starts in 2013. Fourth-year junior Ronald Powell declared for the NFL draft. He bounced between buck linebacker and strong-side linebacker last season, never truly settling in as the dominant force he was projected to be coming out of high school.

Returning reserves: With his athleticism and ability to soak up coaching, Jarrad Davis made a big impression as a freshman. The three-star prospect came in as the least-heralded member of Florida's fine four-man class of linebackers in 2013 and became the only one to start a game last season. Two of those highly touted freshmen, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, played on special teams and saw the field sparingly. Anzalone will miss the spring with a shoulder injury. Also sitting out will be third-year sophomore Jeremi Powell, who made a splash in 2013 as a freshman special-teams ace before tearing his ACL midway through the season.

Newcomers: Florida didn't sign any linebackers in its 2014 class and there's only one LB on the roster whom fans have not seen in action yet. They'll have to wait some more, as redshirt freshman Matt Rolin won’t be ready to play until fall practice. The No. 5 OLB prospect in 2013 tore his ACL in camp last fall and missed the season. It was the same ACL he tore in high school, so the Gators are taking it slow with his rehab. Before getting hurt, Rolin made a strong impression on the Florida coaching staff, which was prepared to use him as a situational pass-rusher, backup strong-side linebacker and on special teams.

What to watch: In Anzalone, Rolin and Powell, Florida has three talented underclassmen out for the spring. Head coach Will Muschamp said he's not overly concerned about the number of bodies, however, because the Gators play so much nickel and dime defense. Still, Florida will ask a lot of its linebackers this spring. Morrison had a dynamite freshman year and then slumped badly as a sophomore. He'll look to bounce back and convince his teammates he is worthy of a leadership role. Morrison and Taylor will continue to battle for the starting inside linebacker job. Whoever shifts to weak-side linebacker will have to deal with the hard-charging Davis, who is looking to seize the starting job. On the other side, Ball has the size (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and experience (36 career games) to lock up the starting job, but McMillian has a lot to prove as well. He was one of the top prospects in the nation before starting slowly with UF as a freshman. His talent is undeniable, though, and his learning curve could be steep.
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.

Our weeklong series moves to the offensive line, a group of players who are critically important to Florida's plans for a rebirth on that side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeDJ Humphries
AP Photo/John RaouxD.J. Humphries is back and healthy for the Gators.
Returning starters: Left tackle D.J. Humphries, who will be a junior this fall, started six games in 2013 and missed the last five due to a sprained knee. He's one of Florida's top talents and is looking to bounce back after a sub-par season. Rising senior Max Garcia emerged as a leader last fall and started all 12 games, mostly at left guard and left tackle. Rising junior Tyler Moore made six starts at tackle last season before missing the final four games with a broken elbow. Mammoth juco transfer Trenton Brown played in every game last season as a junior and started the final five games at right tackle. Chaz Green was the Gators' starter at right tackle before he tore his ACL and missed all of last season.

Departures: Florida lost three seniors in center Jonotthan Harrison (12 starts), right guard Jon Halapio (10 starts) and guard/tackle Kyle Koehne (six starts). They were the heart and core leadership of the line. The Gators also saw key reserve Ian Silberman, who started the final four games at guard last year, transfer to Boston College after graduating in December. Two other transfers, Quinteze Williams and Trevon Young, never saw action for Florida.

Returning reserves: Rising junior Trip Thurman played in all 12 games as a backup. While he's not expected to unseat any of Florida's incumbent starters, Thurman will have an important role as the Gators' only returning reserve. The former three-star prospect has good size at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds and can play guard or tackle.

Newcomers: Last season, Florida redshirted tackle Roderick Johnson, center Cameron Dillard and guard Octavius Jackson, whose playing career is over because of a chronic shoulder injury. The Gators have three midseason enrollees who will participate in spring practice -- juco transfer Drew Sarvary and true freshmen Nolan Kelleher and Kavaris Harkless. This summer will see the arrival of three more linemen from UF's Class of 2014 -- tackles David Sharpe and Andrew Mike and guard Travaris Dorsey.

What to watch: No unit could use a clean slate more than Florida's offensive line. It struggled with injuries in 2013, but that wasn't the only major problem. The Gators have had trouble with pass protection for several years now, and it's proven to be one of the most crippling issues for an offense that hasn't been able to get out of its own way. Improving the pass blocking and developing depth are the two most important tasks this spring, and Florida will look to new line coach Mike Summers to lead the way. Summers comes to UF with 34 years of experience and a reputation as a fine teacher. Those skills will be put to the test, as the Gators have just five linemen with starting experience and only two others who have ever played in a college game. It's not necessary to settle on five starters this spring, but Summers needs to quickly figure out his players' strengths and best positions. Finding a replacement for Harrison, a three-year starter at center, is key. It's expected that a veteran like Moore or Garcia will make the shift to center, but Florida must continue to develop Dillard as a quality reserve who can eventually push for the starting job. Last year, Florida was unable to play a true spring game because of injuries to its offensive linemen, so staying healthy is another modest goal this spring. There are holes all over the two-deep roster and plenty of opportunities to win jobs. Fresh faces like Sarvary, Johnson and Kelleher will have their chances to carve out roles and perhaps even make it a competition with one of the five veterans. With a new OL coach and that much-needed clean slate, anything is possible.
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.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III, Michael Bennett
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III has the look of a future star.
The weeklong series continues with the cornerbacks, a position that has been a boon at Florida in recent years in terms of recruiting, developing college stars and ultimately producing NFL players.

Returning starters: Vernon Hargreaves III arrived with tremendous fanfare last summer and immediately became an alpha in the fall. He was easily Florida's best cornerback in coverage and was recognized as a first-team All-SEC selection. Hargreaves continued a recent string of true freshmen success stories, following in the footsteps of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Roberson.

Departures: Roberson and another junior starter, Loucheiz Purifoy, left early to enter the NFL draft where they are expected to be picked somewhere in the first three rounds. Roberson was terrific in coverage, while Purifoy relied on his elite athleticism to make plays all over the field. The Gators also graduated Jaylen Watkins, a cornerback who played out of position at safety during his senior season. Watkins, one of UF's most polished defensive backs in coverage, was a four-year player who made 28 career starts and grew into a strong leadership role. Another important departure was fourth-year junior Cody Riggs, who played at safety in 2013 but, like Watkins, was originally a cornerback. Riggs decided to transfer to Notre Dame, where he expects to be eligible this fall after graduating from Florida in the spring.

Returning reserves: There's only one, but he's certain to play a significant role in 2014. Rising junior Brian Poole came to UF with the pedigree of a top-10 cornerback prospect and has missed just two games in his first two seasons. He made six starts last fall as Florida's nickel cornerback, which is an important position considering how often the Gators employ five DBs. Poole is versatile, having seen time at safety as well, so there are plenty of options. He's a strong contender for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves, but Poole could also remain at nickel or shift to safety.

Newcomers: The spotlight will shine immediately on Jalen Tabor, the No. 5 cornerback prospect in the Class of 2014 who was also ranked No. 15 in the ESPN 300. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Tabor is on campus and has already commanded the attention of Florida coaches who are enamored with his range and athleticism. Similarly gifted is redshirt freshman Nick Washington, who missed his first season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Washington was a key four-star ESPN 300 recruit in Florida's 2013 class, and expectations are that his athleticism will translate into playing time this fall. Duke Dawson is another freshman already enrolled. He's a bit overshadowed by Tabor, but Dawson might fit better as a safety anyhow with his 5-11, 197-pound frame. Still, Dawson could get a long look at cornerback this spring because of his quick feet, fluid hips and natural feel for coverage techniques.

What to watch: Losing four starters -- including three juniors -- all of whom could play cornerback would likely be a staggering blow to most college teams. But at Florida, cornerback has become a glamour position and there's plenty of talent for the Gators to move forward without skipping a beat. Like Hargreaves the year before, Tabor is an elite prospect who exemplifies the current pipeline of cornerback talent that Florida is able to attract. Now if the coaching staff can coax another star performance out of a true freshman, the Gators suddenly won't look so thin at cornerback. There's plenty of talent, but not all of these players are ideally suited to be corners. One big injury could change the outlook for this position profoundly, so it is important that the Gators have a productive spring session. The top goals are to develop Tabor, see if Poole is ready for a full-time role and get reserves like Washington and Dawson ready for action. When fall camp rolls around, this group will be bolstered by three more true freshmen. J.C. Jackson, the No. 79 overall prospect in the nation, has the talent to be a natural cornerback who can compete for playing time right away. Quincy Wilson can play some cornerback but could ultimately wind up at safety. And Deiondre Porter was a high school quarterback who will get a first look at either corner or safety but seems likely to redshirt. There will undoubtedly be pressure on this group to continue the success of their predecessors, but cornerbacks at Florida play more man coverage than most. Pressure comes with the territory.
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.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar provides reliability and experience.
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.

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