Florida Gators: Jalen Tabor

Florida two-deep: Cornerback

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
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Editor’s note: We’re breaking down the Gators’ two-deep depth chart every day for the next two weeks. We’ll cover every position as well as offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

CORNERBACK

The starters: Sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III and true freshman Jalen Tabor

The backups: Junior Brian Poole and true freshman Duke Dawson

The rest: True freshmen J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSophomore Vernon Hargreaves III gives Florida a shutdown corner that is among the country's elite.
The lowdown: Florida is on a major roll in terms of producing NFL cornerbacks, and the next in line could be the best one yet. Hargreaves arrived last summer with the aura of an elite freshman. His physical tools and ability to convert coaching into advanced technique earned him instant respect and playing time. He tied a school record with 11 pass breakups and was named first-team All-SEC, the first time UF had a freshman earn that honor since 1991. Hargreaves returns as the anchor of the secondary and will be counted on to shut down an opponent's best receiving threat every week. His experience in starting the final 10 games of the 2013 season will be invaluable, as Florida lost all four of its other starters from the secondary last season. With so many departures, the Gators have no choice but to throw some true freshmen into the fire this fall. Tabor and Dawson enrolled early and shared first-team reps throughout spring. Coaches love Tabor's long arms and ability to cover a lot of ground, while Dawson was just as good in coverage and showed more of a physical edge. The Gators play a lot of nickel, so it really doesn't matter which freshman corner wins the starting job opposite Hargreaves. There will be plenty of playing time for Tabor, Dawson and Poole, who started six games last season as UF's nickel back.

The future: Florida coach Will Muschamp had to load up on cornerbacks in his 2014 class after junior starters Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson left early for the NFL. Those openings allowed Muschamp to reel in five cornerbacks, four of whom were ranked in the ESPN 300. Jackson is an electric athlete with the ball in his hands. Florida coaches are planning to start his career at cornerback, but there could be a strong temptation to use him on offense and in the kick return game this fall. Wilson, at 6-foot-1, 197 pounds, is athletic enough to play corner but has the frame to eventually move to safety. Porter, a late addition to Florida's 2013 class, played quarterback in high school and can also play wide receiver but will get a first look at corner. Knowing Hargreaves and Poole are likely around for just two more seasons, Florida is continuing to recruit this position with zeal. The Gators have two pledges for 2015. Marcus Lewis, at 6-foot-2, 187 pounds, is another cornerback who could be a safety someday. Jalen Julius is an athlete who could also end up at wide receiver. The Gators' top remaining target is former Syracuse commit Davante Davis, who camped at UF last week and got an offer. At 6-3, he's another long defensive back who would offer position versatility.

Replacing the Gators: Defense

May, 13, 2014
May 13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is over, so it's time to talk about the next wave of Gators.

Florida only had four players selected last weekend, but three were from the defensive side of the ball.

Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on defense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

DT Dominique Easley
First-round pick, New England Patriots
Florida already has experience in dealing with the loss of Easley, who tore his ACL in practice after Week 3 and left a huge void in the defense for the rest of the season. Easley was a heart-and-soul leader with a relentless motor and a lightning-quick first step, attributes that are in rare supply in college football. Leadership and passion aside, finding a defensive tackle who can disrupt the running and passing game is a huge task. Florida will turn to Leon Orr and Darious Cummings, two seniors who are solid starters but have yet to make a consistent impact. Much of Orr's production in 2013 came after Easley's injury, and he does have good tools to work with at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds. Cummings looked quicker, more confident and more disruptive in spring practice. However, the Gators ultimately might need one of their talented freshmen to emerge and bump one of those seniors to a backup role.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBrian Poole has played cornerback, nickel corner and safety for Florida.
DB Jaylen Watkins
Fourth-round pick, Philadelphia Eagles
Another Gator who will be hard to replace, Watkins was a steady performer at cornerback, nickel corner and safety in his last couple of seasons. Florida is counting on some of its young defensive backs to give them that same kind of versatility. Heading into his junior season, Brian Poole has played all three of those positions but didn't grab a hold of the starting cornerback job that was available in spring practice. He could end up back at nickelback, where he made the first six starts of his career last season. At safety, Florida has steady senior Jabari Gorman and a host of talented youngsters. Sophomore Marcus Maye could get first crack based on the experience he gained last year in 12 games and two starts. Coaches are also very high on sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington.

LB Ronald Powell
Fifth-round pick, New Orleans Saints
Powell, who played a mix of buck linebacker and strongside linebacker in his final season, brought some pass rush off the edge and flashed the ability to play in space. Dante Fowler Jr. took over at the buck position last season and eventually pushed Powell to outside linebacker. Fowler has the pass-rushing potential to give the Gators a big upgrade. At the SAM linebacker spot, Florida has senior Neiron Ball, who at 6-3, 235 has a similar build to Powell. Ball is more fluid in coverage but needs to be more consistent in stopping the run and rushing the passer.

CB Marcus Roberson
Undrafted free agent, St. Louis Rams
The Gators employ more man coverage than most college defenses, and as a result they attract some terrific prospects. Roberson was one such player, who used his instincts to thrive in one-on-one battles. With two junior cornerbacks forgoing their senior seasons at UF, the numbers are now thin, but coaches can rely on star sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III to lead the secondary. There is also plenty of enthusiasm for Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, two freshmen who enrolled in January. They competed throughout spring practice, showing plenty of skill and the ability to learn on the fly. At 6-1, 188, Tabor is effective in using his long arms to blanket receivers. Dawson, at 5-11, 190, is just as good in coverage but plays a more physical style.

CB Loucheiz Purifoy
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
One of the best athletes on Florida's recent rosters, Purifoy made an impact at cornerback, as an elite-level gunner on special teams and even in limited time at wide receiver. Aside from Tabor and Dawson, Florida coaches are also very high on true freshman J.C. Jackson, who will enroll in June. Jackson is an explosive offensive talent, but his future could very well be at cornerback where he'll start his college career. Jackson could also make an impact right away as a kick returner.

LB Darrin Kitchens
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Kitchens was a valuable reserve linebacker, who was fundamentally sound and solid against the run. Florida appears set on its first unit with Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis. Senior Michael Taylor will also get plenty of playing time. Behind those three, Florida is hoping its young talent will emerge in 2014. Sophomore Daniel McMillian showed improvement throughout spring practice. The Gators also could get a lift from two bigger linebackers in Alex Anzalone (6-3, 239) and Matt Rolin (6-4, 227), each of whom missed the spring with injuries but are expected to push for playing time this fall.

DT Damien Jacobs
Undrafted free agent, Buffalo Bills
Another solid backup, Jacobs stepped up after Easley's injury and was a solid run-stuffer. Florida has three young linemen it is counting on in 2014 to become a part of the rotation at tackle -- sophomore Joey Ivie and redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick. Coaches are confident in all three when it comes to ability but are looking for more maturity and consistent effort. Three more exciting freshmen prospects -- Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark -- arrive in the summer, and Florida won't hesitate to burn a redshirt if any of them prove he is ready to contribute right away.
Spring practice has concluded for all 14 SEC schools, meaning the start of preseason practice can't be too far away.

But before we flip the page to summer workouts and the rest of the newcomers who'll be arriving in the coming months, let's take a look at those new faces on campus who made the biggest splashes this spring -- junior college transfers and early enrollee true freshmen.

We’ve come up with 10 in the Eastern Division and will unveil 10 more in the West later today.

Here's a look at the East:

[+] EnlargeJosh Malone
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsFreshman wide receiver Josh Malone is one of many new Volunteers that turned heads this spring.
Drew Barker, QB, Kentucky: Even though Patrick Towles played better in the spring game, Barker impressed the Kentucky coaches this spring and heads into the summer right in the thick of the Wildcats' starting quarterback race. True freshman starters at quarterback are rare in the SEC, but Barker is a rare talent.

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida: Florida coach Will Muschamp likes his group of young cornerbacks, and what's not to like with sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III leading the way? Dawson, a true freshman, stepped right in this spring, picked up the system and played well enough that he could be the Gators' starter at the nickel position.

Kenya Dennis, CB, Missouri: With E.J. Gaines departing, the Tigers needed some reinforcements at cornerback. Dennis, a junior college newcomer, showed enough this spring that he could be a key addition in that secondary rotation.

Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee: The Vols have been searching for that go-to running back for several years now. They think they've found him in Hurd, one of the top-rated high school backs in the country last year. The 6-3, 221-pound true freshman showcased power and speed this spring.

C.J. Johnson, DT, Kentucky: The defensive line should be one of the strengths of Kentucky's team next season, and even with the Wildcats losing their top three defensive tackles, they feel good about what Johnson will provide in the middle. Similar to Za'Darius Smith at end last season, Johnson could be the second straight junior college player to make a big impact for the Cats.

Abu Lamin, DT, South Carolina: Not only did the Gamecocks lose Jadeveon Clowney at end, but they also lost Kelcy Quarles at tackle. That's why they went out and got Lamin from junior college, and he proved to be a physical presence inside this spring.

Josh Malone, RB, Tennessee: One of several impressive true freshmen for the Vols, Malone put on a show in the spring game with three touchdown catches. Marquez North didn't have a lot of help last season at receiver. Having a big-play threat like Malone on the other side should only make North more dangerous in 2014.

Von Pearson, WR, Tennessee: The Vols shouldn't lack playmakers at receiver next season. Pearson, a junior college transfer, made waves all spring with some of his acrobatic catches. He'll almost certainly be a starter in the season opener.

A.J. Stamps, S, Kentucky: The Wildcats had a big need at safety, and Stamps jumped in and gave the entire secondary a boost with his play this spring. Coach Mark Stoops really likes Stamps' versatility. He's athletic enough to match up and play man coverage in certain sets.

Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida: Dawson wasn't the only true freshman cornerback to make his presence felt this spring at Florida. Tabor, one of the top-rated cornerback prospects in the country, made a strong bid to be the Gators' starter opposite Hargreaves next season.

Florida spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida Gators:

1. Florida's offense is already better than it was at any time last season. That's a low bar to clear, but new coordinator Kurt Roper made coach Will Muschamp happy by designing a run-heavy offense that can spread out opponents and get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space.

2. The defense has work to do. There are two rising stars in CB Vernon Hargreaves III and DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr. There are solid veterans at key positions such as S Jabari Gorman, DL Jonathan Bullard, and LBs Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor. The rest of the D is loaded with inexperienced talent.

3. After a 4-8 season in 2013, this is a team with a lot to prove. Everywhere you look there are chips on shoulders. The entire offense is determined to carry its weight, especially QB Jeff Driskel and the receivers. The kickers are looking to bounce back. No one wants to repeat the pain of last season.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will Driskel finally break through? The Gators don't need brilliance from their quarterback in order to have a decent offense. But he must improve his accuracy, pocket awareness and ability to read defenses. Roper has built his scheme around Driskel's strengths, so look for lots of running and quick passing.

2. Will a true freshman start at cornerback opposite Hargreaves? It's looking that way for a program that has had a lot of similar success stories with Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Hargreaves. Next up are Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, who didn't look out of place in spring ball.

3. Who are the playmakers on offense? Roper's scheme promised a clean slate and a lot of opportunities, as he typically uses a lot of players. Florida's most reliable options are RBs Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown. At receiver, there's Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. The rest still have much to prove.

One way-too-early prediction:

Florida will pass the eye test with fans by producing more offense and fewer cringe-worthy moments. But the schedule will prove difficult to navigate, and Gators fans will continue their debate over Muschamp's status throughout the season. Eight wins signals progress to many, while four losses stokes the flames of others.
Editor’s note: With Florida’s spring practice now in the rearview mirror, we’ll clean out the notebook this week and touch on a few remaining topics.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Much like star sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators' secondary is young and talented.

Unlike Hargreaves, though, most of Florida's defensive backs are unproven. There are just two upperclassmen in the group -- senior safety Jabari Gorman and junior nickel back Brian Poole. There are just two jobs nailed down -- Hargreaves at one corner spot and Gorman at one of the safety positions.

The rest of the UF defensive backfield is full of uncertainty, but loaded with potential.

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCB Vernon Hargreaves has one spot locked down in a young but talented Florida secondary.
It's not a bad problem to have.

"We want to get out there and find out exactly who can do what and where we’re comfortable with them playing, where they’re comfortable playing," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said during spring practice. "I don’t think by any means we’ve penciled in an answer by the end of spring break. We’ve got young guys and we’ve got to keep putting them in different situations. That’s what we’re trying to do in practice.

"They’ve responded really well. I feel good about where we’re at back there. We’re a talented group back there. It’s going to be a matter of guys keep competing and going at it. We want them to have that feeling all summer long, going into August, know that every day you’re competing for your job."

Florida coaches feel they have just enough experience and leadership to build a solid secondary. Young players such as true freshman corners Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson leaned heavily on Hargreaves, while Gorman took command of a young group of safeties.

"We have all the talent in the world but we still have to get the mental part down," Hargreaves said, "just knowing what to do, knowing your assignments. I think we’ll be all right, though."

The situation at corner is simple. Florida lacks bodies, so both freshmen can expect to play this fall.

At safety, the Gators have options galore.

"Leaders have to step forward," Gorman said. "Let those young guys believe in you. If they believe, then everybody believes and we'll all be OK."

Behind Gorman, Florida has two sophomores in Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal who got their feet wet last fall by playing in all 12 games. Maye got more minutes, starting two games, but there is a lot of excitement around Neal.

"[Neal] plays the game at a really high speed," Durkin said. "When he's on the field you feel him. You know he's out there. You can see it. He plays fast. He's very physical. He's a guy that now understands our defense better. He's been in there a little while.

"He'll absolutely be playing a number of spots for us. He's physical enough to do a lot of things for us, and he runs really well too so he has coverage ability. He has everything you're looking for in a safety."

Neal was part of Florida's sterling Class of 2013. He was one of the Gators' three safety signees, all of whom were ranked among the top -11 safety prospects in the nation. The other two -- Marcell Harris and Nick Washington -- redshirted due to injury.

"Competition will always be high," Harris said. "It’s spring and everyone is showing what they can do as a player. Coaches are always evaluating. There’s a lot of talent back there at safety. You’ve got veterans and us new guys that came in. We’re just out there competing every day and giving it our all for coach [Will] Muschamp."

It's hard to please the head coach who doubles as the safeties' position coach and has very high standards based on his own successful SEC career as a Georgia Bulldogs safety.

"Certainly the talent level is there, but we have a ways to go to shore up some things on the back end," Muschamp said after the spring game. " ... I think you go into a day like today, get some answers about where you are and how far you need to go, but more than anything sometimes for those young players to realize how far away they are. Sometimes they can get a little bit of skewed opinion of where they are."

Exactly the kind of growing pains Muschamp anticipated from his DBs. At the very least, though, the spring game gave the youngsters a chance to take a lot of reps and show what they can do.

"The secondary looked really good," starting linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal, those guys looked good all spring. Marcell really showed out today, showed what he can do. Keanu showed it last week in the scrimmage. Everybody’s doing really good back there. I really like what we have."
Editor’s note: With Florida’s spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, we’ll clean out the notebook this week and touch on a few remaining topics.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- What does Vernon Hargreaves III do for an encore to one of the best seasons by a true freshman in Florida football history?

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCB Vernon Hargreaves III is coming off am All-SEC freshman season, and coaches say he can be even better this year.
Going into his sophomore season, the cornerback can expect to be a full-time starter after a sensational first year in which he was named first-team All-SEC.

He can also expect a cold shoulder from opposing quarterbacks who won't want to test the Gators' best cover corner. So the man they call VH3 has resolved to help his team in other ways.

"I just need to be a better leader," he said during spring practice. "A lot of guys are looking up to me now. ...

"That's the role I'm trying to figure out right now. Last year was easy for me to ask [older players] what to do or what to expect or what's going down. Now they're asking me. I'm still learning how to kind of take that older brother role, but it's a process."

Teammates have noticed the change.

"I feel Vernon is very different," Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Vern came in here and wanted to be a leader. He's being vocal. He's matured a lot. He's working hard in the weight room. He's taking the offseason program very seriously, and you can see it in his body. He's just a freakish cornerback."

Last year, Hargreaves recorded 38 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups, which tied Janoris Jenkins in 2008 for the most by a freshman in school history.

The No. 3 overall prospect in the nation came to Florida last summer with an air of confidence. The son of a longtime college football coach, Hargreaves also brought razor-sharp coverage instincts and good enough technique to play in all of UF's 12 games and make 10 starts.

"Obviously Vernon lived up to everything we thought as a freshman and did some great things," defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said. "I think he’s still got a lot of growing to do in his game. I think he’d be the first one to tell you that. I think the unique thing about Vernon is not just his talent and his ability, it’s his understanding, an awareness of where he’s at and awareness of where the game of football is.

"Vernon’s a guy that understands you gotta get better. He’s not letting his head get too big and think, 'I’m this, I’ve arrived.' He practices really hard. He works on the finer details of his game, his technique. As long as he continues to do that, he’ll continue to do better and progress. The sky’s the limit for him."

Hargreaves has a more blunt assessment of his first season.

"Personally, I felt like I did OK," he said. "I had some things I needed to improve on. ... Just getting bigger, faster and stronger. I wasn’t really small last year, but I can get a little stronger."

Working every day in UF's conditioning program, Hargreaves did just that, which is why he is one player coach Will Muschamp doesn't worry about.

"He’s really intelligent," Muschamp said. "His biggest talent to me is his competitive edge and his thirst for being the best player he can be. Sometimes that’s hard. Guys rest on their laurels a little bit, they get patted on the back. He’s not a guy you worry about those sort of things. He handles praise and criticism very well. He’s not a guy that goes out and takes a day off. He goes out and works every day.

"He’s a great example for our younger players -- especially our younger secondary players -- of how you approach your business. I’m really proud of him in that regard."

Hargreaves had what Muschamp called "an outstanding spring." He performed so well and so consistently that the Gators held him out of their spring game, choosing to avoid exposing one of their best players to injury and instead giving extra playing time to two young cornerbacks.

Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson also had good springs, each attempting to follow in Hargreaves' footsteps as a starter.

Nine months ago, Hargreaves was in their shoes. Now he's taken both freshmen under his wing.

"He embraces it and does a great job bringing those guys along," Durkin said. "He’s approachable and helps those guys.

"He’s great for our defense. We’re lucky to have him."

Florida's spring standouts

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fresh faces were everywhere at Florida this spring.

A poor season in 2013 brought a clean slate. A new offense brought opportunities at every position. A large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen brought a much-needed infusion of talent.

Going into spring practice, our list of players to watch consisted of quarterback Jeff Driskel, cornerback Jalen Tabor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, and running back Adam Lane.

Now that football is finished for a few months, we'll take a look at the spring results and see who else stood out.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel is healthy again and it showed in the spring game.
Driskel: The fourth-year junior had a very good spring in terms of health, leadership and command of the offense. He capped it with a solid spring game, going 18-for-32 for 167 yards and a touchdown.

Tabor: It says a lot when a true freshman is thrown right into the competition for a starting cornerback job. At 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, Tabor used his long arms to make plays in coverage. He still needs to work on his press technique and where to keep his eyes, but it's easy to see that he has great athleticism and natural instincts.

Robinson: He came in with a lot of hype last season as a true freshman and didn't respond well to the rigors of college life, but this spring Robinson lived up to expectations. He is clearly Florida's most complete receiver and best hope for a star in the passing game.

Goolsby: The true freshman has the talent to become Florida's top pass-catching tight end. He drew the attention and praise of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. But most young tight ends struggle with inline blocking, and Goolsby was no exception. He still has a lot to learn before he gets regular playing time.

Lane: Out of 12 redshirt freshmen, Lane made the biggest splash this spring. He proved to be very tough to tackle because, at 5-7, 222 pounds, he's built like a fire plug and never stops moving his feet. The Gators rode the "Lane Train" to a team-leading 12 carries for 67 yards (5.8 yards per carry) in the spring game.

Dante Fowler Jr.: Not enough can be said about the junior buck linebacker's importance in Florida's defense. The Gators simply need him to become a pass-rushing menace. He showed up in better shape this spring, commanded the respect and attention of his teammates and delivered on the field with consistency.

Trenton Brown: The mammoth senior began the spring looking like a backup at right tackle, but by the spring game Brown convinced his coaches that he was among Florida's five best offensive lineman and started at right guard. At 6-8, 361, Brown is easy to spot, especially when he's clearing running lanes.

Jarrad Davis: As a true freshman last year, Davis made a late-season breakthrough and followed that up with a very good spring. He consistently earned first-team reps and the praise of his coaches and teammates. Davis has quickly become a leader and clearly has a very bright future.

Hunter Joyer: After very limited offensive contributions over his first three seasons, the senior fullback was something of a revelation at the B position. He showed good hands, even on intermediate routes. Joyer sustained a minor knee injury in the spring game but earned praise afterward. "[He] did a great job this spring," Muschamp said.

Bryan Cox Jr.: It's unclear if the third-year sophomore was just a spring starter or if he can stick with the first unit this fall, but there's no denying that Cox stood out. With a nonstop motor, he forced coaches to experiment with moving junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle. At the very least, Cox stepped forward to show that he can provide quality depth.

Duke Dawson: The "other" true freshman cornerback on the roster came in with less acclaim than Tabor but had just as much success this spring. Dawson is solid in coverage and plays with more of a physical edge than Tabor. "We’re excited about him, too," said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.

Veterans who performed up to their coaches' expectations included sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, junior left tackle D.J. Humphries, sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor, senior safety Jabari Gorman, senior running back Mack Brown, senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and senior right tackle Chaz Green.

Several other players developed well enough to win consideration for playing time this fall. They were: junior slot receiver Latroy Pittman, junior guard/center Trip Thurman, sophomore safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshmen defensive backs Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, and true freshman defensive end Taven Bryan.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nobody does optimism quite like a football team in springtime. Especially one with a lot to prove.

As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.

"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."

Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.

Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida coach Will Muschamp was satisfied with the progress the Gators made in spring practice.
OK, so we started off with a softball. It wasn't much of a reach to say the Gators would change the "woe-is-me" tune that permeated through an awful 2013 season. Nevertheless, a new attitude was extremely important in setting the tone of spring practice, building team chemistry and creating an environment for learning and development.

Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.

The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.

Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense

This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.

The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.

In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.

The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.

Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense

This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Michael Taylor aims to lead by example for the Florida defense.
The names might have been slightly off, but the final outcome was as expected. Fowler, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jabari Gorman, Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis are the players to whom teammates look for tone-setting and guidance.

Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.

There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.

Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs

This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.

Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.

It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.

"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."

Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge

Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.

There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.

Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.

Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.

Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.

Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.

The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.

There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with tradition, Florida concluded a month of practices with a feel-good scrimmage in front of thousands of fans and called the spring a success.

Coming off of a terrible 2013 season, the Gators desperately needed changes and positive feelings. They got that and more.

Florida satisfied head coach Will Muschamp's top priorities by installing a new offense, developing confidence, discovering some new players and rehabilitating some old ones.

Here's what else happened this spring:

[+] EnlargeWill Grier
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFreshman Will Grier showed a quick release in Florida's spring game.
Quarterbacks in command: From the opening of the first practice, it was obvious the QBs had studied hard and grasped the no-huddle spread offense. They led the installation process and made enough progress with fundamentals and basic principles to add wrinkles throughout the spring. Junior Jeff Driskel clearly separated himself as the starter in camp and had the strongest arm. He got into a good rhythm in the spring game and showed what the offense can do (against much of Florida's first-team defense). The battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot was a draw. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg improved as a passer throughout the spring and split reps with true freshman Will Grier. The much-anticipated prospect didn't disappoint, as Grier showed he has an extremely quick release and a bright future.

Deeper at receiver: The Gators have been painfully short of playmakers on offense in recent years, but the numbers are tilting in their favor. Florida will lean heavily on senior starter Quinton Dunbar and three talented sophomores who gained valuable experience last season in Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. The three combined for 13 receptions in Saturday's spring game. Robinson led the way with five catches for 53 yards, including a 31-yard, highlight-reel touchdown. The biggest proof of concept for the offense was that it did what everyone promised it would -- get the ball to players in space.

Still some concerns: After years of departures to the NFL, Florida has a very young secondary. There's plenty of talent, but it appears likely that at least one of the true freshman cornerbacks -- Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson -- will start either at corner or nickel. There will also be two new starters at safety, with an open spot still up for grabs opposite senior Jabari Gorman. ... The issue Muschamp harped on the most throughout the spring was a "huge" drop-off in ability from his first team to the second team on the offensive and defensive lines. Mental and physical stamina is part of the problem. ... Florida still isn't getting much offense from its tight ends and fullbacks. "We’re still looking for that consistent playmaker at the B-position," Muschamp said Saturday. He did single out true freshman DeAndre Goolsby for praise. ... Though there weren't any major injuries this spring, the bug still looms. Florida on Saturday held out two key starters on defense in defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. There was no reason to expose them to risk, and can you blame a team that lost one of its best players in Ronald Powell to a torn ACL in the spring game two years ago?

Kick in the pants: Muschamp said he's talked to a lot of mental conditioning coaches to try to help place-kicker Austin Hardin iron out his mechanics. Hardin, who struggled mightily in his first season as UF's kicker, made all four of his field-goal attempts in the spring game and won his coach's praise for achieving some consistency. Hardin will still have to fight off a few walk-ons who will try to take his job.

Position changes: Senior offensive tackle Trenton Brown moved inside to guard, performed well as a starter in the spring game and will stay there. At 6-foot-8 and 361 pounds, the Gators love his ability to be a people-mover in the running game. ... Florida gave junior Trip Thurman a long look at guard throughout the spring before giving him second-team snaps at center in Saturday's game. ... Redshirt freshman Antonio Riles moved from defensive line to offensive guard midway through spring. Florida coaches like his athleticism and said he looked natural on the O-line, but the real reason for the move might have more to do with three highly touted defensive line signees who are coming this summer: Thomas Holley, Gerald Willis III and Khairi Clark. ... Redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins wasn't making much of an impact at wide receiver early in the spring so he was moved to safety, where he played some in high school. Florida felt good about its numbers at receiver and needed more help in the secondary.

What's next: The Gators are on their own as far as workouts, as veteran players typically organize drills throughout the summer to stay sharp. Driskel said he plans to throw a lot and work on timing with his receivers. Muschamp said it best in outlining the next phase for his players: "Still got a way to go, 112 days until we report. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in this league."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Progress. It's what Florida fans expect to see this fall. It's what they hope to see in Saturday's spring game.

Everyone is under much more scrutiny after the Gators' 4-8 record last season, but mostly the microscope will be on a brand-new offense that has been installed in just 14 spring practices. It's just one of several aspects of the scrimmage that fans and the media will be analyzing.

[+] EnlargeRoper
Jeff Barlis/ESPNAll eyes on Saturday at Florida's spring game will be on new coordinator Kurt Roper's offense.
The game, at 1:30 p.m ET at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, will be divided into four, 12-minute quarters with a running clock. Teams were drafted by honorary alumni captains on Thursday night, but fans will get to see a lot of first-team offense against first-team defense in the mix.

Here's what to watch for:

New and improved quarterback: All eyes will be on Jeff Driskel, the junior who hasn't exactly lived up to his status as the top QB prospect in 2011. He's coming off surgery and six months of rehab for a broken bone in his lower right leg. The injury, which cost him most of the 2013 season, ensures that he'll be a non-contact participant (as will all of the QBs). Driskel has had an excellent spring. He's clearly the starter and is a respected leader. His teammates have been raving about how good and comfortable he looks in an offense that is much closer to what made him a star in high school. Driskel said he just wants to show the fans that he is confident and having fun. But nothing pleases a crowd like putting points on the board. He can create a lot of goodwill if he finds receivers in stride and generally commands a smooth-looking offense.

Mr. Roper's offense: Some success by Driskel and backup quarterbacks Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg would go a long way in showing off the new scheme that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought from Duke. The No. 1 thing that fans want to see is a very different-looking offense. Roper has the potential to deliver with his no-huddle, shotgun spread attack. At the very least, the tempo will be much faster than in any of Florida's last three seasons of taking a clock-chewing, run-heavy, pro-style approach.

Young secondary: The Gators have Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Jabari Gorman at safety and little certainty throughout the rest of the defensive backfield. Yes, there is a ton of talent, but it's young and inexperienced. There are three starting jobs open because UF operates so often in a nickel formation. Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson have had their expected ups and downs in competing with junior Brian Poole for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves. Poole is also in the mix at nickel corner, along with Marcus Maye. Keanu Neal might have the edge for the other starting safety spot, but keep an eye on Nick Washington and Marcell Harris. Don't be surprised if the DBs struggle on Saturday as Florida's offense looks to win fans and influence coaches.

O-line vs. D-line: This one is a toss-up. The Gators' offensive line has not been good in pass protection, but the defensive line isn't exactly loaded with pass-rushing demons. The uptempo offense should help Florida's O-line, as there is a new emphasis on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand in three seconds. The marquee matchup to watch is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. against left tackle D.J. Humphries. They're two of the Gators' most talented players, and they've been going at each other throughout spring practice. The rest of Florida's starters are veterans, but fans might want to cover their eyes when the second units come on. Coach Will Muschamp has not been pleased with the development of his young linemen on either side of the ball.

The B-position: Tight ends and fullbacks have been largely overlooked in recent years, as blocking has been the top priority. That's changed under Roper, who said on Thursday: "It's going to be an important position and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them." Roper said he's seen growth out of veterans such as Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Hunter Joyer. He also said early enrollee freshman DeAndre Goolsby is more comfortable in a pass-catching role based on his experience in high school.

Playmakers at WR: It bears repeating that this spring has been all about the new offense. Fans were screaming for dramatic changes by the end of last season, and no position needs it more than wide receiver, where the Gators haven't had anyone crack the 600-yard mark in a season since 2009. As the spring wore on, playmakers began to emerge. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the unquestioned leader of the group and a certain starter. Sophomores Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson appear to be developing as reliable targets. Slot receivers Valdez Showers and Latroy Pittman have had solid spring camps as well. If the offense clicks, it will be a treat for fans to finally see these athletes make catches in space and show what they can do with the ball in their hands.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There's a short list of true freshmen cornerbacks who have made instant impacts at Florida in recent years. And the success that Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins have had in the NFL has become a source of tremendous pride for the Gators.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star cornerback Jalen Tabor has an opportunity to play immediately for the Gators.
Last season, Vernon Hargreaves III topped all of their accomplishments when he was named first-team All-SEC as a freshman.

Could another star be around the corner (pardon the pun) in 2014?

Coach Will Muschamp set the stage when he recruited two talented cornerbacks in the Gators' 2014 class and got them on campus as early enrollees. Now that spring practice is in full swing, they're already competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Hargreaves.

Jalen Tabor made a late switch to Florida from Arizona just before he arrived in January. Ranked the No. 11 overall prospect in the nation, Tabor came to the Gators with the same kind of elite pedigree as Hargreaves.

Duke Dawson had been committed to the Gators for a year when he showed up. And while he was ranked lower than Tabor in the ESPN 300 (No. 207), Dawson is no less a prime prospect in the eyes of his college coaches.

"[Tabor] and Duke Dawson both have been a quick study as far as the corner position is concerned," Muschamp said on Tuesday. "Both of them are going to be really good players. They've got to just continue.

"The willingness is there and the coachability is there with both guys. They're willing to be in the film room extra. They're willing to come up here after hours and meet with our coaches and go over things and go over schemes and watch film and learn from it. The one thing that I would say [is] that they both have a very similar ability as Vernon -- when you tell them once they get it. They don't make that mistake again."

After five practices, neither of the freshmen has looked out of place. They've won their share of battles and have been singled out for praise as well as criticism.

"Jalen's got really good length on the line of scrimmage," Muschamp said. "[He] needs to do a better job in his press technique staying on the line of scrimmage, getting his hands on people -- that's his strength. And Duke's a guy that's playing corner and nickel and right now is battling Brian Poole for the starting job at nickel."

Florida employs a lot of nickel defense using three cornerbacks. It's how Hargreaves and Poole were able to combine for 16 starts last season despite the presence of veteran cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy. With those two skipping their senior seasons for the NFL draft, there are spots to fill.

Naturally Poole wants to take the next step in his career.

"Of course I want to start," said Poole, a junior who came to Florida with four-star status of his own. "I don't want to just say it's mine, but I'm working for it. It's pretty important to me because I just want to play every snap. I don't want to come on and off, on and off."

After missing just two of 25 games in his career, Poole says he's more comfortable than ever: "I don't have to learn what to do. I know what to do. Now it's just executing."

He expects his experience will give him the edge in the competition with Tabor and Dawson, but Poole still can't help being impressed with the newcomers.

"They're going to be really good," he said. "They're really learning the defense and starting to execute it well."

Well enough to start? Well enough to follow in the footsteps of Haden, Jenkins and Hargreaves?

Those are questions that will take several more months to answer.

SEC lunchtime links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
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Spring storylines abound this week around the SEC. Let's take a quick spin around the league to see what's happening.

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 18, 2014
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Schedule: The Gators' first spring practice is Wednesday. It's open to the public and free, along with seven other practice sessions. Spring football concludes Saturday, April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut, which starts at 1:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida pushed back the start of spring practice to ensure that previously injured players such as Jeff Driskel could participate.
On the mend: Florida pushed back the start of spring football by about 7-10 days in order to insure the full participation of several players who were injured last fall. Most notable among them are QB Jeff Driskel (broken leg), LBs Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), and O-linemen Tyler Moore (broken elbow) and Chaz Green (torn labrum). Still, the Gators will be without nine players this spring, including two former starters -- RB Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and DT Leon Orr (broken wrist).

On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.

New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.

Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.

Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.

Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.

Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.

Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.

All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With so much perfect weather in Florida, fans are expected to flock to the Gators' eight open practices, starting on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel's ability to adapt to new offensive coordinator Jeff Roper's simplified passing game will be key this spring.
Leading up to the start of camp, we've looked at the top position groups with room to improve, five players to watch as well as the most important position battles this spring. We wrap it all up with one final prediction blog -- who will be the stars of Florida's spring practice session.

Jeff Driskel and Will Grier: Quarterbacks get all the attention, and Florida's QBs will be no different. Driskel has inspired some love/hate feelings among Florida fans in his up-and-down career. This spring is his chance to reinvent himself as a take-charge veteran leader. More than any other player, Driskel can be the key to a successful spring if he commands Kurt Roper's offense, makes it look cohesive and helps his teammates do the same. Grier is that shiny, new toy that every kid wants to immediately take out of the box and play with. No one expects Grier to even challenge Driskel for the No. 1 job, but fans can't wait to see Grier's arm and how well he operates as Driskel's understudy.

Predictions: Roper's offense, with its simplified passing game, will suit Driskel and Grier perfectly. By the end of spring, fans will be treated to something they haven't seen much of in recent years -- well-timed passes on intermediate routes. Driskel, still recovering from a broken leg, won't run much at all, but Grier will show off his legs and athleticism whenever the pocket collapses.

Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane: You could say that Taylor is already a standout after starting several games in the second half of the 2013 season, but this spring is a chance for him to solidify his claim as the alpha dog of the backfield (especially with his top competition, junior Matt Jones, out for the spring due to a knee injury). Lane, a redshirt freshman with speed and a bowling ball-shaped body, reminds people of Maurice Jones-Drew. With Jones out and senior Mack Brown set as a backup, Lane will have an opportunity to burst onto the scene.

Predictions: Taylor will excite Gators fans by looking more like his father, UF great Fred Taylor. He'll improve his decision-making and blocking, show off his hands and become a weapon on swing passes. Lane will be effective as a change-of-pace back and have great success hiding behind Florida's big offensive linemen. He'll prove to be hard to tackle as well.

Alvin Bailey: Another spring, another reason for hope when it comes to the Gators' beleaguered wide receivers. Florida knows what it has in senior starter Quinton Dunbar, and the highest expectations are for the development of talented sophomores Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson. But Florida's Class of 2013 featured five WR recruits, and even though he redshirted, Bailey has the talent to explode in Roper's uptempo spread offense.

Prediction: Bailey's high school experience playing multiple positions will allow him to grasp Roper's offense better than most. He'll make headlines with his hands and shiftiness after the catch.

[+] EnlargeJalen Tabor
Miller Safrit/ESPNJalen Tabor could find an immediate role in Florida's secondary.
The secondary: There's a lot of pressure on true freshman early enrollee Jalen Tabor, who has been touted as an elite recruit who can play immediately, much like Vernon Hargreaves III in 2013. The Gators have lost a lot of reliable players in the defensive backfield in the last two years, so young players will have to step up. Junior Brian Poole could battle with Tabor for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves, remain at nickel, or shift to safety. There's a lot of work to do here, as several players have to settle into their best position.

Predictions: Tabor will be effective with his quickness and long reach, but Poole's experience will give him the edge to take over as a starting cornerback. Spring will be just the beginning, as the battle will continue in the fall. Redshirt freshman Nick Washington will be a fit at nickel cornerback, and sophomore Marcus Maye will stand out as a ballhawking free safety.

The big fellas: A lot of time is spent in the spring with skill-position players working on reading blocks, running routes and refining coverages. It's hard for linemen to stand out, but more than most programs, Florida likes to put on the pads and run its first-team offense against its first-team defense. When that happens -- and fans should get to see it in the spring game on April 12 -- the best battle will be left tackle D.J. Humphries against buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. Fans can also look for one of Florida's redshirt freshmen defensive tackles, Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, to emerge. It will be fascinating to see how they perform against 6-foot-8, 361-pound offensive tackle Trenton Brown, who will also spend some time this spring at guard. If Brown can improve his knee-bend and pad level, he could become a people-mover on the Gators offensive line.

Predictions: After some struggles in 2013, Humphries will resurface this spring. He'll show off solid technique in pass protection as well as good punch in the running game. He and the rest of the O-line will spend a lot of time with new coach Mike Summers teaching his approach. Fowler will take the next step in his development as a pocket disruptor and start finishing more plays. With senior starting DT Leon Orr out for the spring, Bostwick will emerge as gap-penetrator.
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.

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