Florida Gators: Jarrad Davis

Florida's two-deep: Linebacker

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
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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 and offer a glimpse into the future. You can read the whole series here.

LINEBACKER

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSenior middle linebacker Michael Taylor is the leader of the defense.
The starters: Senior strongside linebacker Neiron Ball, junior middle linebacker Antonio Morrison and sophomore weakside linebacker Jarrad Davis

The backups: Sophomore strongside linebacker Alex Anzalone, senior middle linebacker Michael Taylor and sophomore weakside linebacker Daniel McMillian

The rest: Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin and sophomore Jeremi Powell

The lowdown: The complexity of Florida's multiple-front defense is most evident at the linebacker positions. The strongside or SAM linebacker is often disguised in rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, but it's the mirror-image middle (MIKE) linebackers and weakside (WILL) linebackers who typically play all three downs. Naturally, the Gators are strongest at the MIKE and WILL positions, where Morrison, Davis and Taylor give them three reliable options. Taylor is the veteran leader of the linebackers and he doesn't mind coming off the bench because he knows he'll play a lot of snaps. Davis pushed his way into the starting lineup by the end of his freshman season and carried that momentum into the spring, consistently earning praise for how quickly and how well he responded to coaching. Morrison is a bit of a question mark. Outstanding as a true freshman, he struggled in his sophomore season with two summertime arrests and a decline in production on the field. Florida has high hopes for its backups, three of whom came from a highly touted Class of 2013. Anzalone and Rolin were ticketed for significant playing time as true freshmen, but injuries hampered both. McMillian played mostly on special teams but started to show a better grasp of the defense this spring.

The future: With two seniors set to depart after the 2014 season, Florida doesn't have overwhelming numbers at its three linebacker positions, but coach Will Muschamp does not appear concerned as his defense has evolved into one that plays more nickel packages to combat the proliferation of spread offenses in the SEC. Davis has the look of a rising star. Further down the depth chart are talented players who must overcome injuries. Anzalone had surgery last spring on a torn labrum in his shoulder and dislocated the shoulder late in the 2013 season. Rolin had surgery on a torn ACL twice in his first year. Powell, a special teams ace, tore his ACL midway through last season. All three missed spring practice and are expected to be at full strength by fall camp. On the horizon, Florida needs to sign two or three linebackers in its 2015 class. The top names on UF's list are ESPN 300 prospects Jeffery Holland, Roquan Smith and Te'Von Coney. Another ESPN 300 athlete, Adonis Thomas, is being recruited as a buck linebacker, which is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position. But like Florida 2014 signee Justus Reed, Thomas has the athleticism to play strongside linebacker if he doesn't add the bulk to play on the line.

Second-year stars: Florida

June, 5, 2014
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Injuries forced Florida to dip into its 2013 class immediately, and a few freshmen stepped into the void to play meaningful snaps and seize starting jobs.

For most players, however, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference — the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

The Gators are next up in our second-year stars series.

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
AP Photo/Phil SandlinDemarcus Robinson had a rough freshman season, but emerged as a more mature player this spring.
Class recap: Will Muschamp reeled in his best recruiting class in 2013, which was ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Gators signed 16 ESPN 300 prospects as part of their 30-member class. The group provided an immediate impact from two five-star recruits -- cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and tailback Kelvin Taylor, who became starters and have the look of star players. Florida also mined a deep diamond in the rough, as three-star linebacker Jarrad Davis emerged as a playmaker despite being ranked the No. 47 outside linebacker prospect in the country.

Second-year star: WR Demarcus Robinson (6-foot-2, 201 pounds)

Recruiting stock: A four-star prospect, Robinson was the No. 7 wide receiver in the 2013 class. He also ranked No. 53 in the ESPN 300 and was a U.S. Army All-American.

2013 in review: Robinson had a turbulent first year in college. He was suspended two times for a total of three games. He was called out by coaches for his practice habits and a general lack of maturity. On the field, Florida tried to get Robinson involved early in the season, but the passing offense was in shambles and he finished with just five catches for 23 yards.

2014 potential: As much as Robinson disappointed in 2013, he bounced back with gusto in the first half of 2014. Off the field, teammates praised his maturity, attitude and confidence. On the field, Robinson stood out as the Gators' most physical receiver, a dynamic weapon with the ball in his hands with an intimidating blend of power, speed and vision. He backed it all up with a strong performance in Florida's spring game, leading all receivers with five catches for 53 yards, including a 31-yard, highlight-reel touchdown.

Also watch out for: The Florida coaching staff also has very high expectations for Davis, who could emerge as the team's best linebacker. There are also plenty of opportunities for sophomore receivers Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson, who got their feet wet as freshmen. Another major strength of UF's 2013 class is at safety, where ESPN 300 prospects Keanu Neal, Nick Washington and Marcell Harris will have chances to break through in 2014.

Replacing the Gators: Defense

May, 13, 2014
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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.
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."

Florida's spring standouts

April, 16, 2014
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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.

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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. -- Michael Taylor is like any student about to embark on his final year of college. Time has flown fast, and there's a sobering finality about being a senior.

The Florida linebacker is more serious. He has his priorities lined up.

[+] EnlargeTaylor
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichael Taylor hopes to lead by example to help get the Gators back to their winning ways.
For his last season in orange and blue, Taylor isn't worried about being first team or second team. He's just focused on the whole team and getting the Gators back to their winning ways.

"Mike in our mind is a starter for us," Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Thursday. "Yeah, he does reps with the ones, the twos and all over the place. He's one of our most experienced guys obviously. Mike knows the defense really well.

"Talking about a leader and a valuable guy, you can't say enough about Mike Taylor for us."

It all stems from Florida's 4-8 record last fall and the soul searching that naturally occurs as a result. Looking back, some of the Gators have said there was no leadership last season.

"Wrong kind of leadership," Taylor said. "More vocal, rather than action. You know, we need action rather than just people saying what they're going to do or just telling people what to do.

"Guys will try to be vocal leaders and try say every word in the dictionary, but you can do it all you want if you're not setting the right example."

At this point in a spring full of burgeoning optimism, there's less of a need for speeches. To a man, the Gators say they're more focused on closeness and leading by example.

Taylor has grown into the role of mentor. Last year, he took then-freshman linebacker Jarrad Davis under his wing. This year it's sophomore LB Daniel McMillian.

"When I came in, I was kind of lost in the system," Davis said. "He reached out to me and he pulled me along. Once I got on my feet, he was a guy that I could always still lean on and definitely go to if I'm not seeing things right.

"If I need somebody just to talk to about anything, Mike Taylor is that guy for me. I really love him and appreciate him for that."

By the end of his freshman season, Davis made a splash and even got into the starting lineup. A few months later, Taylor speaks with a sense of pride when he tells people to look for Davis to make an even bigger impact this fall.

The same thing is happening with McMillian, whom Durkin calls one of the most improved players on the team this spring.

"[Taylor] has been great for D-Mac and some of the younger guys, because Mike is that type of guy," Durkin said. "He takes time to bring another guy along. He has spent time with Daniel off the field, too."

With so much of Taylor's time and effort going to help younger teammates, one might think he was preparing to take a back seat. But Taylor is coming off of his best season after leading the Gators in tackles.

This spring in another story, however. It's as if being a senior has inspired Taylor.

On a team so badly in need of respected voices, the mantle of leadership has fallen squarely on his shoulders.

"Mike really did step it up," Davis said. "He always takes the game seriously and he always takes everything we do seriously. But this year, something feels different. Something feels different being around him, practicing with him, everything. I don’t know what it is. It’s too early to tell."

Perhaps it was the gut-punch of a 4-8 record that sharpened Taylor's approach. Perhaps it's just the natural way of things -- a senior knowing he has only so much time left on campus.

"I've been talking to coaches," Taylor said. "They say this is the best time of your life, so I'm just trying to take it all in and enjoy this time ... and yeah, have fun."
Now that almost all the SEC schools are officially going through spring practices, it's time to see who could break out in the weeks ahead.

It's a fun time to prognosticate about players we might know, but didn't know were that good. Spring practice doesn't tell us a lot, but it does get players ready for the fall and can separate guys from the pack before summer workouts and fall camp gets underway.

Today, we're taking a look at five players from each division who have a chance to break away from the pack this spring at their respective schools. We'll start with the Eastern Division and take a look at the West a little later.

[+] EnlargeMissouri celebrates
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsMissouri running back Russell Hansbrough, left, could have many more opportunities to celebrate in 2014.
Here are our five breakout players from the SEC East (in alphabetical order):

  • Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: Now that Bruce Ellington is gone, the Gamecocks are in search of a No. 1 wide receiver. It's like this happens every year now. Cooper only caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown during his freshman season in 2013, but Steve Spurrier was a big fan of Cooper last year. And with Damiere Byrd still dealing with a knee injury, Cooper should get a lot of work this spring, especially in the slot, where he could be really dangerous. With his speed, Cooper could be a real threat in the open field.
  • Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida: The Gators return a solid group of linebackers, but Davis is one to really keep an eye on this spring. He was the least heralded of Florida's freshman linebackers last year but was the best of the young bunch, registering 24 tackles and a start in 12 games. He's a hard worker, has great football intelligence, and is a workhorse on the field and in the gym. Coach Will Muschamp has raved about Davis' leadership skills and how well he's adapted to the college game. Davis will work inside this spring and will push for one of the starting spots there with Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor.
  • C.J. Duncan, WR, Vanderbilt: The Commodores are in search of some offensive weapons this spring, and Duncan has the talent and versatility to make quite the impression on his new coaches. He can play receiver and running back and should get a chance at both positions this spring. The Commodores need help at receiver, especially with Jordan Matthews gone, so Duncan will have every opportunity to make an impact there first. He doesn't have any game experience, but this entire team is basically starting over fresh with a new coaching staff.
  • Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri: Henry Josey might be gone, but the Tigers are in good hands with Hansbrough, who was second on the team last year with 685 rushing yards and tallied four touchdowns. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and has a special blend of speed and power. This position is wide open, and Hansbrough will have to compete with a very steady and explosive Marcus Murphy, but he could be really special with Josey gone. Hansbrough can break the big plays and bowl you over with his strength. He'll have every chance to take the starting spot this spring.
  • Chris Mayes, NT, Georgia: The Bulldogs would love to get more consistency up front, and Mayes is a guy who quietly came into his own last season. He ended the season with seven straight starts at nose tackle and registered 31 tackles and a sack. He's an athletic, big body in the middle and should have a lot of fun learning from new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. The junior will get some push from a couple other players in the middle, but if Mayes feeds off the momentum he gained at the end of last season, he could have a very good spring in Athens.

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 3 of our weeklong series predicting what's ahead for Florida this spring.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's no coincidence that Florida's vaunted defense slipped last season after the departure of several 2012 mainstays. Upperclassmen such as middle linebacker Jon Bostic, tackle Sharrif Floyd and safety Matt Elam were that team's best leaders.

Florida coaches expected to ride out the leadership void because the team's heart and soul -- defensive tackle Dominique Easley -- returned with his unique and magnetic blend of intensity, silliness and determination.

Then Easley tore his ACL after the third game, and suddenly there was deafening silence.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Morrison
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFlorida hopes Antonio Morrison is over his sophomore troubles and is ready to become a leader.
The end of Bostic's college career was also an underrated factor in terms of Florida's lack of vocal leadership. The Gators had cultivated a pipeline of highly successful middle linebackers dating back from Channing Crowder in 2003 to Brandon Siler, Brandon Spikes and then Bostic.

The torch was supposed to be passed in 2013 to sophomore Antonio Morrison, who had already signaled his arrival with a big splash late in his freshman season. But Morrison's follow-up was full of turmoil. He was arrested twice last offseason and suspended before his on-field performance took a surprising turn for the worse. His season ended, like so many others, with a serious injury -- torn cartilage in his knee.

Instead of having a rising star at a crucial position in Morrison, the Gators were left with questions for the future. Can Morrison regain the trust of his coaches and teammates? Will he return to being a reliable tackler and playmaker?

That's what it will take for Morrison to become a leader on what is expected to be one of the SEC's best defenses.

It's easy to predict that he will, because Muschamp has witnessed Morrison's work ethic so far this offseason. The coach was quick to praise Morrison and has also seen fellow linebackers Michael Taylor and Jarrad Davis emerge as leaders.

"I think Antonio speaks more with his work habits and how he works in the weight room and how he works in practice," Muschamp said. "He's an intense player. I think he speaks volumes, like Jarrad Davis does, like Mike Taylor does. Those guys work hard. Those guys have a good work ethic.

"Those guys realize we need to be more productive at the position than we were a year ago. But [with Morrison] I've seen a guy that's, again, you get humbled, you get knocked down like we were last season, you just shut up and go to work."

In defensive ends Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard, Muschamp recognized an opportunity to challenge two of his best linemen to embrace leadership.

"[They] have taken a little step forward as far those things are concerned and understanding it's time to step into their role," Muschamp said. "I sat both of those guys down when they came in [at the start of this offseason] and talked to them about Sharrif and Dominique: 'Listen, those guys kind of groomed you when you came in. Now it's your job to do that.' That's kind of what we need to start doing now, understanding what it takes."

In the secondary, Vernon Hargreaves III certainly understands what it takes. Muschamp calls him "a great leader," and it's easy to see why. Hargreaves not only excelled on the field as a true freshman in 2013, but off the field he's charismatic, well-spoken and popular.


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.

Will Muschamp: They call him Flipper

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
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They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there under, under the sea!

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It may be a 1960s TV show, but try getting the theme song for "Flipper" out of your head once it's stuck there. It's about as easy as getting Florida coach Will Muschamp to stop recruiting a prospect he wants.

In three years as chief recruiter for the Gators, Muschamp has clearly displayed a penchant for getting committed recruits to change their minds.

Dante Fowler
Courtesy Fowler FamilyDante Fowler, right, flipped from Florida State to Florida in 2012.
He's done it so often, some Florida fans call him Flipper.

The first big splash came in 2012 when defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., a prized recruit in Florida State's No. 2-ranked class, made a dramatic switch to Florida on signing day after being committed to the Noles for more than a year.

Muschamp's persistence over that time period and insistence that Fowler would get on the field earlier with UF paid off.

"It was real difficult,” Fowler said on signing day. "Being committed for a year and growing up a Florida State fan all my life -- I always hated Florida, and I always told myself I would never go to Florida, and now I’m about to be playing for them. It’s kind of crazy."

That was just the start of the craziness.

Last year Muschamp upped the ante with six more flips, four just before they signed as early enrollees in January 2013. In fact, three of Florida's four linebackers in that class -- Matt Rolin (from South Carolina), Alex Anzalone (Notre Dame) and Jarrad Davis (Auburn) -- flipped from other schools.

The key to flipping recruits, Muschamp said, is not a secret. It's a simple approach.

"You stay on guys," he said, "and try to make valid points you’ve made throughout the entire recruiting process all the way through."

He's done it again this year, getting three of his nine early enrollees to flip.

Each of the three -- cornerback Jalen Tabor (Arizona), athlete Brandon Powell (Miami) and offensive tackle Kavaris Harkless (Louisville) -- changed their minds as late as the first week of the spring semester.

None was more last minute than Harkless, who was on campus at Louisville the day before his first class when he changed his mind and flew back to Florida. Harkless was swayed by the departure of coach Charlie Strong, who left Louisville for Texas.

When the coaching change news broke that weekend, so did Harkless' commitment to Louisville.

One of Harkless' coaches at Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian, Gerard Ross, saw firsthand how UF coaches laid the foundation for Harkless' change of heart. Ross says it's a matter of the Gator coaches continuing to build relationships even after their targets have committed elsewhere.

"They do a good job of staying in contact with those guys that they really want who are committed to other places," he said. "That way if something ever changes that kid's mind, then that whole time they've been there with that kid. The [recruit] has something to fall back on."

It used to be taboo in recruiting to go after a committed prospect. Now, the taboo is a relic of a bygone era. It's open season on all commits until the ink has dried on the official letter of intent.

"These days in recruiting it's a little different than when I came out," said Ross, who played cornerback for FSU from 2002-05. "These days you almost can't blame the kids for trying to find a school pretty early and finding themselves a spot, because you can't oversign anymore. At the same time, the coaches almost have to stay on those kids who do commit early. There's a window when that kid might flip.

"Back in the day when a kid committed, that was pretty much it. That's where he was going. But nowadays, college football is becoming a business."

A business in which coaches move frequently for new jobs, often shaking up recruiting classes in the process.

It's something Florida has experienced on both sides -- from losing recruits when former coach Urban Meyer retired (twice) to cherry-picking players like Harkless, who found himself far from home and without a coach.

"That's recruiting, you know?" Harkless said from Louisville in early January, just before he left for Florida. "I still have respect for Coach Strong, because he has to go where it's best for his family. I'm just doing the same."

After announcing Harkless among his nine early enrollees in January, Muschamp talked about the increase in drama and decommitments on the recruiting trail. This rockier road, he said, is here to stay.

"The earlier and earlier recruiting goes, you’re going to continue to see this. That’s not stopping," Muschamp said. "I think the earlier it is, young men are making decisions before maybe they have the information or they’re sure of what they want to do or how they’re going to do it. I think you’re going to continue to probably see this."

Translation: Beware the Flipper.

Like a song stuck in your head, Muschamp isn't going to stop anytime soon.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has fielded top-notch defenses for years. And why not when it recruits top talent so consistently?

Head coach Will Muschamp has lived up to his reputation as one of college football's best defensive minds, and as such, the Gators are in good shape on that side of the ball. There are no positions that stand out as glaring weaknesses.

As with every offseason, there are players who must emerge -- or at the very least continue to develop -- as contributors.

On Thursday, we went through five Florida players who must step forward on offense. Here are the five that UF needs to do likewise on defense.

LB Antonio Morrison: Last season couldn't have gone much worse with two offseason arrests, a suspension and a season-ending injury. But in between, Morrison didn't quite live up to the expectations he created in 2012 during a standout true freshman season when he made four starts, a handful of big plays, was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and seemed set to take over as Florida's starting middle linebacker. Much was expected on and off the field.

His disciplinary issues eroded any chance of being a team leader, but on the field, Morrison missed tackles and had an alarming lack of splash plays. Florida has plenty of options at linebacker, and with head coach Will Muschamp declaring all jobs up for grabs, don't be surprised to see the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morrison move to outside linebacker. As long as he stays out of trouble and gets back to his playmaking ways, there will be a spot for him.

[+] EnlargeBrian Poole
AP Photo/John RaouxBrian Poole needs to build on his 2013 total of 35 tackles and two interceptions.
DB Brian Poole: You'll notice a trend on this list -- they're all upperclassmen. It's hard to believe Poole is already heading into his junior season. Time has flown fast, which means it's also running out for the once-heralded recruit (Poole was a top-10 cornerback and top-100 overall prospect in the Class of 2012). He took a step forward last season, claiming the nickel cornerback position and making six starts with 35 tackles and two interceptions. But it's clear that Poole has more to give. He's similar to Florida's starting safety Cody Riggs, who converted from cornerback and started all 12 games last season. They're both feisty, physical players who could battle head-to-head this spring to see where the playing time will be divided. Florida has a myriad of contenders for playing time in the secondary, and between the nickel and safety positions, there might be no better combination of ball skills, physicality and experience than Poole.

DT Leon Orr: Like Poole, Orr came to Florida as a top-10 prospect at his position and a top-100 overall recruit in his class. But it's taken time for him to learn and adapt to the defensive line after playing a lot at tight end in high school. Orr got into great shape last season and made eight starts, but his production didn't match the opportunity he was given. Orr actually had fewer tackles for loss in 12 games than he did in nine games in 2012. Florida's defense as a whole dropped off after it lost its heart-and-soul leader, DT Dominique Easley, to injury. Now heading into his senior season, Orr needs to take it upon himself to be the penetrating, disruptive playmaker the Gators lacked on the interior line last season.

LB Neiron Ball: Heading into his fifth season at Florida, Ball has seen plenty of action with 36 career games and nine starts. But his stats have been modest -- 45 tackles, three for loss, one sack and one interception. At 6-3, 235, Ball has the size as well as the talent and the acumen to be an above-average strong-side linebacker. His senior season represents one last chance to step out of the shadows and become an impact player. Ball got off to a fast start as a true freshman, playing on special teams and at backup linebacker. And he certainly earned the respect and admiration of teammates and coaches for coming back from a burst blood vessel in his brain that cost him the 2011 season. Now it's time for Ball to cash in all of that credit and become a leader in words and in actions. If he doesn't step up, some of his young, hungry teammates are sure to cut into his playing time.

DL Jonathan Bullard: As a perfect specimen at strong-side defensive end, Bullard's strength also got him shifted to defensive tackle for three starts in 2013 after Easley was hurt. Two of his better games statistically came when he played on the interior, but by the end of the year Bullard expressed frustration at having shifted positions throughout the season. Still, if he's not using his bull rush to get to the quarterback consistently, perhaps Bullard should be more amenable to moving inside. Wherever he plays, 1.5 sacks a season is not going to cut it for a guy who once among the top-50 recruits in the 2012 class. Bullard will be a junior this fall, and the Gators need him to either provide more of a pass rush from the edge or push up the middle. Position matters far less than productivity.

Unlike many of their counterparts on offense, Florida's defenders are moving through a normal career path of development. It helps to have so much stability in the coaching staff and schemes.

A handful of players who didn't make this list, however, will have opportunities in 2014 and could leap forward as valuable contributors. Those who have already seen playing time are hoping it will increase in 2014 include: DL Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister; LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone; and DBs Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal.

The Gators also redshirted seven talented freshmen in 2013, some of whom might be ready to jump into the fray this fall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the obvious silver linings of a subpar season is having the opportunity to get young players on the field. Florida burned 11 redshirts last season. That's a lot of precious experience for players who will be counted on to step up even further in 2014.

Here are the five Gators who impressed the most:

[+] EnlargeVernon Hargreaves III
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsVernon Hargreaves didn't waste much time making an impact at Florida, as the five-star cornerback became the first Gators freshman to make first-team all-SEC since Emmitt Smith.
CB Vernon Hargreaves III: This coach's son stood out from the moment he stepped on campus last summer and started the final 10 games of the season. Hargreaves led Florida with 11 pass breakups (tying the school record for a freshman set by Janoris Jenkins) and three interceptions. He showed very refined technique in coverage for someone so young. Hargreaves was rewarded with first-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches and the Associated Press, becoming the first UF freshman to earn such distinctions since running back Emmitt Smith in 1987.

RB Kelvin Taylor: The son of Gator great Fred Taylor seemingly was around the program for years before he signed last January. When Kelvin Taylor hit the field, he immediately reminded fans of his father, thrilling a sold-out crowd on opening day when he broke off a long run in mop-up duty. But he really spread his wings after starting running back Matt Jones was lost for the season due to injury. Taylor started four of the last five games of the season and finished second on the team with 111 carries for 508 yards rushing (4.6 yards per carry). He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

LB Jarrad Davis: A three-star recruit and one of the least-heralded members of Florida's 2013 class, Davis was also deemed the least likely of the Gators' four linebacker signees to get playing time as a freshman. But he did just that and was the only one to earn a start. Davis was a special-teams standout throughout the season and saw his playing time at outside linebacker increase as the season progressed, as all but one of his 24 tackles came in the final six games. Davis showed good closing speed in recording two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble to boot.

P Johnny Townsend: After flipping his commitment from Ohio State to Florida on signing day last February, Townsend didn't take long to make a surprising impact on the field. He took the punting job from record-setting sophomore Kyle Christy midway through the season and didn't look back. Townsend led Florida with a 42.0-yard average on 29 punts, including five over 50 yards and six inside the 20-yard line. He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

WR Ahmad Fulwood: One of three freshmen receivers who avoided a redshirt, Fulwood was the most consistent and the most involved in weekly game plans. He finished the season with 17 catches for 127 yards and one touchdown, modest stats on an offense that struggled mightily. But Fulwood flashed promise and has the kind of size (6-foot-5, 196 pounds) that creates mismatches all over the field. The Florida coaching staff is very eager to see what Fulwood can do with a complete offseason of strength and conditioning.

The rest: Six other true freshmen played for UF last season, gaining invaluable experience. They were wide receivers Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie and safety Keanu Neal.

Gators confident they can bounce back

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida need not look any further than Saturday's championship game to see how quickly fortunes can change in the SEC.

Auburn was winless in league play last year, and Missouri won all of two games in its first spin through the South. A year later, they're playing for a ring.

With 2013 mercifully over, the Gators must pick up the pieces of a 4-8 season and try to find some positives after a bleak seven-game losing streak ended the season with a thud.

"Honestly, I feel like we hit rock bottom this year," offensive lineman Max Garcia said. "I feel like the only way we can go is up."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWill Muschamp is counting on his players using this year's humbling experience as motivation.
That's one way of looking at it. Another is to use the bitter sting of defeat as a motivating force during the offseason.

"It's a clean slate, but you still have to remember what happened," Garcia said. "And you want to not let that happen ever again. We don't want to feel that pain. We don't want to feel this pain ever again. I'm sick and tired of losing.

"Next year, we have that pain to sit in our hearts. We have to work through that, and we have to take that pain and make it into intensity, make it into effort, make it into want-to. We have to want to go out there and take the opposing will out of the [opponent]. That's what we have to work through."

Payback certainly can be a motivating force. After the season ended last Saturday, safety Cody Riggs spoke of exacting revenge upon the teams Florida will meet again in 2014.

The Gators should have a chip on their shoulder. In fact, head coach Will Muschamp is counting on it.

"It's a great lesson to be humbled in life a little bit sometimes -- as a coach, number one, as a staff and as players," he said. "Nothing wrong with that. That's good for us. ...

"You want to keep battling and keep playing if you're a competitor. Absolutely no relief at all [that the 2013 season is over]. You just want to be able to get out and continue to practice and improve. We've had a lot of young players continue to take a bunch of reps that have improved. A bunch of guys that we weren't really counting on this year that have come out and played. That will help our depth as we move forward."

There's another silver lining.

Florida's dizzying parade of injuries in 2013 sapped the team's strength physically and mentally. But the youth movement that resulted is a big positive for Florida. Several young players got invaluable experience as a result of injuries. True freshmen Kelvin Taylor, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jarrad Davis and Chris Thompson made starts at running back, cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver, respectively.

Florida also developed much-needed depth at the quarterback position after starter Jeff Driskel was lost in Week 3. Backup Tyler Murphy started six games before he was hurt. He ceded the job to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who made the final three starts of the season.

"I think the future is very bright," Mornhinweg said. "We've got some guys coming back. We can't make any excuses. We were a little dinged up, but you really can't make any excuses. We've got some guys coming back, and I think we're going to be a very strong team."

Injuries heal, and painful memories can fuel an entire offseason of work.

"We're going to be working hard in the offseason," Mornhinweg said. "I never want to feel like this again. This is a terrible feeling to have, and we're going to be on a mission next year."

Next year. When the season is upon them next fall, Florida will have an unblemished record. Time should heal the wounds of 2013's painful losing streak, and the memories of an incompetent offense will fade. Eventually, Florida will foster some optimism as it begins anew with a rebuilt offense.

Like the Gators hope to do next season, Auburn and Missouri bounced back this year with new offensive coordinators. Gus Malzahn brought Rhett Lashlee with him from Arkansas State to the Tigers, while Josh Henson replaced David Yost at Mizzou.

Fresh faces, a clean slate and a healthy roster count for a lot. But for Muschamp, the rebirth of the Florida Gators starts with one thing.

"Roll your sleeves up and go to work," he said. "That's the bottom line. That's all you can do. Be a great leader, great motivator for your team and organization. That's all we're going to do.

"We're going to be fine. We're going to have a good football team next year, I can assure you of that. Sitting in that locker room with those guys, we're going to be fine. And that's what's encouraging for me. It's damn encouraging."

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SEC SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
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