Florida Gators: Keanu Neal

Florida two-deep: Safety

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
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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.

SAFETY

The starters: Senior Jabari Gorman and sophomore Marcus Maye

The backups: Sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshman Nick Washington

[+] EnlargeJabari Gorman
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSafety Jabari Gorman has played in 37 games for the Gators.
The rest: Redshirt freshman Marcell Harris

The lowdown: Four starting safeties have departed in the last two seasons -- Matt Elam, Josh Evans and Jaylen Watkins left for the NFL, and Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame. Most programs could not withstand that kind of exodus, but the Gators are not expecting much of a drop-off in 2014. With 37 games under his belt, Gorman is the veteran of this unit. He started five games last season and was sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He gives a young and inexperienced group a vocal leader to rely upon. Maye and Neal played in all of Florida's 12 games last season, mostly on special teams. Maye started the first two games of the season, but a couple of key mistakes kept him out of the starting lineup for the rest of the season. Still, his experience could give Maye an edge this fall. He'll have to hold off Neal, a physical presence, and two other talented redshirt freshmen. Washington and Harris missed last season with injuries, but both made solid impressions in spring practice. Harris, at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, has good range for his size. Washington is better in coverage and spent some time at cornerback and nickel during the spring.

The future: The Gators don't have overwhelming numbers at safety, but with their preference for bigger cornerbacks, it's possible that some position movement will occur down the road. Class of 2014 signee Quincy Wilson is one who comes to mind. He has the speed and athleticism to start his career at cornerback, but at 6-1 and 197 pounds, he could end up at safety. The same could be said of Florida's two 2015 cornerback commits, Marcus Lewis and Jalen Julius. UF coaches have the luxury of trying them at corner and moving them if they aren't earning playing time. The Gators are still looking for more in their next class. Deontai Williams, a hard-hitting ESPN 300 prospect, was the first pledge in the class. Florida's top remaining target is ESPN 300 athlete Jaquan Johnson.

Second-year stars: Florida

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
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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
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. -- 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. -- Spring has sprung in the state of Florida, which means a much-needed football fix is almost here.

We're getting you ready for the Gators' spring practice with a look at five key position battles to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

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

Returning starters: None.

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

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

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

What to watch: Florida always seems to get solid if not spectacular play from its safeties. Perhaps it's because head coach Will Muschamp played and coaches the position. But the competition will be wide open this spring since the Gators have lost four starters in the last two seasons. The two most experienced safeties remaining, Gorman and Maye, will likely get the first crack at starting jobs. But keep an eye on Neal, an underrated talent who got some good experience as a true freshman last season. Ditto for Harris, who will be champing at the bit to make a splash after sitting out his first year. Washington, Dawson and junior Brian Poole will have their chances at cornerback, but any of the three could ultimately prove to be better suited for the safety position and eventually win a spot there on the two-deep roster. Spring is just the beginning of what will be an extended competition.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- 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.

Gator Breakdown: Jabari Gorman 

June, 19, 2013
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During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 21 Jabari Gorman
Junior safety

Gator Breakdown: Marcus Maye 

June, 18, 2013
6/18/13
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During the summer, GatorNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Florida roster -- excluding the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class -- in our Gator Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Quinton Dunbar, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 97 Brad Phillips.

No. 20 Marcus Maye
Redshirt freshman safety

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Spring question No. 3: Safeties 

March, 6, 2013
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As part of our spring practice preview, each day this week GatorNation will address the five biggest questions facing the Gators. Today we’ll look at the uncertain situation at safety. On Thursday, we’ll examine whether the offense can make a jump in the second year under Brent Pease similar to what the defense did last season in its second year under Dan Quinn.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the better competitions during Florida’s spring practices will be to find a pair of safeties.


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Florida junior day preview 

February, 15, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One year ago, the Gators got off to a blazing start for their 2013 recruiting class with their first big junior day weekend in February. Florida was able to nab six commitments, including ESPN 300 prospects Nick Washington, Kelvin Taylor and Keanu Neal.

Though Florida eventually lost three of the six commitments, the huge recruiting weekend set the tone for the year for Florida's class, which finished ranked No. 2 in the nation.


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Robinson helps UF land touted DBs 

February, 7, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Most of the attention has been on the five receivers Florida signed on Wednesday.

But the Gators had a pretty good haul in the secondary, too.

UF signed four defensive backs, including the nation’s No. 3 overall player in CB Vernon Hargreaves III (Tampa, Fla./Wharton), on Wednesday. But more importantly, those players were committed to UF as early as last February and never wavered.


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GatorNation: Signing day superlatives 

February, 6, 2013
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida still has the possibility to add another prospect or two to its No. 2-ranked class, but the Gators finished national signing day by landing 28 prospects, including 16 in the ESPN 300. Here's a closer look at how the class breaks down.


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