Florida Gators: Valdez Showers

Florida's two-deep: Wide receiver

June, 11, 2014
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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.

WIDE RECEIVER

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar could have a big senior season in Florida's new offense.
The starters: Senior Quinton Dunbar, sophomore Demarcus Robinson and junior Latroy Pittman

The backups: Sophomore Ahmad Fulwood, sophomore Chris Thompson and junior Valdez Showers

The rest: Senior Andre Debose, redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey, true freshmen C.J. Worton and Ryan Sousa

The lowdown: Dunbar is the ringleader on and off the field. He's started 22 of Florida's last 28 games and set a school record with at least one reception in each of those 28 games. During that streak, Dunbar has 82 catches for 1,031 yards and six touchdowns. He's become a reliable possession receiver and showed more big-play capability during spring practice. Dunbar could be quarterback Jeff Driskel's go-to target in 2014. The rest of the depth chart is a mass of potential, some of it just starting to blossom and some of it frustratingly untapped for far too long. Three sophomores -- Robinson, Fulwood and Thompson -- received a taste of playing time in 2013 and look ready to contribute in the new spread offense that promises more open space with which to operate. Robinson had a breakout spring, consistently playing with a physical edge in practice and dazzling fans in the spring game. His 31-yard touchdown catch and run was the big highlight of the day. Fulwood, at 6-foot-4, is a tantalizing target and should be a red-zone weapon. Thompson has speed to burn on the outside. There are also a couple of underdogs and reclamation projects who could make significant contributions if the Gators' passing game starts clicking. Despite a quiet first two seasons, Pittman had a strong spring and took over the slot receiver position. Showers, his backup, is a versatile athlete who has played safety and running back. The biggest wild card on the team, however, is Debose. Coming off a torn ACL suffered before the 2013 season, Debose received a medical exception to play a sixth season. His ability to make an impact is undeniable, but Debose will have to answer questions about his health and work ethic.

The future: The Gators appear well-stocked at the slot position with Bailey, Worton and Sousa. Bailey, who was thought to be a perfect fit in the spread offense, didn't have the breakthrough spring that many predicted. But he's a tremendous athlete who has time on his side. Worton and Sousa are feisty competitors with good hands who are likely to redshirt, but have the skills to contribute. The good news for Florida is that the numbers are up, and not a moment too soon. There's finally enough depth to run the kind of spread attack that features three starters. The bad news is that Florida continues to search for a true game-breaker. Maybe one of those sophomores will emerge, or maybe that player is still in high school. The Gators' top target is in-state uber-prospect George Campbell, the nation's No. 2-ranked athlete in the 2015 class. Campbell could be a program-changer with the size (6-4) and speed (4.36 in the 40) to make quarterbacks, coaches and entire receiver corps look good. Everyone, Campbell included, is waiting to see how Florida's offense performs in Year 1 under coordinator Kurt Roper. If the passing game shows signs of life, you can expect recruits to follow.

Replacing the Gators: Offense

May, 14, 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 had four players selected last weekend with just one from the offensive side of the ball.

On Tuesday we looked at the defensive replacements. Here's a look at who will replace the Gators on offense who were drafted or signed as undrafted free agents.

OG Jon Halapio
Sixth-round pick, New England Patriots
A three-year starter, Halapio battled through some injuries and was a rock at right guard. He was better as a run blocker than in pass protection, but the same could be said for most of Florida's offensive linemen. By the end of spring practice, Florida's starting guards were junior Tyler Moore and senior Trenton Brown, each of whom spent time last season at tackle. Brown is a behemoth at 6-foot-8 and 348 pounds who forced his way into the starting lineup by improving his footwork, pad level and consistency throughout the spring. Moore, no slouch at 6-5, 320, is still dealing with the linger effects of a broken elbow but seems better suited as an interior lineman. Both guards have the potential to upgrade Florida's line in run and pass blocking.

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
AP Photo/Phil SandlinDemarcus Robinson, who caught five passes as a freshman in 2013, will be one of the Gators' playmakers next season.
WR Solomon Patton
Undrafted free agent, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After a quiet first three years at UF, Patton became an indispensable contributor as a slot receiver, deep threat and kick returner. Patton's elite speed is something the Gators will be sorely lacking, but there are some emerging players on the horizon. Sophomore Demarcus Robinson was the Gators' best playmaker in the passing game throughout spring practice. He's not nearly as fast at Patton, but he's got some magic after the catch. Another sophomore, Chris Thompson, has the speed to be a deep threat and will be counted on to stretch the field. In the slot, the Gators' expectations are a bit lower as they look to juniors Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers to be solid route-runners and reliable targets.

H-back Trey Burton
Undrafted free agent, Philadelphia Eagles
In his unique career at Florida, Burton played every offensive skill position and finished his senior season as a wide receiver. In the pros he'll get a shot to be an H-back, which is where the Gators would have loved to have had him back. Under new coordinator Kurt Roper, UF's offense is perfectly suited for tight ends, tweeners and oversized wide receivers to play in the slot or release off the line. Florida's returning tight ends -- seniors Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton (Trey's brother) -- combined for four catches in 2013. While Westbrook, Burton and senior fullbacks Hunter Joyer and Gideon Ajagbe showed flashes of pass-catching ability in spring ball, the Gators won't have to rely on any of the four veterans to do more than he is capable of. That's because former Virginia tight end Jake McGee transferred to Florida after graduating from UVA last month. His experience as the Cavaliers' leading receiver in 2013 could be a game-changer for Florida's offense, which was severely lacking in proven playmakers.

C Jonotthan Harrison
Undrafted free agent, Indianapolis Colts
Another three-year starter, Harrison anchored Florida's O-line and was a respected leader on and off the field. His replacement is a very similar player in senior Max Garcia, who was Florida's best and most consistent lineman last season. Garcia played much of 2013 at left guard but also has on his résumé a full season as a starter at left tackle for Maryland in 2011. Just like Harrison once did, Garcia is having some issues learning how to master the shotgun snap, but his coaches aren't worried and routinely praised him in spring practice despite some errant snaps. If he can fix that and also get comfortable calling out protections for his teammates on the line, Garcia could upgrade the position by being a little stronger as a run blocker.

OL Kyle Koehne
Tryout contract, Atlanta Falcons
Koehne became a key reserve on UF's line, as he backed up several positions and was able to step in as a starter for half the season with little drop-off. The Gators' starting O-line is set with all five players having starting experience. Where things get dicey is on the second unit. Florida's OL coach, Mike Summers, has his hands full trying to develop the next Koehne. His top reserve after spring practice was Trip Thurman, a junior who got a long look on the first unit and has played just about every position. Thurman will likely be Florida's top backup at all three interior spots. At guard, the Gators also have junior college transfer Drew Sarvary, who started 10 of 11 games as a freshman at Florida A&M in 2012 and has the requisite size at 6-6, 318. Options are even more limited with reserve tackles, where Florida has freshman early enrollee Kavaris Harkless, injured redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson, and soon-to-enroll freshman David Sharpe.

Stock watch: Florida Gators

May, 2, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With spring practice fully digested, let's take a look at which Florida Gators' stock is up and who's on the way down.

RISING

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDante Fowler Jr. looks ready to terrorize SEC quarterbacks after a strong spring.
Dante Fowler Jr.: The hybrid defensive end/linebacker altered his diet and dropped some body fat before spring. He quickly proved to be Florida's most consistent pass-rushing threat and showed flashes of dominating offensive linemen. While Fowler became an obvious team leader off the field, it appeared that many of his teammates were in awe of his talents on the field.

Starting O-line: Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries shook off last season's struggles and looked more like the prospect who arrived at UF with elite status. Junior Tyler Moore looked comfortable at left guard and was largely recovered from a broken elbow. Senior Max Garcia consistently earned praise despite struggling with shotgun snaps in his transition to a new position. Senior Trenton Brown played well enough to force the coaches to find a starting spot for him at right guard. Senior right tackle Chaz Green held off Brown's challenge and showed that he's finally healthy after missing last season with a torn labrum.

Demarcus Robinson: The sophomore receiver was in the doghouse and suspended twice last year but came back with more maturity and focus this spring. His talent was so obvious in practice one teammate called him "a freak." A physical presence at 6-foot-2 with speed and vision, Robinson looks like UF's best chance for a breakout star in the passing game.

Bryan Cox Jr.: Going into spring, Florida didn't have much at the defensive end position beyond Fowler and junior Jonathan Bullard. Cox opened his coaches' eyes with a non-stop motor that always showed up in film review and allowed them to experiment with Bullard at tackle. Cox might not be a starter in the fall, but the sophomore assured himself a lot of playing time with his spring performance.

Adam Lane: The redshirt freshman isn't high up on the running back depth chart, but he excited coaches and teammates with his running style. At 5-7 and 222 pounds, Lane is built like a bowling ball. He doesn't have breakaway speed, but always seems to bounce off defenders and fall forward.

FALLING

Brian Poole: As one of the few upperclassmen in UF's secondary, Poole had an opportunity to grab the coveted starting job opposite Vernon Hargreaves III. Instead of standing out, however, he blended in with two true freshman competitors and could wind up back at the nickel cornerback position where he played last fall.

Caleb Brantley: Much is expected of the redshirt freshman who was one of the nation's top Class of 2013 prospects. Florida is urgently trying to develop some difference-makers on the D-line, but Brantley doesn't always respond well to coaching and his motor runs hot and cold.

Valdez Showers: It has been an adventurous few months for Showers, who converted from safety to running back last August and spent all of spring as a slot receiver. He showed he still needs to work on his hands and fell behind Latroy Pittman, but Showers can expect more chances and playing time this fall.

Antonio Riles: Position changes are rarely a good sign in college football, but it's still early for the redshirt freshman who moved from defensive tackle/end to offensive guard. Coaches and teammates say he's got natural ability to play the O-line, but this move might have more to do with Florida's incoming D-line talent.

Raphael Andrades: Already a junior despite hardly playing in 2013, the wide receiver surprised many by playing as a true freshman and even starting three games. But he has just two career receptions and is now buried deep on an expanding depth chart.

REBOUNDING

Austin Hardin: The sophomore kicker showed that he's not giving up his job without a fight. After working on his mechanics throughout the offseason, he was consistent in practice and hit all four of his field goals in the spring game. Hardin will have to fend off more competition in fall camp.
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. -- The numbers from the spring game weren't eye-popping, but it's clear that Florida's new offense will make greater use of a deeper receiving corps.

A scheme that utilizes a lot of three- and four-receiver sets surely brings more opportunities, and that's good news for a couple of pass-catchers who were marginalized in recent years.

[+] EnlargeLatroy Pittman
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesLatroy Pittman is looking forward to contributing more on offense.
Juniors Valdez Showers and Latroy Pittman were given a chance at the slot position this spring, and as the offense was installed they became contributors.

"Valdez and Pitt have done a good job at that," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. "I think we’ve got good depth at that position from both those guys. They’ve done a good job."

Roper explained what he needs from the slot receiver.

"What you try to do is put a receiver in there that is going to be productive," he said. "I don't think I necessarily look at size. … I don't sit there and say, 'OK, here's the body type.'

"But at the same time the big body is easier to see. It’s just every year, who’s going to be productive in that position, knowing that we’re going to count on him to be physical, blocking at the point of attack on the nickel linebacker out there, and still elusive enough to catch bubbles and be good in space."

Pittman (6-foot, 210 pounds) and Showers (5-11, 190) have the size and athleticism to fit Roper's ideal slot receivers.

"It's not a big change for me," Pittman said. "I'm a big-bodied guy, so going across the middle or taking those big shots from a safety or a linebacker isn't much concern for me at all. I love that kind of physicality. That's my game."

They showed up in the spring game. Pittman had two catches for 31 yards, while Showers had one catch for 11 yards. Compared to last season it was plenty of evidence that the two are being utilized in the Gators' uptempo spread offense.

Showers, a former safety, has only played one season of offense in college football. He had 18 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown a year ago when he was more of a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

"Valdez transformed from a DB to a receiver," said senior Jabari Gorman, who used to play next to Showers at safety. "He's a dual threat. He can run the ball, he can catch it. He's got nice routes.

"I think he's happy over there. He looks comfortable over there. You've got a guy like that that can move and create different problems for other teams. He's a playmaker and we need that on our offense."

Pittman was relegated to blocking duty in first two seasons, catching just four passes in his career. He was an early enrollee two years ago, and he made waves as a spring standout. But his production never carried over to the fall.

The biggest adjustment Pittman said he's made has been in his own maturation.

"You come out of high school being that guy and it's just a real shell shock when you feel like you deserve something and you don't get it," he said. "In reality if you just sit back and relax and humble yourself, you realize that things will come when you deserve to get them."

Heading into his third year and playing in an offense that spreads the ball around, Pittman is believes his time is coming and he's ecstatic.

"Just coming in with the confidence that I have now, just knowing that the coaching staff is behind me, everything is going great," he said. "We have a bunch of guys making plays. It's just real. It's a whole different feel."

UF spring players to watch: Adam Lane

February, 28, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With the Class of 2014 recruiting cycle in the rearview mirror, the long college football offseason is well underway. But fear not; spring football is just around the corner.

We're here to get you ready with a look at the top five Gators to watch when practice gets started on March 19.

This week-long series concludes with a look at a sleeper candidate at running back.

[+] EnlargeAdam Lane
Tom Hauck/ESPNAdam Lane's battering-ram physique gives him a chance to be a power back for the Gators.
RB Adam Lane
Redshirt freshman
5-foot-7, 222 pounds

Credentials: Lane came out of Winter Haven (Fla.) High School as the No. 15-ranked running back prospect in the Class of 2013. A four-star recruit, he was ranked No. 173 overall in the ESPN 300. But those rankings could have been higher had he not broken his leg and missed his entire junior season in 2011. The first pledge in Florida's 2013 class, Lane came back from that injury to run 205 times for 1,624 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2012.

How he fits: He's been compared to Maurice Jones-Drew, and one look at Lane's body explains it. He's compact, built like a bowling ball, and he runs like one. Lane has enough speed to make defenders miss but really frustrates opponents when he hides behind linemen before exploding to the next level. He's strong enough to initiate contact and drag defenders and strong enough to win a state weightlifting title in his senior year of high school (he benched 415 pounds). Lane is unlikely to suddenly compete for the starting tailback job at UF after redshirting last season, but his running style gives him a great chance to find niche in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's still-developing scheme.

Who he's competing with: Florida has no shortage of options at tailback. Matt Jones was the starter last season, but torn cartilage in his knee required two surgeries. He's expected to be healthy and a big factor in the competition this fall but will sit out the spring. When Jones got hurt last season, true freshman Kelvin Taylor became the starter and improved throughout the second half of the season. Considering Jones' health, Taylor is the prohibitive favorite to be Florida's starter in 2014. Then there's senior Mack Brown and junior Valdez Showers. Brown proved he can be a reliable backup last season, while Showers made a successful conversion from safety to running back and showed promise as a change-of-pace back who can be a threat catching passes out of the backfield. Finally, true freshman early enrollee Brandon Powell hopes to use spring football practices to give the Gators something they lack -- an explosive home-run threat who can stretch the field in every direction.

What needs to happen this spring: The outlook at tailback is rather muddled. Lane has plenty of competition, so he'll have to stand out in spring practice and be consistent in order to carve out a role. The ideal situation for Lane, and for Florida to take advantage of so much talent at the position, would be a committee. Good thing the reins are in the hands of Roper, who did just that at Duke. Last season the Blue Devils made use of four running backs (two primary ball-carriers and two complementary backs) as well as two quarterbacks who could run. That kind of committee approach could work perfectly at UF this season. Of course the Gators would be just as thrilled to lean mostly on one back if Taylor becomes a star or if Jones gets healthy and taps his vast potential. But one thing is certain: Florida is going to run, run and run some more in 2014.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the last decade, more than any other time in its history, Florida's status as a recruiting juggernaut has been proven.

Once head coach Steve Spurrier established his alma mater among college football's elite, blue-chip talent started flocking to UF. The Gators also recruited well under Spurrier's replacement, Ron Zook. Then Florida won two national championships with coach Urban Meyer.

The fact that Florida has thrived on the recruiting trail despite Meyer's soap-opera departure and some sub-par seasons on the field is a testament to the strength of the brand.

This week we count down the five most impactful UF recruiting classes in the last decade, not including Florida's most recent class, which isn't even fully assembled on campus yet.

No. 5 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, head coach Will Muschamp's first class, which was ranked No. 12 by ESPN.

[+] EnlargeLoucheiz Purifoy
AP Photo/John RaouxLoucheiz Purifoy's big-play ability at cornerback allowed him to stand out in three seasons at Florida and should get him selected high in this year's NFL draft.
The stars: This is easy. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy became lockdown cornerbacks and were the only three-and-done players from this 19-man class. Roberson made an instant impact, starting his first 10 games as a true freshman, and Purifoy first emerged as a special-teams terror. By the end of their college careers, the two clearly established NFL pedigree -- Roberson for his advanced technique, Purifoy for his supreme athleticism. They are expected to be picked no lower than the second round this May.

The contributors: Several players stand out in this class, including a few starters. Among them, starting quarterback Jeff Driskel is the one who could still push his way into the star category if he improves during his final two seasons of eligibility. Other starters have carved out significant roles for themselves, including fullback Hunter Joyer, safety Jabari Gorman and tight ends Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook. Valdez Showers successfully converted from safety to running back last season. And Kyle Christy was a record-setting punter who stumbled in 2013 and will fight to take his job back this year.

The letdowns: Some of the top talents in this class never panned out at UF, as eight of the 19 players transferred and one quit football after injuries derailed his career. The biggest name to transfer was QB Jacoby Brissett, who started four games at Florida but left for NC State after losing the competition for the starting job to Driskel. WR Ja'Juan Story, TE A.C. Leonard, RB Mike Blakely and S De'Ante Saunders were four of the Gators' five highest-rated recruits in the class. Transfers Story, Blakely and WR Javares McRoy were recruited by Meyer for his spread-option offense and never quite fit Muschamp's pro-style scheme. Leonard and Saunders made strong impressions on the field, but both ran afoul of the law and transferred to Tennessee State.

The results: There have been high points, such as an 11-win season in 2012 in which Florida was just one Notre Dame loss away from playing for the national championship. But there have been more low points, such as a 7-6 season in 2011 and a numbing 4-8 season in 2013. The results on the field have been uneven, but there's still time for this class to distinguish itself.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's new offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper, is known for his ability to adapt his offense to his players. It's one of the biggest reasons he was hired.

Will Muschamp is a head coach who needs results right away, and the Gators are expected to try just about anything to achieve them -- uptempo, no-huddle, spread, zone read. You name it.

After three years of a pro-style offense that had a heavy emphasis on downhill running, there will be changes.

Practice time will be at a premium, but Roper has a plan.

He'll start with incumbent quarterback Jeff Driskel and find what he does best. Then Roper will do the same with his offensive line and skill positions.

"I think you’ve got plenty of time through spring practice and through fall practice to make those decisions," he said. "So you get 15 opportunities in spring practice to make those decisions, and then you get 29 practice opportunities in the fall to keep making those decisions and finalizing going into fall camp.

"So everything moves fast, but you've got to figure those things out."

Here are some keys to Florida's offense next year.

Run, Driskel, run

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesIt seems likely that Jeff Driskel will run more in Florida's new offense in 2014.
The majority of Roper's success has come in the passing game, but this season at Duke proved he can succeed calling plays in a much more balanced spread offense. Blue Devils quarterback Brandon Connette, who started three games this season, has 13 scores on the ground. He and starter Anthony Boone have combined to score 17 of Duke's 25 rushing TDs.

Look for the read-option to come back at Florida in 2014. It won't take Roper long to see that Driskel's best success as a college QB came mostly on the ground.

One of former offensive coordinator Brent Pease's goals for 2013 was to get Driskel comfortable as a pocket passer, but it didn't happen in his injury-shortened season. In his two full games, Driskel ran 17 times for just 38 yards (2.2 yards per carry). Then he was hurt a few minutes into Game 3. It was a lost season. But if those first two games were any indication, the Gators weren't planning to use as much of the read-option that Driskel had good success with in teaming with tailback Mike Gillislee in 2012.

Look for Florida to turn Driskel loose, hope he stays healthy and not worry about redshirting incoming freshman Will Grier or a possible second QB signee who would likely be a dual-threat athlete.

Pray for the offensive line

This is where it all starts, and there's no doubt Florida has a lot of room for improvement. With D.J. Humphries, Max Garcia, Tyler Moore, Chaz Green and Trenton Brown, Florida has the makings of a capable line. But only one of those five -- Garcia -- played a full season in 2012. The injury bug hit the OL as hard as any position, so it will be critical for this group to miss as little time as the injury gods will allow. There is some size and talent on the bench, but zero starting experience.

Changing to more of a spread offense should benefit this unit more than any other on the offense, as it struggled mightily in pass protection throughout the last two seasons. The comparative simplicity of zone blocking will also help more of Florida's inexperienced players get on the field sooner. The Gators redshirted three offensive linemen in 2013 and hope to sign four or five more this year.

Another technique -- cut blocking -- could be incorporated next season, depending on Roper's scheme and the yet-to-be-hired offensive line coach. After Florida lost to Georgia Southern in November, Muschamp lamented how the cut block "negates talent" of the defense. In 2014, the Gators might prefer to be on the other side of that equation.

Any receivers who can get open?

This has been one of the most confounding problems at UF since Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez thrived as Tim Tebow's favorite targets in 2009. There are plenty of decorated recruits on the roster. The wideouts have had proven position coaches such as Pease and Joker Phillips mentoring them. In steps Roper, who has produced 1,000-yard receivers in four of six seasons at recruiting-challenged Duke. It's time for some of Florida's talented youngsters to step forward and demand the ball, and there is at least one starting job available.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesKelvin Taylor showed plenty of promise as a freshman.
The freshmen who played the most in 2013 -- Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson -- have the size to create mismatches. Another freshman who burned his redshirt late in the season, Chris Thompson, has plenty of speed. With all of the WR screens Roper likes to call, the Gators will miss senior Solomon Patton, a speedy jitterbug who could have thrived in the new offense. Perhaps a replacement can be found in freshman Alvin Bailey, who redshirted in 2013.

The tight end position took a huge step backward when Jordan Reed left early after a solid 2012 season. Florida lacked any semblance of a down-the-middle pass-catching threat in 2013, as Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton combined for four catches. The Gators have commitments from three TE/H-backs, so don't be surprised if a freshman emerges.

Bigger-play running backs

Tailback is one position that won't keep Roper awake at night, as the Gators have a bevy of talented runners. Florida entered the 2013 season expecting Matt Jones to become one of the SEC's best running backs. And while hopes are still very high for Jones, the Gators believe they found another featured back in Kelvin Taylor after Jones was lost for the season with a knee injury. Mack Brown gives UF a reliable backup, and the coaching staff is excited about the potential of Adam Lane, who redshirted last season.

Where Florida's tailbacks can improve is in hitting more big plays. Taylor averaged 4.6 yards a carry and Brown averaged 3.7. But explosive plays are more likely to come from Jones or little-used Valdez Showers, who averaged 8.6 yards per carry. The Gators are also hoping to sign a speed back who could play right away and complement the group of grinding runners already on the roster.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Versatile defensive backs Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs starting at safety would be best for Florida's defense.

For the season opener against Toledo, anyway.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesFlorida coach Will Muschamp is giving several players a chance to prove themselves in the early going.

But UF coach Will Muschamp is concerned about October and November, which is why he’s giving several other players a chance to prove they should be a starter at either safety spot. Developing depth at a position that has struggled to replace Matt Elam and Josh Evans means he can’t go with the solution.

Gators fall camp preview

July, 31, 2013
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Ronald PowellJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesAfter missing all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL, Ronald Powell is ready to return to the Gators. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2010 ESPN 150.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida begins August camp on Friday. Here’s a primer to get you ready:

Three questions the Gators must answer in camp

Can the receivers contribute? It must sound like a broken record, but the development of the receivers is the key to the season. They haven’t been very good for the past three seasons, and that really hurt the Gators in 2012 because of quarterback Jeff Driskel’s inexperience. H-back/wildcat QB Trey Burton, with 69 career catches, will line up at receiver. That will help, but he’s not a downfield threat or someone that scares a secondary. Redshirt junior Quinton Dunbar and sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman must become consistent with their routes, adjustments and blitz reads. At least two of the five freshmen -- including early enrollee Demarcus Robinson -- have to become significant parts of the rotation, too. New receivers coach Joker Phillips, who has 18 years of experience and two former pupils in the NFL (Randall Cobb and Steve Johnson), should make a difference. But remember, a chef is only as good as his ingredients.

Can the linebackers hold up their end? The Gators are loaded in the secondary and with pass rushers, and the defensive line should be fine. The question mark on defense is at linebacker, especially with starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison suspended for the first two games. There’s little doubt that Morrison is going to be a big-time player, but there are questions at every other spot. Buck/strongside linebacker Ronald Powell is coming back from a torn ACL and the top two candidates at weakside linebacker (Darrin Kitchens and Michael Taylor) have been role players throughout their careers. Taylor will likely start in the middle while Morrison is out. That’s a steep drop-off from Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and the Gators need to find playmakers. Don’t be surprised if freshman Daniel McMillian takes over as the starter on the weak side by the middle of the season.

Will either kicker turn out to be reliable? It’s unfair to expect Austin Hardin or Brad Phillips to have the same kind of impact as Caleb Sturgis. He was the best kicker in school history and was accurate from long range. But it isn’t unreasonable to ask either of those guys to be consistent in the 40-yard range, and neither was during spring practice. It’s a battle that will continue throughout camp -- and possibly into the season. Sturgis consistently bailed out the offense in 2012, and the Gators won’t have that luxury if the offense struggles again (see receivers above).

Three position battles to watch

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
Brad Barr/US PresswireTyler Moore made four starts on the offensive line at Nebraska as a true freshman. He is battling Chaz Green to be the Gators' right tackle.
Right tackle: Chaz Green, who has started 18 games in his career and 10 last season, sat out spring practice after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. Tyler Moore, a Nebraska transfer, took all the first-team reps and heads into camp with a slight lead. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Moore has 10 pounds on Green, which isn’t a big deal. What is, however, is the fact that Green has missed six games over the past two seasons because of injuries. The loser of the battle will still get a lot of playing time in the Gators’ jumbo package.

Tight end: Clay Burton, Tevin Westbrook, Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor are competing for playing time. The group struggled during the spring and Burton has a slim lead. Thompson was more of a blocker in high school, but his size makes him an intriguing option in the middle of the field and the red zone. He’s a better blocker than any of the other tight ends and could win the job if he can show some consistency and prove he’s a reliable receiver. Westbrook is more of a blocker and Taylor is a flex tight end with potential, but the coaching staff isn’t happy with his toughness. There’s not a lot of experience here -- they’ve combined for four catches for 17 yards in their careers -- and it’s unlikely any can be the weapon in the passing game that Jordan Reed was the past two seasons (73 catches, 866 yards, 5 TDs).

Safety: If the season started today, cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs would be the starters. That’s not a bad thing because both are solid players who understand the defense and won’t give up big plays. But what is a concern is that none of the other safeties showed enough consistency in the spring to earn one of the spots. Marcus Maye, Jabari Gorman and Valdez Showers have four weeks to prove they can get the job done.

Three players you might not have thought to watch in camp, but really should

Bryan Cox: A redshirt freshman defensive end, he showed flashes of potential in the spring and made a few plays during the final scrimmage. He’s playing behind Jonathan Bullard, so he gets overlooked, but he’s got good size (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and athleticism and could be a breakout player on defense.

Gideon Ajagbe: Hunter Joyer was the only fullback on the roster until the staff moved Ajagbe and redshirt freshman safety Rhaheim Ledbetter there in the spring because the staff was worried about overworking Joyer during the season. Ajagbe adjusted well and should give Joyer some valuable rest and therefore reduce his risk of injury.

Chris Wilkes: It was obvious that the staff wasn’t happy with backup quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg, which was one of the reasons UF added Wilkes. He was an Ole Miss signee in 2008 but instead chose to sign a baseball contract with the San Diego Padres. Wilkes enrolled in May and missed spring practice and hasn’t played football in five years, but he’s a former pro athlete and should at least push Mornhinweg and Murphy a bit.

Gator Breakdown: Cody Riggs 

June, 27, 2013
6/27/13
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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. 31 Cody Riggs
Redshirt junior defensive back


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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. 14 Jaylen Watkins
Senior cornerback/safety


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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. 10 Valdez Showers
Redshirt sophomore safety


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Florida Gators spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
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FLORIDA GATORS
2012 overall record: 11-2

2012 overall record: 11-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (2nd Eastern Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Jeff Driskel, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RB/WR Trey Burton, DE/DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, S Jaylen Watkins, P Kyle Christy

Key losses

RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mike Gillislee (1,152 yards)
Passing: Jeff Driskel* (1,646 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Reed (559 yards)
Tackles: Josh Evans (83)
Sacks: Dominique Easley* (4.0)
Interceptions: Matt Elam (4)

Spring answers

1. Back in business: Sophomore Matt Jones running back had a fantastic spring and the coaching staff is convinced he’ll be a more than capable replacement for Gillislee. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jones is a perfect fit for Will Muschamp’s power-run offense. He’s a straight-ahead, downhill runner, who runs through contact and gets tough yards. The offense will be built around him, especially with the questions surrounding the passing game. Redshirt junior Mack Brown and freshman Kelvin Taylor, the son of former UF standout running back Fred Taylor, give the Gators solid depth at the position.

2. Lined up: UF’s offensive line made strides in 2012 and it will be even better in 2013. The addition of transfers -- Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska) -- gives the Gators a pair of former starters to add to an already solid base with Harrison and Halapio. Plus, sophomore D.J. Humphries is an immediate upgrade from Xavier Nixon at left tackle. Garcia will start at left guard and pair with Humphries to give Driskel better blind-side protection than he had a year ago.

3. The middle is settled: With the loss of Bostic and Jenkins, the Gators needed a middle linebacker. The staff moved sophomore Antonio Morrison from weakside linebacker, and Morrison showed pretty quickly he was up to the task. He’s not the biggest middle linebacker the Gators have had (6-foot-1, 230 pounds), but he is certainly one of the most physical. Morrison hits like he weighs 260 pounds -- just ask 245-pound former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel, whom Morrison leveled last season. Morrison proved he could handle making the defensive calls and he should easily step into the role Bostic held for the past two seasons.

Fall questions

1. Receiver issues ... again: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will again struggle. That’s been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips. He has coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991-96 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage. Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.

2. Safety dance: There’s some concern about the Gators’ safeties because some of the younger and less experienced players haven’t developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF’s two starting safeties. They have both played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman. Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Roberson, Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.

3. Just for kicks: Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis was, but it’s the first part that’s more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don’t get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball. Sturgis was able to bail the Gators out because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark may have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida released a post-spring depth chart on Wednesday. There were no big surprises, although seeing running back Mack Brown behind Matt Jones and ahead of Kelvin Taylor did earn a raised eyebrow.

Here’s the breakdown:

Offense

LT: D.J. Humphries (6-5, 285, So.)/Trenton Brown (6-8, 363, Jr.)

LG: Max Garcia (6-4, 307, RJr.)/Ian Silberman (6-5, 290, RJr.)

C: Jonotthan Harrison (6-3, 303, RSr.) /Kyle Koehne (6-5, 314, RSr.)

RG: Jon Halapio (6-3, 317, RSr.)/Trip Thurman (6-5, 313, RSo.)

RT: Tyler Moore (6-5, 315, RSo.) OR Chaz Green (6-5, 305, RJr.)

TE: Clay Burton (6-4, 247, Jr.)/Tevin Westbrook (6-5, 258, Jr.) OR Colin Thompson (6-4, 250, RFr.) OR Kent Taylor (6-5, 223, So.)

RB: Matt Jones (6-2, 228, So.)/Mack Brown (5-11, 215, RJr.)

(Read full post)

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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