Florida Gators: Austin Hardin

Florida two-deep: Special teams

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The starters: Sophomore placekicker Austin Hardin and sophomore punter Johnny Townsend

The backups: Senior placekicker Francisco Velez and senior punter Kyle Christy

[+] EnlargeAustin Hardin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida place-kicker Austin Hardin had a solid spring after losing confidence last season.
The rest: Junior placekicker Brooks Abbott and freshman placekicker Jorge Powell

The lowdown: After a long stretch of above average seasons from its kicking specialists, Florida suffered through a down year in 2013. Hardin took over for Caleb Sturgis, the Gators' all-time leader in made field goals. It did not go well, as Hardin converted just 4 of 12 attempts. His mechanics broke down, causing Hardin to pull his kicks and lose confidence. His struggles caused coach Will Muschamp to give Velez, a walk-on, a chance. Although he made 6 of 8 kicks, Velez lacks Hardin's range. Their competition spilled into spring practice, when Muschamp praised Hardin's improved mechanics and renewed confidence. It showed in the spring game, when Hardin nailed all four of his attempts. He'll have to fend off the challenge of Velez and a couple of other walk-ons this fall, but Hardin is still standing as the incumbent starter. At punter, Florida went into the 2013 on cruise control with Christy, who was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award in 2012 after setting a school record with a 45.8-yard average. But Christy slumped to a 39.6-yard average in 2013 and was replaced midseason. Enter Townsend, a U.S Army All-American who flipped from Ohio State to Florida on signing day in 2013. Townsend handled UF's punting duties for the final six games, averaged 42 yards and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team. A more confident Christy battled Townsend to a draw during spring practice until Townsend was shut down to have wrist surgery. He's expected to be ready to resume the punting battle in preseason camp.

The future: Hardin, Florida's scholarship kicker, is just a sophomore. Ditto for Townsend, which means the Gators have time on their side. But while Muschamp is confident in his two punters, calling them both NFL-caliber, he is pushing hard to improve the placekicker position. There will be an open competition for the job, with a scholarship likely in the balance if one of Florida's preferred walk-ons can take the job. Abbott, a former U.S. Army All-American from Jacksonville, Florida, spent a season at Virginia Tech as a kickoff specialist before transferring to UF. Powell got a five-star rating from Kohl's Kicking Camp, which ranked him the No. 11 prospect in the Class of 2014.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Stock watch: Florida Gators

May, 2, 2014
May 2
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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.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with tradition, Florida concluded a month of practices with a feel-good scrimmage in front of thousands of fans and called the spring a success.

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

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

Here's what else happened this spring:

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

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

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

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

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

What's next: The Gators are on their own as far as workouts, as veteran players typically organize drills throughout the summer to stay sharp. Driskel said he plans to throw a lot and work on timing with his receivers. Muschamp said it best in outlining the next phase for his players: "Still got a way to go, 112 days until we report. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases, taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in this league."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A typical spring football game in the South is like throwing red meat to hungry animals. For the Gators and their football-starved fans, Saturday's scrimmage went down easy.

Positive feelings were in abundance inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, as Florida's Team Orange finished in a 23-23 tie with Team Blue. The crowd was estimated at 35,834, and you'd be hard pressed to find any fans who weren't there to glimpse a brand-new offense.

"I'm extremely pleased with the day offensively with 15 practices and how far we've come," head coach Will Muschamp said. "I think you can attribute all that to [new coordinator] Kurt Roper and the offensive staff and the job they've done.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsJeff Driskel, who broke his leg last season, completed 18 of 32 passes in Florida's spring game.
"Our kids have been very receptive and have confidence in what we're doing. I think it's a good fit moving forward."

It was a sharp contrast to the way Florida ended its 2013 season with a seven-game losing streak and a 4-8 record, the program's first losing season in 34 years.

Saturday's spring game was successful in many ways. The Gators pleased their fans with a no-huddle offense that was both efficient and coherent. They avoided the injury bug that plagued the team last year. Even the kickers looked good, as sophomore Austin Hardin connected on all four of his field goal attempts.

"It was a great day and great crowd," Muschamp said. "Probably the best crowd we’ve had since I’ve been here. It says a lot about our fanbase and the loyal support we have from all the Gators fans out there."

It was a game tailor made to check off the list of priorities set by Muschamp at the start of spring practice 24 days ago.

By halftime, Florida's first-team and second-team offenses combined for 69 plays, more than 400 yards of total offense and 36 points, which is more than the Gators scored in any game last season.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of 2013 with a broken leg, showed that he's healthy and has the best grasp of the offense among UF's quarterbacks. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 167 yards with a touchdown.

The word Driskel used to describe the Gators this spring was "re-energized."

"We did have a great spring," he said. "We felt like it's a new start, and there's something about [the offense] where you can get rolling. ...

"When you start getting completion after completion, it kind of builds your confidence and gets you in a rhythm that sometimes is tough for the defense to break."

Twenty receivers caught passes, including eight on Driskel's Team Blue, which was largely comprised of starters.

"That's going to help us out a lot," said sophomore Chris Thompson, who had three catches. "It’s going to keep our receivers fresh, and we're going to be keep making plays throughout the whole game."

Confidence on offense was one of Muschamp's top priorities. It was everywhere on Saturday.

"It felt like we were really efficient," Driskel said. "We moved the ball really well. We only turned it over one time and we only had one penalty on offense. I think when you’re not beating yourself up, you can really, really gain momentum and gain confidence."

There were several big plays, most notably Driskel's 31-yard touchdown pass in which sophomore receiver Demarcus Robinson made several defenders miss with his speed and cut-back ability.

Open receivers and highlight-reel plays were in short supply in 2013. And while spring games are designed to generate optimism, it was still a welcome change for Gators fans.

The biggest contrast between this spring and last year? No major injuries. When that was pointed out to Muschamp, he heaved a great sigh of relief.

"We've still got to get them out of the locker room," he said with a laugh.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Gators have completed seven of their 14 practices, and the spring game is less than two weeks away.

Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.

Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.

Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.

"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp's future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement.
Head coach Will Muschamp, whose future probably rides on Florida's offensive improvement, has noticed the difference and says he's very pleased.

"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."

Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.

Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.

Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.

"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."

D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.

Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.

Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.

Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.

"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."

Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.

Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.

"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."

Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.

Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.

This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.

Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.

So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.

"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."

The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.

"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."

Hutzler has some psyches to rebuild

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It didn't take Sigmund Freud to see that Florida kicker Austin Hardin would need some special treatment after a calamitous 2013 season.

After Coleman Hutzler was hired in December to be the Gators' special teams coach, he met with all of his specialists and clearly saw his mission -- "rebuilding some confidence, obviously."

Hardin sticks out as a particularly important reclamation project.

Last season, expectations and opportunity loomed large for the No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012. Hardin's job was to replace Caleb Sturgis, a record-setting All-American who had the kicking duties locked down for three seasons.

Coleman Hutzler
Jeff Barlis/ESPNNew special teams coach Coleman Hutzler's top task is to restore confidence among the Gators' kickers and punters.
Hardin made just 4 of 12 field-goal attempts -- his season-long a 33-yarder -- and opened the door for walk-ons Francisco Velez and Brad Phillips to take the job.

Enter Hutzler, who could see right away in his meeting with Hardin that confidence was the first order of business.

"Yeah, anybody would," Hutzler said. "I wasn't here [last season]. The first thing I said to him was, 'I can't speak on what you went through.' But the bottom line is he's back and ready to work and excited about the opportunity to go out and not make amends, but do right."

Hutzler found himself repeating the advice for all of Florida's kickers.

"That’s been my message to the guys throughout these meetings I’ve had with them," he said. "We need to get back to work, obviously, and get things cleaned up technique-wise and get things cleaned up when it comes to the foot hitting the ball. But we also need to get our confidence back."

The same held true for punter Kyle Christy, a decorated recruit who showed off a powerful leg as soon as he arrived at UF. Christy was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award after averaging a school-record 45.8 yards per punt as a sophomore in 2012. Last year, he slumped badly and ceded his job to true freshman Johnny Townsend, who averaged 42 yards a punt and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team.

"We've had a chance to sit down in the time that I've been here," Hutzler said of Christy. He said they talked about "just being consistent in what got him to the level he had, the season he had so much success. Getting back to that work ethic, getting back to that confidence in his ability that he has, the techniques that he has and applying those over and over again. I tell those guys it's repeating the same motion over and over. For whatever reason or whatever happened, he did get away from those things.

"[The challenge is] to get him back to that level and compete with a guy like Johnny Townsend, who I'm excited to see work as well this spring."

Hutzler doesn't claim to be a kicking guru, but he certainly has familiarity with the Gators, having served on the staff in 2010 and worked under then-special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin.

"Coleman Hutzler is a guy that was with our staff the first year, understands and knows our special-teams system, how we teach it, our teaching progression," head coach Will Muschamp said last week in introducing his new coaches. "He'll implement it very well. He's a guy that really had a year interview, so to speak, the first year he was here. ...

"We certainly struggled this past year with our specialists, and I think he can help us some there."

To do that, Hutzler might need to spend as much time off the field in helping several Gators get over a difficult 2013 season.

"Guys like Austin Hardin and Kyle Christy and Drew Ferris, the snapper, those guys need to have confidence in their abilities and go out and put it out on the field," he said. "I wasn't here. All that you can go off of is the numbers and the statistics.

"Obviously that’s not the standard that we expect. It starts now with building confidence, bottom line, and working your butt off both in the offseason and then through spring ball."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It will be no surprise to see Will Muschamp's name on every offseason list of coaches on the hot seat. Heck, his might even be one of the hottest in all of college football.

That's what happens when you go 4-8 and make the kind of history no one wants to talk about -- the program's first loss to an FCS team, the first loss at home to Vanderbilt since 1945, the first losing season since 1979 and the end of a 22-year bowl streak.

If Muschamp is going to keep his job, he'll need to engineer a big turnaround. Just making a bowl game with six wins would represent improvement, but it won't be acceptable with a frustrated Gator Nation. Visible signs of improvement will matter more than any specific win total, but eight or nine victories should do the trick. And the Gators could always cool Muschamp's seat significantly by beating Georgia and/or winning the SEC East.

With all that said, here are six things Muschamp has to fix if Florida is to rebound in 2014.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images2013 was full of headaches for Florida coach Will Muschamp, and there are several things that need to be addressed to prevent a repeat in 2014.
Rekindle the flame: This one should be the easiest, as Gator players were angry and sometimes humiliated during the seven-game losing streak that ended the 2013 season. But the slate is now cleaned. There's nothing Florida can do about those bad memories ... except extract some revenge. Muschamp needs to plant a chip firmly on every Gator's shoulder and give them a mission to make a statement in 2014. Team unity should be at an all-time high, and anyone not on board should be thrown overboard.

Woe-is-me mentality: This issue is all about players' leadership, and during the losing streak Florida could not pull out of, it was obvious the Gators were severely lacking it. Muschamp decried a "woe-is-me mentality" that would snowball as soon as adversity struck. It happened in games, and eventually it engulfed the season. The Gators were mentally fragile, and by the end of 2013 many questioned the effort level and accused players of mailing in the season. To prevent such a disaster from ever striking again, Muschamp has to identify players with leadership abilities on and off the field and cultivate them as vocal motivators. The mantle of leadership cannot simply be passed down from one senior class to another, and neither can the coaching staff allow an entire class to be devoid of respected leaders.

The offensive line: No unit at UF is more important than the O-line. The fate of the quarterback -- of the entire offense -- rests upon this group improving significantly. Florida averaged 146.3 yards passing per game in 2012 and 170.9 YPG in 2013 under OC Brent Pease. Underneath those anemic numbers was an offensive line that rarely gave its quarterback a chance to throw, much less find a rhythm. Whoever Muschamp hires as his next OL coach has two herculean tasks -- find a blocking scheme that can keep quarterbacks clean, and develop redshirt freshmen and true freshmen to contribute as reserves immediately. Florida only has five linemen with starting experience among only nine scholarship linemen on the roster. More bodies will arrive in time for spring and fall practice, and they can expect to be thrown into the deep end with orders to swim.

Bring back the big play: Florida has the talent. It has the prospects. It's time for results. It's time for an offense to rediscover the forward pass. It's time for play-action fakes to actually open passing lanes. And it's time for a capable fleet of running backs to break off larger chunks of yardage. These are among the primary tasks of new coordinator Kurt Roper, who is sure to employ a balanced approach at UF. The Gators have more proven talent at tailback, but the last three years have shown that it's not enough to grind out games with such a small margin of error, and it's not a good strategy to run when every opponent knows a handoff is coming. Roper's play-calling will be the key to making the Gators dangerous (and, dare we say, fun) again. Taking shots in the passing game is nice, but what Florida needs even more than bravado is a reliable intermediate passing game.

Cut down on bad penalties: Florida has been among the nation's most-penalized teams under Muschamp. The Gators led the SEC this season with 89 penalties and lost an average of 59.2 yards a game. This is nothing new in the last 24 years, a point Muschamp made after this year's loss to Georgia when the Gators saw their comeback hopes end late with a personal foul. Offsides, delays, false starts, illegal procedures, and yes, personal fouls have seemed to crush momentum on a regular basis. Going back to leadership, this issue is a matter of discipline that must be addressed by coaches and team leaders. Muschamp has tried a myriad of approaches. He's brought officials to spring and fall camps. He and his coaches have texted players and created T-shirts to raise awareness, even tried to single out the guilty in front of the whole team. Nothing has worked, but Muschamp and Co. say they will continue to educate and emphasize the issue.

Find a place-kicker: Nothing was more soul-crushing throughout the 2013 season than Florida's inability to convert even short field goals. After four golden years of record-setting kicker Caleb Sturgis, a bumpy ride was expected, but not that bumpy. Florida used three kickers to no avail -- redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, ESPN's No. 1 kicking prospect in the Class of 2012; junior walk-on Francisco Velez and senior walk-on Brad Phillips. The Gators are certainly hoping to straighten out Hardin, who made just four of 12 field goals, and he'll work with new special teams coach Coleman Hutzler. This offseason the competition will start anew, but a new face could emerge. Former Virginia Tech kicker Brooks Abbott, a sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., who transferred and sat out this past season, said on Twitter he will enroll at Florida this summer. But before anyone's hopes get too high, Abbott never attempted a field goal for the Hokies, spending his freshman year as the team's kickoff specialist.

It's a long list. But if Muschamp can check off all of these items, Florida will be a lot more likely to return to respectability while he stabilizes his tenure. And, perhaps just as important, win back a lot of the fans he lost in 2013.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It's only fitting that a season characterized by injuries and an ineffective offense would conclude with a whimper thanks to those same culprits.

But after losing 37-7 to No. 2 Florida State (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) in the Swamp on Saturday, Florida (4-8, 3-5 SEC) can take solace that its season of misery is mercifully over.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDespite carrying the ball just twice, Trey Burton led the Gators with 47 yards rushing versus Florida State. Burton left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
"Very frustrating, difficult day that ends a very frustrating, difficult season," coach Will Muschamp said. "That’s the best way I can sum it up."

Not even an inspirational pregame speech by Gators great Tim Tebow could do more than delay the inevitable.

"What he said to us was, 'Any man that goes down, he has the ability to get back up. But the difference is how that man gets back up, because a man can get down and come back withered, can come back beaten. But a man that goes down and comes back up and is changed and is different from being down, that's who we are. That's who the Gators are. That's how we need to play and that's who we need to be,' " Florida left tackle Max Garcia recounted.

"So, I'm going to stick with that for the rest of my life. It really penetrated my soul."

With Tebow watching on the sidelines, the Gators were bouncing around and showing more emotion than they had in weeks. In front of a nearly full stadium, its fans at full throat, Florida's defense harassed Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston into one of his worst quarters (4-of-6 for 35 yards) of the season.

Winston threw his first interception in three weeks -- an excuse-me catch by Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who broke up the pass with his back to the ball but was able to find and reel in the deflection. It was the Gators' first interception since the second quarter of the Missouri game on Oct. 19.

The crowd roared its approval, and there was more energy in the Swamp than at any point in the season.

Florida outgained FSU 81 yards to 33 in the first quarter, but 50 of those yards came on one Wildcat keeper up the middle by senior Trey Burton. Two plays later, Burton injured his shoulder on another keeper and did not return to the field.

With Burton went half of the offense the Gators were planning to run.

"We were probably going to have 30-35 plays with Trey [at Wildcat quarterback]," Muschamp said. "Some of the misdirection runs now go out of the game plan, so you've got to make adjustments and you've got to change.

"I hurt for Trey because he’s a senior, his last game in the Swamp, so [it's] very difficult for him. He’s a great young man. It just kinda sums up what’s happened this year. Very frustrating."

With Burton's injury, Florida was missing 16 scholarship contributors in this game. And with cornerback Marcus Roberson dealing with an ankle injury in the first half, UF was missing 10 of its original 22 projected starters on offense and defense.

Winston and the Seminoles still led 3-0 after the first quarter, as FSU kicker Roberto Aguayo converted the same 49-yard field goal that his Florida counterpart, Austin Hardin, missed.

A 12-play, 96-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Winston to Kelvin Benjamin might have put the game out of reach, but more importantly, it quelled the enthusiasm of the Florida defense and the crowd.

FSU had weathered the early storm of defensive pressure and taken a 17-0 lead into halftime. It tied the lowest first-half scoring output of the season for the Noles, which happened previously against Nevada in Week 2.

A game that looked on paper like a colossal mismatch inevitably turned out that way. The Florida defense couldn't get off the field, thanks to FSU going 9-of-15 on third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Florida went 1-for-11 on third down and averaged 3.9 yards per play on the day.

"You got to maintain the ball against an offense like that," Muschamp said. "You got to take time off the clock. ... We weren’t able to do that. Give them credit. They made plays on third down, and we didn’t. I think we were 1-of-10 or -11 on third down. You got to convert those, and we’ve struggled to make explosives, make third-down conversions. You name it, we haven’t done it.”

In a season of making all the wrong history, the only drama Florida could muster against Florida State was whether the Noles would shut out the Gators for the first time in the 58-game series.

The answer was no, but it was close. And now the Gators boast the nation's second-longest streak of scoring in consecutive games (322, second to Michigan's 374 games in a row).

With one score in the fourth quarter, Florida finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns. It's the fewest since 1989, the season before Steve Spurrier was hired as coach. On the other sideline, sitting out the Noles' final series to let his backup play, Winston had already broken Florida State's single-season record for passing TDs, with three more on Saturday giving him a total of 35.

"It’s been a tough year, difficult to deal with, but it is what it is," a somber Muschamp said when it was over. "Those guys have persevered through some tough times and certainly this season being the iceberg of it all."

Now that it's in the history books, however, Florida's 2013 season might be remembered less as an iceberg and more as the ship that sunk when it struck one.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here are five things to watch as the Florida Gators (4-6, 3-5 in the Southeastern Conference) play host to the Georgia Southern Eagles (6-4, 4-4 in the Southern Conference) on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET (ESPN3).

1. The level of enthusiasm: The Gators return home after completing their SEC schedule with five consecutive losses. Against an FCS opponent, there is always the possibility of a letdown in terms of the players' focus and passion. Do they just want this nightmare season to be over? Will they mail it in? There is certainly a chance the Gators will take the field only to find a half-filled stadium, as many irate fans have promised to stop attending games while their team struggles. On the other hand, Florida should motivation to end its long losing streak, and an overmatched opponent could be just the ticket to winning back some of those disappointed fans.

2. Defending the dreaded triple-option: It won't be easy. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the team "spent a lot of time in the offseason preparing and looking at different teams and how they handled this because it's so different from what we've faced." Georgia Southern totaled 341 yards against Alabama's stout defense in 2011, so the Eagles have everyone's full attention. The Gators defense, which ranks No. 15 against the run (allowing 115.1 yards a game) seems to understand its task at hand and Georgia Southern's capability of causing embarrassment. The triple-option attack forces defenses to play mistake-free and with great discipline while also defending big plays in the passing game that can come from just about anywhere on the field.

3. Who starts at quarterback? Starter Tyler Murphy (shoulder) missed last Saturday's game at South Carolina and is listed as questionable against GSU. He did get some throws in this week during practice, but Skyler Mornhinweg remains poised to make his second career start. Mornhinweg led a very conservative offense against the formidable Gamecocks defense, but Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease said this week they believe the redshirt freshman can handle an expanded playbook and more of a look in the passing game. The Gators might be tempted to keep Murphy on the sideline as a Plan B vs. the Eagles, considering how much Florida wants Murphy to be healthy for the regular-season finale against No. 2 Florida State.

4. Momentum: Florida fell short of winning in Columbia, S.C., last week, but the Gators returned home with a measure of pride and confidence after nearly pulling off a surprising upset. Unlike the previous four games in its losing streak, Florida got off to a fast start against the Gamecocks. A first-quarter touchdown gave the Gators their first lead in a game since a 3-0 advantage at LSU on Oct. 12. Florida also had a 14-6 lead at halftime at South Carolina, its first advantage at the break since a 17-7 lead over Arkansas on Oct. 5. It will be interesting to see if the Gators can shake off the disappointment of their second-half collapse last week and reclaim the momentum they generated in the first half.

5. Anyone want to kick field goals? Two missed field goals against the Gamecocks might well have been the difference between winning and losing (not to mention staying home during bowl season). Florida has enough problems on offense to contend with, but when the Gators get bogged down in or near the red zone, a special kind of anxiety takes over on fourth down. After enjoying the luxury of record-breaking kicker Caleb Sturgis and his 79.5 percent field-goal accuracy for the previous four seasons, UF has struggled. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, the nation's No. 1 kicker prospect in the Class of 2012, has the strongest leg and was supposed to be the answer. However, he's made 4-of-11 field goals (36.4 percent). Senior Brad Phillips made a 28-yard field goal against Arkansas on Oct. 5 but also missed an extra point. Junior walk-on Francisco Velez has made 4-of-5 field goals but has limited range. The next time Florida is in field-goal range, the Gators might just want to go for it on fourth down.

What we learned: Week 7

October, 13, 2013
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Florida suffered its first SEC loss this season, dropping a tough 17-6 decision to LSU in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday afternoon. Here are three things we learned about the Gators from the game:

The SEC's best run defense can be run on: LSU sophomore Jeremy Hill averaged 6.4 yards per carry and finished with 121 yards on 19 attempts. As a team, the Tigers averaged 4.5 yards per carry and finished with 175 rushing yards against a Florida defense that had allowed only one team above 100 yards (Arkansas, which ran for 111). Nobody before LSU averaged more than 3.8 yards a carry against the Gators. Florida's front seven couldn't get off blocks enough times, and it showed.

Offense still has work to do: Will Muschamp said as much after the game -- the Gators have to do better up front. Quarterback Tyler Murphy had a lot of pressure in his face throughout the day, and he handled it pretty well, but he was hurried more than Florida would like. In the running game, the Gators had problems getting much going, finishing with just 111 rushing yards on 40 carries (2.8 yards per carry). The Gators finished with 240 offensive yards total and didn't have many explosive plays to get the offense rolling.

Florida might have a new kicker: It wasn't Austin Hardin taking field goal attempts on Saturday, it was Francisco Velez instead. The junior was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts and connected on a 44-yarder. His field goals accounted for the Gators' only points in the game. Muschamp said kicker is an "open competition" and that Velez kicked the best in the last week of practice and is their kicker right now.

Five things: Florida-Arkansas

October, 5, 2013
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No. 18 Florida (3-1, 2-0 SEC) looks to remain undefeated SEC play when Arkansas comes to town at 7 p.m. tonight. Here are five things of note in advance of the meeting:

1. Arkansas run game vs. Florida run D: This will be the matchup to watch today. Arkansas is second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (237) while Florida is No. 1 in the country in rushing defense (53.5 yards allowed per game). Arkansas hasn't faced a defense as good as Florida's and the Gators haven't faced a team as productive as the Razorbacks on the ground, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Freshman Alex Collins (597 rushing yards) and sophomore Jonathan Williams (471) pace the Razorbacks. Florida's run defense hits opponents at or behind the line of scrimmage 57 percent of the time, 15 points better than average among AQ conference squads, and the Gators haven't allowed an opponent to rush for 75 yards or more yet this year.

2. Florida's series dominance: This is the first meeting between the two teams since 2009 and Florida leads the all-time series 8-1. Since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1992, Florida has won all eight meetings between the squads. Arkansas has lost its last five SEC games and is in the middle of a stretch where it is playing ranked teams four straight weeks. The Razorbacks lost their last two games, falling to unranked Rutgers and to No. 9 Texas A&M. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema only lost three straight games in a season once while he was at Wisconsin back in 2008, when the Badgers dropped four in a row.

3. Continued success for Murphy?: This will be Tyler Murphy's second start since taking over for an injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback. So far, Murphy has been nothing short of stellar. His QBR of 96.1 would rank second in the FBS if he had enough snaps to qualify in the national rankings, but the results have been positive for Florida's offense when Murphy has been under center. In his 19 drives, he has led Florida to seven touchdowns to only four three-and-outs, with three drives ending in turnovers. In 28 drives under Driskel, Florida had five touchdowns, seven turnovers and eight three-and-outs.

4. Running game emerging: Matt Jones had his best game of the season last week (28 carries, 176 yards, one touchdown) since returning from a viral infection that caused him to miss the opener. While much of the talk around Florida has surrounded the quarterback, it's the running game that will carry the Gators. Mack Brown is a solid complement and the Gators have rushed for more than 200 yards in all but one game this season, the loss to Miami.

5. Kicking game: Florida kicker Austin Hardin missed a field goal attempt last week and is 4-of-7 on the season, with his misses coming from 39, 41 and 53 yards, respectively. The Gators were accustomed to having an ace in the hole at kicker when Caleb Sturgis was around but Hardin, a redshirt sophomore, is still trying to find some consistency. He beat out senior Brad Phillips in preseason camp, but it'll be interesting to see if Phillips gets a look if Hardin doesn't show improvement.

Planning for success: Florida

October, 3, 2013
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After a 24-7 win at Kentucky, Florida is looking to continue the positive results in SEC play. The Gators (3-1, 2-0 SEC), who are tied atop the SEC East with Georgia currently, host SEC West foe Arkansas at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Here are a few keys to watch:

Something's got to give: Arkansas comes into the game with the SEC's top rushing offense, averaging a league-high 237 rushing yards per game. True freshman Alex Collins is sixth overall in the country with 597 rushing yards this season and the Razorbacks have a solid one-two punch at the position when you add Jonathan Williams (471 rushing yards) to the mix. Florida, of course, is boasting college football's top rushing defense, allowing a measly 53.5 yards per game. The Gators allow just 2.43 yards per carry. So watching the battle at the line of scrimmage when Arkansas has the football will be compelling.

Keep away?: While Arkansas likes to run the ball, so does Florida. The Gators lead the nation in time of possession, averaging 38 minutes and 58 seconds of possession time per game. That keeps an opposing offense off the field, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease isn't necessarily looking to grind the clock down all the time. Pease said that sometimes he'll "still stress that you want to have explosive plays and you hope you get those where you’re scoring in two or three [plays], which limits your time of possession." So the Gators will continue to look for opportunities to make big plays on offense.

Building on Kentucky performance: Sophomore running back Matt Jones had his best game of the season last week against Kentucky, exploding for 176 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. After missing practice and game time earlier this year because of a viral infection, it appears Jones is no longer feeling any effects that might have lingered. The Gators are fortunate to have another quality option in the backfield with Mack Brown, but Jones' emergence last week was key and he'll have a chance to build on it this week.

Continuing success at QB: Since being pressed into the lineup because of a season-ending injury to starter Jeff Driskel, quarterback Tyler Murphy has played well. He has completed 71.9 percent of his passes and has been a threat with his feet also, rushing for 120 yards. Pease said Murphy just needs to keep being himself. As long as others around him continue to do their job, all should be well for Murphy.

Improve the kicking game: Redshirt freshman kicker Austin Hardin missed a 53-yard field goal try last week and while long field goals are never easy, he is 4-for-7 on field goals (57.1 percent). That won't get it done if games are close and a field goal attempt is a deciding factor in a win or a loss. Hardin has been the lone successor so far to Caleb Sturgis, who was a Lou Groza Award finalist last year, but senior Brad Phillips is competing in practice with Hardin.

Five questions: Florida-Toledo

August, 30, 2013
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On Saturday, No. 10 Florida will host a Toledo team that went went 9-4 last season and knows how to move the ball at a fast pace.

The Gators are looking to prove that last year's 11-win season wasn't a fluke, but they'll start the year with a beat-up offense, as key players like running back Matt Jones and offensive linemen Chaz Green and Jon Halapio are out.

The defense will be down top linebacker Antonio Morrison, who is out due to suspension, and will have some younger blood on the field Saturday.

Here are five things to watch in the Gators season opener against the Rockets:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kevin Liles/US PRESSWIREAs usual, the biggest question mark for Florida's offense is centered on Jeff Driskel and the passing game.
1. Life in the passing lane? There's no denying that the biggest question resides in Florida's passing game. The Gators were last in the SEC in passing (146.3 yards per game) last season, and no one outside of Florida's football facility really knows what to expect from this unit again. Quarterback Jeff Driskel is a year older, maturing and more confident, but just how comfortable is he with his receivers? Who will be the guy(s) out wide? Well, Quinton Dunbar could be the best deep-play option to start the year, and it sounds like he's been more consistent in practice. Solomon Patton will be used more all over the field and has the speed to break off a few big plays. And Trey Burton proved to be a consistent weapon during fall camp. Keep an eye on freshman Demarcus Robinson, who has the talent to be a special player this year. Regardless, if this passing game wants to generate some confidence, Saturday would be a good time to start.

2. Return of the Mack: Coming out of high school, Mack Brown was considered one of the South's top running backs. But the redshirt junior has just 167 career yards and no touchdown on 40 carries. Brown has a chance to get half as many as his career carries on Saturday when he makes his first start at running back. With Jones out, Brown is now the center of Florida's running back stable. He's had an issue with fumbles in the past, but appeared to clean that up this fall. He's a tough runner, who has the ability to break a few. Last year, the Rockets ranked 82nd nationally in run defense (182.3).

3. Stopping the uptempo offense: This will be Toledo's first game ever against an SEC opponent. That means the Rockets will get a taste of what it's like to play what should yet again be one of the nation's top defensive units. But Toledo will have that exhausting uptempo offense on its side. The Gators did well against the uptempo last year, but right out of the gate, it's bothersome. Just look at how tired South Carolina's defense looked Thursday night against North Carolina. The Gators are working in some new parts on defense, and we all know how jacked up players get for openers. Toledo's trio of quarterback Terrence Owens, running back David Fluellen and receiver Bernard Reedy return a combined 6,033 offensive yards and 38 touchdowns from 2012 and will try to wear this defense down. One way to stop the uptempo is to disrupt things up front, where the Gators have harped on generating more pressure this year.

4. Safety zone: The Gators are replacing two starters -- Matt Elam and Josh Evans -- at safety. Heading into preseason camp, coach Will Muschamp wasn't exactly thrilled with the play at the position. But that changed with the emergence of veteran Cody Riggs, who moved to safety after spending most of his football career at cornerback. Riggs has really embraced his new role and will play both safety spots on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Marcus Maye will start alongside Riggs. Maye flew around the field during fall camp to earn his starting spot, but this will be the first action Maye sees in a Gators uniform. Riggs has tons of experience and started playing safety before his season-ending foot injury early last year. Maye will have some wide eyes Saturday, so expect Toledo to try and test him early.

5. Place-kicker: With record-setting kicker Caleb Strugis gone, the Gators have major questions at place-kicker. Redshirt freshman Austin Hardin beat out senior Brad Phillips this fall and will see his first collegiate action Saturday. This is the first of many tests for Hardin. With the offense still a relative unknown, Hardin's foot could be called upon a lot this year. That's a lot of pressure to put on a young kicker. Getting some of those nerves out of the way on Saturday will go a long way.

Gators fall camp preview

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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.

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National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert discusses where Florida goes from here now that its recruiting class has shrunk to eight. Haubert says, however, there's reason for optimism in Gainesville.
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