Florida Gators: Chris Thompson

Florida's two-deep: Wide receiver

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
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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.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

Second-year stars: Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Replacing the Gators: Offense

May, 14, 2014
May 14
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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.

Post-spring questions for Florida

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Soaring temperatures and a lack of football tells you that spring is over in Florida. It's time for the long days of summer.

The Gators will work out in the weight room, delve deeper into playbooks and conduct drills with each other. Fifteen signees are expected to enroll in June, several of whom come with legitimate hopes for immediate playing time.

With more than three months before Florida practices again, there are still several questions that must be answered. Here are a few:

[+] EnlargeMornhinweg
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesSkyler Mornhinweg will try to hold off a couple of true freshmen for the right to back up Jeff Driskel.
1. Who's the backup QB?

Jeff Driskel is entrenched as the starter, but with his history of injuries, the Gators must prepare their backups like never before.

When Driskel was lost for the season last September, whole sections of the UF playbook went with him. That can't happen again, and it doesn't seem that it will, because Florida has more depth at quarterback than it has had in a long time.

True freshman Will Grier split reps throughout the spring with third-year sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg, and true freshman Treon Harris will enter the fray in August. The prevailing thought is that Grier is more talented and athletic than Mornhinweg and got a leg up on Harris by enrolling early.

But overlooking Mornhinweg, who started the last three games of 2013, would be a mistake. The coaches valued his experience and decision-making enough to cut into Grier's development this spring, and Mornhinweg rewarded them by showing improvement in the passing game.

He doesn't have Grier's arm or Harris' mobility, but Mornhinweg could easily be Driskel's primary backup.

2. What happens if the injury bug strikes again?

Injuries devastated Florida's 2013 season, but 2014 has yet to be a whole lot better.

Seven scholarship athletes missed all of spring recovering from injuries. Two others were limited to just a few days of practice in non-contact jerseys. Six more players got hurt during practice and missed time.

The good news? Every one of those players is expected to participate fully in fall camp. The bad news? Florida still hasn't developed enough depth to overcome losses at key positions such as quarterback, defensive tackle or cornerback.

One big injury could hurt in more ways than one, so other than simply having some better luck this fall, the Gators will need their young backups to prove they can handle larger roles.

3. Will UF finally have a dangerous receiver?

It's a stunning statistic, but Florida hasn’t had a receiver record 600 or more yards in a season since 2009 when wideout Riley Cooper had 961 and tight end Aaron Hernandez had 850.

A lot will depend on the new scheme, Driskel's improvement in accuracy and decision-making, as well as the offensive line's ability to pass block. But if all of those things happen, the Gators believe they finally have the wide receivers to make hay.

Senior Quinton Dunbar, a solid possession receiver, is the leader on and off the field. A trio of sophomores -- Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson -- brings size, speed and much-needed athleticism. Andre Debose, back for a sixth year of eligibility after a torn ACL in 2013, is a talented wild card.

The numbers might not match those of Cooper or Hernandez, but Florida will be thrilled with even one pass-catching threat after four years of going without.

4. What can the Gators expect out of the backups on both lines?

If you listened to the coaching staff, the answer after spring was not much. A familiar refrain from head coach Will Muschamp and Co. was that there was "a huge drop-off" in effectiveness between the first and second units on the offensive and defensive lines.

That wasn't a motivational ploy. It's a real problem.

On the offensive line, the Gators have one backup -- junior Trip Thurman -- they appear comfortable with. Given the injury histories of the starters, a lack of depth here could be the biggest concern on the team. Florida will need reserves Drew Sarvary, Cameron Dillard and Kavaris Harkless to improve rapidly. Redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson and true freshman Nolan Kelleher must come back from the injuries that cost them the entire spring, or the O-line could see another revolving-door season.

On the defensive line, Florida needs more from redshirt freshmen DTs Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley, who showed flashes of talent but little consistency. This could be an area where UF benefits from some heralded true freshmen who arrive in June. Gerald Willis III, Thomas Holley and Khairi Clark could all be in the mix on the D-line in fall camp.

5. Will there be enough carries for all of the running backs?

The players say yes, but that was during a spring that didn't include former starter Matt Jones and true freshman Brandon Powell, both out with injuries.

Sophomore Kelvin Taylor looks to be the starter, senior Mack Brown is a reliable backup, and redshirt freshman Adam Lane emerged as another weapon. But none of the three has breakaway speed. Although they run with similar styles, UF's backs believe they will all play. Duke's offense in 2013 supports that notion, as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper employed four tailbacks throughout the season.

"Our offense is definitely not stingy and we're going to pass the ball around and use each other in different situations," Lane said. "I wouldn't say it's really roles, but in some situations some fit better."

Still yet to be resolved is where Powell and Jones fit. Powell has speed and wiggle and could be a change-of-pace back. Jones will get a look at the B position (typically manned by tight ends and fullbacks), where he could do damage as a pass-catcher and get more playmakers on the field at the same time.

"But he's going to play the running back positon as well," Muschamp cautioned.

Ultimately, the Florida offense will still be predicated on running the ball, so it's possible five backs could share the load.
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. -- Progress. It's what Florida fans expect to see this fall. It's what they hope to see in Saturday's spring game.

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

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

Here's what to watch for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening spring camp: Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This weeklong series opens with a look at the much-maligned wide receivers corps.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar provides reliability and experience.
Returning starters: Senior Quinton Dunbar (40 catches for 548 yards) is a solid possession receiver who has improved every year. He had his best season in 2013, setting a school record with at least one catch in 28 consecutive games to break Carlos Alvarez's record of 25 straight games. Dunbar is a consistent, reliable target and will be counted on to bring veteran leadership this fall.

Departures: Senior Solomon Patton had a breakthrough season with 44 catches, 556 yards and six touchdowns -- all team-leading numbers among receivers. Senior Trey Burton had his best season as a pass-catcher with 38 receptions for 445 yards and one TD. Both are hoping to find a place in the NFL, which leaves the Gators with a very inexperienced group of receivers.

Returning reserves: Senior Andre Debose, who missed last season with a torn ACL, has applied for a medical hardship to return for a sixth season. Although he has been wildly inconsistent, Debose has the ability to be the big-play deep threat Florida desperately needs to scare defenses. Rising sophomores Ahmad Fulwood (17 catches, 127 yards), Demarcus Robinson (five catches, 23 yards) and Chris Thompson (two catches, 13 yards) got experience as true freshmen in 2013 and will be counted on to fight for starting jobs. It's now or never for rising juniors Latroy Pittman (two catches, 18 yards) and Raphael Andrades (no catches in two games).

Newcomers: Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins are redshirt freshmen hoping to make a splash in their first spring practices. Both are talented four-star ESPN 300 prospects. Florida also signed a pair of three-star prospects, Ryan Sousa and C.J. Worton, who will arrive this summer and have already been designated as slot receivers for fall camp.

What to watch: Like Florida's offense in general, the wide receiver position has been in disrepair since 2009. The Gators are determined to climb out of the cellar of FBS offenses, and the passing game is clearly the biggest area for improvement. A big factor in Florida's favor is the presence of wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, who returns for his second year to give much-needed continuity. Phillips is a well-seasoned offensive coach with a solid track record of producing wideouts. In 2014, it will be time for everyone involved to take their games to another level, and that begins in earnest on March 19. Dunbar must be a leader on and off the field this spring, as Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel needs a go-to receiver. But Dunbar will need at least one sidekick. In fact, Florida has enough talented wide receivers that the coaching staff is hoping for a true star to emerge and perhaps surpass Dunbar. Will Debose finally be healthy and consistent? Will either of UF's immensely talented sophomores, Fulwood and Robinson, seize a starting position? Or will we see another spring star flash (only to disappear in the fall) like Pittman did two years ago? There are question marks everywhere you look when it comes to this group of receivers. Given the talent the Gators have been recruiting, surely it's just a matter of time before they truly strike gold and find a wide receiver who brings some fireworks back to the offense.

UF spring players to watch: D. Robinson

February, 26, 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 under way. 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 weeklong series continues with a look at one of the most talented wide receivers on the team.

[+] EnlargeDemarcus Robinson
AP Photo/John RaouxDemarcus Robinson enrolled early but it didn't translate into a breakthrough freshman season in 2013.
WR Demarcus Robinson
Sophomore
6-foot-2, 201 pounds

Credentials: Robinson arrived at Florida a little more than a year ago as a much-anticipated early entry freshman. He was the No. 7 wideout in the nation and the No. 53 overall player in the ESPN 300. He got a head-start by going through spring practice and playing in the spring game, but expectations for his freshman season went through the roof after Robinson was a standout in fall practice.

How he fits: The tools Robinson brings are obvious. He has great athleticism to go along with good size, two much-needed traits in a wide receiver corps that has fallen far short of expectations since 2009. That's a long time that the Gators and their fans have been waiting for a big-time talent to emerge. Robinson has that kind of talent, but he couldn't get on the field consistently as a freshman and had just five catches for 23 yards. His work ethic and maturity were called into question, and he was suspended twice. Not a good start, but Robinson is clearly worth whatever extra attention the coaching staff is giving him.

Who he's competing with: It's not like Florida's entire wide receiver corps is devoid of talent, but the unit is very unproven and it lost two starters from 2013 in Solomon Patton and Trey Burton. Patton was a speedy jitterbug and as much of a deep threat as there could be in Florida's dysfunctional offense. But Burton was a possession receiver, so there's definitely playing time available for a big guy like Robinson who is capable of making plays all over the field. The Gators return starter Quinton Dunbar, another possession guy. Sixth-year senior Andre Debose will also be in the mix coming off a torn ACL last year. But Robinson's biggest competition might come from Ahmad Fulwood, another rising sophomore who outplayed and passed Robinson on the depth chart last fall. By the end of the season, true freshman Chris Thompson was also garnering playing time. Redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins will go through their first spring practices. While two other holdovers, Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades, typify UF's situation at receiver -- there's depth and talent but little in the way of a proven threat. There's clearly opportunity for someone -- anyone -- to step forward and grab.

What needs to happen this spring: The Gators desperately need an explosive threat at wide receiver, someone they can get the ball to in space and then sit back and watch the fireworks. It has been a long time since Percy Harvin did that for Florida, but the bar isn't necessarily that high. UF coaches will settle for reliable pass-catchers who understand the scheme and can get open consistently. Robinson has to win people over this spring. If he can show the maturity he was lacking last season, he'll have plenty of chances to shine on the field. So if he can stay focused and learn the playbook, Robinson could be that breakout wide receiver Florida so badly needs.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When doling out blame for Florida's four-year streak of bad offense, there's always a bit of a puzzle in assessing the passing game.

Has the biggest problem been the offensive line's inability to pass block or the quarterbacks' problems with decision-making and accuracy, or is it the wide receivers' fault for not getting open and making the big catch?

The answer is yes.

It's probably all of the above, but no position has been in more of a funk at Florida than wide receiver. There's no doubting the talent wearing orange and blue. There's also no doubting the lack of production.

[+] EnlargeCameron Sutton, Quinton Dunbar
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuinton Dunbar has caught passes in 28 straight games, but the Gators need more of a big-play impact from their wideouts in 2014.
Position coach Joker Phillips brought credibility when he arrived last year and brings some stability going in his second season. Now it's crucial that he bring improvement in 2014.

Our series looking at the Gators' top positions with room to improve turns to the wide receivers.

Battling for No. 1: After two starters graduated, rising senior Quinton Dunbar remains as Florida's only certainty. He's a starter who has developed into a solid possession receiver and even has a school-record 28 consecutive games with a catch. The next most experienced receiver on the roster is senior Andre Debose, who is seeking a medical redshirt so he can come back for a sixth season after missing last year with a torn ACL. Debose was a terrific kickoff returner and has some history as a deep threat, but his list of injuries and lack of production at receiver make him a mighty big question mark.

Strength in numbers: Florida played three true freshmen in 2013 and redshirted two. Ahmad Fulwood played in all 12 games and led the way with 17 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. Where Fulwood was consistent, Demarcus Robinson was the opposite, as he struggled in practice and missed a few games due to suspension. Both Fulwood and Robinson are important pieces for their talent, but also because they are the only two pass-catchers on the roster with good size, measuring 6-foot-5 and 6-2, respectively. Speedster Chris Thompson was the other freshman who played last season and was the only one who earned a start. The two redshirt freshmen, Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins, are long on talent and obviously short on experience. They'll need to improve rapidly during their first spring football practices and then make their mark this fall.

New on the scene: With a new offensive coordinator bringing some new schemes, the Gators hit the recruiting trail looking for slot receivers. Although the state was loaded at wide receiver in the Class of 2014, UF didn't land any elite talents. What the Gators did find were two very good athletes who fit the bill as playmakers over the middle and on the outside. Four-star Ryan Sousa and three-star C.J. Worton won't be the biggest or the fastest wideouts on the team, but they're both supreme competitors who are expected to fight for roles in fall practice.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the obvious silver linings of a subpar season is having the opportunity to get young players on the field. Florida burned 11 redshirts last season. That's a lot of precious experience for players who will be counted on to step up even further in 2014.

Here are the five Gators who impressed the most:

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

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

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

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

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

The rest: Six other true freshmen played for UF last season, gaining invaluable experience. They were wide receivers Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson, linebackers Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, defensive lineman Joey Ivie and safety Keanu Neal.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- By now the benefits of enrolling early are well known both to players and the football programs that typically put such valuable freshmen right to work.

Not only do these select prospects get a significant head start in terms of strength, conditioning, learning the playbook and participating in the all-important spring practice session, they also have extra time to settle into college life.

This year, the Gators are expecting nine mid-year enrollees. That makes it a perfect time to look back at how last year's bumper crop performed.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesOf all the players who were early enrollees at Florida last year, RB Kelvin Taylor was the one to make the biggest impact.
The headliner

Kelvin Taylor came to Florida with all the hype of the nation's No. 1-rated running back. He also had huge cleats to fill as the son of Gator great Fred Taylor. It's fair to say he lived up to the expectations, showing good vision and a blend of power and quickness right away. Taylor started at No. 3 on the depth chart because he needed to learn the plays and improve his pass-blocking. But he was ready when called upon. He played in all but two games and started four of the last five after starter Matt Jones was injured. Taylor finished with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), four touchdowns and was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team.

The starters

Tyler Moore, a sophomore transfer from Nebraska made six starts on the offensive line -- five at right tackle and one at left tackle -- before a freak injury ended his season. It sort of epitomized Florida's season. Moore struggled some in adapting to SEC defensive ends at right tackle. Just when he played one of his best games (at left tackle, no less), he fell off his scooter and broke his elbow. Florida's offensive line was never the same.

Darious Cummings, a junior transfer from East Mississippi CC, stepped up when Florida needed him after Dominique Easley's season-ending injury. The 6-foot-1, 309-pound defensive tackle they call "Bear" played in 11 games and started the last six. He finished with 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, two QB hurries and a pass breakup.

The linebackers

Alex Anzalone joined the Gators' group of early enrollees in dramatic fashion after decommitting from Notre Dame just two days before he was to report to South Bend, Ind. Slated to be Florida's backup middle linebacker, he injured the labrum in his right shoulder early in spring practice and needed surgery. Anzalone returned in the fall to play mostly on special teams, where he had one tackle. He was pressed into his most significant duty after starting middle linebacker Michael Taylor was injured in the Gators' disastrous loss to Georgia Southern. Anzalone came into the game and made one unassisted tackle and then followed Taylor with an injury of his own soon after, suffering a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery.

Daniel McMillian came to UF as the nation's No. 3 prospect at outside linebacker. The 6-2, 225-pound freshman earned praise and raised expectations after a standout spring practice. Florida head coach Will Muschamp even said he thought McMillian would start several games at some point in 2013. Capable of playing all three linebacker positions, McMillian opened the season as the primary backup to Ronald Powell at strong-side linebacker, but that was about as close as he got to making an impact. He never saw much playing time on defense, seeing action mostly on special teams in nine games and recording two tackles.

Matt Rolin missed spring practice rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in high school. Early in fall camp, Muschamp was full of praise for Rolin and said the freshman strong-side linebacker was expected to play as a reserve and on special teams, calling him physical, tough and smart. But Muschamp said all of this while announcing that Rolin had suffered another tear of the same ACL. Rolin went right back to rehabbing and was the only early entrant who redshirted.

Wait and see

Injuries on the defensive line created an opportunity, and Joey Ivie was rewarded for his strong efforts in practice with playing time. He came to Gainesville a little-known three-star recruit who was expected to redshirt, but Ivie ended up playing in three of the final five games of the season and recorded three tackles.

The highest ceiling

So much was expected of wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, so little was delivered. After UF beat out Clemson to win his turbulent recruitment, Robinson became the latest in a string of recent spring standouts at wide receiver who gave fans hope only to disappear when the games counted. Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease tried to get Robinson involved early in the season, but nothing clicked as the offense struggled overall. Later, Pease expressed frustration with Robinson's "ups and downs in practice." He played in just seven games and finished with a disappointing five catches for 23 yards. By the end of the season, while Robinson sat out the final three games, he was passed on the depth chart by fellow freshmen Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson.

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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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