Spring practice for the Florida Gators football program begins on Wednesday, March 19 and lasts for 15 practices concluding with the 2014 Orange & Blue Debut spring game on Saturday, April 12. Below is the first of OnlyGators.com‘s two-part series that takes a look at the team on a position-by-position basis.
PART ONE: Offense
Due to extensive team injuries, more players started for Florida at times in 2013 than normal. In this case, the term “starter” is being used as applicable per position.
Returning starters (1/2): Redshirt senior Leon Orr
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, sophomore Joey Ivie
Losing Dominique Easley so early in the season gave senior Darious “Bear” Cummings more field time than he likely would’ve had during his first year with the program as a transfer from East Mississippi. So while Florida will only be entering 2014 with one returning starter in Orr, who should be primed to finally put everything together at nose in his final season with the team, Cummings may also be poised to have a breakout year if everything lines up correctly. Ivie was on his way to a redshirt before having it pulled due to depth concerns; he saw action in three of the final games. Brantley and Bostwick, on the other hand, were able to go the distance without seeing the field in 2013. Both are expected to be major contributors this year with head coach Will Muschamp mentioning more than once last season that he was on the verge of pulling Bostwick’s redshirt and getting him some playing time.
Returning starters (2/2): Juniors Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard
Fresh faces: Redshirt sophomore Alex McCalister, redshirt freshman Jordan Sherit
Fowler returns as Florida’s starter at the hybrid Buck linebacker/defensive end spot after leading the Gators with 10.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013. He also checked in second on the team with 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries, amassing 50 total tackles in the process. Bullard was unable to find much of a groove at end – he rotated in at tackle on occasion – but still managed to be productive; he should be even more so this year as a matured junior. Neither McCalister, who entered the season with high praise from the coaching staff, nor classmate Brian Cox, Jr. saw much action last season, and Sherit (torn meniscus) wound up not stepping foot on the field in 2014. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing will have his work cut out for him not only helping his starters improve but coming up with a solid second-string to spell them at times.
Returning starters (3/4): Redshirt seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor, junior Antonio Morrison
Fresh faces: Sophomores Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshman Matt Rolin
The primary departure here is Ronald Powell, who was primed to play Buck under Muschamp but switched to Sam linebacker last season in part to get Fowler on the field as a starter. Ball held down Will in 2013 with Taylor starting the year on the inside before Morrison eventually took over following his suspension. By the time the season wrapped up, both Taylor and Morrison were on the shelf with sophomore Jarrad Davis starting the season finale against Florida State. So while Powell may be gone, UF will return three players with starting experience at linebacker and have a number of others prepared to see action right out of the gate.
The cerebral Anzalone (shoulder) was once believed to be headed for a redshirt but battled through injuries to see action in 10 games but nevertheless remain a relative unknown to the average fan. McMillian was hyped coming into the season mostly for his notable athleticism, drawing comparisons to Morrison and how he made an impact as a true freshman, but ultimately failed to live up to those lofty expectations though he did play in the majority of Florida’s games. Rolin re-tore his ACL during fall camp and missed out on the opportunity to play in his first year with the Gators.
Returning starters (1/3): Sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshman Nick Washington, freshmen Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor
None of Florida’s defensive positions was hit harder with a loss of starters than the secondary, which not only saw Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson declare early for the draft but also had two corners that transitioned to safety, Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, graduate and transfer to Notre Dame, respectively. The good news for the Gators is that Hargreaves, a third-team All-American and first-team All-SEC corner as a freshman, returns and will hold down a starting job at corner. Filling in on the opposite side will be a bit of a challenge despite a bevy of talent existing on the roster.
Washington (who did not play last season) and Tabor (UF’s lone five-star 2014 commitment) are both poised to undergo a serious battle for the gig opposite Hargreaves. Washington will likely have the upper hand in spring, though Tabor could make a push toward the end of Florida’s 15 practices. Dawson may wind up being on the outside looking in when all is said and done. Joining the trio will be junior Brian Poole, who will compete for an outside role but should ultimately land a starting job at nickel once the season commences.
Returning starters (0/2): None
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshman Marcell Harris
The Gators also believe they have answers for replacements at safety though the competition will remain intense throughout the spring, summer and fall. Senior Jabari Gorman and redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye, both of whom were spot starters in 2013, should take over the roles for good in 2014. However, sophomore Keanu Neal – a key special teams contributor as a freshman – and Harris will be nipping at their heels. Harris, the son of former Florida player Mike Harris, was believed to have an outside chance at a safety job last season until a high school knee injury kept him out the entire season and resulted in a redshirt.
Returning starters (2/2): Redshirt sophomore Austin Hardin, redshirt senior Frankie Velez
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshman Danny Krysalka
Hardin was recruited to be the heir apparent to Caleb Sturgis but did nothing last season to lock up the starting job, making just 4-of-12 attempts and going 0-for-6 from beyond 39 yards despite Muschamp saying he was the best long-range kicker on the team. Gone is Brad Phllips, who in spot duty made two field goals from inside 30 yards, but Velez, who was perfect inside 30-yards (4-for-4) and .500 from beyond that distance (2-for-4), is still in the fold. Krysalka will also have something to say in the spring after the preferred walk-on sat out in 2013. The job will likely once again be Hardin’s to lose, but he has not yet proven that he is capable of hanging on to his starting role.
Returning starters (2/2): Senior Kyle Christy, sophomore Johnny Townsend
Fresh faces: None
Christy has been up-and-down during his time at Florida, rebounding in a major way from a rough freshman campaign before losing his job outright during his junior season to Townsend, who was supposed to redshirt and create an additional year of separation between the players. Townsend ultimately performed better than Christy but not by much, averaging just 2.4 more yards per punt (though he did boom five over 50 yards). The job will once again be an open competition. There should be no doubt that Muschamp and new special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler hope Christy wins the job so Townsend can take the redshirt this season and once again attempt to create a year of eligibility separation at the position.
Returning starters (1/1): Redshirt senior Drew Ferris
Fresh faces: None
Ferris took over as starting long snapper in 2011 and was set to reprise his role in 2012 before breaking his collarbone in the season-opener against Bowling Green. An important member of the team whose loss was never fully quantified, he watched from the sidelines as redshirt junior Kyle Crofoot replaced him and started the rest of the way. Ferris got his job back in 2013 with Crofoot backing him up, and their roles should remain the same in 2014.
Returning starters (1/3): Redshirt senior Andre Debose
Fresh faces: Various
One of the two most successful kickoff returners in school history, Debose was stated to start in 2013 before another torn ACL forced him to miss the entire season. Solomon Patton, one of a number of players who took over in his absence, has graduated, meaning Debose is unlikely to face any serious competition for the job unless the coaching staff decides not to risk injury by putting him back there. Florida never had a single solid punt returner last season. Roberson was technically the starter but injuries kept him from suiting up for a number of games. Expect Florida to try half-a-dozen players (or more) at punt returner during spring practice before settling on a few to work there in the summer and fall.