With the Florida Gators spring game – the 2011 Orange & Blue Debut – now in the books, plenty will be written about what occurred during the game and how it will play a role in what happens the remainder of the season. However, what happens during spring practice and the spring game – outside of player evaluation – often has little to do in determining how a season will unfold in the long run. There are nevertheless some hot topics of conversation coming out of the game which you can read below.
EVALUATING THE SPRING ABOUT IDENTIFYING PLAYMAKERS
Head coach Will Muschamp and his coaching staff have a lot of work to do in order to get the Gators ready for the regular season beginning in September. The initial step to doing so, he said on Saturday, was using the spring to identify those players he can trust to make an impact for him on every unit, something he believes the team accomplished over the previous five weeks.
“The first thing you look [at] is the installation of schemes and see how far along [the team is] and identify playmakers. That dictates what you do. That’s really our philosophy as a coaching staff: Let’s evaluate our players, let’s see what they can do and put them in situations where they can be most successful,” he said. “We’ve done that. We’ve identified, on both sides of the ball, the guys we can rely on as far as offense, defense and special teams. You work through that scheme-wise and then you start implementing things you feel like can work in those situations. We’ve identified our playmakers.”
While a few of those playmakers were showcased on the defensive side of the ball Saturday, there was not much electricity when it came to the offensive output. Muschamp said the goal is to list the top 22 players overall (11 starters on each side) and expand from there. “We need that list to grow as far as guys we know we can count on and rely on in the fall in our league,” he said.
Now that the spring session is over, the coaches will concentrate on recruiting and planning ahead for the summer and fall. In the meantime, Muschamp told his players that it is up to them to show leadership, keep up with their physical fitness and stay out of trouble. “This is a critical time for us. We’ve had a five-week offseason program. We’ve had spring ball. Now the coaches will be on the road recruiting,” he said. “By NCAA rules, we’re very limited as much we can spend with the football team, and our leadership needs to take over. I challenged some guys in our locker room. It’s time for them to step up. It doesn’t need to be a senior. We don’t have many seniors. They need to understand it’s their football team, it’s not mine. We will only be as good as we are next year with the work ethic that takes place.”
BRANTLEY SHINED IN PRACTICE, STRUGGLED IN DEBUT
The only glimpse fans have had of redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley since last season is Saturday’s dismal performance where he only completed four passes and played just a half of football in a scrimmage. However, according to Muschamp, Brantley has been lights-out in practice and is the team’s starting quarterback going forward.
“I thought he had a really good spring. If we started the season today, John Brantley would be our starter. He’s experienced. He’s got talent. John’s had a very good spring,” he said. “He’s close to 70 percent completion percentage for the spring; we tally every throw. I’m very pleased with how he’s managing our football team. He’s picked up our offense; he does a great job at the line of scrimmage. We put a lot on the quarterback as far as running pass checks, protections, run game… I’m pleased with Johnny.”
Critics will be quick to jump on Brantley for throwing incompletions and having a few balls batted down (as was his tendency in 2010), but the Gators entered the game with only one running back, not a single fullback and a banged up offensive line that was neither experienced playing together nor able to handle the stout defensive front they encountered. “We went into scrimmage planning on just playing [Brantley] in the first half regardless. We didn’t change our plan there as far as what we wanted to do,” Muschamp said. “[I’ve been] pleased with his performance all spring. [He’s] been consistent, but he’s also got to have better people around him to help him. That starts with our offensive line.”
Brantley did not discuss his performance in particular but tried to show leadership by propping up the offensive line that let rushers through to all of the quarterbacks all day long. “They were running both ways. I respect the heck out of them for doing that. They played their hearts out,” he said. “It didn’t really limit us play calling or anything like that, it’s just tough for those guys to go back-and-forth, up-and-down the field all afternoon.”
He also discussed how offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has changed the team and him in particular. “We have a great offensive scheme here. Everybody’s getting real comfortable with it,” he said. “We’re going to keep building off it, work together with the receivers over summer, get in sync with everything, and we’ll be good for camp. I feel pretty comfortable [with the system]. There’s a lot more to learn, and Coach Weis and all the coaches will get us ready for all that. For right now, what we learned in the spring is a good basis of what we’re going to be doing in the fall. He’s always been telling me to be more of a leader I don’t have to be more vocal, just be able to lead the team by what my actions are. He wants me to be able to run this team, and he’s helped me out a lot with that this spring.”
A TALE OF TWO LINES
Florida had nearly 20 players sidelined and sitting out for the Orange & Blue Debut including a number of major playmakers and much of the starting offensive line. Muschamp, who has maintained from the beginning that football in the Southeastern Conference starts with the play of the men in the trenches, understands the injuries but is anxious for the players to get healthy as soon as possible.
“There’s been some spotty work up front with that because of injuries. Because we were thin to begin with [and] you take the laundry list [of players] out of that then it’s even worse,” he said. “There’s two units that have to be as tight-knit as any on the team and that’s the offensive line and the secondary. When you have a lot of moving parts on either one of those positions, then it creates problems for the rest of your team. The SEC is a line of scrimmage league and we’re only as good as we are upfront. […] We’ve had a lot of moving parts up front, which is good for our football team in that we’re building depth and we’ve had to cross-train guys at different positions. That will help us in the long run, but in the short run it has been a little frustrating.”
While the offensive line has been a point of concern, the defensive line – especially the play of sophomore defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley – has been a bright spot all spring and was once again on Saturday. “They’re good football players and they need to stay grounded with where they are. They’re disruptive players inside,” said Muschamp of the duo. “Dominique is extremely quick with his first step. He’s got great initial quickness, punch and power, good change of direction. Sharrif is a really good football player, starting to feel blocks inside. Instead of just playing the game, they need to start learning the game. They need to understand situations; they need to understand stances; they need to understand steps. Those are the things they need to do a great job in [learning] in the offseason.”
Floyd confirmed to ESPN that what he and Easley were able to do to the offensive line caused Brantley some problems. “I wouldn’t call John Brantley’s play today a struggle. I would call it, ‘Not enough room,’” he said. “Me and Dominique Easley collapsed the pocket, and that’s one of our main goals. We forced offensive linemen into his face, and he had to roll out.”
DUNBAR, WIDE RECEIVERS STEPPING UP
No pass catcher was raved about more on Saturday than sophomore wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, who only finished with two receptions for 21 yards but opened eyes during practice over the last five weeks. “You can’t take away from what Quinton Dunbar has done vertically down the field through the entire body of work of spring,” Muschamp said after the game. “Dunbar has made more big plays than anybody else.”
In fact, Brantley nearly hit Dunbar for a long pass on the first play of the game that he promptly dropped. “I wish I would have had that back. Cody Riggs made a good play on it and I came back, tried to make a play, and he knocked it out of my hands,” Dunbar told the Orlando Sentinel after the game. “I feel that I had a solid spring. I came out, worked hard, competed everyday and I felt great. I’m hoping to stretch the field, and I’m also hoping to just be a receiver in general.”
Muschamp had handed out superlatives to the other receivers, calling redshirt junior Frankie Hammond, Jr. the “most consistent,” redshirt junior Omarius Hines the most versatile (F position in the backfield, X receiver on the line), redshirt senior Deonte Thompson the most experienced, redshirt sophomore Andre Debose a threat anywhere on the field because of his speed and sophomore Solomon Patton the best out of the backfield on the reverse.
Photo Credit: Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun