- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: The Gators' first practice is on Friday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 8. They open the season at home against Bowling Green on Sept. 1. The game will air on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Returning starters: Seven on offense, 10 on defense, and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.
Star power: Junior safety Matt Elam was one of Florida's most heralded recruits in the 2010 recruiting class, and now could compete to be one of the top safeties in the SEC. He's the heart of the Gators' defense and can make plays all over the field, as he led Florida with 11 tackles for loss and totaled 78 tackles last fall.
New faces: Will Muschamp isn't afraid to play freshmen, and he has a handful who could see time early. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. is on campus and could get looks at the hybrid linebacker/defensive end Buck position. Fellow end Jonathan Bullard could also compete for time outside. Also, keep an eye on tight ends Colin Thompson and Kent Taylor, who should get more reps this fall with A.C. Leonard's departure this summer. And cornerback Brian Poole could get quality reps on defense during camp.
Don’t forget about: Defensive lineman Dominique Easley tore his ACL in the regular-season finale against Florida State, but Muschamp has said he expects the junior to be ready to go come Game 1. Easley will rotate between defensive end and tackle this fall, and his teammates expect him to be even more disruptive this season. Easley was arguably Florida's most consistent lineman when it came to generating pressure last season, and could be primed for a breakout season. Even though he didn't have monster numbers last season, pro scouts love his potential, and a big season could put him on a lot of NFL teams' radars.
Big shoes to fill: The Gators will surely miss the energy and production Jaye Howard gave them at defensive tackle last season. He was second on the team in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (5.5). His 5.5 sacks actually led all defensive tackles in the SEC last season. Look for Easley, Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter and Leon Orr to share reps in the middle. Also, keep an eye on junior college tackle Damien Jacobs, who had a solid spring.
Key battles: There are a few battles in Gainesville this fall, but the biggest one is at quarterback, where sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will vie for the starting spot. With how even this one has been, chances are this battle will bleed into the regular season. Every wide receiver spot is up for grabs this fall, so the coaches will be keeping two eyes on every player there. Also, free safety and one cornerback spot are wide open. Josh Evans and De'Ante Saunders will compete at safety, while Poole, Loucheiz Purifoy, Cody Riggs and Jeremy Brown will compete at corner.
Rising star: There were a lot of growing pains for Marcus Roberson in his freshman season last fall, but he showed at times that he has what it takes to be a top cover corner in this league. He has great speed and awareness, and has that real cover corner ability, but has to work on his physicality while the ball is in the air. An injury cut his first season short, but he's healthy, and the staff thinks he'll truly make a name for himself.
Bottom line: Florida returns a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but the offense has plenty of questions to answer this fall. The Gators are still looking for their quarterback, and have a lot of unproven talent at receiver and running back. The coaches insist the offensive line is better, and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease has been a welcome addition. Muschamp's first year didn't go so smoothly, and this season's schedule is a bear. But fans are beginning to get restless, and anything less than eight wins could land Muschamp on the hot seat.
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