Friday, April 11, 2014
What to watch for in Florida's spring game
By Jeff Barlis
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.
All 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.