SEC: ahmad fulwood

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Gerald Willis will be transferring from Florida. Daniel McMillian has been added in his place.

Despite a losing record over the last two seasons, Jim McElwain isn’t walking into a complete rebuilding process at Florida. The Gators have talent, and former coach Will Muschamp made sure that was known on his way out the door.

"They've got a deep and talented roster,” Muschamp said in his exit news conference. “So don't let that new guy tell you he doesn't have any players. I can tell you that right now. There are some good football players in that locker room."

Muschamp wasn’t lying. That talent was on display in Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl, and McElwain was on hand to see it for himself.

Here are five returning players who probably turned the head of their new coach in the bowl game:

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Scott Donaldson/Icon SportswireTreon Harris showed off his arm and his legs in Florida's Birmingham Bowl victory.
QB Treon Harris: Who will start at quarterback for Florida next season? That’s the biggest question mark heading into the McElwain era. We know that Jeff Driskel is out. He’s transferring to Louisiana Tech. That leaves Harris as the early favorite to win the job. No, McElwain doesn’t have a history with dual-threat quarterbacks, but Harris showed some good things in the bowl game before getting injured. On one drive in particular, the freshman went 3 of 3 through the air for 34 yards and also picked up a critical third-and-17 with a 24 yard run. He capped off the drive with a nice ball to Brandon Powell for the touchdown.

RB Adam Lane: Raise your hand if you thought Lane was going to have a big day. The freshman had just eight carries for 73 yards coming in, and he wasn’t even listed on Florida’s depth chart prior to the game. None of that mattered, though. Interim coach D.J. Durkin gave him a chance, and Lane delivered with 16 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown. He showed speed, power, vision – all the qualities McElwain will be looking for in his next running back. And even if Lane doesn’t win the starting job, keep in mind that McElwain liked to feature two backs when he was at Alabama. There will be a place for Lane if he keeps running like he did.

WR Ahmad Fulwood: Gator fans have been waiting for Fulwood to break out since he arrived in 2013. He simply hasn’t lived up to the hype in his first two seasons, but on just one play, he showed us all what he’s capable of. The sophomore took a screen pass, sliced through the defense and once he saw daylight, he turned on the jets. The 6-foot-4, 202-pound wide receiver raced past the entire East Carolina defense on his way to an 86-yard touchdown. Can you imagine McElwain’s reaction in the box where he was watching the game? He had to be giddy seeing the size and speed of one of his top returning playmakers.

LB Daniel McMillian: Similar to Fulwood, McMillian was another top prospect from the 2013 class who never got his chance under Muschamp. Part of the reason was because he was playing behind Antonio Morrison, the Gators’ top tackler this season. But when Morrison went down in the bowl game, McMillian finally got his opportunity. He finished with five tackles and showed his athleticism on a near interception that he couldn’t quite haul in. Either way, Florida fans were probably happy just to see him on the field. McMillian could have a major impact on Geoff Collins’ defense next fall.

CB Vernon Hargreaves III: It’s hard to praise a secondary that allowed 427 yards passing, but keep in mind that East Carolina attempted an astonishing 68 passes. As for Hargreaves, he’s arguably the best returning player on Florida’s roster, and he proved that again Saturday. At times, he was terrific. He applied the pressure which led to the pick-6 early in the game. On a fourth down, he came up and laid out an ECU wide receiver, stopping him short of the first down. And with the game on the line in the final minutes, he pulled down an interception in the end zone that clinched the victory for the Gators. No surprise here.
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- With new coach Jim McElwain in attendance, Florida jumped out to an early lead and hung on against East Carolina, winning the Birmingham Bowl 28-20.

The offense looked good at times, before quarterback Treon Harris got hurt, but it was the Florida defense that deserves the credit. The Gators made stop after stop in the fourth quarter and kept East Carolina out of the end zone when it mattered the most.

The win gave the SEC a winning bowl record (7-5) and helped the SEC East finish a perfect 5-0 this postseason.

Game ball goes to: Dante Fowler Jr. already declared early for the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from going all out in his final game at Florida. The junior defensive end, projected as a first-round pick, finished with three sacks, two quarterback hurries and deflected a pass late in the game with East Carolina threatening.

How the game was won: The bend-but-don’t-break philosophy worked for Florida’s defense in the second half, and the Gators sealed it with an interception by Vernon Hargreaves III in the final minutes. It was the third turnover forced by the defense. East Carolina entered Florida territory on 12 of its 16 drives and came away with only 20 points.

Stat of the game: East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden was as good as advertised in the loss. The senior finished 34-of-66 for 427 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The 427 passing yards give him 11,991 for his career and moved him up to No. 26 on the all-time list, passing names such as Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.

Best play: After East Carolina grabbed the momentum to begin the second half, Florida needed a big play. The Gators called on wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, and he delivered. The 6-foot-4 sophomore caught a quick screen and sprinted past the entire ECU defense on his way to an 86-yard touchdown. It was the longest touchdown at Florida since Muschamp arrived in 2011.

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- In his introductory news conference, new Florida coach Jim McElwain said he talked to the team about going and winning a bowl game.

"That’s what it’s all about right now," he said.

The only problem is that McElwain won’t be the one on the sideline leading the Gators when they take on East Carolina in Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl (Noon ET on ESPN). He will be in the stadium, likely in a box evaluating his new roster, but he won’t be coaching the team.

That job belongs to former defensive coordinator and current interim head coach D.J. Durkin, who took over the role when Will Muschamp was let go at the end of the regular season.

"Obviously when you go through it, it forces you to think of things differently as a head coach that you haven’t had to do before," said Durkin, one of two holdovers from Urban Meyer’s regime at Florida. "Just some of the day-to-day decisions you never really thought of before, but now you have to."

Florida isn’t the only school to be in this unique position during the bowl season. McElwain’s former team, Colorado State, went into its bowl game with an interim coach, and the results weren’t pretty. The Rams were trounced, 45-10, by Utah. Nebraska, which fired Bo Pelini after the season, fared a little better, but still lost, 45-42, to USC.

And then there is Wisconsin, which bucked the trend by beating Auburn in overtime Thursday. But the Badgers had coaching legend Barry Alvarez serve as the interim coach.

Durkin is not Alvarez. He’s never even been a head coach before, let alone a coach who now has 119 wins. But that hasn’t stopped Durkin from "coaching his tail off" this past month, and his players have responded.

"He’s handled it really well," Florida wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. "He’s handled it like a professional. He’s doing what he has to do to get us prepared, to get us to play ECU and get a win for us."

"This is a great time for Durkin to work on his head coaching skills, because he’s a great coach and I’m pretty sure he’s going to have an opportunity to be a school’s head coach really soon," added Gators’ defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

After hearing that remark, Durkin quipped that he hoped Fowler, who is leaving school early for the NFL, will one day be an athletic director somewhere.

This game isn’t about Durkin, though. This game is about the players. It’s about a group of guys that have stayed together despite all the outside distractions and now have an opportunity to finish their season with a win. They want to send the seniors out the right way, but also build momentum for 2015.

"That is what’s most important right now," Fulwood said. "Not to take a step back, but keep moving forward."

Durkin says this team has done a phenomenal job of staying focused and staying on task during the bowl preparation. And not just the underclassmen, but the seniors, too. They have all responded and practiced and played and done everything the coaches have asked, just like they’re going to "play for a championship."

"It’s easy," Durkin said. "You’re teammates. That’s what matters. The guys you play with, that you go to battle with -- that’s why you play this game, why you do what you do. Those guys feel that accountability towards their teammates, and they’re not going to let outside circumstances change that feeling."

So with their interim coach on the way out and their new coach watching from a distance on Saturday, the Gators will look to get a win.

That’s what it’s all about.

"It’s a bowl game," Fulwood said. "Go out and have fun. But obviously, everybody wants a 'W' for the whole program, and it would mean a lot to all of us."
Florida's trip to Birmingham, Alabama, for the aptly named Birmingham Bowl is more than just a trip for one final game, it's about making a good first impression with the new man in charge.

The embattled Gators' end to the 2014 season probably can't come soon enough for fans -- or the players, for that matter -- but it will serve as more than just a way to officially usher out the Will Muschamp era. This is the first major tryout for players in front of new head coach Jim McElwain. More than just pride is on the line for a team looking to get back on track with new leadership taking over at the conclusion of the game.

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
AP Images/John RaouxNew Florida coach Jim McElwain will surely have his eye on the passing ability of Treon Harris this month.
McElwain won't roam the sidelines on Jan. 3, but he will be in attendance to watch what some of his future players have when the ball is live, especially on the offensive side. That's where most of the pressure is, and that's where most of the improvement has to come from once McElwain starts directing this team during spring practice.

For a team that could return just five starters on offense, Florida's game against East Carolina is an important one for players looking to revamp their careers under a more offensive direction.

Of course, it starts with freshman quarterback Treon Harris, who assumed the starting role in November after veteran Jeff Driskel failed to improve or win games. The young and very green quarterback has shown flashes of special ability here and there, but against better competition, Harris hasn't exactly been a world beater. Maybe that was because of perplexing conservative play calling in key moments, but, honestly, Harris the passer isn't as dangerous as Harris the runner. And if Harris is going to keep the starting job under McElwain's watch, he'll have to get that right arm going in a hurry.

That starts in Birmingham. Harris, who went 3-2 as a starter and threw for 896 yards and seven touchdowns, doesn't have to become an overnight passing sensation against the Pirates, but this is a chance for him to show his new coach some development from a little less than a month of work. The Harris who couldn't hit anyone late against Florida State won't win a starting job in a Jim McElwain offense. But Harris can prove that he's better than that and get a leg up on spring practice before getting a total reboot from the quarterback whisperer.

Then, you look at Florida's young receiving corps and running backs. All of them will be battling for jobs next spring with some veterans departing. Demarcus Robinson is easily the Gators' most talented receiver, but he needs to be more consistent and that will come with some help. This would be a great opportunity for Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson to show something in a meaningful game. The same goes for seniors-to-be Latroy Pittman, who proved to be a safety net at times on third down this fall, and Valdez Showers, who never really found a role in Kurt Roper's offense.

As for running backs, the future definitely begins with Kelvin Taylor and Brandon Powell, who could compliment each other well in McElwain's offense.

Defensively, McElwain will likely just be interested in seeing what he has to work off of in 2015. Being an offensive guy, he probably won't spend extensive time on the other side, but when you're a new, offensive-minded coach playing to your strengths, it's good to know what chances you can and can't take because of the guys lining up on the other side. And with Florida possibly returning seven defensive starters, McElwain will have a little buffer to start with.

This game isn't the end all when it comes to impressing McElwain. Everything will change once he implements his plan, but the bowl game will provide McElwain with some good intel on the team he'll have once he's officially handed the keys to the program, and it's much better to start on the new boss' good side.

State of the team: Florida

December, 5, 2014
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Florida hasn't exactly been the titan of college football that we were used to seeing in the not-so-distant past, and the better part of the past four years hasn't been great for the Gators. The firing of Will Muschamp, who went 10-13 in his last two seasons, brings new order to Gainesville. That order starts with former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, who will be working with a lot more than Muschamp first started with:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesQuarterback Jeff Driskel's future is uncertain as Florida brings in a new coaching staff.
Offense: The Gators have lacked any sort of substantial production at the quarterback spot, but could return as many as three quarterbacks with collegiate experience in Treon Harris, Skyler Mornhinweg and Jeff Driskel. Driskel is an interesting piece to the puzzle, because with an extra year of eligibility, he could transfer or pursue a Major League Baseball career. There is also redshirt freshman Will Grier, who arrived at Florida as the No. 3-rated dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation. With Matt Jones declaring for the NFL draft and Mack Brown graduating, Florida returns junior-to-be Kelvin Taylor and sophomores-to-be Brandon Powell and Adam Lane. Taylor improved drastically from his freshman season, rushing for 565 yards and six touchdowns. Powell made an impact at both running back and as a receiver, and Lane should see an increased role at running back. Receiver needs a lot of development. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (team-high 47 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns) is Florida's best offensive weapon, but he has to be more consistent, and he needs help. Youngsters Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson have potential, but neither made much of an impact this season. Florida will lose senior Quinton Dunbar, the Gators second-most productive receiver, and will have to see vast improvement from freshmen C.J. Worton, Ryan Sousa and Alvin Bailey. The offensive line takes a big hit, losing seniors Trenton Brown, Max Garcia and Chaz Green, and junior Tyler Moore, who declared for the NFL draft. Junior D.J. Humphries is also contemplating an early move to the NFL. Guys like Roderick Johnson, David Sharpe and Trip Thurman return with adequate experience from this season, but Florida's depth is lacking.

Defense: Florida's secondary returns the most talent for McElwain's staff to work with. The Gators only lose senior safety Jabari Gorman, but return a solid contingent of cover cornerbacks in Vernon Hargreaves III, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Sophomore Keanu Neal returns as the Gators' top safety, and freshman Duke Dawson can play safety and cornerback. Marcus Maye and Brian Poole, who improved greatly this season, return to the nickel spot. Expect to see more from redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris, a special teams beast, and Nick Washington. Also, true freshman J.C. Jackson returns from a season-ending shoulder injury. The Gators lose seniors Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor, but could return senior-to-be Antonio Morrison, who is coming off his best season with the Gators and is considering a jump to the NFL. Florida returns good depth, starting with sophomores Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. Redshirt freshman Matt Rolin could also have a bigger impact on the defense next fall. The defensive line will lose the defense's best player in end Dante Fowler Jr., along with starting nose tackle Darious Cummings, but could return junior tackle Jonathan Bullard, who is also flirting with the NFL. Ends Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. have the potential for bright futures, as do young tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie.

Special teams: The Gators went back and forth with their kickers, but lose senior Francisco Velez, who hit 12 of 14 field goals this fall. That means sophomore Austin Hardin (7 of 10), who finished the season as the starter, will have all eyes on him. Incredibly efficient punter Kyle Christy will be gone, but Johnny Townsend returns after starting ahead of Christy in 2013. Finding a return man to replace Andre Debose won't be easy. He had four kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown in his career.

Fan base: Gator Nation isn't happy. There was a toxic atmosphere within the fan base for the past couple of seasons because the product on the field just wasn't adequate. Is this fan base excited about McElwain's hire? That is to be determined, but fans have to be happy about the prospect of having some sort of real offensive pulse going forward. Obviously, fans want wins, and the Gators didn't deliver enough of those during Muschamp's tenure. These fans also want a competent offense, and that was clear when there wasn't a ton of buzz around the program during an 11-win 2012 season that featured a run-heavy, defensive Florida team.

Administrative support: Athletic director Jeremy Foley is one of the most loyal athletic directors out there. He stuck with Muschamp after an embarrassing 4-8 season for crying out loud. But he also knew exactly the direction his program needed to go in 2014, and it never went the right way. Foley isn't afraid to stand up for his coaches publicly, and he's always willing to work with his coaches to find ways to improve everything around them. He's one of the smartest athletic directors around, and Florida's athletic program isn't short for cash. The program has been incredibly successful under Foley's watch, and he will make sure his new coach is taken care of and put on the right path for success.

Recruiting: Florida's current recruiting class only holds nine players. Four are offensive linemen, who have to stay committed to the Gators going forward because of how thin that line will be in 2015. Two of those linemen -- Mike Horton and George Brown Jr. -- have visited other schools. The Gators also only have a couple of offensive skill players committed. Dual-threat quarterback Sheriron Jones is committed and will have to see if he works within McElwain's offense. McElwain has to snag some solid offensive talent to help the Gators in 2015, because Florida has somehow failed to sign elite offensive talent for years now. With Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris taking the SMU job, the Gators could get in on Clemson athlete commits Deon Cain and Ray Ray-Ray McCloud III, who have interest in Florida. Miami running back commit Dexter Williams has flirted with Florida before, and his family likes what Florida has to offer, so keep an eye on him. Uncommitted five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey is still high on the Gators, and Florida is still looking at receiver Antonio Callaway, who was a teammate of Treon Harris' at Booker T. Washington High. Defensive ends CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart are also high priorities for McElwain.

Plays that defined Florida's new offense

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's first play of the game was a pass. Twenty-four of UF's first 31 first-down plays were passes. The Gators piled up 655 yards of offense in Saturday's 65-0 season-opening victory against Eastern Michigan.

To say the debut of Kurt Roper's new uptempo spread offense was a success would be a massive understatement. After three years of wallowing near the bottom of most FBS offensive statistical categories, Florida did a 180 and lit up the scoreboard for a change.

Here are the plays that stood out in what turned out to be a somewhat vanilla game plan against an outmanned opponent.

1. Fourth-and-2

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It probably wouldn't take long to count the number of times Florida has passed for a first down on fourth-and-short under coach Will Muschamp. On their opening drive Saturday, the Gators stalled after crossing midfield. On fourth-and-2 from the EMU 42-yard line, UF had receivers Quinton Dunbar and Ahmad Fulwood run shallow crossing patterns. Quarterback Jeff Driskel hit Dunbar at the 40, and Dunbar evaded a tackler to pick up 8 additional yards.

Muschamp: "We felt like we were going to see pressure in man-to-man, so we ran what we call a mesh concept and hopefully pick off a defender. Jeff reads it well. It's one of his routes he likes to run. That again is where I think Kurt really does a nice job of thinking about players, not plays, and what do they feel comfortable with. That's something that Jeff really likes."

Dunbar: "I feel like it showed the offense and the whole team that Muschamp does have faith in the passing game this year. It's a man- and a zone-beater. Driz is basically reading the corner and seeing if it's man or zone. If it's zone you just sit in the hole. If it's man, just run away from him. I feel like it's a first-down play."

Driskel: "We knew coming in that they were a man team on third-and-short. We got a great call. I went through my reads and Dunbar made a great play for me."

2. The Pistol

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After three years of running a pro-style offense, the Gators are strictly a shotgun team now. That means running the ball from a slightly different perspective in the Pistol formation. Florida's most proven talent on offense remains in the backfield, so the Gators will continue to be a run-heavy team. They showed that in the first half, scoring all three of their touchdowns on the ground. The second TD run belonged to junior Matt Jones, who sprinted off left tackle and was virtually untouched on his way to a 40-yard score and a 16-0 lead.

Jones: "I saw the odd front. I knew they were going to slant their D-line and that's what they did. It just gave me a crease to hit, and after the linebacker it was just off to the races. It felt great. It felt good running out of the Pistol. They don't know what you're going to do. You can do a swing pass. In the I-formation they can tell what you're going to do. I feel great back there and in Coach Roper's offense. I think it's going to mess a lot of defenses up."

Center Max Garcia: "As soon as they called the play the defense actually shifted and made the hole like right there and made it even bigger. As soon as they called the play I was like, 'Man this is about to be a touchdown.' So we were all doing our job. I took a step to the left and looked right to the backer and saw [Jones] zip right by me. So it's going to be like that with Roper calling the plays. Schematically how we do things now on offense, it's going to be like that. Holes are going to be there. ... We're going to have playmakers all around. You have a stable of backs, so all of them are going to have a great season."

3. More backfield mayhem

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Jones' second score of the day was Driskel's only passing TD of the game, and it capped Florida's first possession of the third quarter. The Gators lined up four wide receivers on a second-and-goal from the EMU 8. Jones released between the center and right guard and was wide open in the flat where Driskel hit him in stride. Jones cut back to his left and fought through a tackle to make the score 36-0.

Jones: "We catch a team playing man coverage. They got a look at me at running back, try to catch me from the back side, and I just kind of go the other way and slip under the O-line and catch the ball. We'll probably run that a lot."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The true measure of any recruiting class' worth isn't fully realized until a couple of years down the road. Regardless of the hype and golden stars racked up before signing day, getting the most out of a class takes time.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor
AP Photo/Stephen MortonRunning back Kelvin Taylor and the rest of the Florida Gators' underclassmen are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season in 2013.
For Florida, that time might have to be now for its 2013 class following last season's 4-8 debacle. It's a class that ESPN's RecruitingNation ranked second nationally with its 30 signees and 16 ESPN 300 members and held the nation's best high school cornerback -- Vernon Hargreaves III -- and running back -- Kelvin Taylor. It grabbed a potential game-changing receiver in Demarcus Robinson and 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions.

The Gators will certainly need a lot from their upperclassmen, but the 2013 class could hold the key to Florida's present -- not just its future -- especially after a handful of its members were thrown into the SEC fire last season.

"We knew we wanted to come in and make an impact," said sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood, who caught 16 of his 17 passes in the final seven games of last season. "Not necessarily take someone's position or anything out of the ordinary, but we knew we had to come in and make an impact as a class and that's pretty much what we did."

For the most part, this class was mainly constructed of a group of contributors last season, with Hargreaves and Taylor being the headliners. Hargreaves was a third-team All-American member and ended up being one of the nation's best corners, leading the Gators with three interceptions and ranking third in the SEC with 14 passes defended. Taylor was a freshman All-SEC selection after rushing for 508 yards and four touchdowns.

Eleven members of the class lettered last season and collected 22 combined starts. With the majority of the class redshirting, even more is expected from this group, but players don't feel any added pressure. They don't mind the added responsibility.

"I feel like the guys who the coaches are looking at will definitely be able to step up," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. "They know what to do and they know they're talented."

"These guys are ready to take on that role."

And it isn't just the talent and potential this class contains that has teammates and coaches trusting it. Once players saw injuries piling up, Taylor said the freshmen realized they were going to be counted on more so they started to buckle down with their preparation.

In a year in which this group could have resisted and pushed away from the core group, it grew closer and began to see older players looking up to them. Not even a year removed from high school, and this group was being relied on to help carry the team through some very dark weeks in 2013.

"You were a freshman, but they were depending on you to win games," Taylor said.

The wins didn't come, but resiliency did, redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. What impressed him the most was how this group continued to work through an exhausting seven-game losing streak.

"When you face adversity that you'll see in a 4-8 season, those guys kept fighting through all of it -- through the injuries, through the losses," Taylor said. "That's what shows that they have what it takes to take ownership of the team and lead us."

Moving forward, the contributions from this class will only grow. Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris and Nick Washington could be staples in Florida's secondary this year. Following a suspension-filled first year, Robinson has been one of the Gators' best offensive players during the offseason, and Fulwood has been even more consistent and could be a real vertical threat for the offense this fall.

Roderick Johnson is the next tackle in line after vets D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, while linebacker Alex Anzalone has a chance to see time in Florida's linebacker rotation.

Davis was pegged as an early leader for the Gators last season and is right in the thick of a battle for a starting spot. Joey Ivie and Jay-nard Bostwick are in the early rotation along the defensive line, and Caleb Brantley has the chance to play his way in to as well.

This group has barely scratched the surface, but Taylor said guys are playing faster and thinking less. Last year this class was asked to learn, now, Taylor believes it will lead. Then, well, Taylor expects big things ... soon.

"Our whole mindset was that we were going to come here together and try to win a national title," he said.

"Now that we're so close, like brothers, it's going to be special in the future. We're looking forward to it."
On Sunday, esteemed ACC writer Andrea Adelson wrote a piece talking about how Florida isbehind instate rivals Florida State and Miami -- two teams the Gators lost to in 2013.

While I agree that Florida is behind these two at the moment, Andrea and I had a bit of an argument when it comes to the 2014 season. Even though Florida went an embarrassing 4-8 last year, I think that with an improved offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper and what yet again should be a fierce defense, the Gators will have a better record than Miami, which went 9-4 last fall.

Andrea disagrees, saying Florida's offensive questions and schedule will be too much, while the Canes have a more manageable schedule and a more proven offense.

We decided to take our argument to the public and debate both sides for you all to see:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Getty ImagesJeff Driskel is back from his 2013 season-ending injury, and he's looking more comfortable in the new Florida offense.
Edward Aschoff: I have to admit, Andrea, your piece on Sunday about the three power schools in the state of Florida was spot on. I agree with everything you wrote, but then came Monday, when our conversation left us in disagreement. You think Miami, which went 9-4 and beat Florida last year, will finish this season with a better record than Florida. I have to disagree. Last year was a disaster of epic proportions in Gainesville, but the Gators lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including starters such as Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Dominique Easley and Chaz Green. Florida won't have the same injury problems this fall, and expect a lot more from this offense with Roper (you know him pretty well) running the spread. I talked to Driskel and his receivers about the offense and they are way more comfortable with Roper's system, and they've been gassing a pretty good defense with the uptempo. The receivers are incredibly confident in the new system, and it's clear this is the offense Driskel was born to run. Florida does play Alabama and LSU from the Western Division, but LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and Florida State are all games the Gators will play in the state of Florida. Call me crazy, but I think that if this offense figures things out and the defense plays to its potential, Florida has a chance to win nine games in the regular season. Miami? How about eight?

AA: Edward, take the Gator head off and breathe deeply. Nine wins against that schedule? I agree Florida will be better, but it is hard to find more than seven wins given the opponents and all the unknowns on offense. And that is not just coming from me. A few months ago, a Gator fan walked up to me at a speaking engagement here at the Orlando Touchdown Club and said, "I will be so happy if we go 7-5!" How expectations have shifted in state. While it is true I have some doubts about Miami, too, I have two words to counter your argument: Duke Johnson. Miami has him; Florida does not. Maaaaaybe if the Gators had a dynamic skill player, I'd believe you. But they don't. Miami was 7-0 before Johnson got hurt last year -- including a win over the Gators -- and 2-4 without him. Need I go on?

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Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsFlorida doesn't have a proven skill player on a par with Miami's Duke Johnson.
EA: Gator head? Real original. Remember two names: Kelvin Taylor and Demarcus Robinson. Both sophomores have a chance to be special for the Gators. Taylor is leaner, quicker, faster and stronger. The coaches have raved about his improvements since spring practice began, and he should have no problem being the lead back from the start this year. He isn't as explosive as his father -- All-American Florida back Fred Taylor -- but he's shiftier and will be a real weapon in Roper's offense. As for Robinson, he barely did anything last year, but has finally found his focus. He's a big-play threat in this offense, and the coaches trust in him a lot more right now. He has really come into his own during practice this fall. The folks in Gainesville see him as that playmaker at receiver they have desperately needed. Driskel shouldn't have a problem using them. Speaking of quarterbacks, you suiting up to throw the ball for the Canes?

AA: Miami does have a hole at quarterback, a hole I have pointed out repeatedly (and much to the chagrin of Miami fans). But I don't mean to sound like a broken record here. Talented skill players have this way of making their quarterback look good. Driskel has struggled, in part, because he has had no help. Miami will provide its starter with a plethora of help, from potential 1,000-yard receiver Stacy Coley, to deep threat Phillip Dorsett to tight end Clive Walford. Just to name three. Aside from Johnson, Miami is deep and talented at running back, too, and its offensive line has been solid. I am not going to win any arguments between the Miami D vs the Florida D. Gators have the edge there going away. But a talented (and high-scoring) offense can easily cover up for an average D. Miami has one of the tougher schedules in the ACC with difficult crossover games, just like the Gators. In the Canes' case, it's Florida State and Louisville. They've also got a tough nonconference game at Nebraska. When I look at the schedule, I think Miami has 10 winnable games. Doesn't mean they are going to win all of them, but it means they have a better shot at getting there than Florida.

SportsNation

Who will have a better season in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,581)

EA: I told you to watch out for Robinson and Taylor, but Florida has a few more options at both receiver and running back. I expect veterans Quinton Dunbar and even Andre Debose to make noise in this offense, but really keep an eye on sophomore Ahmad Fulwood. He can stretch the field and is a big boy over the middle. We know about Matt Jones and Mack Brown at running back, but freshman Brandon Powell could be really special. He missed spring but has been blowing up in fall practice. He can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield. Florida will be more competitive using a lot more space in Roper's offense. As for the schedule, it isn't easy. Florida plays six teams ranked in the AP top 25, including No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Alabama on the road. But I'll continue to stress that three of those games are at home and Georgia is in Jacksonville, Florida. An improved offense that can actually take some pressure off the defense can get three wins out of that slate.

AA: Maybe I should tint my glasses rose to match yours. Seriously, though, this debate serves as a reminder that these rivals need to play more often (that is a different debate for a different time). This needs to be settled on the field! The race to chase Florida State is tough to handicap. I don't think Miami is quite back to returning to its past glory, but I do think the Canes have the capability of building on their success from a year ago. Quarterback might look messy now, but coaches have been raving about the maturity and ability true freshman Brad Kaaya brings to the table. The defense looks better so far in preseason camp, and Denzel Perryman could have an All-American type season. If Miami is solid at quarterback and makes improvements on defense, this team will be better than Florida. Again.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In order for the Florida Gators to rebound from last year's disaster of a season, the offense has to get better.

It's hard to say if a more obvious sentence has been written.

But while most of the offensive talk has centered around quarterback Jeff Driskel and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, the key might rest with the guys lining up outside, not under center.

[+] EnlargeAndre Debose
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images"I feel like we can be great. We can be the best in the SEC," receiver Andre Debose said.
Driskel is incredibly important to this team's success, but Florida's receivers want the responsibility of carrying this offense. They want Driskel to rest easy while they play hard. Roper's spread approach centers around creating space for receivers, and those players believe they hold the power when it comes to making Florida's offense go in 2014.

“There's no added pressure, it's just on us,” senior receiver Quinton Dunbar said of the receiving corps. “If we make plays, we win games and that's how we want it. We wouldn't have it any other way.”

That might be big talk for a unit that hasn't had anyone catch more than 44 passes or register even 600 yards in a single season since 2009. But this group is oozing confidence. Dunbar might be the leading returning receiver with 40 catches and 548 yards from a year ago, but you'd think the core players of this unit all had 1,000-yard pedigrees with the swagger they project.

"I feel like we can be great. We can be the best in the SEC," fifth-year senior Andre Debose said. “With the offense we have I feel like the coach puts us in a lot of good situations to make plays. I feel like with this offense we'll flourish.”

Yes, this is coming from players who were a part of a disastrous 4-8 Florida team that ranked at the bottom of the SEC in every major offensive category a year ago and was 107th nationally with 170.9 passing yards per game.

The confidence might sound a little premature, but Florida's receivers not only trust their ability, they trust their new OC and his offense. Roper's plan to use more three- and four-receiver sets has players excited.

Last year served as a big black eye in Florida's history books, but players are moving on. The present appears loose and happy, and the players see something special at receiver, even if skeptics loom.

"Since I've been here this is probably the most talented receiving group we've had,” Dunbar said. “I feel like everybody is going to trust each other this year to get better. I feel like we've got depth, and a lot of people can make plays."

One major advantage Florida's receivers believe they possess is an uptempo scheme. The Gators would like to run at least 80 plays a game as fast as possible.

So far, the receivers love it. Sophomore Ahmad Fulwood, whose 17 catches from last year are the second most coming back, said the receivers rejoiced when they heard they were running a no-huddle offense. They might not have the statistics to intimidate opponents, but Fulwood believes they have the speed and endurance to consistently frustrate them because he sees it in practice against a defense that could be one of the SEC's best.

“We've gotten used to putting the defense on their heels now,” Fulwood said. “They used to have the advantage last year, but now this year when we're in practice we give them a run for their money. With the tempo we run at and the tempo they're trying to run at, we cause some stressful times for them.”

Added fellow sophomore Demarcus Robinson: “When we're going fast and the defense doesn't have any time to sub anyone in but we do, that's when we really get them.”

The question still lurking is if Florida has the capable weapons to keep defenses spinning. Dunbar has the experience, but is looking for the big-play gear. Debose has impressive athleticism and speed, but has always struggled with putting things together in games, and he is returning from an ACL injury.

Fulwood's size (6-foot-4, 204 pounds) and speed create matchup problems for defenders on the outside, while Robinson arrived with the title of “instant playmaker,” but caught just five passes last season and dealt with a multiple suspensions.

Maybe redshirt freshman Alvin Bailey steps up or true freshmen C.J. Worton and Ryan Sousa develop faster than expected.

Even with all the talk, there are still plenty of questions surrounding this group. Those questions really won't be answered until the season arrives, but for now, Florida's receivers are creating some believers.

“These guys are staying open constantly and it's really hard to cover them because you have to have your eyes on the quarterback, you have to have your eyes on them ... and you can lose them at times," sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “These guys are really shifty, really talented and really fast.

“I'm really eager to see what it's going to look like against another team because I think a lot of people are going to have a hard time with this offense.”

SEC position rankings: WR/TE

June, 11, 2014
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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
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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.
Editor's note: We’re taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular-season opponents. Every Friday we'll go through each week of the schedule, starting with the season opener against West Virginia and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2013 overall record: 4-8
2013 SEC record: 3-5, fifth in the Eastern Division
Record all time against Alabama: 14-23
Last meeting: Lost 38-10 in 2011

Starters returning
Offense: 8; Defense: 9; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Jeff Driskel, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, WR Quinton Dunbar, RB Kelvin Taylor, DE Dante Fowler

Key losses
WR Solomon Patton, TE/H Trey Burton, OL Jon Halapio, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, DL Dominique Easley, LB Ronald Powell, S Cody Riggs, CB Marcus Roberson

2013 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Mack Brown (543 yards)
Passing: Tyler Murphy (1,216 yards, 6 TD, 5 INT)
Receiving: Soloman Patton (556 yards)
Tackles: Michael Taylor* (62)
Sacks: Ronald Powell (4)
Interceptions: Vernon Hargreaves III* (3)

What they're saying:
“We lost confidence and belief in what we were doing offensively, and it affected our whole football team. That's something we've gotten back,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp.

Three things to watch:

1. Muschamp on the hot seat: Just this week Muschamp conceded again that he’s on the hot seat in Gainesville. “I was 29 years old at LSU calling defenses in the SEC,” he told reporters. “If you want to coach at Florida, it's the championship expectation. Criticism comes with the job.” Hiring former Duke play-caller Kurt Roper to run the offense was a move in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than a new face and a new scheme to turn around last year’s 4-8 disaster. The psyche of the program seemed broken to the point where even the Gators’s stout defense lost its vigor. Getting that edge back won’t be easy, but Muschamp has never been accused of lacking fire. And Florida has never been confused with lacking talent. With so many question marks, though, it’s probably a good thing that UF starts next season with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. Getting the Wildcats at home won’t be easy, but the ultimate test of how far Florida’s come will be Sept. 20 at Alabama. If he can steal a win against the likes of Alabama, LSU or Florida State this year, he could cool his position on the hot seat.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel has the talent, but has been inconsistent and hasn't had many playmakers around him in the past. That could change this fall.
2. Help for Driskel: A pass-catching tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, so count the addition of former Virginia tight end Jake McGee in the win column for Florida. Driskel, who has been up and down throughout his career under center, could use a safety blanket with McGee’s résumé. There have been times where Driskel has flashed pro potential; good mobility, a strong arm, even good accuracy. But there have been times where all that’s come unraveled. To be fair, though, he hasn’t had much help around him. That could change this season with the addition of McGee, who led the Cavs in receptions last season, and the development of receivers Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. If the O-line can hold together and a playmaker or two emerges, Driskel could see his production skyrocket.

3. The Roper effect: There are no silver bullets in college football, but Florida fans are pinning their hopes to Roper having the Midas touch. The Gator offense was miserable last season, lacking any semblance of an identity. The passing game never got off the ground, yet an on again, off again relationship with the running game persisted, leading to UF placing dead last in the SEC in scoring. It was hard to watch, especially the 7-point output against rival Florida State to end the season. Roper, in other words, has his hands full. He must restore confidence in his quarterback, establish playmakers and find the right balance between the running and passing game. The good news: there’s nowhere to go but up. After watching him succeed with lesser talent at Duke, there’s reason for optimism. I was in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and saw first-hand his touch as a play-caller. The question for him is how long it will take for Florida’s players to buy in and understand what he’s asking of them. The aforementioned early portion of the schedule will help in that respect, and Alabama shouldn’t expect to see a full playbook from Florida until it travels to Tuscaloosa.

Florida spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida Gators:

1. Florida's offense is already better than it was at any time last season. That's a low bar to clear, but new coordinator Kurt Roper made coach Will Muschamp happy by designing a run-heavy offense that can spread out opponents and get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space.

2. The defense has work to do. There are two rising stars in CB Vernon Hargreaves III and DE/LB Dante Fowler Jr. There are solid veterans at key positions such as S Jabari Gorman, DL Jonathan Bullard, and LBs Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor. The rest of the D is loaded with inexperienced talent.

3. After a 4-8 season in 2013, this is a team with a lot to prove. Everywhere you look there are chips on shoulders. The entire offense is determined to carry its weight, especially QB Jeff Driskel and the receivers. The kickers are looking to bounce back. No one wants to repeat the pain of last season.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will Driskel finally break through? The Gators don't need brilliance from their quarterback in order to have a decent offense. But he must improve his accuracy, pocket awareness and ability to read defenses. Roper has built his scheme around Driskel's strengths, so look for lots of running and quick passing.

2. Will a true freshman start at cornerback opposite Hargreaves? It's looking that way for a program that has had a lot of similar success stories with Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Hargreaves. Next up are Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, who didn't look out of place in spring ball.

3. Who are the playmakers on offense? Roper's scheme promised a clean slate and a lot of opportunities, as he typically uses a lot of players. Florida's most reliable options are RBs Kelvin Taylor and Mack Brown. At receiver, there's Quinton Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. The rest still have much to prove.

One way-too-early prediction:

Florida will pass the eye test with fans by producing more offense and fewer cringe-worthy moments. But the schedule will prove difficult to navigate, and Gators fans will continue their debate over Muschamp's status throughout the season. Eight wins signals progress to many, while four losses stokes the flames of others.

Post-spring questions for Florida

April, 29, 2014
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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."

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