SEC: Brandon Powell

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.

Florida freshman QB has memorable debut

September, 10, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida played nine true freshmen in its season-opening 65-0 rout against Eastern Michigan last weekend.

[+] EnlargeTreon Harris
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SportswireIn his first game for Florida, freshman QB Treon Harris threw two completions -- both touchdowns -- for 148 yards.
Duke Dawson, one of four fresh-faced defensive backs to see action, became the first true freshman in school history to return an interception for a score in his first game. Running back Brandon Powell had a 12-yard TD among his three rushes for 24 yards.

But the debut that everyone is still buzzing about belonged to quarterback Treon Harris.

His first two passes were long touchdowns for 70 and 78 yards, respectively. Harris' final line was 2-for-2 for 148 yards and two TDs. He finished with a 1,051.6 quarterback rating.

"He made two huge plays for us and showed a lot of confidence in what he was doing," coach Will Muschamp said. "That's something that really appealed to us in his process. He's been a guy that's able to make plays."

Harris was a highly regarded prospect coming out of Booker T. Washington High School in Miami. He was rated the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the nation but didn't arrive at UF until late June. Yet he made a strong enough impression in preseason camp to win a tightly contested competition for the backup quarterback job behind starter Jeff Driskel.

Harris jumped up the depth chart past fellow true freshman and ESPN 300 prospect Will Grier as well as third-year sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg, who started three games in 2013.

It helped Harris came to Florida with the aura of a big-time winner. He earned his reputation after quarterbacking his high school team to two consecutive unbeaten seasons, capped with state championship wins. His final team was ranked No. 1 in all seven national high school football polls.

By the time he set foot on UF's campus, many of his teammates were already well aware of Harris.

"We all knew Treon was probably one of the best quarterbacks in Florida," sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. "Everybody was kind of anxious to see what he could be."

Flash forward to Harris' spectacular debut, and it's no wonder Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper feels good about helping to get Harris, who had been committed to Florida State, to change his mind on signing day and instead go with the Gators.

"You just turn on his tape and he's a playmaker and then you just see how much his team won," Roper said. "That's always an impressive thing for a quarterback, for your team to win. Those are the things that I saw, that jumped out at us and made it important to recruit him.

"I think that's what happened in the first game, he just made some plays."

It helps Muschamp went into this season determined to develop his backup QB more than in past seasons. When Driskel was lost for the season in 2013, the Gators' playbook shrank considerably as the team struggled under backup quarterback Tyler Murphy and his backup Mornhinweg.

"I told Kurt (on Saturday) the guy needs to play," Muschamp said. "We don't need to sit on the ball. We need to take some shots, and we did that and he hit on it. ...He needs more and more of those reps and more and more of those opportunities to go in and play the game."

Harris won everyone's praise after the season opener, including that of Driskel, who called it "a huge confidence builder" and "an awesome, awesome first game."

Driskel, himself a heralded recruit who played as a true freshman, also had some perspective to share with Harris.

"You know," Driskel said, "his first two passes were touchdowns. My first one was an interception. So thanks for showing me up."
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.

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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.

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:

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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. -- Kelvin Taylor arrived at Florida last year with all the fanfare one would expect of an elite recruit who also happened to be the son of a school legend.

He didn't really factor into Florida's running game, however, until an injury ended the season of starter Matt Jones in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Taylor, Shaq Wiggins
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesKelvin Taylor finished the 2013 season with 508 yards on 111 carries for the Gators.
It must have felt like an eternity for Taylor, who had been his team's focal point since he was an eighth-grader.

"I wasn't really discouraged," he said. "I was just like, 'Wow, Mack Brown and Matt Jones are out there.' I was just cheering those guys on and learning, trying to get better every day in practice, just trying to do something to impress the coach to put me out there. ...

"I just sat back and watched film, did things like that, took coaching and tried to get better every day."

When he got his chance, Taylor lived up to the hype. He showed that he was ready and was indeed as talented as his famous father, Fred Taylor.

Kelvin Taylor started four of the last five games, finished the season with 508 yards on 111 carries (4.6 yards per carry), and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman Team.

Florida coach Will Muschamp knew he had a special talent in Taylor, but the freshman's behavior when he wasn't playing made an ever bigger impression.

"Very humble, just a hard-working guy," Muschamp said. "He never said a whole lot. Kelvin’s a team guy. He’s been raised right. He’s a really good young man. He’s all about the team. He’s all about the University of Florida. He knew there were some things in protection he needed to clean up moving forward. There was nothing that he wasn’t willing to work at and didn’t recognize.

"With good players, that’s normally the deal. They realize there’s things they need to work on, there’s things they need to improve on and that’s why he is a good player. He’s talented, but he realizes the things he needs to do."

With Jones still recovering from a torn meniscus, Taylor has been the lead dog in a stable of running backs.

"We've got a lot of great running backs in there," he said. "Me, Mack Brown, Mark [Herndon], Matt Jones, [Adam] Lane, all those guys, Brandon Powell, the freshman that just came in. I think all those guys will help us."

Taylor has worked hard to take the starting job and hold off his competition. A year after enrolling early and participating in his first spring practices, he has the look of a confident sophomore poised to take the next step.

"I feel like I got stronger and a whole lot faster working with Coach [Jeff] Dillman," he said. "All those guys pushing me everyday, working me harder. My lower body got a lot more powerful. ... Now I got a year underneath my belt, so I'm practicing well, playing faster, more used to the speed of the game."

Taylor's teammates, especially his backfield mates, say they can tell. They're expecting big things this fall.

"He's not really worrying or thinking too much," senior fullback Hunter Joyer said. "He's just going out, playing full speed."

It's helped that the entire offense has made a smooth transition to a new no-huddle, spread scheme that operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun formation.

"This offense is a little different for these guys in how they're getting the ball," Muschamp said. "We still run the counter. We still run the power. We still run the inside run. We still run the stretch. But their angles to the line of scrimmage are a little different, and I think they've all adjusted very well."

Even with just a couple of weeks of hands-on experience, Taylor and the rest of Florida's playmakers are loving the new offense. They're getting used to a much faster tempo and are thrilled to get the ball in open space.

That kind of success has bred confidence and even led to a bold prediction or two.

"This year we're going to bounce back," Taylor said. "We're going to have a great season. We're just ready. We can't wait till the first game of the season just to show the nation what we're working with this year."

Opening spring camp: Florida

March, 18, 2014
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Schedule: The Gators' first spring practice is Wednesday. It's open to the public and free, along with seven other practice sessions. Spring football concludes Saturday, April 12 with the annual Orange & Blue Debut, which starts at 1:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: After a 4-8 season in 2013, a couple of key offensive coaches were replaced. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease was fired and replaced with Kurt Roper, who was in the same position at Duke. Offensive line coach Tim Davis was fired and replaced by Mike Summers, who coached the OL at USC in 2013. Special teams coordinator Jeff Choate left to coach at Washington and was replaced with Coleman Hutzler, who coached special teams at New Mexico.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida pushed back the start of spring practice to ensure that previously injured players such as Jeff Driskel could participate.
On the mend: Florida pushed back the start of spring football by about 7-10 days in order to insure the full participation of several players who were injured last fall. Most notable among them are QB Jeff Driskel (broken leg), LBs Antonio Morrison (torn meniscus) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL), and O-linemen Tyler Moore (broken elbow) and Chaz Green (torn labrum). Still, the Gators will be without nine players this spring, including two former starters -- RB Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and DT Leon Orr (broken wrist).

On the move: The biggest shuffling will happen on the offensive line, which lost three senior starters and another key reserve who transferred. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will move to center. Moore, who played tackle in 2013, moves to guard. Trenton Brown, who started five games at right tackle, will also see time at guard. And junior Trip Thurman, a reserve at guard and tackle who's been praised for his offseason work, will also get a look at center.

New faces: Eight true freshmen and a juco guard enrolled in January. The biggest impact is likely to come from CB Jalen Tabor, who should compete for a starting job. QB Will Grier will have a chance to become Driskel's primary backup. TE DeAndre Goolsby could stand out as a pass-catcher. Juco guard Drew Sarvary should compete for a spot on the two-deep roster. Taven Bryan has a chance to impress at defensive end. DB Duke Dawson will get a look at cornerback and safety. Kavaris Harkless provides depth at guard. RB Brandon Powell (foot) will be a non-contact participant. Guard Nolan Kelleher (back) is waiting on a second opinion before he's cleared to participate.

Question marks: There are so many following a subpar season. The biggest issue for Florida is making the most of its 15 allotted practices to install a new offense. Roper can often be heard telling his new students to play fast, but it will take time for new plays, new schemes and new principles to become second nature. The Gators' problems on offense ran deep. The line was porous in pass protection, often giving the quarterbacks precious little time to scan the field. When there was time, the receiving corps had trouble getting open. All of those issues must be addressed, as head coach Will Muschamp is betting his job on new hires Roper and Summers to restore competence to one of the worst passing attacks in the nation.

Florida was not great on defense last season, either. It's true that the offense got so bad that Muschamp publicly complained about the effect it had on his defense, but he also had some gripes of his own. The Gators' run defense, for one, slipped badly and got worse as the season went along. After DT Dominique Easley got hurt, the middle of UF's defense never recovered. It's a high priority for the Gators to find and develop some linemen who can win one-on-one battles. Also, for the second straight year, the secondary lost a lot of experienced players. Florida is deep and talented and will put pressure on several young players to progress quickly.

Key battle: There are several to choose from, but the most important and tightest competition will probably happen at middle linebacker. Morrison is the incumbent but performed below expectations last season. Senior Michael Taylor is a solid option and should push Morrison, but Taylor has always struggled in coverage. The wild card is sophomore Jarrad Davis, who came on strong as a true freshman when he drew raves for his speed, athleticism and ability to absorb coaching.

Breaking out: This is a team desperate for skill players to produce. Florida signed five talented wide receivers in 2013, and three -- Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson and Demarcus Robinson -- saw immediate playing time. With at least one starting WR job up for grabs, the Gators are counting on those three and redshirt freshmen Alvin Bailey and Marqui Hawkins to mature. Roper's offense depends upon getting its best weapons the ball in space. At this time, any of those five could become the team's most dangerous weapon. Regardless of who it is, a reliable pass-catching threat must emerge this spring.

Don't forget about: On a young team, senior Quinton Dunbar will be counted on for leadership and more. He's been a solid possession receiver and has improved in each of his three seasons, but the Gators will ask Dunbar to take the next step. A certain starter, Dunbar needs to consistently separate and catch everything that comes his way. Florida's QBs need their senior receiver to be something of a security blanket.

All eyes on: It's all about the offense for a program that has consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses. Driskel and Grier will be in the brightest spotlights, as only quarterbacks can be. They will be the easiest measuring sticks of the progress that Roper's offense makes, and hundreds of fans will come to practice to see if things are indeed improving. The shotgun, zone-read options and spread elements of the new scheme are tailor-made for these two QBs. Roper (and therefore Muschamp) will be counting on their QBs to make the offense look good.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Injuries hit hard and hit often last season, and as the Gators prepare to open spring practice next week, they'll still be feeling some lingering effects.

Florida coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday announced the Gators will open spring practice March 19 with nine players out of action because of injury, including three starters.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader via Getty ImagesRunning back Matt Jones, who injured his knee last season, won't be cleared to play until after spring practice concludes.
Here's who is out or limited as well as the spring impact:
  • Junior running back Matt Jones is progressing after a second surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The former starter is on track to be fully cleared on May 1. The Gators will need a healthy Jones this fall, but in the meantime there will be plenty of spring reps for a talented backfield that has good depth.
  • Senior starting defensive tackle Leon Orr fractured his wrist late last season and won't be cleared until May 1, but Florida has lots of competition at defensive tackle. "He would probably have been limited reps anyway with as many young guys as we need up front to help us," Muschamp said.
  • Senior wide receiver/kick returner Andre Debose, who had been a starter before missing all of last season with a torn ACL, is expected to be medically cleared on March 28 but will wear a noncontact jersey for the last two weeks of spring practice. A healthy Debose will bring speed and experience to a deep but largely unproven group of wide receivers.
  • Three linebackers still rehabbing after surgery for injuries suffered last fall -- sophomores Alex Anzalone (shoulder) and Jeremi Powell (torn ACL) and redshirt freshman Matt Rolin (torn ACL) -- won't be medically cleared until after spring practice. All three could play reserve roles and special teams in the fall.
  • Sophomore tight end Colin Thompson has a chronic foot injury that dates back to his high school days. It appears to be threatening his career. "The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely and we'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring," Muschamp said. Although Thompson was just a blocker, Florida needs every available body for its tight end competition.
  • Freshman early enrollee running back Brandon Powell has a small fracture in his foot from high school ball. Once on UF's campus, he had surgery to insert a pin and will miss most of the spring. "To that point in January, [Powell] had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills," Muschamp said. "Great change of direction and speed. He's one of the guys we're really excited about."
  • Freshman early enrollee Nolan Kelleher, an interior lineman, came to Florida in January with a back issue and has not been cleared for practice. Muschamp said a second opinion would be sought this week. The entire offensive line will be evaluated under new coach Mike Summers, so the competition for roles should be fierce.

Fortunately for Florida, most of the injuries are at positions of depth. Muschamp said that so far this spring, it is nothing like last year, when he was forced to turn the annual Orange & Blue Debut game into a series of drills with a limited scrimmage.

"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that," he said. "I want to have a spring game. ... I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year."

Will Muschamp: They call him Flipper

February, 3, 2014
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They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning,
No one you see, is smarter than he,
And we know Flipper, lives in a world full of wonder,
Flying there under, under the sea!

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It may be a 1960s TV show, but try getting the theme song for "Flipper" out of your head once it's stuck there. It's about as easy as getting Florida coach Will Muschamp to stop recruiting a prospect he wants.

In three years as chief recruiter for the Gators, Muschamp has clearly displayed a penchant for getting committed recruits to change their minds.

Dante Fowler
Courtesy Fowler FamilyDante Fowler, right, flipped from Florida State to Florida in 2012.
He's done it so often, some Florida fans call him Flipper.

The first big splash came in 2012 when defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., a prized recruit in Florida State's No. 2-ranked class, made a dramatic switch to Florida on signing day after being committed to the Noles for more than a year.

Muschamp's persistence over that time period and insistence that Fowler would get on the field earlier with UF paid off.

"It was real difficult,” Fowler said on signing day. "Being committed for a year and growing up a Florida State fan all my life -- I always hated Florida, and I always told myself I would never go to Florida, and now I’m about to be playing for them. It’s kind of crazy."

That was just the start of the craziness.

Last year Muschamp upped the ante with six more flips, four just before they signed as early enrollees in January 2013. In fact, three of Florida's four linebackers in that class -- Matt Rolin (from South Carolina), Alex Anzalone (Notre Dame) and Jarrad Davis (Auburn) -- flipped from other schools.

The key to flipping recruits, Muschamp said, is not a secret. It's a simple approach.

"You stay on guys," he said, "and try to make valid points you’ve made throughout the entire recruiting process all the way through."

He's done it again this year, getting three of his nine early enrollees to flip.

Each of the three -- cornerback Jalen Tabor (Arizona), athlete Brandon Powell (Miami) and offensive tackle Kavaris Harkless (Louisville) -- changed their minds as late as the first week of the spring semester.

None was more last minute than Harkless, who was on campus at Louisville the day before his first class when he changed his mind and flew back to Florida. Harkless was swayed by the departure of coach Charlie Strong, who left Louisville for Texas.

When the coaching change news broke that weekend, so did Harkless' commitment to Louisville.

One of Harkless' coaches at Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian, Gerard Ross, saw firsthand how UF coaches laid the foundation for Harkless' change of heart. Ross says it's a matter of the Gator coaches continuing to build relationships even after their targets have committed elsewhere.

"They do a good job of staying in contact with those guys that they really want who are committed to other places," he said. "That way if something ever changes that kid's mind, then that whole time they've been there with that kid. The [recruit] has something to fall back on."

It used to be taboo in recruiting to go after a committed prospect. Now, the taboo is a relic of a bygone era. It's open season on all commits until the ink has dried on the official letter of intent.

"These days in recruiting it's a little different than when I came out," said Ross, who played cornerback for FSU from 2002-05. "These days you almost can't blame the kids for trying to find a school pretty early and finding themselves a spot, because you can't oversign anymore. At the same time, the coaches almost have to stay on those kids who do commit early. There's a window when that kid might flip.

"Back in the day when a kid committed, that was pretty much it. That's where he was going. But nowadays, college football is becoming a business."

A business in which coaches move frequently for new jobs, often shaking up recruiting classes in the process.

It's something Florida has experienced on both sides -- from losing recruits when former coach Urban Meyer retired (twice) to cherry-picking players like Harkless, who found himself far from home and without a coach.

"That's recruiting, you know?" Harkless said from Louisville in early January, just before he left for Florida. "I still have respect for Coach Strong, because he has to go where it's best for his family. I'm just doing the same."

After announcing Harkless among his nine early enrollees in January, Muschamp talked about the increase in drama and decommitments on the recruiting trail. This rockier road, he said, is here to stay.

"The earlier and earlier recruiting goes, you’re going to continue to see this. That’s not stopping," Muschamp said. "I think the earlier it is, young men are making decisions before maybe they have the information or they’re sure of what they want to do or how they’re going to do it. I think you’re going to continue to probably see this."

Translation: Beware the Flipper.

Like a song stuck in your head, Muschamp isn't going to stop anytime soon.

SEC class rankings analysis 

August, 7, 2013
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The Southeastern Conference, once again, is dominating in the Recruiting Nation team rankings. Ten of the top 25 teams hail from the SEC and all but one school (Missouri) is in the top 40. Three SEC teams, Alabama (No. 2), Tennessee (No. 3) and Georgia (No. 5), rank among the top five. There was some movement in the rankings this week, here's a closer look at how the SEC fared.

Trending up: With the addition of Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford), the Auburn Tigers jumped up two spots from No. 17 to No. 15. Thomas is the No. 5-ranked running back and the No. 34th-ranked player overall in the ESPN 300. With the commitment of Thomas, the Tigers have 14 commitments including seven in the ESPN 300. Vanderbilt also jumped up two spots from No. 25 to No. 23 by adding ESPN 300 safety Kyle Gibson (Seffner, Fla./Armwood). Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss all moved up one spot each in the updated rankings.

Trending down: After losing ESPN 300 defensive back Chris Hardeman (Houston/Alief Taylor) LSU dropped from No. 8 to No. 10 in the rankings. With players such as Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/St. Augustine), Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe) and Speedy Noil (New Orleans/Edna Karr) still on their radar, the Tigers still have a good chance to end up with a top five class. Tennessee also dropped one spot from No. 2 to No. 3 after losing four-star athlete Brandon Powell (Deerfield Beach, Fla./Deerfield Beach). Powell quickly switched his commitment to Miami after decommitting from the Vols last Saturday. Missouri is the only team in the SEC not represented in the top 40. The Tigers have 17 commitments but only one is ranked higher than a three-star prospect.

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