SEC: Quinton Dunbar

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At some point before he took the field for Florida's season opener last Saturday, Jeff Driskel gathered the rest of the Gators' quarterbacks and acknowledged his personal comeback story.

"Guys," he said, "I haven't taken a hit in almost a year."

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxFlorida quarterback Jeff Driskel took a snap Saturday for the first time in 349 days.
Florida snapped a seven-game losing streak Saturday, winning for the first time in 335 days. Driskel, the Gators' starting quarterback and most important player, took a game snap for the first time in 349 days.

It was a little strange, he said, to play again after waiting for so long. He broke a bone in his leg early in the third game of last season -- Sept. 21, 2013, to be exact.

There was an arduous rehab and a tumultuous winter that saw the hire of his third offensive coordinator in three years.

Kurt Roper brought a new offense -- a dynamic, uptempo spread that promised to be a perfect fit for Driskel, who put up video-game numbers in a similar system at Hagerty High School in Oviedo, Fla., on his way to becoming the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation in 2010.

Once healthy in the spring, Driskel fulfilled that promise of fitting the offense to a tee. The offense was installed and then refined in preseason camp, where Driskel said "game speed" reps helped him to prepare for his return to action.

"It wasn't a shock the first time back out there," he said, downplaying any thoughts of last year or any feelings that might have welled up as he ran onto the field with his teammates again. "I think playing quarterback you've got to play without emotion. You try and play with energy, not emotion.

"That's what I've been trying to do, just stay even-keeled. I think that I'm doing a pretty good job of doing that."

He also did a pretty good job of running the Gators' new offense in a 65-0 romp against Eastern Michigan.

Driskel, who exited the game after three quarters, smashed his previous career-highs with 45 passes thrown and 31 completions, hitting 69 percent of his attempts.

Those 31 completions were also the most for any Florida QB since Tim Tebow had 31 in a 2009 Sugar Bowl win against Cincinnati.

"I thought Jeff threw the ball extremely well," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "You saw what I've referenced as far as his command and comfort with where we are."

Driskel threw for 248 yards, the second-highest total in his career, and spread the ball around to 10 different targets. His favorite receiver on the day was senior wideout Quinton Dunbar, with whom Driskel connected five times for 81 yards.

"I'm proud of Jeff," said Dunbar, who reeled in Driskel's longest pass of the day -- a 42-yarder -- early in the second quarter. "The hard work is showing now.

"This is only the beginning. We're going to continue to get better and keep showing the world what we're capable of doing."

The fate of Florida's offense, if not its season, is inextricably linked to Driskel. Keeping the junior QB healthy is a major priority, as evidenced by the fact that Driskel didn't run the ball once in the opener.

The Gators will certainly make use of Driskel's dual-threat ability at some point this season. After all, he has great mobility and a career average of 6.9 yards per carry. The run-option was a particular strength of Florida's offense in 2012.

"We asked him to protect himself in some situations," Muschamp acknowledged Saturday. "That's what we're going to do in those situations. He needs to be smart and protect himself. As I've said before, [it's] difficult for him because he's a competitive young man."

Competitive and confident.

Driskel made a point of noting that he and his teammates were confident in the new offense before they took the field and routed Eastern Michigan. Now that he's back, the team has returned to its winning ways.

"Our performance today kind of backed that up," he said. "We have a lot of playmakers all over the field, and if we continue to execute like we did today we're going to be tough to beat."
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."
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It started with some innocent ribbing when Florida players watched their game tape after losing to Georgia Southern in late November of last season.

The play that caught everyone's eyes and tickled their funny bones revealed Gator wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and center Jonotthan Harrison accidentally blocking each other.

Within days the media got hold of the story and it went viral.

"I looked down and I've got text messages from friends joking," Dunbar recalls, "and then it blew up from there."

The Gator-on-Gator block became a symbol for everything that went wrong for Florida during its 4-8 season in 2013. It was the insult piled on top of a heap of injuries.

But the notoriety was just getting started. For weeks, the play held the top spot in SportsCenter's "Not Top 10" list, as voted on by viewers. It lived in infamy well into the spring.

"Yeah, it was everywhere," Dunbar said. "It was crazy because I remembered that play, but I didn't expect it to get that big."

It was hard to miss. Even Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who coached at Duke last year, had to laugh when asked recently if he had seen it.

"Aw yeah, I've seen it," he said, looking to soften the blow. "Things like that happen.

"So last year we were 10-2, a pretty good team. We're playing North Carolina to win the Coastal [Division] outright. We're down 25-24. We've got the ball on the 6-yard line. We've got second-and-goal, so a touchdown's big, a field goal puts us ahead. We're running down about three minutes to go in the game. I call a play and both our guards pull. One of them was supposed to pull and the other one wasn't. Well, they messed up. Both guards pulled and ran right into each other. That doesn't get mentioned because we went 10-2 in the regular season. Nobody sees it.

"How many times do defensive linemen run twist games up front and they run right into each other? I think it's just a product of the season, because you could watch any game and see those type things all the time."

Several months later Dunbar flashes a smile and laughs easily at the memory.

"I was going down to crack the safety and when I looked up I happened to be latched on with Harrison," he said. "I don't know what happened, but that's football."

Harrison didn't find much humor in the situation last year. Teammates say he was bothered every time "his play" popped up on TV. He refused to talk about it publicly.

Now fighting for a roster spot with the Indianapolis Colts, Harrison admits he was frustrated. It's clear the normally jovial lineman still bristles at the thought of it.

"I don't want to dwell on it to be honest," Harrison said. "I'm just over it."

So is Dunbar, who is on the verge of a fresh, new season -- his last in the Gators' orange and blue uniform.

"I'm just glad [the play's run on SportsCenter] is over," he said. "I'm ready to move on."
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.”

Florida Gators season preview

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
10:30
AM ET

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Florida Gators:

2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)

Final grade for 2013 season: Pardon the pun, but there's just no way to give a passing grade to a team that could hardly complete a forward pass. An incomplete grade might be warranted by the Gators' ridiculous number of injuries, but the final judgement for these Gators is inescapable. The team that lost home games to FCS Georgia Southern and Vanderbilt, lost seven games in a row and broke its 22-year bowl streak gets a well-deserved F.

Key losses: DT Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonotthan Harrison, WR Solomon Patton, DB Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell, CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, QB Tyler Murphy, DB Cody Riggs

Key returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, RB Matt Jones, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR/KR Andre Debose, RT Chaz Green, LT D.J. Humphries, C Max Garcia, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, CB Vernon Hargreaves III

[+] EnlargeDante Fowler Jr.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDante Fowler Jr., a preseason All-SEC first-team player, hopes to lead the Gators back to respectability.
Projected starters: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Quinton Dunbar, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman, TE Jake McGee, LT D.J. Humphries, LG Tyler Moore, C Max Garcia, RG Trenton Brown, RT Chaz Green, DE Dante Fowler Jr., DT Leon Orr, DT Darious Cummings, DE Jonathan Bullard, LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Jalen Tabor, S Jabari Gorman, S Marcus Maye

Instant impact newcomers: TE Jake McGee (senior transfer from Virginia), CB Jalen Tabor, CB Duke Dawson, DL Gerald Willis III, OT David Sharpe

Breakout player: Florida expects its offense to be improved, but the Gators, under coach Will Muschamp, are still all about defense. Sophomore linebacker Jarrad Davis has drawn raves from coaches and teammates for being a high-motor playmaker with a nose for the ball. One of the quickest learners on the team, Davis surprised everyone when he worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman. Big things are expected for his follow-up performance.

Most important game: For a head coach on a very hot seat and a team champing at the bit to erase the memory of a 4-8 season, every game will be important in 2014. Muschamp and Florida can't afford many losses, but one foe looms above the rest -- Georgia. The Gators dominated this series for years, but Muschamp has lost three in a row to his alma mater. These games are always closely contested, full of emotion and extremely important in the SEC East race. But this year Muschamp and his players ought to have a little something extra: desperation.

Biggest question mark: There are holes and concerns on defense, but addressing them should be a piece of cake compared to the monumental task of resurrecting Florida's offense, which ranked No. 113 out of 123 FBS teams last season. New coordinator Kurt Roper brought a no-huddle, shotgun, spread offense from Duke with the promise of a better fit for Driskel and several underutilized receivers. Will they find success right away?

Upset special: Florida visits Tuscaloosa, Alabama for a showcase game against the Crimson Tide in Week 4, but the Gators' best chance for an upset will be a couple of weeks later in the Swamp. LSU, ranked No. 13 in the preseason coaches' poll, is Florida's permanent SEC West opponent. The teams have played every year since 1971, and the rivalry has become hotly contested with both winning seven times in the last 14 meetings. In that span, the road team has won six times, so anything goes when these talent-rich programs clash.

Key stat: When he was hired, Roper said, "Our whole philosophy on offense is points per game. It's not yards, it's not going up and down the field, it's how many points we can get." Last year, Roper's Duke Blue Devils ranked 41st in the FBS with 32.8 points per game. Florida, by contrast, ranked 112th with 18.8 PPG.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 7.55 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: Florida's schedule is as brutal as ever with visits to Florida State and Alabama, the top two teams in the preseason coaches' poll. The SEC East promises to be a minefield as well. But the Gators get to play nine out of 12 games in their home state. As tough as this slate looks, the bye weeks are positioned perfectly. Florida looks to be 3-0 heading into the game against Bama. Then the first bye week offers a chance to recover, reevaluate and prepare for a big test at Tennessee. The Gators return home for two critical games against LSU and Missouri before the second bye precedes the all-important Georgia game. If Florida can make the most of those byes, defeating the Vols and Dawgs might be the difference between seven and eight wins. Beat both East rivals, and the Gators could have a solid chance at nine.

Most important game: Florida

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
3:30
PM ET
We continue our series looking at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved. Today we take a look at Florida.

Most important game: Nov. 1 vs. Georgia

Key players: Georgia tailback Todd Gurley was the big difference-maker in last year's contest, a 23-20 win that was the Bulldogs' third in a row in this contentious border war. Gurley had 187 total yards and two touchdowns, doing most of his damage in a 17-0 first quarter before Florida's defense regained its composure. There were lots of scuffles and penalties in that game, so the Gators will need leaders such as quarterback Jeff Driskel, wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, linebacker Michael Taylor and safety Jabari Gorman to keep their focus between the white lines.

Off the field, Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt -- two newcomers to this game -- will engage in a fascinating chess match. Roper's new no-huddle spread offense won't be so new and mysterious by the eighth game of the season, so the Gators will likely have to beat Pruitt's attacking 3-4 defense in the trenches. If the UF offensive line can stay healthy, Roper will have a number of running backs with which to pound away. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor, who got his first career start in last year's Florida-Georgia game and ran for 76 yards, is the likely starter. Mack Brown and Matt Jones, whom the coaching staff expects to be back at full strength after he tore cartilage in his knee last season, are capable backups.

The quarterback matchup also poses an interesting contrast. Driskel is a dual-threat athlete, while Georgia senior Hutson Mason is more of a pocket passer. In his 15 career starts, Driskel has not shown much command of the passing game with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-10. But Roper expects Driskel to be more efficient in his offense. And against Georgia, Driskel will be facing a secondary that has lost three starters in the offseason. Mason, on the other hand, gets to tangle with a Florida secondary that features stud sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III. But Mason has plenty of confidence going into his fifth season in Mark Richt's offense. He threw for 619 yards in starting Georgia's final two games last season after Aaron Murray was injured.

Why it matters: Speculating on head coach Will Muschamp’s future has become a cottage industry for Gator fans ever since Florida went 4-8 last season. Muschamp has never tasted victory in seven Florida-Georgia games -- four as a safety at Georgia from 1991-94 and the last three seasons as UF's head coach. Georgia's three-game winning streak has reignited a rivalry that Florida had dominated in recent years with 18 wins in 21 games since 1990. The Gators might play bigger, more significant games than this one in 2014, but no opponent has been circled by more Florida fans than Georgia. The same fans who are trying to guess how many wins Muschamp needs to keep his job are pinpointing Nov. 1 as one game day that will carry more weight than any other. Simply put, if Muschamp is ever going to win back Florida fans, he absolutely cannot allow UGA to stretch its streak to four. Oh, and did we mention that this game always seems to play a major role in determining the SEC East champion? That will hardly matter to UF in this game. The division race will be a distant subplot, as Florida is likely to be fueled by hatred for the Bulldogs and determination to prove that last season was an aberration.
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.
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.

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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.
This season, it seems pretty much everything is wide open in the SEC. It should make for one of the most compelling seasons in years, and the receivers will be one of the most intriguing positions on the field.

Last year, we knew who our stars were when it came to pass catchers. You had a record breaker in Jordan Matthews, absolute freaks in Mike Evans and Donte Moncrief, the game-changer in Odell Beckham Jr. and one of the toughest players around in Jarvis Landry. And there were budding superstars in Amari Cooper and Dorial Green-Beckham.

As we look to the SEC's crop of receiving talent entering this fall, we still have a couple big names, but figuring out a consensus top five isn't easy.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper is one of the best wideouts in the country and anchors the wide receiving corps.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper is one of the top playmakers in the SEC but still has work to do on his game.
The favorites

Clearly, Cooper is the headliner at wide receiver. He might not have generated the buzz and excitement last year that he did toward the end of his freshman season with Alabama, but he's a big-play threat and a deep-ball specialist. His numbers dipped in 2013, but with Green-Beckham no longer at Missouri, Cooper assumes the role as the biggest receiving threat in the SEC.

Where Cooper has to improve is his physical play and playing through injuries. If there's one complaint about him, it's that fighting through pain was an issue for him at times. Alabama still needs to find its starting quarterback, but Cooper had another great spring and shouldn't have a problem being the go-to guy for whichever quarterback wins the starting job this fall.

"The guy’s really an explosive guy," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Cooper this spring. "He’s got great speed, he’s got really good hands, he’s got good size. He can catch the ball vertically down the field. He’s difficult to cover coming out of a break.

"He’s good against press (coverage), so he’s a pretty hard guy to stop unless you put two guys on him."

Yeah, try putting two guys on him with receiving targets like DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Chris Black and O.J. Howard returning for the Tide.

But Cooper has some competition. Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis and Auburn's Sammie Coates are the only two returning receivers who finished ranked in the top 10 of the league in receiving yards last year, but don't forget about rising sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who led Ole Miss with 72 receptions in 2013, or South Carolina junior Shaq Roland, who is so close to breaking out it's scary.

No one returns this fall with 1,000 receiving yards or double-digit touchdown numbers from a year ago, but all of the above-mentioned players could have bigger seasons in 2014. Lewis is sneaky good, and if he can improve his route running, watch out in an offense that loves to get the ball to jittery guys like that in space. Treadwell can jump out of any gym and is moving outside, which should give him more chances to hit the deep ball this fall. Coates needs to be more consistent, but he's grown more and more since the start of last season.

Roland has shown flashes of star power, but he has to get the mental side down. He let the hype get to him his freshman year but followed that by catching 25 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He's better than that, and he has a chance to be the go-to receiver for Dylan Thompson in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDunbar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQuinton Dunbar should thrive in Florida's new offense.
Keep an eye on

Don't you dare think those are the only contenders for the top receiving spots in the SEC. There are plenty of guys flying somewhat under the radar, and you don't want to sleep on any of them:

  • Chris Conley, Sr., Georgia: Malcolm Mitchell might be back from his ACL injury this fall, but Conley had a great spring and has everything you'd want in a go-to receiver.
  • Quinton Dunbar, Sr., Florida: He's caught a pass in 28 straight games and has 90 receptions for his career. Kurt Roper's new spread look should help him blow past 40 catches in his final season.
  • Speedy Noil, Fr., Texas A&M: No, he hasn't played a down of college football yet, but this kid is the definition of an athlete. He'll make a ton of plays this fall.
  • Marquez North, So., Tennessee: He's turning his raw talent into actual development, which is a very scary thought, and looks more the part with the muscle he's put on.
  • Demarcus Robinson, So., Florida: After all the hype he arrived with, Robinson had a very quiet freshman year. He has to stay focused off the field because following a good spring, a lot is expected from Florida's most talented receiver.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, RFr., Texas A&M: An ACL injury cut his freshman season short, but Seals-Jones should be one of the Aggies' top receiving threats this fall. He can play inside and out and could top the SEC in overall receiving athleticism.
  • D'haquille Williams, Jr., Auburn: He has zero snaps at this level, but his coaches think he could make a major impact on the offense and should push Coates for catches.

Florida spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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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.

Florida's spring standouts

April, 16, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fresh faces were everywhere at Florida this spring.

A poor season in 2013 brought a clean slate. A new offense brought opportunities at every position. A large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen brought a much-needed infusion of talent.

Going into spring practice, our list of players to watch consisted of quarterback Jeff Driskel, cornerback Jalen Tabor, wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, tight end DeAndre Goolsby, and running back Adam Lane.

Now that football is finished for a few months, we'll take a look at the spring results and see who else stood out.

[+] EnlargeDriskel
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsFlorida QB Jeff Driskel is healthy again and it showed in the spring game.
Driskel: The fourth-year junior had a very good spring in terms of health, leadership and command of the offense. He capped it with a solid spring game, going 18-for-32 for 167 yards and a touchdown.

Tabor: It says a lot when a true freshman is thrown right into the competition for a starting cornerback job. At 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, Tabor used his long arms to make plays in coverage. He still needs to work on his press technique and where to keep his eyes, but it's easy to see that he has great athleticism and natural instincts.

Robinson: He came in with a lot of hype last season as a true freshman and didn't respond well to the rigors of college life, but this spring Robinson lived up to expectations. He is clearly Florida's most complete receiver and best hope for a star in the passing game.

Goolsby: The true freshman has the talent to become Florida's top pass-catching tight end. He drew the attention and praise of head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. But most young tight ends struggle with inline blocking, and Goolsby was no exception. He still has a lot to learn before he gets regular playing time.

Lane: Out of 12 redshirt freshmen, Lane made the biggest splash this spring. He proved to be very tough to tackle because, at 5-7, 222 pounds, he's built like a fire plug and never stops moving his feet. The Gators rode the "Lane Train" to a team-leading 12 carries for 67 yards (5.8 yards per carry) in the spring game.

Dante Fowler Jr.: Not enough can be said about the junior buck linebacker's importance in Florida's defense. The Gators simply need him to become a pass-rushing menace. He showed up in better shape this spring, commanded the respect and attention of his teammates and delivered on the field with consistency.

Trenton Brown: The mammoth senior began the spring looking like a backup at right tackle, but by the spring game Brown convinced his coaches that he was among Florida's five best offensive lineman and started at right guard. At 6-8, 361, Brown is easy to spot, especially when he's clearing running lanes.

Jarrad Davis: As a true freshman last year, Davis made a late-season breakthrough and followed that up with a very good spring. He consistently earned first-team reps and the praise of his coaches and teammates. Davis has quickly become a leader and clearly has a very bright future.

Hunter Joyer: After very limited offensive contributions over his first three seasons, the senior fullback was something of a revelation at the B position. He showed good hands, even on intermediate routes. Joyer sustained a minor knee injury in the spring game but earned praise afterward. "[He] did a great job this spring," Muschamp said.

Bryan Cox Jr.: It's unclear if the third-year sophomore was just a spring starter or if he can stick with the first unit this fall, but there's no denying that Cox stood out. With a nonstop motor, he forced coaches to experiment with moving junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle. At the very least, Cox stepped forward to show that he can provide quality depth.

Duke Dawson: The "other" true freshman cornerback on the roster came in with less acclaim than Tabor but had just as much success this spring. Dawson is solid in coverage and plays with more of a physical edge than Tabor. "We’re excited about him, too," said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.

Veterans who performed up to their coaches' expectations included sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, junior left tackle D.J. Humphries, sophomore tailback Kelvin Taylor, senior safety Jabari Gorman, senior running back Mack Brown, senior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar and senior right tackle Chaz Green.

Several other players developed well enough to win consideration for playing time this fall. They were: junior slot receiver Latroy Pittman, junior guard/center Trip Thurman, sophomore safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye, sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian, redshirt freshmen defensive backs Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, and true freshman defensive end Taven Bryan.
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."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Progress. It's what Florida fans expect to see this fall. It's what they hope to see in Saturday's spring game.

Everyone is under much more scrutiny after the Gators' 4-8 record last season, but mostly the microscope will be on a brand-new offense that has been installed in just 14 spring practices. It's just one of several aspects of the scrimmage that fans and the media will be analyzing.

[+] EnlargeRoper
Jeff Barlis/ESPNAll eyes on Saturday at Florida's spring game will be on new coordinator Kurt Roper's offense.
The game, at 1:30 p.m ET at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, will be divided into four, 12-minute quarters with a running clock. Teams were drafted by honorary alumni captains on Thursday night, but fans will get to see a lot of first-team offense against first-team defense in the mix.

Here's what to watch for:

New and improved quarterback: All eyes will be on Jeff Driskel, the junior who hasn't exactly lived up to his status as the top QB prospect in 2011. He's coming off surgery and six months of rehab for a broken bone in his lower right leg. The injury, which cost him most of the 2013 season, ensures that he'll be a non-contact participant (as will all of the QBs). Driskel has had an excellent spring. He's clearly the starter and is a respected leader. His teammates have been raving about how good and comfortable he looks in an offense that is much closer to what made him a star in high school. Driskel said he just wants to show the fans that he is confident and having fun. But nothing pleases a crowd like putting points on the board. He can create a lot of goodwill if he finds receivers in stride and generally commands a smooth-looking offense.

Mr. Roper's offense: Some success by Driskel and backup quarterbacks Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg would go a long way in showing off the new scheme that offensive coordinator Kurt Roper brought from Duke. The No. 1 thing that fans want to see is a very different-looking offense. Roper has the potential to deliver with his no-huddle, shotgun spread attack. At the very least, the tempo will be much faster than in any of Florida's last three seasons of taking a clock-chewing, run-heavy, pro-style approach.

Young secondary: The Gators have Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Jabari Gorman at safety and little certainty throughout the rest of the defensive backfield. Yes, there is a ton of talent, but it's young and inexperienced. There are three starting jobs open because UF operates so often in a nickel formation. Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson have had their expected ups and downs in competing with junior Brian Poole for the starting spot opposite Hargreaves. Poole is also in the mix at nickel corner, along with Marcus Maye. Keanu Neal might have the edge for the other starting safety spot, but keep an eye on Nick Washington and Marcell Harris. Don't be surprised if the DBs struggle on Saturday as Florida's offense looks to win fans and influence coaches.

O-line vs. D-line: This one is a toss-up. The Gators' offensive line has not been good in pass protection, but the defensive line isn't exactly loaded with pass-rushing demons. The uptempo offense should help Florida's O-line, as there is a new emphasis on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand in three seconds. The marquee matchup to watch is defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. against left tackle D.J. Humphries. They're two of the Gators' most talented players, and they've been going at each other throughout spring practice. The rest of Florida's starters are veterans, but fans might want to cover their eyes when the second units come on. Coach Will Muschamp has not been pleased with the development of his young linemen on either side of the ball.

The B-position: Tight ends and fullbacks have been largely overlooked in recent years, as blocking has been the top priority. That's changed under Roper, who said on Thursday: "It's going to be an important position and it's going to be a playmaking position for us, so we're counting on them." Roper said he's seen growth out of veterans such as Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Hunter Joyer. He also said early enrollee freshman DeAndre Goolsby is more comfortable in a pass-catching role based on his experience in high school.

Playmakers at WR: It bears repeating that this spring has been all about the new offense. Fans were screaming for dramatic changes by the end of last season, and no position needs it more than wide receiver, where the Gators haven't had anyone crack the 600-yard mark in a season since 2009. As the spring wore on, playmakers began to emerge. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the unquestioned leader of the group and a certain starter. Sophomores Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson appear to be developing as reliable targets. Slot receivers Valdez Showers and Latroy Pittman have had solid spring camps as well. If the offense clicks, it will be a treat for fans to finally see these athletes make catches in space and show what they can do with the ball in their hands.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ask Florida coach Will Muschamp about rebounding from an atrocious 4-8 2013 season and he’ll nearly bowl you over with an almost immediate answer.

“We gotta get better on offense,” he said.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel, now healed from a broken fibula, is immersing himself in learning a new scheme.
Mushchamp’s straight to the point and doesn’t really have to add much else. The Gators lost seven straight games with the SEC’s worst offense and one that ranked as one of the worst in the entire country, averaging 316.7 yards per game, 4.8 yards per play and 18.8 points per game.

The Gators had the unfortunate task of trying to manage their way through the SEC with a rash of injuries that ended the seasons of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel during the third game of the season and starting running back Matt Jones a few weeks later. Before the season even began, starting right tackle Chaz Green was lost for the year with a torn labrum. Players dropped like flies, and Florida’s offense sputtered to an embarrassing finish.

Muschamp has to be realistic about his evaluation of the 2013 team –- specifically his offense -– but he refuses to lean too heavily on the injury crutch.

“We could have managed it better -- done something differently, changed more,” Muschamp said. “There are a lot of things that I look back and thought we could have done this, but at the end of the day, sometimes it was hard.”

This spring, Muschamp wants to see his offense trend upward with a new offensive coordinator and what should be a more spread attack with much more shotgun sets. And it has to. Florida can’t win any games this spring, but it can lose some if players don’t buy in and meticulously take to the offensive overhaul that spring practice has essentially become in Gainesville.

Former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and former USC offensive line coach Mike Summers were hired for both a quick and long-term fix for Florida's offense. To Muschamp, the main objective this spring is to install Roper's new offense and immerse players in a new scheme that carries so much weight in terms of getting this program back on track.

Roper helped direct a Duke offense that averaged 100-plus more yards a game than Florida and nearly doubled the Gators in points per contest. The Blue Devils also set a school record for total touchdowns (54) and became the first team in program history to post 20-plus rushing and passing touchdowns in the same season.

“Just from watching Duke last year, they’re going to run inside-zone; that’s the play,” said Driskel, who has successfully returned from a broken fibula. “I don’t think we’re trying to hide that. We’re going to have a lot of quick pass plays to get the ball out of our hand.”

It isn’t exactly what Driskel ran in high school, but it suits him better because he’s a shotgun quarterback. He can see the field better and he can utilize his legs better when he’s farther away from the line of scrimmage to start a play.

During their 11-win 2012 season, the Gators were more successful on offense when Driskel used his feet more on zone-read plays. Driskel hopes that continues under his third offensive coordinator in four springs.

“I’m real excited about going into the no-huddle-type offense,” he said. “It’s really easy to get into a groove as a quarterback when you’re in the no-huddle offense, and we have the players to be successful [with it].

“When you’re under center, you’re not a run threat. When you’re in the gun, the defense has to account for the running back and the quarterback as run threats.”

But Driskel has to have someone -- or two -- to catch his throws. As Driskel continues to develop as a more fluid passer, he’ll have to generate better chemistry with a receiving corps that returns one receiver with 20-plus catches from a year ago in redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar (40) and one with a touchdown reception (Ahmad Fulwood, 1).

Muschamp sees potential in Dunbar and Fulwood, who will be a true sophomore this year, and is waiting to see how guys like Chris Thompson, Andre Debose, Demarcus Robinson and Letroy Pittman improve during a critical spring.

The fourth-year Gators coach also says he has the players in place to be successful and believes that Roper can mold the offense around their abilities. That’s why the offense is different. That’s why the ground-and-pound theme of this offense has been tweaked. That’s why Roper was hired.

“Since he’s been here, the biggest thing I would say [he brings] is a positive energy for the players, a positive energy for the staff,” Muschamp said of Roper.

Now, Muschamp needs that positivity to turn into production.

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