SEC: Skyler Mornhinweg
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."
That part is over for the Florida Gators, who now shift into preparations for Week 1 opponent Idaho.
UF held its 16th and final preseason practice on Wednesday, and in recent days the Gators' depth chart has begun to take shape.
"We'll sort through the depth chart of guys we can count on moving forward, and guys that need to get more reps, and guys whose reps will dwindle," coach Will Muschamp said. "I mean, that's just part of it.
"Your tape is your résumé. The guys that are producing and playing well and doing it the way we want to do it, those are the guys that'll play."
Muschamp listed his biggest concerns, and they haven't changed much throughout the last two weeks.
Florida needs to develop depth behind its starters on both lines. The offensive line is the bigger concern. Roderick Johnson and Trip Thurman have emerged as reliable backups, but that still only gives UF seven linemen it can count on.
"We need to have eight or nine," Muschamp said. "That's a critical issue."
As of now, Florida is turning to juco transfer Drew Sarvary to be the backup center and Antonio Riles to play guard on the second unit. Riles was a defensive lineman until he changed positions late in the spring.
The issue on Florida's defensive line is mainly a matter of experience, as young players such as Joey Ivie, Jay-nard Bostwick and Caleb Brantley will be pressed into duty. Ivie is the only player of the three who has ever taken a snap for the Gators.
Still, Muschamp is bullish on their potential.
"Jay-nard Bostwick is a guy that’s improved tremendously," he said. "We really worked on his lower-body flexibility. He’s really made some big strides. I think Caleb Brantley has made some strides. Joey Ivie has made some strides."
Another large concern is at backup quarterback. The Gators are planning to turn starter Jeff Driskel loose in the running game, and with his history of injuries, the need for a backup is greater than ever.
The candidates are Skyler Mornhinweg, a third-year sophomore who started the final three games of last season; true freshman Will Grier, who enrolled in January and participated in spring practice; and true freshman Treon Harris, who arrived in the summer.
Mornhinweg is more of a pocket passer, while Grier and Harris are more athletic and can run the ball.
Muschamp has said Florida will play its backup QB in the first game. He also said he wouldn't want to rotate quarterbacks.
"I'd rather name a guy and go with it," he said. "I think it's hard, especially with an inexperienced player. They need to get as many reps as possible."
While UF coaches haven't seen any of their backup QBs separate themselves, there is a sense of urgency as the team is days away from its first game week.
"It’s obviously getting close to decision-making time," offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said on Tuesday, "but I also think it’s a fluid thing that can change at any time just because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
"So obviously we've got to start on who’s going to spend the time getting the two reps as much as possible."
A handful of other jobs remain up for grabs, such as placekicker and punter. Nowhere is the competition more wide open than in the secondary, where Florida is very young and inexperienced.
"Still no separation in the secondary other than Vernon [Hargreaves III] and Keanu [Neal]," Muschamp said of his top cornerback and top safety, respectively. "Got some guys who have done some decent things, we just have to be more consistent."
With just over a week before kickoff, the clock is ticking on UF's final decisions.
"Based on the record last year, I haven't [improved as a coach]," he said on Sunday in addressing the media just hours before the Gators were to open preseason camp. "That's the way you look at it. You are what your record is."
Muschamp has not dodged nor shrunk from talk of the hot seat and the accompanying speculation about his job security. Instead he has steadfastly insisted the Gators will rebound in 2014.
"I think all of the components are there," he said. "... We need to go do it now."
1. The injury bug has been squashed: What difference does a year make? In 2013, Florida started camp without its starting quarterback and starting running back, among several others. QB Jeff Driskel had an emergency appendectomy, while RB Matt Jones came down with a serious viral infection. Those fluky ailments set an ominous tone for a season littered with key injuries.
On Sunday, Muschamp announced no new injuries. In fact, only one scholarship player is out -- true freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher, who had back surgery in the spring and will redshirt.
Muschamp also said the Gators will dramatically cut down on mid-day practices and "go later at night and a little lighter than we had been doing before, so it won't be as taxing for the players."
2. Playmakers returning to offense: Jones, who missed most of the 2013 season with a torn meniscus, pronounced himself "110 percent" and ready to claim a significant role in the offense. He's added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, which has Muschamp envisioning a role as a late-game battering ram.
"He's a 230-pound back that about midway through the third and fourth quarter you get tired of hitting," the coach said. "He's got extremely good hands, he's very good at protection, very smart player."
Another potential boon for the Gators' hopes of an offensive revival comes with the return of sixth-year senior wide receiver Andre Debose, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered in preseason camp.
"I feel great," he said on Sunday after jumping over the interview table to get to his seat. "I'm feeling real good. ...
"Heading into this last year I just want to be productive. I want to help the team in any way I can. I'm just happy to be back, running around and being a part of the team."
Although Debose's production at UF has never quite matched his prodigious talent, the 6-foot, 190-pound speedster is one of the Gators' most experienced pass-catchers and is a proven weapon as a kickoff returner as well.
3. Depth charge on both lines: Starters on the offensive and defensive lines are well entrenched and well seasoned. Florida's first-team O-line has a combined 67 career starts. The D-line has 37. The problem, which Muschamp harped on throughout spring practice, is that there is a significant drop-off when the second units step in.
"Got to continue to build depth on both lines of scrimmage," he said. "I think the talent level is there."
Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Rod Johnson has always been held in high regard by his coaches, but he missed the entire spring with head and knee injuries. Muschamp also singled out redshirt freshman guard Antonio Riles and true freshmen David Sharpe and Andrew Mike.
On defense, Muschamp listed a host of young players who will get opportunities in camp. The most advanced of them are ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Alex McCalister
4. Backup quarterbacks will battle: Because Driskel missed most of last season with a broken bone in his leg, there is a greater emphasis on quarterbacks.
"We need to find a backup quarterback," Muschamp said. "That's someone that will play in the first ballgame at some point. That's going to be important for us to develop at that position."
There is great anticipation for the long-term QB battle brewing between true freshmen Will Grier and Treon Harris, two of the nation's top prospects in the recruiting Class of 2014. But third-year sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg isn't about to concede the No. 2 job.
The son of New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg started the final three games of last season, gaining valuable experience on the road against South Carolina and in facing eventual national champion Florida State.
"I learned a lot last season," Skyler Mornhinweg said. "Being able to get in there and play at this level, in terms of developing, that's the best you can do right there. You can be in the film room, you can practice, but actually getting out there and playing is great experience."
Mornhinweg concedes that Grier and Harris are better at running the ball, which could give them an advantage in Florida's new spread offense. But Mornhinweg's starting experience gives him an air of authority.
"I expect to be the backup in my mind, yeah," he said. "I'm confident. I'm ready to have some fun with it."
5. Last season is history (sort of): Much has been made about Florida's 4-8 record in 2013. The fans, the media and especially opponents have issued reminders throughout the offseason. Eager to move forward and change the subject, the Gators say they've had enough of talking about last year.
But the painful memories do serve a purpose.
"We put that behind us, but we're not going to forget that," Jones said. "We've definitely got a chip on our shoulder that we've got something to prove, but we're not going to keep it over our head that we went 4-8. We just know that we've got to come back strong."
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:
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.
As Florida made its way through spring practice, a majority of players who spoke to the media predicted that 2014 will be a whole lot better than 2013. Even coach Will Muschamp got into the prognostication business.
"We’re going to have a good team next year," he said. "We just need to continue to progress."
Now that the Gators' spring practice is in the rear-view mirror, it's time to re-evaluate our spring predictions with the benefit of hindsight.
Prediction No. 1: Florida will have a whole new attitude
Leaders who were projected to step forward, such as quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., actually did more than was expected. Fowler became an authority, at one point taking two teammates to task over academics. Driskel was a focal point, gathering his teammates before the spring game to spur them into action.
The biggest thing that Muschamp needed to see this spring was belief in the concept of the new offense. He got that and a more.
Prediction No. 2: Kurt Roper will lead an improved offense
This seemed to be another easy one to fulfill, as the Gators' offense really had nowhere to go but up.
The biggest surprise of the spring might have been how the offense looked on the first day of practice. It was fast-paced, generally well-executed and coherent in its design.
In Roper, Florida fans were promised a fresh offensive mind. Four weeks later, he might have been the biggest new star to emerge.
The best move Roper made was to simplify everything and make his offense easy to learn. Aside from designing and implementing a scheme that best suited the players, Roper also did well in coaching his new pupils. He was equal parts patient and assertive and quickly established himself as a respected authority figure.
Prediction No. 3: New leaders will emerge on defense
This kind of thing happens every year at Florida, where the defense produces NFL players like a factory assembly line.
Taylor, a senior linebacker and a respected veteran, pointed out that UF had too much of the wrong kind of leadership in 2013. He and his defensive teammates did very little talking this spring and made few predictions. The emphasis is now on leading by example, so it's no surprise to see that all of Florida's aforementioned leaders are reliable performers.
There is an obvious air of confidence on this defense, despite a heavy dose of youth. Some of these guys are going into their fourth year in Muschamp's system, which has made players like Taylor practically into coaches on the field.
Prediction No. 4: Roper's offense will showcase the QBs
This one didn't fully bloom to fruition, as Florida focused on basic installation for most of the spring and then added more complexity late.
Driskel, a junior coming back from a broken leg, showed that he was both healthy and clearly ahead of his competition. Sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and freshman Will Grier split second-team reps. All three wore noncontact jerseys and were limited in the running game, which is likely to be the foundation of the offense.
It should also be noted that Muschamp is extremely cautious about revealing details of any new schemes to the public. The overall result was a pretty vanilla version of a no-huddle spread offense. In the spring game, however, each of the three QBs had their moments.
"I really have looked at Practice 1 to Practice 15," Muschamp said after Saturday's game. "Have those guys improved every day? Yes. I think the answer is yes. Those guys have made subtle and sometimes huge leaps of improvement."
Prediction No. 5: Spring standouts will emerge
Ugh. This happens every year. Some poor player lights it up and is crowned the star of spring practice ... only to never be heard from during the regular season.
There were a lot of names -- some hits and misses -- mentioned in our final prediction blog.
Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane were excellent in camp, but Florida might very well use four tailbacks this fall, which would greatly diminish the possibility of a star rising.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey was solid but unspectacular and did not climb the depth chart as predicted. He's behind at least six other wideouts.
Junior cornerback Brian Poole did not capitalize on his experience to pull away from his competition this spring. Young defensive backs Jalen Tabor, Nick Washington and Marcus Maye performed well, but the secondary remains unsettled heading into the summer.
Offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and Trenton Brown had very strong showings, and Brown did indeed move to guard, where he started the spring game.
The other side of the line was up and down. Fowler met everyone's expectations, but young reserve defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick were regularly pushed and prodded by coaches and teammates to improve their focus and stamina.
There was no singular star player this spring, and that could be a good thing.
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:
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."
Before Florida opens another practice to its fans today, let's go over a few developments.
Fast-moving offense: It's all anyone wants to talk about. The Gators are installing a new offense, and so far the key word is speed. The players have learned and adapted quickly. The tempo is much faster than at any time in the last three years. Players look fast again.
Give much of the credit to new coordinator Kurt Roper, who simplified everything and really made the most of his meeting time before practice began.
"You spend the time you’re allowed in the meeting room trying to create that understanding and showing it to them on tape," he said. "You’re trying to put your install together that makes sense for them to understand it. The biggest thing for us is we try to create lining up simpler than most people. I think because of that, that's part of what you see. We're able to get lined up in a hurry."
"[They're] really play fast, physical," he said. "We’ve really limited negative plays to this point. … Our guys have got a lot of confidence, playing real good tempo and having a lot of fun."
Driskel separates himself: All three of Florida's top QBs -- junior Jeff Driskel, sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg and true freshman Will Grier -- have had their moments. They've shown a solid grasp of the offense in its early stages of installation, made solid decisions and delivered the ball to receivers in stride.
Muschamp has not yet named Driskel the starter but did say he has "distanced himself at this point" while the other two have split second-team reps.
Driskel, however, has a lot of work yet to do. While his arm strength has been on full display and he appears recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2013 season, Driskel is getting a crash course in quarterback fundamentals from Roper.
"Sometimes he’s overstepping a little bit which causes him to sail the ball," Muschamp said. "That’s been something that Kurt is really working on. Kurt is a really good fundamental quarterback coach."
D-line shuffle: One of the players who has been singled out most often for praise is sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., son of the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker.
Muschamp said Cox has gotten stronger, put on a few pounds and has "made really remarkable improvement" in his technique. That has allowed the Gators to slide junior Jonathan Bullard inside to defensive tackle, where the coaching staff believes he can thrive as a pass rusher on obvious throwing downs.
Because senior defensive tackle Leon Orr is sidelined this spring with a broken wrist, it bears watching whether these plans stick in the fall.
Florida has a number of talented young linemen starting to make an impact. But it remains to be seen if redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley, Jay-nard Bostwick, Antonio Riles and sophomore Joey Ivie are ready to do more than just provide quality backup minutes.
"I feel like the depth is there," Muschamp said. "We've got some good players."
Veteran line with one exception: The makeup of Florida's first-team offensive line has been fairly consistent with junior D.J. Humphries at left tackle, junior Trip Thurman at left guard, senior Max Garcia at center, junior Tyler Moore at right guard, and senior Chaz Green at right tackle.
Thurman is the newcomer, the only player on that first unit who has never made a start.
"He hasn't played as much," Roper said, "but he's out there working hard to be a good player."
Starting would be quite a step forward for Thurman, who stands 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. The fourth-year player has seen very limited playing time in just 15 career games as a reserve.
Overall, Muschamp and Roper have been pleased with the play of their O-line. There have been some issues with Garcia and backup center Cameron Dillard handling shotgun snaps, but the coaches expected some bumps in the road.
This is a unit that struggled mightily in pass protection last season but could benefit greatly from Roper's uptempo spread scheme.
Kickers still need work: Before practice started, Muschamp identified the kicking game as one of his top two priorities of the spring. Florida's place-kickers were abysmal last season and likely cost the team a couple of wins, while starting punter Kyle Christy slumped badly enough to force the Gators to burn freshman Johnny Townsend's redshirt.
So far this spring, the two punters have been locked in a battle that has featured some colossal moonshots and no clear starter.
"We've got two guys that have Sunday legs," Muschamp said of their potential as pro prospects. "They both kick very well."
The Gators are still struggling with field goals, however, and it seems unlikely that sophomore Austin Hardin or senior walk-on Francisco Velez will do enough to win the job outright. Their competition could continue throughout the fall with other walk-ons getting chances as well.
"The kicking situation is still not what it needs to be," Muschamp said, "but Austin is hitting the ball more consistently the same way."
And it's true. The Gators had terrible luck, enough injuries to fill an entire season of "Grey's Anatomy" and a team that couldn't wait for all of it to be over.
But can they really bounce all the way back to the Top 25?
Right after the season ended Monday night, Florida made Mark Schlabach's always fun Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
The case for
Speaking of Driskel, he and most of last season's wounded should be healthy in 2014. That alone gives coach Will Muschamp reason for optimism. By the final game of last season, he was dumbstruck by just how many players were out: "There were a bunch of [talented] guys that didn’t play for us today. They were all on the sidelines in street clothes. We have good football players and we have a good staff. We just got to get back healthy and continue to move forward.
"We’re going to be fine. We’re going to have a good football team next year, I can assure you of that. Sitting in that locker room with those guys, we’re going to be fine. And that’s what’s encouraging for me. It’s damn encouraging."
The case against
The injury bugaboo is still lurking. If Driskel misses time, as he has in each of his three seasons, the Gators will be forced to turn to true freshman Will Grier or sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg. The transfer of Tyler Murphy cost Florida a reliable backup at the most important position.
The offensive line is paper thin as well. Beyond D.J. Humphries, Max Garcia, Tyler Moore, Chaz Green and Trenton Brown, there are only a handful of scholarship linemen on the roster. Just one -- rising junior Trip Thurman -- has even taken a college snap. That's a whole lot of inexperience ticketed for UF's line in 2014.
There are plenty of other reasons for pessimism, such as a lack of proven playmakers at receiver and tight end, some shuffling needed in the secondary after losing three upperclassmen at cornerback and a dearth of pass-rushers off the edge. Then there's the always-difficult schedule.
But with a sizable recruiting class ranked in the top 10 and some fresh ideas from three new coaches, it's a lot more fun to imagine a Gators turnaround next fall.
Florida announced that six offensive players -- sophomore tight end Kent Taylor, true freshman quarterback Max Staver, redshirt freshman fullback Rhaheim Ledbetter and offensive linemen Quinteze Williams, freshman offensive lineman Trevon Young, and junior offensive lineman Ian Silberman -- will transfer.
On the surface, that's a lot of players, especially for a team that has struggled so much offensively in the last two seasons. It doesn't help that one of those players, Staver, was a quarterback, which is a position that still has a lot of questions surrounding it entering the 2014 season.
Taylor arrived at Florida with a load of hype surrounding his name, as he was ranked as the nation's No. 1 tight end. But in his two seasons with the Gators, he caught just two passes for 5 yards and a touchdown. Both of those catches came last year, as he struggled to get any real time on the field at all this season. When you talk to people around the program, it sounds like Taylor's heart just wasn't in it in Gainesville, as he spent most of his time on the practice squad.
The loss of Staver might not hurt Florida's depth as much as it seems. As bad as the play became at quarterback this season, Staver, a pro-style passer, remained on the sideline in order to preserve his redshirt. But even with the quarterback position likely up for grabs next spring and fall, Staver probably saw the writing on the wall with the Gators moving to a new offensive scheme that will add more tempo and likely utilize more runs from the quarterback.
Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the season with a broken fibula, will return and will have two more years of eligibility if he gets a medicial redshirt. Florida also returns Tyler Murphy, who replaced Driskel last year, and Skyler Mornhinweg, who eventually replaced Murphy.
Not to mention, the Gators will welcome four-star ESPN 300 quarterback Will Grier in January. Four quarterbacks on the roster should be enough for Florida.
While losing players can unnerve people, Florida shouldn't hurt too much from the loss of these six players. Florida's offense had myriad issues last season, but chances are these guys weren't going to be the ones to help turn things around. That will come with a new offensive coordinator and an offensive identity.
This is what it's come down to: The once-mighty Gators are merely a speed bump in the way of the hated Seminoles' ascension to the mountaintop of a BCS championship berth. Florida may lack the firepower to compete with the nation's No. 2 team, but the Gators still insist they have the fire to pull a colossal upset.
What a year it's been for Florida State and Florida. Neither team can wait for the regular season to end on Saturday -- the Noles so they can begin their quest for postseason glory; the Gators so they can begin to wash out the sour taste of one of the worst seasons in school history.
It's hard to fully grasp just how far these archrivals have gone in opposite directions since they played one year ago.
While the Seminoles (11-0, 8-0 in the ACC) have run roughshod over their conference, Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) has fallen flat and lost six in a row, including its final five league games.
Both schools have made history this season. Florida State scored a school-record 80 points last week against Idaho and has already broken the school and ACC records for points in a season, while Florida lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever. With last Saturday's home loss to Georgia Southern, Florida clinched a losing season for the first time since 1979 and will see its 22-year bowl streak come to an end.
One last goal remains for the Gators -- beat their in-state rival.
"We've got to treat this like our bowl game," senior guard Jon Halapio said. "It really is our bowl game."
Another Florida senior, cornerback Jaylen Watkins, said it would "change the feeling around here" to shock the Noles on Saturday.
"It’s motivating for everybody in that locker room," he said. "You want to go win this game and try to duplicate what we did last year, come out with a win and create some short fields for the offense. They’re having a really good season, and we can end off on a good [note]."
Looking back at the way Florida defeated Florida State 37-26 in Tallahassee last season, Muschamp might consider it a proof-of-concept performance. The Gators executed their coach's philosophical approach to perfection with suffocating defense and a power running game that piled up yards against what was then the No. 1 rush defense in the nation. Florida was a national-championship contender ranked No. 6 entering that game and went on to play in a BCS bowl.
"Looking at last year's game, we're just going to try to emulate that," Florida quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg said. "We had some success against them last year, so we think we can have some success against them this year, too."
Mornhinweg, an inexperienced redshirt freshman who started the season No. 3 on the QB depth chart, could draw his third career start on Saturday against a revenge-minded Seminole defense if junior Tyler Murphy (questionable) misses his third straight game with a shoulder injury.
Either way, the quarterback position will be the most glaring difference in the two schools' contrasting seasons.
"They do have a stable quarterback," Watkins said of Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston. "We've had both our quarterbacks go down this year."
The injuries for Florida are impossible to ignore. When linebackers Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone miss Saturday's game, it will bring the number of players who have missed one game or more this season to a staggering 23, including 15 starters.
“Sometimes they come in bunches, sometimes they don’t,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Monday. “Injuries change your football team. That’s why I keep talking about our youth development. You don’t know when one of those things is going to occur. You have a plan for them, but those plans have to work.
"When you have the number they’ve had, I can understand it’s been very difficult.”
Florida's youth development plan will be on full display on Saturday, but for the Gators' 15 seniors there is only the bitterness of ending their careers on such a low note while their biggest rival comes in on such a high note.
"It’s pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That’s our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it’s pretty hard to see that."
The way their season has gone has left many a Florida fan sour and inconsolable. The idea of ruining the Noles' unbeaten season, however, offers a sweet consolation.
"This being our last game," Patton said, "we definitely plan on doing that."
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just when it appeared Florida's season of discontent could get no worse, it did.
The Gators lost to an FCS opponent for the first time in school history Saturday, and with that 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, UF (4-7, 3-5 in the SEC) has its first losing season since 1979, as well as an end to a 22-year run of bowl games that was the longest active streak in the nation.
And Florida paid Georgia Southern $550,000 to schedule Saturday's contest.
Was it the worst loss in school history? The most humiliating? Does it matter at this point?
A season that began with promise and a 4-1 start has spiraled into a free fall with a six-game losing streak of which few inside the program can make sense. Facing the media Saturday and tasked with explaining another numbing low point, head coach Will Muschamp struggled to find new words or explanations for the state of his program.
"Very disappointed for our program," he said. "An embarrassment in this situation."
"You've got to be able to change the scoreboard, and we just struggled scoring points offensively," he said. "It's been a week-in, week-out occurrence, and it's my job to get it fixed, and we will get it fixed. ...
"We've just got to keep working at what we're doing. We're struggling offensively, and it has infected our entire team right now.”
On Saturday, however, Florida's defense shouldered as much of the blame, if not more, for another staggering loss.
Georgia Southern's 429 yards rushing were the fourth most Florida has allowed in school history. The Eagles also won without completing a pass (0-for-3).
Muschamp said earlier in the week that the Florida coaching staff began working on its defensive game plan for Georgia Southern in the offseason. But long running plays -- one each by GSU's quarterback (45 yards), tailback (66) and fullback (53) -- either scored or set up three of the Eagles' four touchdowns.
"It hurts," junior safety Cody Riggs said. "We didn't watch what we were supposed to be watching on certain plays, and those six, seven, eight plays are the ones that got them all of those yards."
It didn't help that Florida was playing without starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison. Or that backup Michael Taylor injured the MCL in his right knee in the second quarter and did not return. Or that Taylor's replacement, true freshman Alex Anzalone, separated his shoulder during the game.
Injuries handcuffed the Gators' offense, as well. Starting quarterback Tyler Murphy, the backup at the start of the season, missed his second straight game with a nagging shoulder injury, forcing the Gators to turn again to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.
But Florida was facing a team with similar injury problems. Georgia Southern, which plays within the FCS limit of 65 scholarships, has suffered 19 injuries this season, including 13 to starters. As a result, the Eagles have struggled to a 7-4 record (4-4 in the Southern Conference), including losses to Samford, Wofford and Appalachian State.
"I know [the Gators] have had a tough year. They've had a lot of injuries. So have we," GSU coach Jeff Monken said after his team stormed the field at Ben Hill Griffin stadium and lingered to enjoy the biggest win in program history. "We've got a lot of guys playing out there that weren't our starters at the beginning of the year and wouldn't have been starters right now had other guys been healthy. But we've continued to improve, and as those guys said, we've continued to fight."
The same cannot be said of Florida.
The Gators' patchwork offensive line struggled to run and pass block against its FCS foe, forcing a number of direct snaps, jet sweeps and wildcat plays in order to catch the defense off guard, despite the fact that the Eagles' starting defensive linemen averaged just over 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Mornhinweg had 6 yards passing at halftime. Florida rushed for 111 yards in the first half but just 46 in the second.
"We came out flat as a team," senior offensive guard Jon Halapio said. "We didn't play as a team today. We didn't communicate. We didn't block together. We didn't run the ball as efficient. That's something that we preached early on in the week, to not take this group of men lightly. They came out here and played their tails off. This was their bowl game. They had nothing to lose. We took them lightly, and we got outworked, outplayed, outphysicaled. You call it, it happened."
Now what happens at Florida is a week of preparation for arch-rival Florida State, followed by a merciful end to a painful season.
"As far as not going to a bowl game, I'm not gonna lie, I never would have seen that coming, coming to Florida," Riggs said. "That's very upsetting. A losing season, even though we were plagued by injuries, like I said, there's no excuses."
Without the excuse of injuries, however, the historic losses this season could throw into question the votes of confidence Muschamp received just more than a week ago from athletic director Jeremy Foley and UF president Bernie Machen.
Losing to Georgia Southern could have significant implications if the outcry from Florida fans is heard. Despite the negativity and the demoralizing losing streak, the Gators coaching staff still has the full faith of its players.
"We're not concerned," Riggs said. "I know that a lot of people around here have Coach Muschamp's back. He's a great coach, best coach I ever had. We're not worried about that. I've learned more under him than I have under any coach ever.
"Yeah, it's about winning. But some stuff you just can't control. We've had a lot of hardships this year. Not using that as an excuse again, but it's just a rough year for us."
The opponent? Then-No. 10 South Carolina. The scene? Rowdy Williams-Brice Stadium. The intimidator? Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, widely regarded as the top prospect in next April's NFL draft.
"Oh yeah, he’s a great player. It was great, great atmosphere," he recollected with a smile. "Couldn’t ask for really any other better stage to play on. It was pretty sweet."
Mornhinweg, who entered this season No. 3 on the depth chart, said he felt prepared for the game. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease agreed, although Mornhinweg didn't know he would start until the day before the game, as Florida made the decision to sit starter Tyler Murphy with a sore throwing shoulder.
"I think early in the week [Mornhinweg] still approached it like he was going to be the guy," Pease said. "He's a young kid. He's eager. He understands preparation. His dad's a coach. His approach was good. He took all the reps so every day you knew he was trying to build off of that."
Mornhinweg downplayed the nerves that gathered in what turned out to be a 19-14 loss, and the Gators played an inspired game around him with the offensive line and the running game absorbing much of the pressure.
"I thought he played well, but there were a few miscommunications. I wouldn't say that was his fault being out there," Murphy said on Monday. "I thought he played well. I thought he controlled the things he could control. I thought he did a good job managing and controlling the atmosphere and not letting it get to him, and being calm and poised and just carrying himself with confidence.
"The team really had his back and [was] behind him. I thought he did a good job of leading the way. We almost came out with the victory."
Mornhinweg gave Florida a chance to win, but it was clear that his inexperience necessitated a limited game plan. In fact, he attempted just five passes until there was less than seven minutes remained in the game. Pease explained the conservative game plan on Tuesday, saying it had less to do with Mornhinweg's limitations and more to do with Clowney.
"Understand that last week was really based around No. 7 on their team, too," Pease said. "That guy's the best player in the nation. He can change a game, cause a fumble, pick the ball up and run. Going in, our plan was really designed to make sure that we were going to do things that [Clowney] couldn't change the momentum of the game.
"We need to expect more of Skyler now. I think he can handle it. I've got confidence in him that he can."
As Florida prepares to face FCS opponent Georgia Southern in the Swamp on Saturday, the Gators have the dual objective of trying to get Murphy back on the field while continuing to work with Mornhinweg.
Murphy, who sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the LSU game on Oct. 12 and aggravated it in the Gators' Nov. 9 loss to Vanderbilt, described his attempts last week to practice and try to make himself available for the South Carolina game.
"It was just painful," he said. "There wasn’t much velocity and stuff like that on the ball so it wasn’t coming out pretty."
This week, Murphy has progressed from jogging on Monday and working with Pease on the game plan to throwing on Tuesday. Florida coach Will Muschamp updated Murphy's status on Wednesday to questionable, saying he would throw again in Wednesday's practice.
"Right now Tyler Murphy is questionable," Muschamp said. "He threw a little bit yesterday, and we'll see what else he can do today and we'll go from there.
"If we had to play today, Skyler would start and be ready to go in the game. He had a good day yesterday. So we'll see what Tyler can do on Thursday, and as we move closer to the weekend, we'll see where it is."
With South Carolina's defense in the rear-view mirror, Muschamp said he expects Mornhinweg to be able to handle more of the offense if he makes his second career start on Saturday.
"I think he can handle more," Muschamp said. "I think a lot of our plan was based on their front and Clowney and [Florida's offensive line] being able to protect for his first start and a lot of those situations. When you move past that, he'll be able to do more."
For a team that's been beaten up by injuries, opponents and lately its own fans, the Gators showed a lot of fight in losing 19-14 at South Carolina.
After a lackluster effort in a staggering, historic loss at home to Vanderbilt the week before, UF players' passion made an obvious return from the opening kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“"I'm extremely proud of our players and the way they continued to fight in the game," coach Will Muschamp said afterward. "A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you what those guys are about.
There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard.” -- Florida coach Will Muschamp
"I'm extremely proud of our staff and our players for pulling together, for trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game. And we did that on the road against a very good football team."
Florida wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 3-5 record and lost its fifth game in a row, the school's longest losing streak since it went 0-10-1 in 1979. But as the losses have piled up and critics have piled on, several veteran players say they can point to their latest loss as a reason for hope.
"That was a huge point of emphasis coming into this game. We need to be able to get our identity back," said senior center Jonotthan Harrison, who helped lead a resurgent offensive line that paved the way for 200 yards rushing despite missing three offensive tackles. "We need to be able to play physical football like Florida has been known to do. And although we didn't come out with the win, we did prove to ourselves that we're capable of being physical."
As usual, injuries played a significant role in Florida's uphill battle. Before the game, the Gators announced starting quarterback Tyler Murphy would miss the game with a sore AC joint in his throwing shoulder. Backup Skyler Mornhinweg, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a collegiate snap, made his debut and managed an offense that had no choice but to rely heavily on the running game.
"Guys, it's not excuses. It's real," Muschamp said of the Gators' continuing struggle with injuries. "It really is. You can say what you want to say, and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It's real. It's frustrating. It's frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me, I worry about the kids. You know, these kids have fought their butts off.
"There's a lot of negativity out there, and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They've got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all they want. I'm great with that. They pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don't. They really don't, and they fought their butts off. And they've continued to fight and play hard."
Fight and play hard. The Gators' goals are simple now, and their leaders hope the attitude and effort last Saturday will signal the start of a turnaround.
"I'm proud of all my teammates, man," senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "With all of the adversity we've faced this year, we still went out in Williams-Brice stadium and put ourselves in the game to win. The defense fought, offense fought. … We just told ourselves that we weren't going to come up here and hang our heads. The next two games, we're going to fight."
With the loss dropping Florida's record to 4-6, winning the last two games of the season (home games against Georgia Southern and No. 2 FSU) in order to become bowl eligible appears to be a tall task. But it's a challenge the Gators say they'll accept with renewed vigor.
"We're never going to quit," junior running back Mack Brown said. "We should have won, but we came up short."
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger underwent an appendectomy just before the 2006 season began and missed only one game. He had surgery on Sept. 3, four days before the Steelers' season opener on a Thursday night, and played in the second game of the season on Sept. 18. Former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel played 11 days after having his appendix removed in 2010.
Muschamp said the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Driskel has improved his footwork, comfort in the pocket, and ability to recognize the need to change pass protection schemes. Those were the three areas in which Driskel needed the most improvement after his first season as the Gators' starter. He's been able to get better in those areas because he has essentially gotten twice the practice time and reps because he is no longer splitting reps while competing with Jacoby Brissett for the starting job.
However, missing two weeks will set him and the offense back a bit. The issue will be the chemistry he needs to develop with the receivers, especially four of the five incoming freshmen. Demarcus Robinson enrolled in January and participated in spring practice. The Gators' passing offense ranked 114th nationally last season, and getting better receiver play is the biggest key to the unit's improvement in 2013.
Redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg will likely split the first-team reps. Driskel's surgery highlights just how important it is for him to stay healthy this season. Murphy and Mornhinweg struggled during spring practice and neither is really an adequate option to replace Driskel should he be out for any significant length of time during the season.
The Gators do have four other quarterbacks on the roster: walk-ons Ryan McGriff, Jacob Guy and Chris Wilkes and incoming freshman Max Staver. UF is planning on redshirting Staver. Wilkes is intriguing because he's a 23-year-old former professional baseball player who chose to sign with the San Diego Padres after signing with Ole Miss in 2008. He enrolled in May and has little experience in the offense, but he at least has appeared in pressure-packed environments.
If Driskel is able to return after two weeks, which would roughly be Aug. 14, he would still have 18 days to prepare for Florida's season opener against Toledo on Aug. 31.
Here's a look at some of the movers and shakers from the weekend to check up on:
Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who was beaten by Jeff Driskel for the starting spot at the beginning of the season, and reserve running back Chris Johnson, who was primarily used on special teams, have decided to transfer. Brissett's decision didn't shock anyone. He was behind Driskel all year and played in just five games and his only start came late in the year when Driskel was out with an ankle injury. Johnson arrived at Florida as a safety, but moved to running back, where he was buried on the depth chart. His lasting image with the team was being ejected in the Gators' loss to Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl for punching a Louisville player.
The loss of Brissett is significant when it comes to depth. After Driskel, the Gators will have three scholarship quarterbacks entering the 2013 season, but basically no experience. Tyler Murphy will be a redshirt junior, but has never thrown a pass at the college level, while Skyler Mornhinweg will be a redshirt freshman and Max Staver will be a true freshman. That means Driskel's health becomes the top priority in 2013 for the Gators.
While Florida lost a quarterback, Georgia kept one, with Aaron Murray deciding to stay for one last year with the Bulldogs. Murray seriously considered leaving school early for the NFL, but will return for one final attempt at making a run to a championship. With the defense Georgia had in 2012, this past season felt like the best chance Murray had at winning multiple championships with the Bulldogs. Next year's defense will be gutted, so it will be back to the drawing board for that side of the ball.
One thing that has been counted against Murray when it comes to the pro level is his height. At 6-foot-1, he doesn't have ideal height for a quarterback, but what might have helped him in this year's draft was the play of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who stands just 5-11, but has had a tremendous rookie year. Murray isn't going to get any taller, but he does have a chance to break even more records in a Bulldogs uniform and could improve his stock for the 2014 NFL draft.
On Friday, linebacker Jarvis Jones decided to enter April's NFL draft. No shocker at all, as he's No. 1 on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board. Jones is a two-time All-American and has been right at the top of the list for the nation's best defensive player for the past two years. He would have been silly to come back for a final year at Georgia, and he's going to make himself -- and his family -- a ton of money. He was one of the league's most exciting players to watch, but it was his time to move on.
There was a mass exodus from LSU over the weekend, as eight underclassmen decided to leave the Bayou. It started with linebacker Kevin Minter last week. Then, safety Eric Reid, cornerback Tharold Simon, running back Spencer Ware and punter Brad Wing decided to leave LSU early Friday. On Sunday, sources told ESPN's Joe Schad that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan would also enter the NFL draft.
Losing those linemen wasn't much of a surprise, as Mingo and Montgomery are projected to be first-round draft picks, and Logan is rated as Kiper's fifth-best defensive tackle among juniors. Wing's time in Baton Rouge seemed to be coming to an end, and his bowl suspension didn't help, but Simon and Ware could have benefited from another year of football. With the emergence of freshman Jeremy Hill, Ware saw his carries decline in 2012, while Simon still has some room to improve. He's rated the No. 15 cornerback by ESPN Scouts Inc., but didn't blow a ton of people away in 2012. He has great size and instincts, but it was surprising to see him leave early.
12:00 PM ET Troy 13 Georgia 3:30 PM ET 6 Texas A&M SMU 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 7:00 PM ET Northern Illinois Arkansas 7:00 PM ET Mississippi State 8 LSU 7:30 PM ET 14 South Carolina Vanderbilt