- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that we know which players are leaving early for the NFL and which freshmen are enrolling early, it's time to begin GatorNation's early examination of what to expect at spring practice.
Despite an 11-2 record and coming within one game of winning the SEC's Eastern Division title, Florida faces plenty of uncertainty heading into coach Will Muschamp's third spring. Here are the five biggest questions the Gators face this March.
What's the most important improvement QB Jeff Driskel must make in the spring?
The junior has a list of things on which he must improve -- holding onto the ball too long, staring down receivers, reading defenses, to name a few -- but he has to finish spring practice as a more comfortable passer in the pocket. That means learning how to feel pressure and avoid it without automatically taking off running. He needs to learn to step up, dip a shoulder, or slide to his left or right to avoid a rusher.
The Gators aren't going to try to make him into a pure pocket passer, because his running ability brings an extra element to the offense, but Driskel has to become more comfortable with standing in there against the rush and making a read and a throw while there are bodies all around. Part of that is having confidence in the offensive line and the receivers. If those areas improve, the expectation is that Driskel will, too.
What about the receivers? Is there anybody on the roster right now who could become a consistent playmaker?
Quinton Dunbar led UF's wide receivers with 36 catches for 383 yards, which averages out to 2.8 catches for 29.5 yards per game. That's terrible. The Gators' offense will be one-dimensional and will have a hard time scoring points again in 2013 if somebody doesn't emerge.
Dunbar would be the logical candidate because he's going to be a redshirt senior, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. So has redshirt senior Andre Debose, who also is battling attitude and work-ethic issues. Maybe sophomores Latroy Pittman and Raphael Andrades can take over, but both were used primarily as blockers in 2012.
The job might have to fall to incoming freshman Demarcus Robinson, who is one of eight early enrollees. That's putting a lot on the 6-foot-2, 200-pound standout from Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, but he has a good mix of size, speed, explosiveness and athleticism. The Gators need him to have the same kind of impact that Sammy Watkins had at Clemson as a freshman. Is that fair? Not really, but this position has been holding UF's offense back for three seasons and something has to be done.
Will UF be able to overcome the loss of DT Sharrif Floyd?
Safety Matt Elam was an All-American, but Floyd was just as -- if not more -- dominant in 2012. He was a beast against the run and couldn't be handled one-on-one. The Gators don't have anyone at that spot who has that kind of explosiveness, quickness and strength -- unless DE Dominique Easley moves back inside, but then that weakens the Gators' depth at end. Senior Damien Jacobs and redshirt junior Leon Orr are run-pluggers. Junior college transfer Darious Cummings enrolled this month and he'll get a shot to be the starter, too, but the Gators likely won't be able to replace Floyd's disruptiveness with one player. Easley can come the closest, but he's not as stout against the run as Floyd. UF will need some help at this position all season.
How will things at middle linebacker sort out?
The first thing on defense is to figure out who starts in the middle as a replacement for Jon Bostic.
It could eventually be commit James Hearns (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln), but he doesn't arrive until the summer (provided he signs), so the job might go to sophomore Antonio Morrison. He's a big hitter and the defensive staff loves him, but he's got to put on weight if he's going to handle the pounding inside. Plus, if he gets moved inside, who starts at weakside linebacker? The job is now open because of the unexpected departure of Jelani Jenkins. Redshirt junior Michael Taylor has played in the middle before, but he's not very fast and is a liability in pass coverage.
Can Austin Hardin handle the chore of replacing the greatest kicker in school history?
Don't think this isn't a huge issue for the Gators. When you play the style of football the Gators play, having a good kicker is critical. Caleb Sturgis leaves as the school's record holder in career field goals (70), field-goal attempts (88), and field goals in a single season (24). Sturgis also affected play-calling, because offensive coordinator Brent Pease knew once the offense reached the 35-yard line it was almost a sure three points.
Hardin was the nation's top-rated kicker in 2012 and kicked a 59-yard field goal at Atlanta Marist. He was supposed to handle kickoffs in 2012 as a freshman but had a hamstring injury and didn't get any work. Hardin has a big leg and is the front-runner to win the job. The only other candidate would be senior Brad Phillips, who has made just two of his four field-goal attempts.
Heading into coach Will Muschamp's third year, the Florida Gators face a new batch of holes to fill. Here are the five biggest questions.