More Q's than A's
Five storylines: Gators bring spring to close with uncertainty at too many turns
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Now that Florida has finished spring practice, it's time to evaluate what the Gators got accomplished over the past month.
GatorNation has already looked at the five biggest surprises from spring practice and the five players who are under pressure to produce in the fall. Now we'll examine the five most interesting and pressing storylines for the Gators heading into August practices.
This is a recording: The Gators have problems at wide receiver and must get better at the position or the offense will struggle again. That has been the case since the 2009 season ended. The latest attempted solution is former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. He coached receivers for 18 seasons at Kentucky (1991 to 1996 and 2003-2009), Cincinnati (1997), Minnesota (1999-2000), Notre Dame (2001) and South Carolina (2002). NFL players Steve Johnson (Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (Green Bay) are among the receivers Phillips worked with during his tenure at Kentucky. He also coached Craig Yeast, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Derek Abney, all of whom rank in the top five in school history in career receptions or career receiving yardage.
Can Phillips get consistent production out of Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose, Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman, Trey Burton or Solomon Patton? Can he turn one of the five freshmen -- notably Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood -- into the big-time playmaker the Gators have lacked since Riley Cooper? Zach Azzani, Aubrey Hill and Bush Hamdan have tried and failed.
Are we there yet? Neither Tyler Murphy or Skyler Mornhinweg did much this spring to establish himself as the backup to starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- and the Gators need someone upon whom they can rely, because Driskel has missed games because of injury in each of his first two seasons.
Can either one of those guys make any progress this summer, or will the job fall to one of two guys who aren't even on campus yet? Max Staver (Brentwood, Tenn./Brentwood Academy) and Chris Wilkes, a former professional baseball player in the San Diego Padres organization who plans to enroll in May, will be thrown into the competition as well. Staver is viewed as a bit of a project, and there are some questions about how the 23-year-old Wilkes, a former Ole Miss signee, will handle the transition back to football.
The bottom line: Driskel needs to stay healthy, or at least miss no more than one game.
Kick 'em when they're down: There's another battle that will stretch well into August -- and possibly throughout the season. Kickers Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips struggled throughout the spring. Neither is as reliable or as good from long range as Caleb Sturgis, but it's the first part that's more important. The offense, especially if the receivers don't get any better, will continue to have a hard time consistently moving the ball.
Sturgis was able to bail out the Gators because they needed only to get to the 35-yard line to be in range for a makeable field goal. That mark might have to be the 20 in 2013. Unless Hardin or Phillips makes a major leap this summer, expect the Gators to go with the kicker who practices the best each week.
Safety is an issue: There's some worry about the Gators' safeties because some of the younger and/or less-experienced players haven't developed as the staff had hoped. Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins, who started at corner early last season, will begin August practices as UF's starting safeties. They have played there during their UF careers and there are no concerns about those two players, but there are some about Valdez Showers, Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.
Realistically, the Gators are better off with Riggs and Watkins starting because that gives UF the chance to get its top four defensive backs on the field at the same time instead of working Watkins, Riggs, Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Brian Poole in a rotation at cornerback. Still, those other three need to earn more trust from the coaching staff.
Tailgate trickle-down: This is an off-the-field storyline but one that bears watching. College football attendance in 2012 was at its lowest level since 2003 and attendance at Florida's home games was down 2 percent from 2011. The economy, a lack of marquee opponents, and a significantly higher quality television viewing experience are all factors for the drop everywhere, not just at Florida.
Will things improve in Gainesville in 2013? UF's home schedule is better than it was in 2012, with Toledo, Tennessee, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern and Florida State. There were noticeable gaps of empty seats at some games last season -- most notably the Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State games -- despite the fact that the Gators were a top-five team and remained in the national championship race until the final weekend of the regular season. That seems to put a dent in the argument that fans support a winner.
UF still has some season tickets available but the school expects them to sell out and continue the streak that began in 1979. However, the Gators' streak of consecutive sellouts ended at 137 with the first game of the 2011 season (Florida Atlantic). Single-game tickets go on sale in May.