Wednesday, April 3, 2013 Updated: April 4, 8:16 AM ET
By Michael DiRocco GatorNation
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida goes into Saturday's Orange & Blue Debut with the same questions about the passing game -- especially the receivers -- the Gators had when they began spring practice in March.
Just like in 2012.
And 2010, as well.
Early enrollee Demarcus Robinson could deliver on the potential that the Gators desperately need at receiver.
Florida's passing game has been stagnant since Tim Tebow's final season, and each spring has gone by without any noticeable improvement. That was supposed to change this year because the players were in the second year of offensive coordinator Brent Pease's system, quarterback Jeff Driskel was doubling his practice snaps because he wasn't competing with anyone to be the starter, and UF's most heralded receiver signee, Demarcus Robinson, had enrolled early.
Whether the Gators have gotten any better won't be discernible from Saturday's open practice, which is being held in place of the annual spring game because the Gators have only five healthy scholarship offensive linemen. It's hard to tell when there's no live rush, no tackling, or the pressure of a close game.
But players and coaches are saying things have improved. The passing game is more productive and the receivers, especially, are significantly better, thanks partly to new receivers coach Joker Phillips.
"I think we're much more efficient," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "I think we've made some vertical plays down the field against some corners that can cover. So that's been pleasing to see. Jeff's been very accurate with the football. But I've been pleased with the progress.
"I think the one consistent guy [at receiver] has been Quinton Dunbar, who has continued to make plays. Again, I've already stated through the season I thought he improved tremendously, and he continues to make strides. Latroy [Pittman] has done some nice things. Loucheiz [Purifoy], when he was on that side, has done some nice things. Andre [Debose] hit a couple of plays Saturday. So those guys have kind of answered the call."
The call has been going on for the past three seasons. Tight end Aaron Hernandez led UF with 68 receptions in 2009 and receiver Riley Cooper was second with 51. Since then, though, no player has caught more than 45 passes (tight end Jordan Reed in 2012) and no wide receiver has caught more than 38 (Deonte Thompson in 2010) in a single season.
Running back Chris Rainey led UF with 31 catches in 2011. The last time a running back led UF in receptions was 1989, when Emmitt Smith caught 21 passes for 207 yards.
Last March, it seemed the Gators had found an answer. Pittman enrolled in January and was the talk of the spring. Muschamp and players praised Pittman's physicality, route running, and ability to get separation. He caught two passes for 6 yards last season.
That's why there's skepticism of the praise being given to the receivers. There should be, anyway.
"We've always been seen the past three years as the weakest link on the team," Pittman said. "Somebody has to step up. Me, myself, Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and just the guys coming in, Ahmad [Fulwood], Alvin Bailey, those guys can contribute, too.
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"Being here and getting those reports that they can't do it, it motivates you."
Driskel needed to get better this spring as well. He had the typical problems of all young, first-year starting quarterbacks last season: He held onto the ball too long, was indecisive with this throws, didn't have good pocket awareness, and struggled with changing protections. As a result, he averaged just 137.2 passing yards per game and threw only 12 touchdown passes -- although that was the most for the Gators since Tebow threw 21 in 2009.
"Getting the ball out quick is something we've emphasized a lot and I feel like I've done a good job with that, and put a lot of time into protections," Driskel said. "That's definitely something that I still need to get better at, but I can definitely tell that I've gotten better at it."
The Gators have to get much better at tight end, too. Losing Reed, who caught 73 passes in his final two seasons, has been a big blow to the offense because it takes away Driskel's safety net. Getting the ball to Reed was pretty much a guaranteed completion.
There are only two tight ends on the roster who have caught a pass in a game: Clay Burton has as many drops in his career as he does catches (two) and Kent Taylor caught two passes for 5 yards last season. Tevin Westbrook is a former defensive lineman and Colin Thompson redshirted last season after he had a second surgery on his foot.
"Gotta get better," Pease said about the tight ends. "Gotta get better. Not good enough right now."
Same thing for the passing game, but maybe there will be some positive signs Saturday.