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March 14, 2012Tweet Follow @InsideTheGators
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MORE FLORIDA FOOTBALL: Muschamp is ready for round two | Yahoo! Sports: Florida spring preview | Coordinator Notebook: Pease' offers offensive philosophy | Pro Day Notebook: Howard has high hopes | Brantley looking for a shot | Rainey improves on forty time | New offensive coordinator Pease fitting in fine | Pre-spring depth chart released | Three projected starters sitting out the spring
The only way to forget about last year is to get started again.
Since watching his team turn in a 7-6 season in his first year as a head coach, Will Muschamp has been gritting his teeth waiting for spring to begin. With practice starting today, there are new chances to be better and drown out one of the worst seasons Florida has seen in a very long time.
However, nothing can be certain to say the least. Florida will still battle with youth all over the field, starting at the most important position on the team. Players who stumbled through last season will be expected to be better but there are no guarantees that will happen.
All of this could factor into making 2012 one of the most unpredictable springs in UF history, which means there are plenty of questions and storylines to go around as cleats begin crunching the grass at the Sanders Practice Fields. Here are five questions that jump out when you look at the upcoming spring for Florida football.
1. What will happen with the quarterback battle?
Although sophomore Jacoby Brissett seemed to slightly win more fans over than fellow sophomore Jeff Driskel last season, both Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease have said that the two young quarterbacks will enter spring practice in an even competition for the No. 1 job.
The numbers for both were very similar in 2011, seeing limited playing time against some of the toughest competition in the nation. Driskel and Brissett were forced into games against eventual BCS National Championship Game participants Alabama and LSU, respectively. Getting raised in the fire of the Southeastern Conference had its bruises and rough results.
Neither quarterback completed more than 47.1 percent of his passes and both threw two more interceptions than touchdowns: an 0-2 mark for Driskel and 2-4 for Brissett.
A few months later, both quarterbacks will begin preparing for their second collegiate seasons with their second offensive coordinator. Muschamp has spoken in-depth about wanting to keep things consistent in terminology to avoid stunting the growth of two signal callers who came out of high school ranked in the Rivals100.
Both Brissett and Driskel will have to show an increased level of maturity and composure from last season where they looked rattled at times when tossed in against elite defenses.
The wild card with this quarterback battle will be whether or not a decision will actually be ready by the time spring practice concludes. After three years in Gainesville, redshirt sophomore Tyler Murphy is a distant third behind Brissett and Driskel and that is unlikely to change.
Muschamp has said he will decide on a quarterback when the time is right. That could mean the end of spring, but it could also mean this summer or the fall. He has even hinted that if it's best to play both in 2012, he wouldn't be entirely against it.
2. Who can earn increased playing time on defense?
Of the eight players expected to miss the spring with injuries, five of them are on the defensive side of the ball and four of those are players who would have otherwise taken up significant playing time. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley, Linebacker/Buck Lerentee McCray, Defensive end Kedric Johnson and cornerbacks Jeremy Brown and Marcus Roberson will all be out of action for spring practice.
Combine that with the fact that highly touted incoming freshmen like Buck Dante Fowler Jr., cornerback Brian Poole, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and safety Marcus Maye will not be on campus until this summer and you have an open opportunity for a number of players to prove themselves to the coaching staff.
Maybe the player who can benefit most from the situation is sophomore cornerback Louchiez Purifoy. After earning a special teams role as a freshman, Purifoy picked up 27 tackles and appeared in all 13 games. His intensity on the field was as high as any Gator and he will be listed as a starter to start spring. If he lives up to the expectations, he could lock down the corner spot opposite Roberson and give the Gators a six-foot or taller corner on each side of the field, opening up a potential nickelback role for Poole upon his arrival.
Muschamp also named off an assortment of defensive linemen that he wants to see more from in the absence Easley. A close eye will be on redshirt senior defensive end Earl Okine, sophomore defensive tackle Leon Orr and junior college transfer defensive tackle Damien Jacobs.
Okine and Orr saw action in every game last season but combined for just 18 tackles and one sack. Orr will be cross-trained this spring at the three-technique and defensive end, while Okine will work outside with hopes of freeing junior Sharrif Floyd to play more inside where he feels the most comfortable.
Jacobs will cross-train at the three-technique and nose guard and has been brought in with expectations to contribute right away up the middle.
3. What will Pease's offense look like?
Over the years, Boise State has built a reputation as the explosive little school that litters its play with tricks and gaudy statistics. In 2011, the Broncos averaged over 300 passing yards per game on the Heisman candidate arm of quarterback Kellen Moore. But Boise State also rushed for over 170 yards per game in 2011 as well, and it's that facet that Pease emphasized he would like to establish at Florida.
The Gators will want to start everything they do with a power running game that will establish a presence inside the tackles that they simply did not feel they had the personnel to consistently attempt last season.
A lot will be placed on the shoulders of five guys who combined for 124 carries (or 24.8 per person) in 2011, especially senior Mike Gillislee, who could do Florida a great favor if he could prove to be at all feature-back worthy. Otherwise, the Gators will feature a committee backfield that could even see larger bodies like fullbacks Trey Burton and Hunter Joyer getting looks in one-back sets.
Ideally, Pease wants to install the power running game to open things up for a passing attack that can feature its wide receivers appropriately. However, in both the running and the passing game, the Gators are relying on inexperience that could quickly make one aspect of the offense much more prevalent than the others. If the young quarterbacks aren't quite ready, how do the running backs respond? If the running game proves to be an unorganized shuffle, will it put Brissett or Driskel in panic mode?
4. Can the Gators find legitimate playmakers on offense?
Pease knows enough about Florida's past to know why the biggest questions of the spring surround his offense. He also knows enough to know that Gators fans are desperate to see the kind of explosive pieces that once seemed like a birthright in Gainesville.
The obvious solution people will point to this spring is junior wide receiver Andre Debose, who will be looked to as Florida's go-to guy for big plays. While he certainly has the ability, Debose has consistently failed to break through during his time at UF. Although he led the team in touchdown receptions last year with four, he was fifth on the team in catches (16). Players ahead of him included a running back, a tight end and a player who is currently listed as a fullback.
Becoming a star is no longer a potential outcome for Debose, it is an expectation. Either he is the best player on Florida's offense in 2012, or he will be labeled a disappointment.
Opposite Debose is another player looking for a breakout season in sophomore wide receiver Quinton Dunbar. Although hype swirled around Dunbar last season, Muschamp stood behind his 14-catch year by saying that the talk about him standing out came too early. After redshirting, 2011 was his first real taste of action and while it did not end in big numbers, it got him ready for what should be a strong sophomore campaign.
While others will factor in as well, these two will be the key players the gators look toward to stretch the field when necessary and bring an element of danger back to the UF offense.
5. How will the offensive line look for Orange and Blue Debut?
There are essentially three positions along the offensive line that will be seriously contended for this spring. Two of those spots are both tackle positions. Whether or not the third one is actually up in the air depends on how much stock you put in sixth-year senior James Wilson being listed as the starter at left guard to begin the spring.
After being named the nation's No. 1 offensive guard and No. 12 overall prospect coming out of high school in 2006, Wilson's career has been plagued by injuries. He has only started in two SEC games during his time at Florida, both coming in 2009. Meanwhile, he will have redshirt senior Sam Robey and possibly early enrollee freshman Jessamen Dunker pushing for playing time behind him. Although Dunker is listed as Jon Halapio's backup at left guard on the two-deep depth chart, he was told throughout his recruiting process that the Gators saw him as a left-side player.
At tackle, it appears to be a three-man race between sophomore Chaz Green, junior Matt Patchan and senior Xavier Nixon for the two spots, with Patchan being the only one listed as a possibility at either side of the line. Patchan was finally healthy enough to be a regular contributor in 2011, while Nixon's game-after-game struggles brought up questions about his healthy and made him a popular target when fans were looking to blame someone for the Gators ranking No. 105 in the nation in total offense.
Green is the golden boy of the group; the freshman All-American who is likely Florida's most skilled athlete on the offensive front.
The wild card in all of this is Florida's most heralded recruit from the 2012 class. D.J. Humphries, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle and No. 2 overall prospect in 2012 (sound familiar?), is not listed on the two-deep depth chart for spring but will be given a chance to show what he can do. While his athleticism is top-notch, Humphries is in the midst of efforts to gain weight, as he is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds.
With uncertainty in the backfield at both quarterback and running back, the offensive line will be as crucial as ever for the Gators in 2012. When the spring game rolls around on April 7, it will be difficult to look past what the coaching staff feels about what line layout benefits the Gators the most.
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