by Dave Miller
March 19, 02014
Florida begins spring practice on Wednesday as head coach Will Muschamp enters a crucial season in Gainesville.
Let's take a look at some of the issues facing the Gators as they prepare for their spring game on April 12.
Can new OC Kurt Roper turn around the Gators offense?
An offensive offense: The Gators were woeful offensively last fall, which was the major reason why they finished 4-8. So offensive coordinator Brent Pease was dumped in favor of Kurt Roper, who held the same role at Duke and was a big part of the Blue Devils' surge under David Cutcliffe, who has long served as Roper's mentor. In addition, offensive line coach Tim Davis was replaced by Mike Summers, who held the same role at USC in 2013. Putting together a cohesive O-Line that pass protects will be a priority this offseason after the Gators lost three senior starters as well as a solid reserve via transfer. Max Garcia will move to center, while Tyler Moore will move to guard. Trenton Brown and Trip Thurman may also shuffle. But the biggest concern is under center, where Jeff Driskel is coming off of a broken leg and looking to put behind a very poor showing in last year's contest against Miami (FL). Roper is installing an up-tempo scheme for a rebuilt offense that Gator fans are hoping help Driskel live up to the high expectations when he arrived in Gainesville. The dual-threat is one of the SEC's most experienced signal-callers, and he should be more comfortable as UF shifts from more of a pro-style to more of a spread unit that plays much faster. The Gators finished 113th in the nation in total offense in 2013, but the ground-first attack excelled in 2012 when Driskel and then-tailback Mike Gillislee excelled on the zone-read. Driskel finished with 413 yards on the ground that season.
New blood rising: Muschamp and Co. welcome in eight early enrollees from February's 2014 signing class, led by cornerback Jalen Tabor. Tabor has a chance to get immediate playing time on this defense, while Duke Dawson will try to join him in the defensive backfield. He could play cornerback or safety, and there are spots available as the secondary lost a lot of talent (cornerbacks Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins are gone). The Gators need to improve their run defense as well, so finding impact defensive linemen is imperative. Meanwhile, at middle linebacker, Antonio Morrison will have to hold off senior Michael Taylor and sophomore Jarrad Davis, who is very fast and athletic. Offensively, tight end DeAndre Goolsby will try to emerge as a pass-catching weapon for Driskel. But a lot of attention will be paid to true freshman Will Grier, who will compete to be the No. 1 backup to Driskel and even position himself to put heat on the projected starter if the offensive woes carry over into the new season. He could get comfortable running a lot of the zone-read options that this offense will show.
The time is now: Having a veteran such as Quinton Dunbar is nice for leadership and accountability, especially when he's surrounded by young players and new coaches. But Dunbar also must continue to progress and have his best season yet at receiver for UF. Perhaps even more importantly, though, receivers from the team's 2013 class such as Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson must live up to their recruiting hype if this offense has any chance to drastically improve. Players with their kind of talent must be able to deliver for the Gators in space, but they have to get better at separation. UF already has the ground game, led by Kelvin Taylor, but the passing attack must be able to keep defenses honest.
In addition to the arrival of Roper and Summers, former New Mexico assistant Coleman Hutzler has replaced Jeff Choate as special teams coordinator.
UF will be without nine players this spring, including running back Matt Jones (torn meniscus) and defensive tackle Leon Orr (broken wrist). Jones won't be cleared until early May, so he will miss all of spring. Meanwhile, receiver Andre Debose will be cleared for non-contact later this month and right tackle Chaz Green is expected to be fully cleared for Wednesday's first practice.
Dave Miller, the college football editor and writer for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.