SEC spring practice preview: Florida

Florida Gators
2009: 13-1 (8-0)

Change is the theme on many campuses for the start of spring practice. But nowhere is change more evident than in Gainesville, where the Florida Gators began preparation for a new season on Wednesday without star quarterback Tim Tebow.

So how exactly do you replace someone who could arguably be called the greatest college football player of all time?

Plain and simply, you don’t. But at UF, where top-tier talent flocks year after year, you at least have as good a chance as any to come close to making up for the lost production.

While new signal caller John Brantley won’t replicate Tebow’s style of play, as he is more of a pure passer than a bruising bull, he should be able to utilize the weapons around him and engineer a productive Gators offense week after week — especially with a strong arm and the ability to make some throws Tebow never could. While Brantley saw action only in mop-up duty in ’09, his stat line — 36-of-48 for 410 yards and seven TDs against no INTs for a 194. 9 rating — certainly shows why he was highly recruited out of high school.

Junior running back Jeff Demps, who will not participate in spring drills because of his obligation to the Gator men’s track team but will continue to weight train with the football team, rushed for 745 yards on 99 carries for a staggering 7.5 yards per carry in ’09. He’s certainly a big-play threat whenever he touches the ball. But who will be the bruiser on third-and-three for the Gators in the absence of Tebow, when they need a first down to sustain a drive? That’s where Emmanuel Moody comes into play. The time is right for Moody, who gained 378 yards on just 58 carries for three scores last year, to live up to the hype of his USC days.

Can Chris Rainey translate his production from the backfield to slot receiver? The Gators will find different ways to get the ball in the former running back’s hands, and he will desperately help a receiving corps that is very young and inexperienced. Brantley has said, however, that he has chemistry with sophomore wideouts Frankie Hammond and Omarius Hines. I love redshirt freshman Andre Debose, who will participate in some drills but will not have any contact work this spring, but can the Gators survive the loss of Aaron Hernandez at tight end? Early enrollee Gerald Christian is talented, but Hernandez did so much for the offense last season as essentially a tight end/running back/wideout complete package.

As Brantley, a redshirt junior, prepares to take over the offense, it’s almost fitting that his first day on the job came on the same day that Tebow participated in Florida’s pro day. With national media swarming around the Gainesville campus, it seemed that Brantley couldn’t catch a break — once again upstaged by No. 15. That aside, Brantley is looking forward to stepping into the starting role.

“It feels very good,” Brantley told the St. Petersburg Times. “It's been a long time waiting, but I think I'm finally ready and I'm excited to get out there. It means that I'm taking the reigns now, I guess. I get to drive the ship now a little bit, become more of a leader now. That's what I'm striving for this offseason, becoming more of a leader.”

If Brantley becomes the unquestioned leader on offense, who will emerge as the voice of new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense? The former Arizona Cardinals secondary coach replaces Charlie Strong, who left to take over as head coach at Louisville. When Austin came aboard he stated that most of the scheme and philosophy would stay the same, but he stressed that he would cater to the personnel that he has — meaning that youth could dictate whether or not things get simplified.

Defensive lineman Justin Trattou has been named a captain and is expected to carry the load for a defense that lost five defensive starters to either the draft or graduation, including Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden. Big things are expected from the senior Trattou after playing alongside Dunlap and the departed Jermaine Cunningham last season. Junior William Green returns and is expected to grow into one of Florida’s typical dominant pass rushers. One intriguing aspect of the line is whether highly touted freshmen Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley could mature quickly into rotational players on the inside and if freakish Ronald Powell could see situational play at end.

At linebacker, seniors Brandon Hicks and A.J. Jones are likely to get the nod for two of the starting gigs, while sophomores Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic are expected to compete for the right to man the middle and play alongside the seniors. With a strong spring, however, the loser of that battle could claim a spot on the outside.

Early enrollee Josh Shaw looks to push sophomore Adrian Bushell for the cornerback spot vacated by Haden, while hard-hitting safety Matt Elam is just another of Florida’s stud early enrollees on campus today. In fact, nearly half of the Gators’ 28-player signing class from this year will participate in spring drills.

Nationally, there was uncertainty as to whether head coach Urban Meyer would even be present for spring practice after shockingly resigning for health and family reasons — before rescinding the resignation and taking an “indefinite leave of absence” instead. But anyone close to the Gators’ program knew Meyer would be back on the practice field on Wednesday, and he reportedly arrived on campus for Florida’s pro day at around 11:40 a.m. EST. How much will Meyer actually be on the field this spring? I’d imagine quite a bit, as the Gators once again break in some new assistants. And come April 10 at The Swamp, Meyer will still be leading his Gators onto the field for the team’s spring game.

Expectations for Florida are subdued because of so much quality talent lost from the ’09 squad. But keep in mind that UF’s recruiting classes have been ranked so high in recent years for a reason.

“I think people are going to think (we might have a down year),” Brantley admitted. “But you know, it's always good to go into a season with a little chip on our shoulder. We're working extra hard this offseason to achieve our goals. We're going to keep working hard and hopefully have a good camp in August. I think we're going to surprise some people.”

With the talent that Meyer brings to Florida year after year, I wouldn’t bet against the Gators.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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