July 30, 2009

One week from Florida Gators fall practice

Well, we're now officially just one more week away from the first fall practice for the Florida Gators football team. That means that competition for starting spots will begin in earnest and the blood, sweat and tears that could carry the Gators to another BCS National Championship will begin soaking the field.

Today, I'll take a look at the key positions to watch during fall practice and add my thoughts on who I think will take the strangleholds on some of the starting spots.

The key positions of concern for the Gators are at wide receiver and on the offensive line. I feel pretty confident coming out of the spring that the Gators will do just fine on the offensive line, but the wide receiver position has me a bit perplexed.

I'll start by covering the wide receiver position. First off, I think people are underestimating just how much production we lost. I've seen various pre-season publications list the Gators as high as the third best team in the SEC at wide receiver.

Personally, I think that right now we don't even deserve to be in the top half of the league based on returning production. Now, we certainly have the potential and the talent to be much better than that, but until they show up and start producing, I'll have some questions.

Riley Cooper is still reportedly on the fence about playing pro baseball or coming back for his senior season. I feel like he's leaning towards coming back at this point, but I really have no basis for that statement other than a gut feeling and what would seem to make sense for him.

If he returns, he will enter the season as our leading receiver. He is by far the best blocker on the team and I think you'll see Demps and Rainey's production slip a bit if he doesn't return.

After him, David Nelson and Carl Moore are more less on the same tier as far as talent and what they bring to the offense. Both are lanky players who have fairly good hands and can make crucial catches when necessary. That said, I don't see either developing into a true gamebreaker or a guy that we can look to no matter what on every third and long.

Deonte Thompson will start the season third or fourth on the depth chart, but he's a guy who can be a gamebreaker. After watching him in spring ball two years ago, he could easily develop into a Percy Harvin type player at wide receiver. He has blinding speed and will be the dominant deep threat for the Gators this year. He does a good job of getting upfield after the catch and I think by the end of the year, he'll be the number one or number two target.

Finally, we have a handful of freshmen who could make an impact at the receiver position. I'll lump the first three together, as they're all redshirt freshmen. The star of the spring was Frankie Hammond Jr. That said, Hammond really didn't show much chemistry with Tebow, only making his big plays when John Brantley was under center. I think he'll be a great threat late in games when Brantley takes over, but I don't think he's the guy when Tebow is in.

That said, T.J. Lawrence is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I thought he had great chemistry with Tebow, yet disappeared when Brantley was in. I actually think he has the chance to develop into one of the top three receivers this year. He plays gritty, is a good blocker, and is arguably one of our most physical receivers. He's going to get tough yards after the catch, particularly on five yard dump routes, where he just fights his way up field. I think he'll have a big impact this season.

Finally, Omarius Hines is another redshirt freshman who could see the field. Based on what I saw during the spring, I don't expect Hines to be a huge contributor. True freshman Andre Debose has the type of game-breaking ability to be a big contributor, though. Debose is very fluid and has drawn Percy Harvin comparisons. Personally, I don't think he's nearly as physical as Harvin was and that will keep him from having the same level of impact. Still, he's one of the guys that could step up into that top three rotation.

Now, on to the offensive line. During the spring, we saw a good bit of redshirt freshman Sam Robey at center. Robey looked great and I think we'll be better off if he ends up winning the starting spot there. That would allow us to move Maurkice Pouncey to guard again, where he can be a much better run blocker. In that scenario, Carl Johnson will slide outside to the left tackle spot. The right side of the line will feature Mike Pouncey at guard and Marcus Gilbert at tackle.

Here are the different lines we could see this season, starting with the most likely to the least likely (from right to left):

1. Johnson, Ma. Pouncey, Robey, Mi. Pouncey, Gilbert
2. Matt Patchan, Johnson, Ma. Pouncey, Mi. Pouncey, Gilbert
3. Johnson, James Wilson, Ma. Pouncey, Mi. Pouncey, Gilbert

I think Matt Patchan is a little light at the moment to play tackle, so the coaches will probably try to avoid that if possible. That said, I still think he's probably a bit ahead of James Wilson at this point, so the second lineup would be better as a whole.

Finally, some of the defensive spots I'll be watching. I like the position battles developing on the defensive line and at linebacker. We have so many possibilities there it's impossible for me to list them all. Still, I'll give a good rundown of who I expect to step up.

Starting with the inside of the defensive line, the starters are Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders. Guys that will push for playing time and maybe even starting spots are Jaye Howard, Troy Epps, Brandon Antwine and Omar Hunter. I really think Howard will end up taking over Sanders' spot at some point in the season. He is massive and one of the best interior rushers of the group.

Antwine is a bit of a wild card in that he has fought through some injuries and nobody really knows quite how he'll look when things go live. Meyer seems to really like him, though, so you can bet he'll see the field. Epps is a good player and a pretty good pass rusher, but he doesn't have the upside that Howard and Hunter both have.

As far as I know, Hunter is still really struggling to get to a good playing weight and grasp the defense. I still think he's probably a year away from being a big contributor. Like I said, I expect Howard to really surprise some people this year.

Now, on to defensive end. At defensive end, we have a trio of players competing for the starting spots. Right now, it looks as if Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Trattou will open up fall practice as the starters, with Carlos Dunlap rotating in frequently for Trattou. Most expect Dunlap to take over the starting role, and he could. That said, I love the fact that we can bring him on just like Houston Nutt brings on Greg Hardy at Ole Miss. Let Trattou pound them with his strength for the first two downs, then stick Dunlap in there on third down and let him use his speed and length to really get after the quarterback. I think it's way more effective that way than putting Dunlap in for all three downs.

On the other side, I expect William Green to make a big impact. He was very impressive as a true freshman and only got better during the spring. Reports are that he's really put in the time in the weight room and should be a terrific backup for Cunningham. Other guys to keep an eye on are Duke Lemmens and Earl Okine. Both should see some playing time this year at end.

Now, let's get to the linebackers. There are legitimately six guys that could start and you might see even more rotating here than the defensive line. The one constant is that Brandon Spikes will be in the middle for as long as he can run. On the outsides, the leading candidates to be starters are Ryan Stamper and Brandon Hicks. Stamper has really come into his own and likely has one starting spot locked up.

Hicks will battle with A.J. Jones for the starting spot on the other side, but both have suffered from inconsistency. I personally favor Hicks, but several people I've talked to close to the team think Jones is poised for a breakout year. Either way, the starter there should be more than competent.

After Dustin Doe's latest arrest, I really doubt he'll see the field much for the Gators this season. He has been in the doghouse for a while now and there are so many talented youngsters just waiting in the wings.

Urban Meyer has indicated that three freshman will play at linebacker. First is redshirt freshman middle linebacker Brendan Beal. Beal will compete for the backup spot with Lorenzo Edwards true freshman Jon Bostic. Bostic and Beal were both terrific in the spring. True freshman Jelani Jenkins also figures to see some time and the linebacker position as a whole is as deep as it has ever been at Florida.

Finally, there's a lot of talk about Will Hill potentially taking the starting spot of Ahmad Black. Frankly, it's just not going to happen. If Hill is going to take anyone's spot it will be Major Wright's. I don't think that happens either, so expect to see Hill play the nickelback a good bit this season. Black is just too dynamic in the secondary to sit on the bench.

Those are the main spots I'll be watching during the spring. Defensively, I'm not concerned at all, just excited about all the possibilities. The offense is a different story, as I'll definitely be holding my breath waiting for some wide receivers to step up.

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  1. great article but i just wanted to point out that you referred to marcus gilbert as maurice

  2. Thanks, I seem to do that a lot. I get Marcus Gilbert and Maurice Hurt's first names mixed up all the time.

  3. Great post shanksta! Very detailed.

    Respectfully disagree on one point. The offensive line likelihood. I actually think #3 is the most likely to start the season. The Robey talked picked up in the spring and over the summer, but I thought the last I heard was that Meyer said they were trying some things out with it, but nothing was definite and putting him in at center so early in his career could be a little much when they have other experience on the line. I do think your #1 could definitely be how the season ends, but I'll take #3 to start the year.

  4. Fair enough, and in truth, that's very well how we could start the year. Fall practice is going to have a lot to do with how we come out. The only guaranteed starting players are Johnson, Pouncey and Pouncey. Gilbert almost has the right tackle spot locked up, but it's not definite yet. Wilson, Patchan and Robey are the ones competing to get into the rotation and I'd say all three have just about an equal chance right now. I do know the coaches would like Patchan to add a little more weight before he plays that tackle spot.

  5. I know I would like him to gain a little more weight too. No denying Patchan's overall talent to play either side of the ball, but he needs a little more bulk if he's going to hold down a tackle spot.