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March 8, 2013

Spring Preview: Five Burning Questions

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SPRING PREVIEWS: 10 with the most to gain
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According to the Internet (which means it must be true), famous comedian Robin Williams once joked, "Spring is nature's way of saying, 'Let's party.'"

Well, the 2013 Florida Gators are ready to crank it up again.

Hot off an 11-2 season, UF opens spring practice Wednesday, but not without questions abound.

In large thanks to the play of stars Matt Elam, Mike Gillislee, Sharrif Floyd, Jon Bostic and Jordan Reed, Coach Will Muschamp's team rebounded from a tumultuous 2011 campaign, only those players no longer practice on the Sanders Fields.

Florida boasts one of the nation's most talented teams, but Muschamp & Co. hope youth equals competition and the jumbled positional storylines sort themselves out.

Here are five key questions facing the Gators as spring practice kick-starts.

1. Where do the transfers fit into the offensive line?
Max Garcia (via Maryland) and Tyler Moore (via Nebraska) are former starting left tackles from BCS conferences. Florida sophomore D.J. Humphries has long been considered the heir apparent to the Protect Jeff Driskel's Blindside Foundation.

Atlas, only one of them can play the 'marquee' position.

Having too many good offensive linemen (especially tackles) is an enviable problem to have, but how the pieces all fit will be something to watch over the course of spring camp.

Junior Chaz Green will face stiff competition for the right tackle spot, but the key question between Moore and Garcia (most likely) is who moves inside?

Significant pass protection improvements -- a major deterrent in Florida's offense last year -- won't be gleamed over four weeks of practice. More importantly, line coach Tim Davis wants to find a cohesive five-man unit and where the transfers belong is a major part of the puzzle.

2. How does the muddled situation at linebacker shake out?
Gone are experience, leadership and production (see: Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins). Entering is enticing -- yet quite green -- talents (Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone). Somewhere in the middle lie Michael Taylor and Darrin Kitchens.

Florida's fiercest competition battles reside just beyond the trenches. Sophomore thumper Antonio Morrison is expected to take over for Jenkins at the weak-side spot, but even that is uncertain as Gator coaches may explore moving the versatile hard-hitter inside. Taylor, a redshirt junior, reigns as UF's most productive returnee (68 career tackles), yet questions linger if can be a true three-down middle linebacker. Similar concerns cloud Kitchens on the outside.

Early enrollees McMillian and Anzalone are anticipated to push for immediate playing time -- only where remains to be seen. Fellow freshman Matt Rolin's spring participation is expected to be limited (if any at all) as he recovers from knee surgery.

Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell, a scout team stud in 2012, and junior Neiron Ball.

Powell still needs to put on weight (last listed at 202 pounds), but he knows the system and can really run.

The linebacker battles won't end over the next month, but whoever favorably tips the scales will enter fall camp with some serious momentum in a crowded position group.

3. Safeties anyone? The departed duo of Elam and Josh Evans -- not to mention the transfer of nickel safety Pop Saunders -- leave a definitive void on the back end of Florida's defense.

The last time the Gators replaced an AP All-American safety (Reggie Nelson), things didn't turn out so well. Just ask Kyle Jackson.

But with heralded prospects Marcus Maye (redshirt freshman) and sophomore Brian Poole (converted cornerback), the position's circumstances aren't as dire as in 2007.

With excess depth at defensive back, Poole started cross training at safety last fall. Too skilled not to see the field somewhere next season, the sophomore is expected to be a leader for one of the safety roles.

Last season's spring standout Jabari Gorman (junior) will also vie for a starting job, as will special teams contributor Valdez Showers (sophomore).

If Muschamp is displeased with the current crop, he may decide to move Cody Riggs -- who has experience at nickel position -- or Jaylen Watkins to safety.

Talented freshmen Marcell Harris, Keanu Neal and Nick Washington won't be on campus until early August, so the group currently in camp better seize the opportunity before the competition really heats up.

4. How serious is the Loucheiz Purifoy experiment at receiver?
Since 2010, the wide out position at Florida has been such a black hole it's perplexed even famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Allegedly serious talent exits, yet in three years none has developed and so the Gators have opted to shift Purifoy to receiver for the spring.

The junior corner is a fast, physical player who has displayed nice skills as a kick returner. But then again, so has the ever-disappointing Andre Debose.

The dilemma is the sort of commitment UF is making to the positional change. Make no mistake, UF needs serious help at receiver.

Aside from five-star signee and early enrollee Demarcus Robinson, the same underachieving group from 2012 will be in camp this spring.

But when asked about the subject during his final media address of last season, Muschamp emphatically stated Purifoy is a starting cornerback.

So the question becomes does that mean Purifoy can't or won't also contribute as a receiver? Do the Gators envision a Champ Bailey-esque role for the junior (100+ combined snaps between offense, defense and special teams) or is this simply a fun spring trial (think Joe Haden at quarterback) and nothing more?

We'll see.

5. Who wants to be the No. 1 tailback?
Florida finally produced its first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004, but the patient Gillislee is now off to the NFL. The productive senior accounted for just over 30 percent of UF's total offense in 2012, leaving a significant vacancy to fill.

Sophomore Matt Jones displayed flashes late (see: FSU rout) and he'll compete along side junior Mack Brown and freshman sensation Kelvin Taylor.

All three possess question marks (Jones - vision, Brown - durability, Taylor - playbook knowledge and pass protection) and coordinator Brent Pease may opt to utilize a by-the-committee approach come August.

But Taylor is a tantalizing talent and is the carrot of the group after setting the state's record for career rushing yards. Even if the battle won't be decided until late August, it's a position worth monitoring considering how vital the running game is to UF's offensive success.


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