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August 4, 2012

Fall Practice Breakdown

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For months, it has been about speculation. For months, there has been little to report on aside from the occasional made-for-media party or secretive games of flag football. That time is over. This weekend, the 2012 Florida Gators football team begins fall practice in anticipation of the second season of the Will Muschamp Era. Inside the Gators will be your go-to source all season as Florida tries to rebound from a disappointing 7-6 campaign. Be sure to check daily for all the latest from Gainesville.

To start things off, here are some lists to focus on while we await the next media opportunity on Monday.

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TIME TO SHINE: If the Gators are to going to be successful this season, these players will have to step up in a big way.
1. Mike Gillislee, Sr., RB: It's another new offensive coordinator for the Gators this season with Brent Pease taking over. He has made two things pretty clear about his offense: There will be a lot of rushing, and Gillislee is the clear-cut No. 1 back. It's a long-awaited turn for the former DeLand High standout, who has never had more than 58 carries in a season at UF. How he handles the load of being a feature back will be crucial to the Pease transition. Gillislee is the only back currently on the team who had more than 18 carries last season, if you don't include hybrid "we're not sure what to do with him" player Trey Burton, who had 37 carries.
2. Sharrif Floyd, Jr., DT: Last season felt like a lost cause in many ways for Florida's best defensive lineman. An early-season suspension and team depth issues forced him to defensive end and out of his comfort zone. This season the plan is to get him back inside, even if it means flipping Dominique Easley outside or starting freshman Jonathan Bullard. Floyd's powerful style is best suited to disrupt the offense at tackle or as a three-technique type of lineman. He is much better than his numbers showed in 2011, when he recorded just 1.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Getting Floyd inside will not only bulk up Florida's run defense, it will give what was a very average UF pass rush a strong core.
3. Jelani Jenkins, Jr., LB: There is no secret what the one area where Muschamp wants to see the most improvement is: turnovers. Jenkins was often an easy one to point fingers at in 2011. He dropped six interceptions - two less than Florida caught all season - during the year. That was the easy but incomplete finger to point. For the most part, Jenkins was a solid weakside linebacker for the Gators who at times lacked the big-play feel that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said he wants to see further develop in his junior season. Jenkins and senior Jonathan Bostic will be looked at as dual leaders in a linebacker corps that will certainly feature a couple of less experienced players rotating in.
4. Matt Elam, Jr., S: Noticing a trend here? This season will be all about defense for the Gators, and with that said, it's impossible to leave out Florida's best defensive player. Elam led the Gators in tackles for loss, pass breakups and forced fumbles in 2011. He was the most dominant player in Florida's secondary and it wasn't very close. This season he evolves into a full-blown pro prospect in what will almost certainly be his last season at Florida. The primary difference is this season he has some more experience around him to narrow his job title.
5. Andre Debose, Jr., WR: The fact that Debose makes the top list here is a sign that Florida's offense has a long way to go. The Percy Harvin comparisons seem very far away for a guy who has 26 catches for four touchdowns in his UF career. But that doesn't change the fact that it should be in Debose's book of expectations to be the Gators' best receiver this season. He has all the talent and speed and flashy skills in the world. He just has to learn how to utilize them. Newfound knowledge of his position wasn't overly apparent during spring, but Debose is confident this will be a big season for him. There are a couple sophomore quarterbacks hoping the same.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO IS THE MOST LIKELY TO SHINE OUT OF THIS GROUP

IT'S THEIR TIME: Though these five players have performed to a certain extent over the years when called upon, none of them have been considered top notch performers thus far. This fall these Gators will all get an opportunity to make their mark.
1. Lerentee McCray, R-Sr., Buck: There weren't too many smiles around Gainesville when it was announced that junior Ronald Powell had torn his ACL in April's Orange and Blue Debut. Everyone's disappointment in losing a player who appeared to be turning a corner opened a giant opportunity for McCray, a player who has started five games in four years at Florida. Assuming the Gators can find another answer at strongside linebacker - which shouldn't be too hard - McCray will get a swing at Powell's Buck position until he returns at some point most likely in October or November. McCray showed flashes in 2011, recording 1.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Health will be a concern for him as well. He missed four games last season because of injury.
2. Jordan Reed, Jr., TE: Florida moves into year two of Reed playing solely tight end. The results last season were a mixed bag. He had 28 catches but 17 were for a first down. His skills will need to be ironed out a bit in 2012, especially with the unnecessary jumps he has become infamous for when trying to catch normal passes. Blocking is another area where he needs to improve. Reed's progress was necessary when recent transfer A.C. Leonard was still on the roster. Now with the other options behind him either young or unproven or both, Reed's progress is crucial to the success of the Gators and Pease's offense.
3. James Wilson, R-Sr., OG: The sixth-year senior has sat and watched as the players he grew up around came and went on to the National Football League. He has been sidelined by one injury after another after coming to Florida as a highly-regarded, five-star prospect out of high school. The potential has always been there, but Wilson got to show a little more of what he was made of when he played in 12 games during the 2011 season. He made it through his first healthy spring earlier this year and will be slated as the starting left guard to open fall camp. He says he feels better than he ever has at Florida, and there's no reason not to believe him.
4. Mack Brown, So., RB: It has only been a couple years since Brown was the big-time, four-star running back the Gators stole out of Bulldogs country. Now he's a redshirt sophomore who has 16 carries in his time at Florida. Brown has struggled to grasp the entire concept of being a college running back and his one-dimensional play has led to him largely being held off the field. Gillislee might be the feature back this season, but Florida is in need of depth while it waits on recruits to arrive and develop. Brown will get as good of a shot as anyone to supplement Gillislee in the backfield and get reps as the No. 2 back.
5. Josh Evans, Sr., S: Perhaps one of the most frustrating players to watch on the Florida roster. When he is on, he's very good, however, when he's not, watch out, plays get made against him. In his eight starts last season, Evans came on and created some nice momentum for his UF career heading into his senior season. He had 11 tackles against South Carolina before recording five tackles, a sack and a recovered fumble against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Evans provides a stable and veteran complement to Elam in lieu of De'Ante Saunders, who started the season at safety but had some off-the-field issues.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO IS THE MOST LIKELY TO STEP UP OUT OF THIS GROUP

IMPACT FRESHMEN: One of Florida's major selling points this past recruiting cycle was the possibility of early playing time. Muschamp will assure you that in no way is a promise, but there are five freshmen who could make their presence felt this fall.
1. Kent Taylor, TE: Taylor wasn't convinced during the spring that recently departed A.C. Leonard would be on the team this fall and the glimpse of an opportunity boosted his training. It paid off. Leonard and Muschamp came to a mutual agreement that it was time for Leonard to leave last month and the departure thrusts Taylor into the fire as Florida's most natural receiving tight end. When Taylor was spotted at Friday Night Lights, he was noticeably bigger than he was in high school and had just finished running extra solo drills on the practice field. It's safe to say Taylor is preparing to take full advantage of possible early playing time.
2. Antonio Morrison, LB: Florida talks about wanting meaner and more aggressive linebacker with big-play abilities coming through its program. Take a quick look at Morrison walking around campus and you can check off at least two of the three. The Bolingbrook (Ill.) High product simply looks the part and lives up to it on the field. His fast and ferocious play was a constant talking point during spring practice and it would surprise no one to see him factor in alongside Bostic and Jenkins at linebacker.
3. Jonathan Bullard, DE: There's little doubt he would have been higher on the list had he been able to attend summer workouts. Regardless, he is good to go for fall camp and the Gators couldn't be happier. Muschamp admitted at SEC Media Days they signed Bullard with expectations he could likely come in and play early. That's huge for Muschamp to say about any freshman, but it's especially big along the defensive line, where Florida's head coach believes it takes players longer to develop than at any other spot.
4. Latroy Pittman, WR: Another Muschamp favorite this spring was Pittman, a local four-star prospect out of Citra (Fla.) North Marion. Pittman came into camp very polished at receiver, something Florida has struggled with given the number of players the Gators have had to teach the position. While not thought of as the most electric playmaker, Pittman made a statement early on and what was singled out for his work ethic a number of times during spring. The positive vibes have continued through summer where Muschamp said he has heard nothing but good about Pittman.
5. Dante Fowler Jr., Buck: Fowler was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and he is bringing every bit of that swagger and charisma to Gainesville. Ask him what his plans are for fall camp, and he'll confidently tell you his goal is to make not starting him as hard of a decision as possible. How realistic that is brings another question. It took Powell the better part of 2011 to learn the spot and the learning curve will likely be similar for Fowler. However, once he gets it down, he could be key to the rotation keeping McCray and/or Powell fresh. His skills are simply too good to not at least assess this year.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHICH OF THESE FIVE FRESHMEN IS THE MOST LIKELY TO MAKE AN IMPACT THIS SEASON

FALL SUPRISES: While these five may not have done much so far, if there are going to be some pleasant surprises this fall, it wouldn't be at all shocking if they came from this group.
1. Brian Poole, Fr., CB: He's only been on campus for a little longer than one month, but Poole is already looking bigger and primed to contribute right away in a nickelback role. He came along nicely his senior year and was arguably the best cornerback in Florida by the time all-star games rolled around.
2. Chris Johnson, So., RB: He may have been new to running back after flipping over from safety this spring, but you would have never know it from watching Johnson. "Juice" was a quick and refreshing burst of speed mixed in with Gillislee and Brown in the backfield and could earn some extra carries this fall with a nice camp.
3. Solomon Patton, Jr., WR: Patton's name isn't getting brought up too much, but he showed he can be a threat during the Orange and Blue Debut after returning from an injury. Patton's speed can be used at slot, but he could also factor in as a punt returner and punt block specialist.
4. Gideon Ajagbe, So., LB/Buck: Don't be overly surprised if Ajagbe makes at least some of the Buck reps interesting this fall. He showed spurts of strong play during the spring and has the advantage of an extra couple years at UF in comparison to Fowler.
5. Bryan Cox Jr., Fr., LB/DE: How can you not have a little bit of a feeling that Bryan Cox's son won't be happy settling for a spot on the bench his freshman year? Cox followed the Dillman workout plan in strict order before ever arriving at Florida and would be a welcomed emergence at a couple of positions where the Gators are thin.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO OFF THIS LIST IS THE MOST LIKELY TO SURPRISE THE GATOR NATION THIS FALL?

BATTLE ROYAL: 3 Position Battles to Watch
1. Starting Quarterback: If you don't know the story, welcome to Florida. I hope you had a safe move from igloo in Alaska or you're feeling refreshed after awakening from your coma. Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are vying to be Florida starting quarterback this year. Both are sophomores and both are exactly the same at everything in life, if you ask Muschamp or any UF players.

The winner is Driskel might be the safer pick for 2012, but that goes against the fact that Brissett is the better option for a 2013 team that will be more ready to make a legitimate run at a conference title. Brissett is the aggressive-minded gunslinger who will win games, while Driskel comes off as the more pacifist conservative game manager who will try to not mess things up. I'll take the former every day of the week.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO WILL START THE SEASON OPENER AT QB?
2. No. 2 Cornerback: Muschamp had no choice but to start Marcus Roberson at cornerback last season. The freshman was his most talented cornerback despite some issues with penalties as a side effect of his physical style. Now the job is finding the man to play opposite him. Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins seem like the two best options and both had successful springs in their own way. Junior Cody Riggs will also try to factor into the competition. And then there's often injured Jeremy Brown and the true freshman Poole.

The winner is Everything about Purifoy seems to emulate the kind of cornerback Muschamp has favored during his time as a defensive coach. He has the physical presence at the line, the long frame and plenty of on-field intensity to spare. He is the most technically sound of the three options and should win the position unless Watkins really takes his game to another level.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO WILL START THE SEASON OPENER AT THE CB SPOT OPPOSITE ROBERSON?
3. Strongside linebacker: Bostic and Jenkins are penciled in as starters at linebacker. The third spot is where things get interesting. Muschamp needs consistency out of someone at Sam linebacker, so he can feel comfortable playing McCray solely at Buck. The name's he is willing to mention right now are Darrin Kitchens, Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor. The name he's holding off on is Morrison.

The winner is Don't let Muschamp fool you. Morrison is the best option the Gators have for this spot right now. He tends to avoid namedropping freshmen too much this time of year, and it leads him to running off other names. Kitchens had a lackluster spring, and while everyone loves the potential of Ball, it feels like a stretch for him to return from his health issues this soon in a consistent role. Taylor easily provides the greatest challenge and came on strong toward the end of 2011, but expect Morrison to start as a freshman.

ALLEY INTERACTION: WHO WILL START THE SEASON OPENER AT SLB?
THE TERRIFIC TEN: Top 5 players on Offense/Defense
Offense
1. Mike Gillislee
2. Chaz Green
3. Andre Debose
4. Quinton Dunbar
5. Jon Halapio
Defense
1. Matt Elam
2. Sharrif Floyd
3. Jelani Jenkins
4. Marcus Roberson
5. Dominique Easley


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