Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Florida Gators.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - One spring ago, Will Muschamp told everyone who would listened that the Gators were an ascending program. It made sense following an 11-2 season and BCS bowl game that Florida was headed back to prominence.
This spring, he's simply promising his team will be "good" again in 2014, often to rolled eyes and scratched heads. That's what happens when you go 4-8 in a town that once booted Ron Zook for winning 23 games in three years. Muschamp's total through three years: 22.
Stubborn and prideful, Muschamp has had to go back on his words after the end of the worst season at Florida since 1979. He hired Kurt Roper, an offensive coordinator specializing in the kind of up-tempo spread attack Muschamp has publicly bashed in the past. He fired his offensive line coach and replaced him with a 34-year coaching veteran.
Muschamp was given the dreaded "vote of confidence" by UF officials after the Florida lost to Vanderbilt on homecoming last season and promptly went on to lose his last three games, one to FCS Georgia Southern. Searching to renew fan support, the Gators went against their previous privacy doctrine and opened nine spring practices to the public.
What's the biggest thing you learned about Florida this spring?
Offensive change has arrived. After three years of lining up in jumbo formations and smashing running backs into linemen, the Gators have transitioned to an up-tempo spread offense and it looks as different as you would expect it to. Once strictly a two-back power team, Florida took less than a handful of snaps from under center all spring. Pace of play was constantly pushed by coaches, a gigantic change for a team that was the slowest in college football in 2013.
That's not to say the Gators have completely abandoned their general philosophy. Drives will still be based around the run, but the run will come through spread schemes with more perimeter action and increased read-option chances for the quarterback. Muschamp still expects the base package to be three wide receivers and two running backs, but that has more to do with the team's backfield depth and the need to spread carries around.
What is the biggest question Florida answered during spring ball?
At no point under Muschamp has there been this kind of capable talent at offensive skill positions. Florida is stronger at running back and wide receiver than it has been since the heyday of the Urban Meyer years.
That's thanks to a perfect storm of recruiting and development in recent years. Technically, the Gators are led by redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar at wide receiver, but the muscle of the group comes from second-year receivers from the marquee class of 2013. Ahmad Fulwood emerged as the receiver opposite Dunbar, sharing similar traits with a larger upside. Demarcus Robinson is the home run threat and a player who can turn 10-yard crossing routes into touchdowns.
At running back, the Gators were without two scholarship players for all of spring and still appeared loaded. Kelvin Taylor is back and this time being treated as the No. 1 back from the start, but "feature back" status is less defined after Kurt Roper had four running backs with 60 carries or more at Duke last season. Entering the season, Florida will have six scholarship running backs it trusts to carry the ball.
What are the questions still lingering around Florida after the conclusion of spring practice?
Maybe the biggest red flag for the 2014 season at this point is that this does not look like a championship-caliber defense. The one aspect Muschamp has been able to hang his hat on for three years lacks capable depth in a big way and is too green at too many positions to not have growing pains come fall.
When asked recently what positions he feels best about defensively, Muschamp said Dante Fowler Jr. and Vernon Hargreaves III. Linebacker is the only defensive position that looks to have any kind of depth, and Florida is coming off a putrid season at that position. The Gators operate off a constant rotation up front but only came out of spring trusting four defensive linemen.
Florida's aforementioned skill position prowess will only be given room to breathe if an even thinner offensive line than the 2013 version stays healthy.
What players stepped up during spring?
Fowler and Hargreaves are Florida's best players and that was evident throughout spring camp, leading to neither being required to play in the spring game. But they weren't the only ones who came across as future impact players.
Asked to play defensive tackle all spring (he'll play both end and tackle come fall), Jonathan Bullard was an imposing force, using his athletic advantage to terrorize guards and disrupt plays. Robinson and Latroy Pittman bounced back from suspension-hindered seasons. Pittman will be Florida's starting slot receiver, while Robinson is a regular rotating with Dunbar. Adam Lane, a 5-foot-7, 222-pound bowling ball of muscle was the toughest UF running back to tackle all spring. Kyle Christy and Austin Hardin looked like the kind of punter and kicker the Gators need them to be.
Who are the players who need to step up heading into summer?
Spring was about knocking off rust for quarterback Jeff Driskel, whose season lasted less than three games because of a broken leg. The summer and fall camp need to be about developing timing with his receivers and sharpening his decision-making. Driskel is still too deliberate in his passing and often waits until a play has closed up to throw.
The Gators need production at defensive tackle if Fowler is going to have the kind of breakout season that was expected of him in 2013 but never happened. Darious Cummings looked strong in limited spring action, but Leon Orr - who missed spring with a fractured wrist - must create problems inside for offensive lines to open plays up for the Gators' best pass-rusher.