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August 2, 2010

Looking back at our 5 spring questions

Before spring practice, we asked five questions about the Florida football program. Five months later, we look back and re-address them with fall workouts set to begin later this week. Here are the questions and our March analysis -- along with a recap of how things shook out.

1. How hands-on will Urban Meyer be?

As we all know, Florida head coach Urban Meyer is set to return from his month-long leave of absence, which he used to refresh and recharge after having health-related issues that nearly got him out of the business following the 2009 season. In a recent interview, Meyer told the Orlando Sentinel he received a "clean bill of health" in his recent medical test. With Meyer returning to work, it will be interesting to see whether he can dial things down a notch and delegate a little authority, something that often is easier said than done.

According to USA Today, John Hevesy of Mississippi State, a former Meyer assistant at Florida said this: "To say, 'Sure guys, do whatever you want,' that's not him. How do you change who you are and still get the same results? I don't know. I'm sure he's trying to figure all that out."

Because Florida has several new assistants, including defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, delegating might be even tougher for Meyer. Had last year's staff been kept together, trust and program knowledge wouldn't have been an issue. Now it is.

Even though Meyer has said he plans to continue coaching, some remain skeptical. If he can get through the spring, talk of him stepping aside should quiet. And that will help Florida on several fronts, perhaps most notably with recruiting.

What happened: The new Meyer wasn't much different than the old Meyer. Sure, he delegated a little more, but when push came to shove he was the same intense guy he has always been. As you'll recall, he even chewed out a reporter in defense of Gators receiver Deonte Thompson. Coming off his much-talked about leave, Meyer was far from inactive at practice. When he wasn't blowing his whistle or hollering at guys, he was entertaining high-profile recruits.

2. How will John Brantley react to being the man?

In outgoing quarterback Tim Tebow, Florida had one of the most athletically gifted, driven and reliable players of this or any era. In Brantley, the Gators have an immensely talented passer who has all the tools to be fantastic. But to no fault of Brantley, a rising junior, he's still an unknown quantity.

It was common for TV commentators last year to claim Brantley, even as a backup to Tebow, was one of the Southeastern Conference's best quarterbacks. But in truth, that was silly to say because Brantley has until now only been used in mop-up time.

Could he be great? You bet.

But is it a sure thing? Absolutely not.

Brantley has several things that work in his favor, starting with his aforementioned physical traits. It also doesn't hurt that his father is a high school coach and former Florida QB. That not only gives Brantley strong bloodlines, but a person at home to confide in regarding issues that may or may not relate to X's and O's. Few people have been in Brantley's shoes; his pop is one of them.

The pressure of succeeding Tebow may seem great, but consider this: Most across the country expect to see a drop-off at QB in Gainesville. That's actually a good thing for Brantley, because unattainable expectations won't be thrust upon him.

Because Florida has stockpiled talent around him, Brantley won't be asked to do it all. That should give him ample time to grow into his role as the starter. Brantley doesn't need to be great for the Gators to win 10 games. But if he is, look out.

What happened: Brantley, as it turns out, appears to be every bit as good as advertised. He wasn't without his off days, but by and large he led the offense quite well. Brantley's arm wasn't just big, it was accurate. And more often than not, he did a good job of throwing to the right (open) man. Turns out, he's also much more athletic than many give him credit for being.

In the huddle, coaches and teammates said, Brantley improved at becoming more vocal, something that continues to be a point of emphasis. Tebow he may never be in this regard, but that's okay so long as he commands the respect of the guys in the huddle. To a man, Florida's offensive players said Brantley had earned that respect

All indications are Brantley also had a strong offseason.

He has taken his role of being the starter seriously. And that's a good sign.

3. How well will the new assistants fit in?

Florida has a slew of new coaches, most notably defensive coordinator Teryl Austin , who arrived with 19 years of coaching experience, including 12 at the college level and the past seven in the NFL. From 2007-09, he was the defensive backs coach with the Arizona Cardinals, and was part of a staff that reached the Super Bowl.

Austin's resume is fantastic, but he's replacing the ultra-popular Charlie Strong, who left to become Louisville's head coach.

Strong couldn't just coach, he could recruit.

Another new coach to follow is first-year receivers assistant Zach Azzanni, who takes over for Billy Gonzales, who is now at LSU. As has been well-documented, Florida's receiving unit wasn't exactly a strength in 2009, so let's see what kind of impact Azzanni can make on a group that returns players such as Omarius Hines and Deonte Thompson , along with speedster Andre Debose, who was redshirted due to a hamstring injury last year.

What happened: So far, so good. The players seem to have taken to their new coaches. Austin, some said this spring, isn't much different than Strong was, both in coaching philosophy and personality.

Azzanni is an intense young, hands-on coach who to date has drawn rave reviews. Quite frankly, he has the demeanor and work ethic of a guy who may someday soon be a head coach. From the first day of spring practice until the last, his receivers made tremendous strides. That unit is still a question mark, but not as much of one, and Azzanni deserves a ton of credit for that.

D.J. Durkin, who came from Stanford and coaches linebackers and special teams, also received praise in the spring -- mainly from Meyer. Stan Drayton, who returned as running backs coach after two seasons away, made a smooth transition back to his old position. His coaching style is one the team's running backs seem to like. Drayton also has been a recruiting warrior -- just as he was during his previous stint in Gainesville.

4. How will things shake out on defense?

Florida lost a lot from one of the country's most stingy defenses, particularly at linebacker, where Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe and Ryan Stamper are gone. Not only did each make the plays they were supposed to make, they made the ones many cannot. Each was among the team's top five in total tackles last season.

Who fills the void there?

Well, at one spot Florida has rising senior A.J. Jones, and that's a good starting point. Jones arguably is the team's most underrated player, but as he proved against Georgia last year he's capable of doing special things. Brandon Hicks, who saw extensive action in 2009, is another excellent player. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, both members of the 2009 recruiting class, also will be vying to get into the mix. Additionally, this could be the opening needed for a player such as Lorenzo Edwards, who has had a relatively quiet career, to step in and make an impact.

What happened: As a whole, the defense still has a handful of starting spots that haven't been determined, most notably at defensive end, cornerback and middle linebacker.

Hicks and Jones, barring something unforeseeable, will occupy the outside linebacker spots. Inside, Jenkins appears to have a slight edge over Bostic.

For now.

Brendan Beal, who fell to third on the depth chart, has transferred.

There are some who think Jenkins will end up outside because of his size and speed, but the bulk of his spring snaps came inside. Regardless of where Jenkins lands, Florida looks solid at linebacker. In fact, even Edwards, who has had quiet career, shined in the spring.

5. Which early enrollees will emerge?

Florida's 2010 recruiting class might be the most hyped in school history, and several of its members have already enrolled. The Gators have shown they'll put the best players on the field regardless of class, which means each of these newcomers will have the opportunity to impress and possibly earn playing time.

The most important early enrollee, without question, is quarterback Trey Burton. Given Florida's lack of depth at that position, it will be imperative for Burton to hit the ground running.

At tight end, where Florida lost all-everything Aaron Hernandez to the NFL Draft, Gerald Christian might actually have an opportunity to earn a starting spot.

Christian's Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer teammate Matt Elam, a consensus five-star-recruit, also is on campus and is slated to line up at safety.

Leon Orr is another early enrollee to watch. Listed at 6-foot-5, 344 pounds, Orr is an athletic freak who probably is talented enough right now to start at many programs.

At Florida, he will begin his career at defensive tackle. What's interesting about that is that Orr played tight end and defensive end in high school -- and missed most of his senior year with a fractured leg. Has he fully recovered? Is he a defensive tackle? And is there a chance Orr could get a look at tight end, on the offensive line or at fullback in goalline situations?

What happened: Of all the early enrollees, Elam was the one who stood out. A powerful, fast and hard-hitting safety, Meyer said he already has assured himself of getting serious playing time this fall.

After a relatively slow start, Burton also performed at a high level, and could offer the Gators a change-of-pace option to Brantley in certain situations.

Defensive end Neiron Ball was another early enrollee who stepped up. One of the lesser-known recruits in the class, he spent most of the spring working with the second team and impressed coaches with his quickness.

Finally, cornerback Jaylen Watkins also had his moments. Fast and smooth, Watkins has a nose for the ball and a knack for creating turnovers. He still has much to learn, but very well could find himself on the field come September.


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