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March 16, 2011

Smith: Spring Practice Breakdown

MORE SPRING FOOTBALL: Pre-spring depth chart & injury report released | Cohen: The unexpected Weis | Muschamp wasn't looking for yes men | New defensive coordinator takes center stage

The last time Florida had to replace a legend, athletic director Jeremy Foley fell Zook, line and sinker for the wrong coach.

This time, he appears to have landed a prize-winning bass. Will Muschamp and Ron Zook share nothing more than surface similarities - both were defensive coordinators and neither had been a head coach when they accepted the Florida job.

But Muschamp never has been demoted for poor performance, as Zook was by Steve Spurrier in 1994. Muschamp's defenses never have made mediocre quarterbacks look like the second coming of Joe Montana, as Zook's did to the likes of Jamie Howard and Todd Jordan in 1993.

Muschamp was in the top one percent of one percent among college defensive coordinators and the head coach in waiting at Texas. Foley reeled him in when he had the chance, and the Muschamp era begins in earnest today.

It's an exciting time, but unfortunately none of us will get to see anything until the Orange and Blue game since Florida has closed spring practice to fans and reporters for the first time in school history.

Here are a few items to look for if you actually could watch spring drills. Keep in mind that Janoris Jenkins, Mike Blakely and Jeff Demps will not practice.

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TIME TO SHINE: Five Gators (one coach and four players) who will need to emerge this spring
1) Charlie Weis, offensive coordinator: Weis was terrific as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, winning two Super Bowls. He had some explosive offenses at Notre Dame, riding quarterback Brady Quinn to the Fiesta Bowl in his first season and putting up good point totals with Jimmy Clausen two years ago. His third year at Notre Dame, though, was scarily bad. The Fighting Irish finished dead last among Division I teams in total offense. That's not bad recruiting. That's bad coaching. If Weis learned from his mistakes, the Gators should be fine. He's one of the best passing-game teachers in the business, and he won't have to worry about developing a cohesive offensive line, a continual problem at Notre Dame.
2. John Brantley, Sr, QB: If Weis can resurrect Brantley's career, he'll deserve every genius label he's been given. The Gators need Brantley to shake off last year's abysmal performance in the spread because none of their other returning quarterbacks are as suited to Weis' pro-style offense as he would be if the regains his confidence. By the end of 2010, Brantley was inaccurate and frequently checked down to the wrong receiver, missing big-play opportunities. He showed promise as Tim Tebow's backup in 2009. Somewhere, lurking inside him is the talented quarterback prospect Florida signed in 2007.
3. Deonte Thompson, Sr, WR: As with Brantley, some observers have given up on Thompson because of his penchant for dropping passes in critical situations, but he still had almost twice as many receiving yards (570 on 38 catches) as any teammate a year ago. He could post huge numbers in Weis' offense if he learns to execute the fundamentals, and the spring would be a good time to start. Old habits die hard, but let Thompson play for a coach understands the passing game before burying a guy with his raw running skills.
4. Ronald Powell, So., DE/LB: Florida's pass rush stank last year as the Gators ranked 86th nationally with 21 sacks. Someone has to emerge as a threat off the edge, and Powell is the best bet this spring. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn plans to use Powell as an end in the base 4-3 and an outside linebacker in the 3-4, giving him an opportunity to get to the quarterback. After learning on the job as a true freshman, finishing with 25 tackles, and one sack, Powell should be ready to step up. Florida can't afford another year without a difference-maker at end.
5. Jon Bostic, Jr., LB: Harsh, but true: Bostic was a tad disappointing as a redshirt freshman despite finishing third on the team in tackle with 57. He looked slow and stiff after a quick start, hardly resembling the player who looked like he would have a breakout season when fall camp began. Bostic can still be that guy, teaming with weakside 'backer Jelani Jenkins to make a terrific duo. Bostic will start at middle linebacker in the spring and needs to show the coaches he is a difference maker rather than a routine play maker.

BATTLE ROYAL: Three Position Battles to Watch (er, hear about)
1. Running back: The Gators are starved for a big-time running back after going through the entire Meyer era without a 1,000-yard rusher. They'll settle for a consistent performer in the spring in the absence of Demps, who will concentrate on track. Someone needs to show something, whether it is Chris Rainey, Mike Gillislee or Mack Brown in what Weis terms the half back or Trey Burton at what Weis calls the F-Back. Burton, who scored 11 rushing touchdowns as a part-time quarterback last year, is an intriguing possibility.

Rainey, lucky to still be on the team, needs to take advantage of his good fortune by having a solid spring. After posting preposterous numbers as a scat-back for Lakeland, his career high at Florida is 652 yards as a freshman. At least he has returned to running back after a failed experiment at receiver in 2010.

The winner is: Gilislee. He looked better than Emmanuel Moody last year and finished with 325 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. His stats would have been better if he had taken more of the carries Moody had. At 5-11, 198 pounds, Gilislee is bigger than his competition and should fit into Weis' pro-style scheme a little better.
2. Quarterback: The scheme and Steve Addazio's play-calling drew deserved criticism last fall. The other problem, of course, may be that Brantley is not very good. Weis will find out in the spring, with redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy and touted true freshman Jeff Driskel looking to prove themselves. Could Driskel be ready this early in his career?

The winner is: Brantley. Remember Weis' dreadful experience with Clausen in his true freshman year. Yep, that was Notre Dame aforementioned dead-last finish in total offense. Weis would much prefer holding off on Driskel for a year. If Brantley shows a pulse, he should hold on to the top spot through spring drills.
3. Defensive Tackle: With Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard limited in the spring, the other guys will be desperate to make sure they are part of the rotation entering fall drills. True sophomore Sharrif Floyd, junior Earl Okine, Dominique Easley and redshirt freshman Leon Orr are in the mix at the two tackle spots.

The winner is: Floyd for sure. Definitely not Okine. A whopping eight of Floyd's 23 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage last year, and he will only get better with a year of experience. Okine, who had five tackles, looks good in his uniform but does not have an internal motor. He lacked it at Gainesville High School, and the problem followed him to UF.
THE TERRIFIC TEN: Top Five players on Offense/Defense
1. Xavier Nixon
Started as a true freshman before suffering a setback last year due to injury. Nixon should be ready to dominate at right tackle entering his third season if he fills out his frame over the spring and summer.
2. Mike Gillislee
After Florida's pitiful offensive performance in 2010, the new staff has to find some playmakers. Look for Gilislee to emerge as one of them.
3. Trey Burton
The coaches have to find a way to get him on the field. Burton, a winner, can be effective as a receiver or running back.
4. Deonte Thompson
I know, I know. He's burned his followers several times in the past, but at least one of the receivers has to break out, right? Right?
5. Omarius Hines
This big receiver target should fit in well in Weis' scheme. Hines never will be a star, but he can move the chains.
1. Jelani Jenkins
He had 76 tackles, a 47-yard interception return and a 10-yard fumble return in his first year as a starter. He's a future big-timer, and that time is fast approaching.
2. Matt Elam
Now that Ahmad Black has moved on, say hello to Florida's next playmaking safety. Elam adds a little more size and speed back there.
3. Ronald Powell
Wouldn't it be nice to see a Florida defensive end get near the quarterback every once in a while? Powell is the best bet to make it happen.
4. Jon Bostic
He's ready. I thought that last season, too, but it was a year too early for him to reach his potential. Bostic is not explosive, but he will become more solid.
5. Sharrif Floyd
Rare is the defensive tackle who is ready to dominate when he arrives on campus. Floyd was unhappy for part of last year despite earning regular playing time, but he will be all smiles as a starter in the spring.

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