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It's been over three months since Florida fans got to see their team play football. Three months of dwelling on the 8-5 season that was Urban Meyer's lackluster finale. More than 90 days worth of questions about the team's future, how the new coaching staff will mesh together and whether or not there is enough talent left in Gainesville to allow the Gators to continue being a top-tier program without missing a second beat.
Those hoping all - or even most - of those questions will be answered on Saturday at the 2011 Orange & Blue Debut may need a bit of a reality check.
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Between the seemingly never-ending number of injuries the team has suffered (especially on the lines and in the backfield), the secretive nature of spring practice (not only to help team chemistry but also to iron out imperfections) and the spring games generally being not much more than an appetizer to hold fans over until the fall, Saturday's glorified scrimmage will not provide much in terms of tangible information going forward. That being said, there are a few general things you can look out for at The Swamp:
Offensive changes: With Charlie Weis coming in and providing Florida with a true pro-style offense, John Brantley lining up under center and Chris Rainey running the ball via direct hand-off from deep in the backfield are givens. You will also see play actions (actually including a running back), a concentration on throwing the ball deep (to get the fans excited), an attempt to get Jordan Reed involved as tight end and a first-look at "QB-of-the-future" Jeff Driskel. As with most of these games, expect to see some of the smaller and faster guys (Rainey, Robert Clark, Solomon Patton, Javares McRoy) shine.
Getting to the quarterback: Though Brantley, Driskel and Tyler Murphy will all be donning red no-contact jerseys, head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have been putting an emphasis this spring on disrupting the signal caller on defense. There has been nothing but praise lauded on super sophomore defenders Ronald Powell (buck linebacker), Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley (defensive tackles) this spring, with Powell's versatility and Easley's first-step being especially hot topics of conversation. With a young and banged up offensive line missing five or six players on Saturday, the defense should be able to show major gains in this area.
Special teams continuity: Kicker Caleb Sturgis is still recovering from multiple back injuries but will likely get a few opportunities to knock some field goals through on Saturday. More important to watch is punter Kyle Christy, who is replacing Ray Guy Award-winner Chas Henry. Exciting? Not really. Important? No doubt about it. Field position in the fall will be as important as ever for a Florida team implementing entirely new packages and systems on both sides of the ball. Christy's ability to succeed Henry will be integral to the team's success this season.
Familiar faces on the sideline: In addition to former Florida quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel being on hand to watch the unveiling of their Heisman Trophy statues at halftime of the game, a number of other former Gators will be roaming around Gainesville over the weekend. Linebacker Mike Peterson will be inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame on Friday, running back Fred Taylor will be speaking to the team and others like LB/DE Jarvis Moss, DT Joe Cohen, offensive linemen Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, and wide receivers Riley Cooper and David Nelson will be taking in the game and catching up with old friends. All of this support continues to be welcomed by Muschamp as it is important to help a young group feel comfortable with so many changes being thrust at them in a short period of time.
Saturday probably won't go a long way to showcasing how dramatically different this team will look come the fall, but the Orange & Blue Debut should certainly give you a taste of football that may be just enough to hold you over until the main course on Sept. 3.