Florida spring practice: Previewing the offense before the Orange and Blue Debut

USA TODAY Sports

Florida's passing game was its weakness in 2012. Can Jeff Driskel air it out in 2013?

On Saturday, Florida football will kinda, sorta have an Orange and Blue Debut.

It won’t be conventional, thanks in large part to the Gators only having six healthy offensive linemen. But, despite the fact that it will have the appearance of the open practices Gator fans enjoyed a few weeks ago, I have a few things I’ll be paying attention to at each position when football returns to The Swamp in some sort of capacity this weekend.

Today, a rundown of the offense.

Quarterbacks

Will Muschamp has said that Jeff Driskel is improving nicely. So let’s see it.

In the individual periods, can he put throws consistently where they need to be without a pass rush? That wasn’t always the case during Florida’s open practices three weeks ago. In a 7-on-7 setting, throws shouldn’t be behind receivers, but some of Driskel's were.

When Florida does go 11-on-11, what are Driskel's instincts going to tell him to do? Driskel is athletically gifted — of that we have no doubt — but when his first option isn’t open, has he continued to develop the poise to scan through his progressions, or will he tuck and run?

Reading defenses well isn’t something that comes naturally; quarterbacks have to work at it continuously. There’s really only one way to do it, by studying film and applying it on the field, and that’s something his offensive coordinator Brent Pease is doing his best to stress at every opportunity, even on social media:

While Driskel won’t be splitting first team reps, those behind him will need to prove their worth as at least capable backups. Tyler Murphy stuck things out at Florida when it seemed like a pretty conceivable notion that he would transfer. I’ll be interested in seeing how he does Saturday. Skyler Mornhinweg is listed third on the depth chart, and could be a pivotal scout team guy, so I'm not expecting greatness, but one or two flashes of brilliance would be nice.

Tailbacks

Florida's stable of backs may be the best position unit on the team, and the talent starts at the top of the depth chart.

Matt Jones is the bruising, punishing running back Will Muschamp salivates over to fit the blue-collar offensive image that wins national championships these days. (Google search Alabama’s running backs over the past six years for further reference.) On third down in the fourth quarter, Jones will be called upon to put leads on ice, and all signs so far show he can deliver.

Jones' physicality is a given, but it will be interesting to see how he performs catching the ball out of the backfield, something he was good at in high school. Brent Pease has stressed that this season will feature an increased importance on backs catching the ball out of the backfield, so it would be nice to see what he can do on Saturday.

Kelvin Taylor will also showcase his skills to the public for the first time in The Swamp as a Gator on Saturday. Muschamp has said that Taylor as well as the other early enrollees are “swimming” in information. It makes sense: They should be high school seniors, yet they’re at UF learning a complex offense as best they can in three weeks.

But that leaves players artificially lower on the depth chart than their talent might suggest they should be. Taylor’s physical gifts are there: In a scrimmage two Saturdays ago, he ripped off a 40-yard run on a screen pass. But when he spends too much time thinking, it gets in the way of his natural ability.

At his best, Taylor is quick and elusive, and accelerates well through the holes. So I don’t want to see him think Saturday, even though the coaches might. He just needs to go out there and do. Make people miss in space, and worry about thinking in the offseason when you aren’t drinking water out of a fire hose. When Taylor has to block he’ll probably do subpar, but that’s okay for now. Decisions like that are thinking man’s activities.

Mack Brown will bruise and bang just like Matt Jones. With Jones supplanted as the starter and Taylor impressing, the sense of urgency needs to be evident in every rep Brown takes.

Brown’s been a bit of an enigma, but he’s a talented enigma that produced well (4.08 yards per carry) in limited action last season. A productive Brown could make this one of the best stable of running backs in the country when it’s all said and done.

Fullbacks

Hunter Joyer will be called upon to plow the road in short yardage situations, but he's mostly a blocker. You know what you’re getting from him: A massive road grader who doesn't have a lot of burst.

But Gideon Ajagbe, by all accounts, loves to hit like Joyer does, and is now part of the backfield. Ajagbe has been cross training for depth purposes this spring, and I’ll be paying attention to just how physical he can be, but he also has some speed that Joyer doesn't.

As for Trey Burton, we'll list him here, but the guy plays a ton of positions. Gators fans hold him to an insanely high standard because of his six-touchdown performance against Kentucky his freshman year. I’ll look for him to change the pace of things and fit in as both a slot receiver and wildcat quarterback. He’ll also play a bit of running back, fullback, water boy, trainer, and team videographer.

In all seriousness, I just want to see Burton produce wherever he fits in on the field. He won't win the Heisman, but his versatility is important, and dangerous.

Wide Receivers

I’m searching for something, anything from this unit. They’ve got a shiny new position coach in Joker Phillips to teach them up, and continue to be the biggest work in progress on this team.

I’m looking for Andre Debose to get whatever it is he needs to get through his head, as usual. I’ll be looking for Quinton Dunbar to get separation consistently, show off his hands, and develop a rep as a consistent playmaker.

And, of course, I’ll have an eye on Loucheiz Purifoy and what he can do in the snaps he sees on offense.

The job for these receivers should really be easy: Run good routes, get open and make Driskel’s job easier. For a group of receivers that doesn’t have great size, that’s how they will make a difference.

While I’m sure Phillips is beating this into their heads, it also bears repeating: If the Gators who suit up Saturday don’t show they can play, there are four freshmen coming into camp this fall that will be hungry to see the field. Demarcus Robinson, the fifth freshman wide receiver, is already on campus, but hampered by an ankle injury, so I won’t be expecting much out of him Saturday.

Tight Ends

With no wide receivers on the depth chart over 6’2”, the big targets for Florida will have to come from this position group. Florida’s most productive receiver last year was its tight end, Jordan Reed, whose 45 receptions for 559 yards accounted for 29 percent of Florida’s entire yardage output through the air. With all those yards headed to the NFL, the burden will fall on Clay Burton, Kent Taylor, Tevin Westbrook and Colin Thompson to flash something in the passing game.

Also: Besides their output in the passing game, how do these guys block? That other thing tight ends do wasn't Jordan Reed's specialty, but Brent Pease's offense uses extra blockers, and seeing the field might be easier for tight ends if they can play that role, too.

Offensive Line

Florida's offensive line is banged up. Or, in other words, it's a M.A.S.H. unit, and the reason the spring game has its rather unique feel. There are only six healthy linemen, so they’ll take every snap in the scrimmage periods.

My focus will be on D.J. Humphries Saturday. There has to be stability at left tackle more so than almost any position on the field. As Driskel progresses in his ability to read defenses, the peace of mind offered by the fact that he won’t get blasted on his blind side will go a long way.

Humphries is smallish for a left tackle, listed at 275. How small is that, really? Of the top five SEC teams in sacks allowed last season, the weight of the players that started the majority of the season’s games at left tackles is as follows: 332 lbs. 300 lbs. 305 lbs. 310 lbs. 310lbs. Xavier Nixon started 11 of Florida’s games at left tackle and was listed at 314 lbs.

Muschamp has said Humphries’ weight is over 280, and he will only get bigger as the Gators enter summer workouts. And while he may be slight for the position, Humphries is no slouch, playing in 12 games last season and was a member of the SEC all freshman team. Now, however, the job of covering Driskel’s blind side is all on him. I’ll be interested to see how he does against Florida's menacing ends.

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