Florida's halfway through its four scheduled open practices this August, and more than halfway through the 2013 fall practice calendar. I was out at both practices — Thursday's night session at Donald R. Dizney Lacrosse Stadium and Saturday's morning session in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — and came away more or less impressed with what Florida is working with heading into the 2013 season.
But there are takeaways, things that you see over and over again, and observations, things that you see in fits and starts. I'm going to try to separate the former from the latter here.
Demarcus Robinson is the real deal
Yes, Demarcus Robinson is a freshman, and a freshman wide receiver; no freshman wide receiver has done anything worth noting at Florida since Percy Harvin's fantastic 2006. Yes, Robinson definitely still needs coaching, and will not be the best option Florida has at wideout for the Gators' first game.
But, yes, he's the most exciting thing I've seen on the field over the four hours of practice I've watched. And it's not close.
Robinson's made three very good plays that I've seen: A subtly incredible one-handed catch in stride on a route that saw him beat Marcus Roberson deep on Thursday; a great leaping catch over Nick Washington on Thursday that forced Robinson to high-point the ball by plucking it from in front of Washington, who had very good coverage on the play; and a one-handed over-the-shoulder grab on a goal-line fade on Saturday, again against Washington. All three of those plays got cheers from the crowd, and when only 10 to 12 plays get cheers in two days, and one player makes three of them, that's a good sign. (A fourth catch, at the goal line on Saturday, stood out to me, but didn't get applause.)
Robinson looks fluid coming in and out of his breaks, despite being a legitimate 6'2" at least, and has repeatedly demonstrated that he knows how to go get the ball in the air and put his body in position to shield off a defender. He doesn't have blazing speed, and isn't quite as quick as some of the other Florida receivers, but he was consistently running good routes and getting open, something I couldn't say for any other receiver but Quinton Dunbar (who also looks quite good).
I don't want to predict that Robinson's going to have a great season, given that we still don't know how much Florida's going to want or need to pass the ball. But I think Robinson's definitely the real deal — and I like Demarcus "Real Deal" Robinson and "Real Deal" Demarcus Robinson as nicknames, and think #DRDR and #RDDR are fun as shorthand — and would be very surprised if a healthy Robinson weren't among the top three Florida receivers in yards and touchdowns in 2013.
And Robinson was the most exciting player over these two days because he's a player Florida could really use if he's ready early, and because he appears to be right on, if not ahead of, schedule. We know a lot about many of the other really good players the Gators have; Robinson's still a question mark, even if he's on the verge of turning into an exclamation point.
Florida will have a pass rush
Florida's had a very good defense in each of the last two years under Will Muschamp, and I've argued that it was one of the nation's elite defenses in 2012. Those units have largely done that without the benefit of a great pass rush; I don't think the 2013 version will have the same problem.
Seemingly every time I looked up on a rep that involved Dante Fowler or Ronald Powell coming after the quarterback, one or the other was there. Fowler, who looks faster and bigger than he did in his great freshman season, was especially impressive coming around the edge, and got into the backfield on a couple of run plays that would've been tackles for loss in a real game. Powell looks very much like the player he was as the best recruit in America in 2009, and is tall, fast, and strong — so strong that, on one rep, his initial contact on D.J. Humphries knocked Humphries back out of his stance.
And Dominique Easley looks good, and Neiron Ball looks fast, and I haven't seen Jonathan Bullard, and I really do think Florida's offensive line is better this year, so I'm confident in predicting that Florida's going to match the 30 sacks it got in 13 games last year.
Just don't get hurt, Jeff Driskel
I thought Driskel looked pretty good on Thursday, hitting on a couple nice throws (at least one of Robinson's catches came on a Driskel throw) and generally looking like the best quarterback on the field by far. His Saturday was far more frustrating, and he looked like the best quarterback on the field by default.
Driskel had one great moment on Saturday, when he worked through his progression and lofted a perfectly weighted throw to Dunbar in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown. The rest of his day was a mix of missed passes — he threw a pick on a poor throw behind a receiver in one goal-line passing drill, and had a couple of bad throws on the first and second downs of the day's final drive in a two-minute drill, one forcing Mark Herndon to try to make a catch with his hands and another nearly getting tracked down for a pick by Cody Riggs — and frustrations with his receivers' inability to get open. (Dunbar and Robinson are clearly the two best Florida pass-catchers in terms of getting separation, and Trey Burton's excellent route-running was missed late on Saturday, after he left the field with an injury.)
Driskel was still measurably better than Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg, and Max Staver, who all wore red non-contact jerseys for both practices. Murphy throws a pretty ball, as he always has — he's the most Chris Leak-like of Florida's current mix of quarterbacks — but he lofted a few too many of those passes on Saturday, and was slow in making reads. Mornhinweg was inaccurate on both days, throwing a couple of ducks that made me groan. And Staver's impressive arm strength is still without accuracy to match; if he doesn't redshirt this fall, I will be shocked.
I can't say I personally saw minor leaguer-turned-quarterback Chris Wilkes throw on either day, and he was standing around in a blue jersey on Saturday, so I imagine he's not really part of the depth chart at this point.
Bottom line: Jeff Driskel's health is going to be paramount this fall. It's a really good thing his appendix decided it needed to come out prior to fall practice.
These Gators appear to like working
The two practices we saw were in the middle of fall practice, right where a team as young as this one — Florida has 51 players who have been around for at least three years (seven redshirt seniors, seven seniors, 16 redshirt juniors, 10 juniors, and 11 redshirt sophomores ... and has 45 true freshmen and redshirt freshmen who have scarcely played a snap of college football — could hit a wall and be bad. And with the caveat that I picked a place and stayed there for both practices, and saw more offensive and defensive linemen on Thursday and more skill position players on Saturday, I just didn't see that.
This team looks like one that is embracing the work Will Muschamp and all of his position coaches want out of them, whether the coaches are gruff (Brad Lawing and Tim Davis fit here), loud (D.J. Durkin and Brian White), or more personable (Joker Phillip and Travaris Robinson). And I saw Dunbar take Robinson and show him something about how to get off the line, and saw Easley lead a pre-snap dance party that included Fowler and Leon Orr, so it looks like this team has leaders, too.
If practice is about fun, hard work for these Gators. I think their results are going to be fun to enjoy, too. And this (important context here) sure looks like fun after hard work to me, even if I can't tell who's doing the flipping:
- Vernon Hargreaves III sat out both practices I saw with what is apparently a minor injury. It would be nice to have him around, because he'd probably be Florida's second-quickest cornerback behind Loucheiz Purifoy.
- Purifoy was supposed to be playing offense by this point in camp, but he was in a white jersey and with the defense for the duration of both practices. He worked with returners and looked fine doing it, and is every bit as fluid and fast as he has ever been, so this smells like Florida hiding The Purifoy Project from the public more than Purifoy being needed on defense.
- After all, while Purifoy is needed on defense, it's staggering how much talent is in the defensive backfield for Florida. From Roberson and Purifoy on down to Nick Washington and Keanu Neal, there's an embarrassment of riches for Muschamp and T-Rob to fiddle with in the secondary, and I wouldn't be shocked to see a lot of nickel and dime packages this year.
- Impressive bodies: Adam Lane is built like a brick wall; Trenton Brown is the size of a brick wall; Marcell Harris is very thick in his legs; Jay-nard Bostwick has the frame of an NFL defensive tackle (with a fair bit of baby fat); Kelvin Taylor's got a running back's rear; Colin Thompson is very solidly built.
- Of the receivers who aren't Robinson, Dunbar, and Burton, Ahmad Fulwood's clearly the best talent, and has the long stride of a tall guy and the agility of a smaller man. But he didn't make any plays that I saw.
- Jon Halapio being out is very strange. He's been such a fixture on Florida's line for so long that it would be jarring to see the Gators without him in a real game.
- I saw enough throws to backs out of the backfield and option pitches to think that both of those things are going to be facets of Florida's offense this year. The offense also ran an end-around (to Solomon Patton, who looks very quick) and ran a toss off a fake end-around on Saturday.
- I didn't see a lot of the exotic fronts that Lawing promises to bring with him from South Carolina, but I think Florida's going to line up its linemen quite wide on passing downs to facilitate stunts and twists off what appear to be outside rush looks.
- I was pleasantly surprised by the crowds for both practices. Probably in excess of 2,500 fans turned out to see the night practice at Dizney on Thursday (it was as packed as I've seen Dizney since Florida lacrosse's first home match against Northwestern), and better than 2,000 showed up today despite gray skies that ended up spitting rain by the end of practice.
If you've got specific questions about players for me, leave them in the comments. I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting.