Florida wrapped up its four open August practices on Tuesday with a session supposed to be open to students only on Tuesday, and I came away from it with little more than I got from the other three practices.
But putting the observations from four practices together gives me a good feel for this team heading into a 2013 season that is sure to be surprising in a lot of ways. Again, there are takeaways, things that you see over and over again, and observations, things that you see in fits and starts, and I'm going to try to separate the former from the latter.
You miss Loucheiz Purifoy when he's not around
I didn't see Loucheiz Purifoy on Tuesday at Florida's final open practice, and I spent much of it scanning for him. He wasn't on the sideline that I could tell, and wasn't with the beleaguered defensive backs, who have been plagued by nicks and bruises throughout fall camp, leaving very few healthy corners.
And it was a different practice without Purifoy, because he was impossible to miss over the first few days.
He's an elite, freakish athlete, both quick and fast and blessed with leaping ability; we know all that. He spent 2012 getting by on those athletic abilities on defense, often covering for substandard technique with his gifts. 2013 is going to be different, and better, for Purifoy, but it's also going to be the same, and better.
Purifoy was especially impressive on Monday, when he blocked two punts in a punt block drill and made a twisting mid-air interception like it was nothing. But he was running all over the field for all of the three days I did see him, working well with the returners and flipping his hips better than any other defensive back. There is a fluidity to Purifoy that I haven't seen from a Florida Gator since Percy Harvin, and it's a pleasure to watch, and his skills make him the least replaceable player not wearing No. 6 on this roster.
Not having him out and running around on Tuesday was noticeable, because I sincerely missed watching him work.
In the first practice report, I wrote that Demarcus Robinson was the most exciting player on the field in these practices, and he stayed that way in the second pair of sessions. Purifoy, though, is going to be the most exciting player on the field in the fall for Florida, and I'm convinced that fans didn't see him on offense in these four practices because of the lack of healthy corners, not a lack of faith in Purifoy's talents. And Florida's certainly not so deep at wide receiver as to keep him off the offensive side of the ball.
The storm of hype ginned up over Purifoy has always seemed a bit like hype for hype's sake to me, and I do still think Marcus Roberson is likely to be just as good as Purifoy this fall. But Roberson will be as good as Purifoy at corner, while Purifoy is certain to contribute on punt and kick coverage, likely to contribute on kick returns, and probably will contribute on offense at some point. There will be a Purifoy Effect of sorts this fall, in which fans will expect Purifoy to be the savior of whatever ails Florida in a given moment. He might just be able to satisfy those fans.
I'm not willing to be swept up by that storm of hype just yet, but, forced to choose the one Florida player I'm most looking forward to seeing this fall, I'm picking Purifoy.
Again: Florida will have a pass rush
Another big name I didn't see at Tuesday's practice: Dominique Easley. He wasn't with the defensive line that I saw, and wasn't part of the 11-on-11 scrimmage portions of practice as either a first-team or second-team player.
Florida didn't suffer nearly as much as you might think, because that defensive line really might be as good on the edges as advertised.
Dante Fowler is going to be this team's best pass rusher, because he's got speed, size, and instincts. Ronald Powell has what Fowler has, minus some power. Jonathan Bullard is still a bull. Neiron Ball could be a supplementary rusher from the linebacking corps. Marcus Maye has a little Matt Elam in his game, even if he's significantly bigger than Elam. And Easley will be back, and is drawing high praise from his coaches.
There are still legitimate questions about Florida's defensive tackles, though Leon Orr has seemingly cemented himself at one of the spots inside, and Florida may not be able to unleash its pass rush, or Brad Lawing's more exotic pass rush tactics, if it can't stop the run and hand opposing offenses passing downs. On third and long, though, there will be pressure. Trust.
It's Driskel, Murphy, Mornhinweg, panic
Jeff Driskel is Florida's best quarterback, and will be Florida's starter barring injury. If Driskel goes down, Tyler Murphy will come in. If Murphy gets hurt, the job is Skyler Mornhinweg's. If Mornhinweg gets hurt, Florida should just figure out a way to run the wishbone.
Driskel looked good to very good with some frustrating moments thrown in over the four practices, and generally looked like a more confident, decisive, and comfortable version of the player he was when he was good in 2012. Obviously, we saw very little of the Driskel who scrambles away from contact and keeps the ball on designed runs, but I will be surprised if he's not markedly improved as a passer on Saturdays this fall.
Murphy, on the other hand, looks a lot like Driskel did last year, or like Jacoby Brissett always did, in one sense: He is currently a pocket passer whose reads are not fast enough to be counted on reliably. Murphy still throws the most Chris Leak-like ball of the QBs, with excellent mechanics, but he's a very deliberate thrower, and locks on to receivers. I will be holding my head in my hands if he comes in for non-garbage time snaps.
I will be audibly groaning if Mornhinweg is inserted with the game on the line. He threw the most ducks of any of Florida's QBs over the four days of practice, and looked decent to my eyes only on Monday. Mornhinweg lacks Driskel's measureables and Murphy's mechanics, and he's not as quick as either player, so Florida would be forced to use him much like Florida State used Clint Trickett as an emergency QB ... except I'm not convinced Mornhinweg has even Trickett's arm strength.
Max Staver has that arm strength and then some, and might even have a bigger arm than Driskel, but he's got no idea how to be a Florida quarterback just yet. After erratic days in the red non-contact jersey of a quarterback expected to be in the mix for snaps, he wore blue on Tuesday, and is almost assured of a redshirt this fall.
After four practices, I can't say I saw any other quarterbacks throw, either. So, again: Driskel has to stay healthy.
Injuries have already made this a different team
Missing Matt Jones means watching one good running back (Mack Brown) and some other runners (Kelvin Taylor, Valdez Showers, Mark Herndon, and Adam Lane) who are learning how to be running backs. Missing Andre Debose means missing a lot of speed. Missing Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves III and Jaylen Watkins and Jeremy Brown means watching a perilously thin secondary.
I trust Florida's coaches when they talk about a "Man down, man up" mantra meant to make it clear that no one is irreplaceable; I think Debose's injury is going to help Demarcus Robinson on offense by forcing him to get more reps, and I think the secondary injuries, all seemingly minor, are really just getting younger players more reps right now. Jones's illness is less positive, as the running game simply isn't as explosive or as reliable without him, but I doubt Valdez Showers, who looks like an offensive contributor, gets shifted to offense without it.
Just remember that even the little injuries after March or so matter, and aren't just shrugged off or dealt with; they allow other players to step up or step back, and allow coaches a clearer view of depth.
- Jeremy Brown in an orange jersey by Tuesday is one of the least surprising things ever.
- Keanu Neal laid a few big hits over the practices I saw. He's probably not going to start this fall, but he'll see the field.
- Florida's going to use a triple option off a zone read this year at some point. I saw it in three of the four practices (Monday was the exception, and I might've just missed it), and saw it in video of another practice; there's no reason it would be practiced this often and not used. And to be clear: It's the zone read triple option, not the conventional I-form or veer triple options, that I'm expecting, and I'm expecting it from the shotgun.
- Florida also ran a significant portion of its Tuesday offensive snaps in one period from a formation I didn't recognize, with fullbacks Gideon Ajagbe (who looked excellent as a blocker and receiver on those snaps) and Rhaheim Ledbetter lining up at typical I-form fullback depth, but even with the tackles, and a halfback at typical I-form fullback depth. That sounds like the diamond, except Driskel was under center. Anyone know what this is?
- The only receivers I fully trust are Quinton Dunbar, Trey Burton, and Robinson. No one else really stood out to me, though Solomon Patton would be my bet to join that trio at some point.
- There are maybe six or seven offensive linemen I trust, and three of them — Jonotthan Harrison, D.J. Humphries, and Tyler Moore — all fielded punts in front of the team at the end of Tuesday's practice. Humphries made a nice juggling catch, Harrison couldn't get under either of the punts he saw, and Moore, who waved for a fair catch about half a second after the punt was launched from its JUGGS machine, corralled his punt while backpedaling, to the delight of his teammates and the fans. It was a really good way to end practice.
- Travaris Robinson is Florida's most entertaining coach by far. He cussed out and cheered players in equal measure, and seemed to do all of it with a smile. If his successes on the recruiting trail weren't enough to mark him as a future star, the way he handles the position group that his well-respected head coach knows best would be.
- The one area in which Florida's running backs consistently struggled on Monday? Pass protection. So sending out the running backs as receivers makes sense for more than one reason.
- Players I would bet on redshirting: Staver, Adam Lane (just not explosive enough yet, and still on his way back from injury), Chris Thompson (reed-thin), Alvin Bailey (buried on the depth chart at receiver, not practicing with the returners, and also this), Octavius Jackson, Rod Johnson, Trevon Young, and Cameron Dillard (offensive linemen who won't be needed without injury), Jarrad Davis (not needed if Antonio Morrison is available), and Johnny Townsend (who looks good, but is obviously not needed if Kyle Christy is breathing).
- Crowds remained very good on Monday and Tuesday, despite the Sanders Field ants getting to me and many other observers on Monday and brief period of showers gracing The Swamp on Tuesday. If these open practices were being used as a barometer to see how important having them really is, I think Gators fans showed that they definitely care.
- The ban on pictures that was in effect for all four days is stupid, and enforcing it is even dumber. Ban fancy cameras if you want to make sure that GatorZone and credentialed sites have all the really good pictures, but you can't stop every picture in the smartphone era, and a worker warning a woman for literally taking a picture of the clouds on Thursday really rubbed me wrong. There's no competitive edge gained from keeping fans from taking pictures to tweet or post to Facebook, Coach.
- Signs made it very clear that students were not to share observations on social media at Tuesday's practice, and cell phone use was "discouraged." (I was also told that Florida reached out to student journalists to remind them of this.) I could not, for the life of me, figure out what purpose that served beyond Orwellian control, not unless the absences of Easley and Purifoy were major news that Florida wanted to keep under wraps. But I didn't send one tweet yesterday.
If you've got specific questions about players for me, leave them in the comments. Again, I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting, and I'll be around in the evening (I'm driving home in a little bit) to answer any follow-ups.