Ask Alligator Army: Emptying our Gators mailbag, discussing "open" position battles

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You have questions about the Gators. We have answers.

It has been quite a while since our last mailbag answering your Florida Gators questions, but we're going to try to run one weekly or bi-weekly for the rest of the offseason. Friday sounds like a good day to me, too.

I don't think quarterback's an open position as much as it is an "open" position. And Will Muschamp saying every position is open is lip service to the idea that competition produces the best players more than an affirmation that Florida has no starters.

Jeff Driskel's going to be Florida's starting quarterback in 2014, barring injury, because he's bigger and stronger and more experienced than Will Grier. Grier needs to add weight — which I trust him to do smartly and assiduously, because few people are more driven than good football coaches' children — but will also need to acclimate himself to a talent level far beyond the one he dealt with daily at Davidson Day School in North Carolina. Grier's best-case scenario is Driskel balling out in 2014, maybe to the extent that he leaves for the NFL, allowing him to redshirt and making it easier for Florida to recruit more top-level talent for him to throw to in 2015 and beyond. And he's both smart enough to realize that and bide his time.

But quarterback is "open" like few other positions are "open"; I genuinely think many more positions don't have entrenched starters at this point in time.

The only non-Driskel Gators I fully expect to start in 2014 are Quinton Dunbar at wide receiver (and probably at the X position), D.J. Humphries at left tackle, Chaz Green at right tackle, Dante Fowler, Jr. at BUCK, Vernon Hargreaves III at one corner position (probably field corner, though Florida doesn't really designate which corner is which), and Andre Debose at kick returner. All of those players have consistently been very good to elite at those positions already, with the exceptions of Humphries and Green, who have each flashed greatness.

That's it, as far as sure things go; everything else could, and probably should, be up for grabs, with guys like Kelvin Taylor and Antonio Morrison established as front-runners, but made to defend their spots. Muschamp is and has always been committed to the idea that players earn time on the field through reliably performing in practice; there's a lot of time to earn and there are a lot of players eager to earn it in Gainesville right now.

He would fit fine, and might actually fit better into a spread offense than a conventional drop-back passing offense. Spread offenses, after all, are pro-style offenses at this point, and they accomodate a wide variety of quarterbacks, from Tom Brady to Russell Wilson to Peyton Manning to Johnny Manziel. Grier's got the feet and the speed to be an occasionally effective runner, though he's not a Manziel-style scrambler, and would probably be best off using his feet to avoid or alleviate pressure, and he's definitely got the arm and likely has the brain to make the reads a spread offense needs.

Do not get hung up on the type of quarterback a scouting service classifies Grier as, or, for that matter, the type of quarterback a scouting service classifies any quarterback as, because that's one of the dumber things about recruiting, and has been for years.

I loved what Jarrad Davis did in 2013, and I really like Matt Rolin's tape and frame, so I'm hoping for good things from both of them. Antonio Morrison could really benefit from slimming down a bit — and a far quieter summer — but a position change back to outside linebacker wouldn't be bad for him, either.

At receiver, Dunbar is Mr. Reliable, but could get more burn in a spread offense that gets him open, because he has plenty of wiggle. Ahmad Fulwood has to be the leader to start opposite Dunbar at this point, because of his superior freshman season compared to Demarcus Robinson, but Robinson could absolutely flourish in a spread attack. The same goes for Bailey and Debose, who could be murderous in the slot. And don't sleep on potential commit Eric Lauderdale, a JUCO guy who has ample talents.

Predictions sure to be wrong for starting linebackers: Neiron Ball at Will, Davis at Mike, Morrison at Sam. Predictions sure to be wrong at starting receiver: Dunbar, Fulwood, and Debose. Remember this in seven months when I get all six right, okay?

New offensive line coach Mike Summers said this week that he will train a handful of players to snap and go with the best one, but my bet is on either Octavius Jackson or Cameron Dillard, both of whom redshirted in 2013, to emerge as Florida's center. I think Max Garcia and Tyler Moore would be good at center, but both would seem to be more valuable at guard positions: Garcia was an excellent left guard for much of 2013, and Moore should probably have been playing guard instead of being forced to play tackle, but Garcia and Jon Halapio were better at guard last year, and blocked him.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised by any names emerging at center save for Humphries, who is a mortal lock to be the Gators' left tackle, and Trenton Brown, who would be the world's most hilarious center.

On offense, Dillard and Jackson would be decent bets, and so would Roderick Johnson, who could slide into a sixth lineman role if Florida keeps some of those packages in its playbook. (And, frankly, it should.) Bailey would be the redshirt receiver most likely to find a spot in this new Kurt Roper-led offense. Adam Lane is likely to get carries, especially if Matt Jones is still recovering from injury.

On defense, Jay-nard Bostwick seems like a lock to contribute at defensive tackle, after being mentioned repeatedly down the stretch by Muschamp in 2013. And Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles should, too, though they'll be pushed by the formidable recruits coming in behind them. Jordan Sherit, Matt Rolin, Marcell Harris, and Nick Washington are the only other redshirt defenders, and of them, I think Washington, who might well have played in 2013 if not for his injury, and Rolin, who could compete for a job at either outside linebacker position, are the most likely to make an impact.

Going out on a limb, I think we see Bailey, Johnson, Brantley, and Washington make significant impacts.

The guy most likely to make an impact among the early enrollees is Jalen Tabor. He's got the frames — physical and of mind — to lock down the cornerback spot opposite Hargreaves, and he has a six-month head start that Hargreaves didn't have last year, which usually helps early enrollees significantly. (Imagine Hargreaves having that head start.) But he's about it, unless Grier gets thrust into action by injury or Brandon Powell really shows out in the spring; I would expect the rest of those early enrollees to get redshirted.

The summer enrollee most likely to make a difference for Florida is a guy the Gators are still chasing: Adoree' Jackson, an elite athlete who could produce points whenever he touches the ball, and could be a killer punt or kick returner from his first practice onward. Lorenzo Carter could also be that kind of instant impact player, if he commits to Florida. The summer enrollee commit currently in Florida's class that has the best chance to have an instant impact is Gerald Willis, if he were slotted at defensive end; everyone else is looking at an upward battle to contribute in 2014, though David Sharpe could be another guy in the mix for that sixth lineman role, if it persists.

Also, because it bears noting: Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane would have been shoo-in answers for this question had they not flipped to Florida State and decommitted, respectively. Cook is the running back version of Jackson, but in a slightly more powerful, slightly less fleet form, and Lane would have had plenty of opportunity to earn time at wide receiver.

You can read those rankings, written by Mark Schlabach, here, but, basically: Sure? Whatever? Ranking college football teams in January is about as much of a crapshoot as ranking Heisman candidates in January, but these pieces get published because people care about them, and teams like Florida — a big brand that draws eyeballs and clicks — inevitably find their ways onto the fringe.

I think Florida's ceiling is probably much higher than No. 25 in 2014, but its floor is having another poor season, never really getting into the rankings, and Muschamp being fired. So No. 25 sounds like splitting the difference. Sure? Whatever.

I'm guessing the Benz has better heated seats, which would be funny for hot jokes, except: It's been cold, man. A hot seat is literally a good thing when it's winter in Gainesville.

It's really both, but I'd lean more toward the former than the latter.

Florida's been in the low double digits in the KenPom rankings all year, and has only played three teams within 10 spots of its current No. 11 ranking: No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 9 Kansas, and No. 15 Florida State. Florida lost to Wisconsin in a close game on the road in which Jacob Kurtz played 21 minutes and Dorian Finney-Smith and Scottie Wilbekin played zero, and beat Kansas and FSU in close home games. It also beat No. 36 Memphis and No. 40 Arkansas (without Casey Prather) away from home, and lost to No. 31 Connecticut in Storrs on a wild, buzzer-beating Shabazz Napier shot.

That's a fairly good record for an elite team against other very good teams, and Florida's KenPom numbers this year sort of belie how good this team is, in an ironic twist on the way that Florida's KenPom numbers from last year suggested those Gators should probably have played for a national title. Florida shoots and makes fewer threes this year than it did last year, which impacts offensive efficiency significantly, and its three-point defense has been bad, which does the same on defense, but much better three-point defense on average — Florida is allowing opponents to make 35.2 percent of their threes this year; last year's team was at 31.0 percent — didn't prevent Florida from taking losses because it just couldn't stop hot shooters last year.

I think this team also feels better than last year's team for a variety of reasons: The talent is better, Kenny Boynton's maddening threes are no longer stuck in anyone's craw, wins have actually happened in close games, and that win on the road at Arkansas was a dramatic comeback victory, which has been slightly overrated, even by me, because it's sometimes better for narrative purposes to win in overtime than pull away and win by 10 in regulation. And Kansas and Memphis are bigger names to have taken down than Marquette and Wisconsin were, despite Florida just destroying both Marquette and Wisconsin (and Marquette making the Sweet Sixteen): There's always a blue-blood bonus in college basketball.

Additionally, Florida really hasn't been "marginally" better than the rest of its competition: It's been demonstrably better. The closest game Florida's played against a team outside that KenPom top 40 ended with the Gators' skeleton crew getting an eight-point win against North Florida; the second-closest was a nine-point win over a very impressive Richmond team. Every other win has come by at least 14 points.

Answering these together, because obviously: I think Walker gets cleared by the end of this month, because Florida has invested too much time and effort in him to not have him around soonish, and because the alternative is a patently ridiculous three-month standoff between a governing body and one of its most underprivileged wards, one that would probably bring the wrath of Billy Donovan and/or Jeremy Foley down on Indianapolis. And that might happen when Walker gets cleared, anyway, which will be a big deal, because Donovan and Foley don't typically rip the NCAA.

What Walker will bring is a bit more of a mystery, but he'll be bringing it off the bench: Florida's starting lineup is practically set at this point, and Walker won't be cracking it. His height and athleticism makes playing him at power forward a no-brainer, especially if he can play with Patric Young, but his abilities as a defender will be taxed if he's made to guard bigger, stronger players on the block, and I don't think even really good weight room work is going to change that. So he'll be a blocks-and-oops guy, and maybe a rebounder, like a Will Yeguete who could really jump or a taller, longer Dorian Finney-Smith. And I think Walker's smart enough — on a basketball court ruled by Donovan, anyway — to keep his freelancing on offense to a minimum and fit nicely into that role.

And if Walker's not really playing more than 15-20 minutes off the bench, which seems like the high end of his range, I doubt he's going to look like a surefire lottery pick after the season. He'll still be a first-rounder based on talent, but I firmly believe that Walker, with a full season in Donovan's system, is a top-10 lock, and that could very well entice him to spend next year free to wreak havoc in Gainesville instead of waiting to be freed.

I have him — and that's Florida runner Jimmy Clark getting ribbed a bit by a running buddy, for the uninitiated — defending. How's that for pressure?

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