The Differences is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of nearly same name at The Two-Man Game, and makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about games the Gators just played ... or the number of hours I've spent in the sun at Florida spring practices.
First and foremost, I want to apologize: I wrote a long, detailed report on the first Florida spring practice, and haven't written anything longer than a tweet since ... because I feel like I'd mostly be writing the same things over and over again. The things that should be obvious — Vernon Hargreaves III as Florida's best player, the Gators clearly installing an offense that is tailor-made for Jeff Driskel, Florida's defense being significantly ahead of its offense — are things I feel like I've tweeted again and again.
But y'all deserve better. So here are eight takeaways from the eight hours I've spent at spring practices, ones I feel very confident about making at this moment.
Vernon Hargreaves III is probably going to be the best cornerback in America.
VH3 was a sensationally good freshman in 2013, arguably the best corner on a team that will have three cornerbacks taken in the 2014 NFL Draft despite enrolling in the summer and lacking the height that helps both Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson do some of what they do. He married incredible quickness and ball skills with a precocious sense of where to be and what to do in Florida's somewhat complex secondary schemes.
He's only going to get better.
The things you notice about Hargreaves in an average Florida practice are rooted in both how good he is — he's the No. 1 corner with a bullet, somehow, and gets great reps out of the receivers that want to beat him — and how hard he works to get better. When Hargreaves gets beat, he's genuinely miffed by it; when he beats someone, he'll let you know, at one point appearing to row a boat out to his "island." (He's trying to make #UnoIsland happen, in the vein of "Revis Island." I dunno about that.)
But he's also the recipient of very little coaching from Travaris Robinson, and is instead the model Robinson holds up to the rest of the corners on how to do things. And Hargreaves talks with the rest of his secondary mates and shows them tips and tricks, too. He's not just the swaggering shutdown corner of this defense; he's that, and probably its leader. I don't know if there's a better man for that job.
The defense is probably going to be really good, assuming relatively good health. But you realized that, right?
Florida has really good players everywhere in its secondary, from Hargreaves on down to Duke Dawson, and there's no one on scholarship who's been routinely toasted. Marcell Harris and Marqui Hawkins, just moved from receiver to safety this week, have gotten a lot of vocal coaching from Muschamp, the kind that amounts to oil for squeaky wheels, but Harris has moved around fine on his surgically repaired knee — if you had to pick out the Florida defensive back who was recovering from a torn ACL, you would struggle — and Hawkins, unlikely to play at safety in 2014 except in emergencies, is just starting out at the position at the collegiate level, after playing there in high school.
Florida's linebackers appear to be fine at the starting level, with Jarrad Davis, Antonio Morrison, and Mike Taylor probably on the front line for now. The lack of depth — Matt Rolin and Alex Anzalone were declared out for spring a while back; Neiron Ball suffered a knee injury that is likely to keep him out for the rest of the spring — is a concern, but those players will be good competition in the fall, and Daniel McMillian is going to be the beneficiary of the reps missed, which could help him improve enough to see the field. (If you'll recall, Florida played a walk-on over McMillian last fall against Georgia Southern because it didn't quite trust McMillian to execute the defense.)
Florida's linebackers will also be helped by more soundness up the middle. Without Dominique Easley in 2013, they often struggled to knife through holes; with Darious Cummings and Leon Orr up front and healthy in 2014, that shouldn't be the case, and I'd feel more secure in saying Florida will be even more sound against the run if a third tackle stepped up. I don't know who that would be as of right now, though, so: Florida should be more sound against the run.
On the edge, Dante Fowler Jr. somehow looks both bigger and faster than ever before, and is as close to unblockable as any Florida player I've seen in practice. He's mostly lining up as a rush linebacker in Florida's BUCK role, but I've seen him move inside a couple times. Either way, he's one blue-chipper for the Gators, and is poised for a big season before a likely early entry to the 2015 NFL Draft ... as long as Florida develops a second pass-rusher who can prevent offenses from simply rotating extra blockers to handle Fowler.
If there's a weakness on defense, it's probably defensive line depth. Florida has a lot of players who are likely to be solid set to be in its starting lineup, but there are questions to be answered about backups and incoming freshmen. I think the coaches would rather redshirt Khairi Clark, Thomas Holley, and Gerald Willis, but there will be leftover snaps available up and down the line if there isn't a noticeable breakout player or two in the next two weeks.
Another thing that makes it harder to evaluate Florida's defensive line play: Florida appears to be a shotgun team now.
I've seen maybe two or three snaps under center over four practices. Two or three. This is not the Florida team of 2013 (or 2012, or 2011) that lined up under center time and again and tried to maul teams with brute force.
Whether that is or isn't a good thing remains to be seen, as we won't have a really good idea of how this offense looks until we see it in game situations, and I have only seen a few 11 vs. 11 drills so far.
Fowler has been a menace in those drills, which makes me worry a bit about the pass protection — a shotgun team doesn't have as many hedges against a great rusher or blitzes as one with fullbacks in the backfield and in-line tight ends — but the offense also has a brand new set of quick-strike plays that can mitigate pressure with one-read throws and screens, and different variations on the zone read. I've seen the vanilla zone read, an inverted veer, and a play-action zone read with a receiver hitting the spot vacated by the support linebacker — clearly, Florida is going to have something much, much more similar to the "spread" offense as is popularly conceived than it did last year.
Driskel is unequivocally the starting quarterback of that offense — and he might fit it better than even we expected.
He hasn't had the greatest spring as a thrower, notably throwing a couple picks on Monday, one to Travaris Robinson. But Driskel's never been great in practice, and generally looks no better or worse throwing the ball than he did before breaking his leg last fall. He has, however, looked a little calmer and more patient in the pocket than in previous years, and looks just fine running the ball, something that could have been a concern after a major leg injury.
In sum, he looks like more or less the same Driskel we've come to know over the last three years, with perhaps a bit more patience.
This scares some fans, who worry that Driskel doesn't have the brains to handle a passing offense after seeing him play poorly against Georgia, Louisville, and Miami — those fans tend to forget Driskel's largely smart play in 2012 — and scuttle Florida's chances to win games with excruciating decision-making that led to turnovers.
But Driskel was playing in a significantly more complex offense then. This new Kurt Roper offense appears to have less trickery and fewer reads than Brent Pease's offense did, which should streamline Driskel's decision-making process, and make it easier for him to make the right decision quickly. And Roper's definitely smart enough to tailor it to Driskel's specific skills. And Driskel's been working in this offense for ... two weeks? Maybe?
I have always, admittedly, been more optimistic on Driskel than most, and content to be dissatisfied with how he's played rather than catastrophizing about his play. But he's felt to me like a great athlete and a mediocre quarterback for three years now — and that sounds very much like what Roper sees in him, too. I'll stay confident until I see Driskel struggle.
Driskel's also going to have a lot of help. And I mean a lot.
Kelvin Taylor appears to me to have gotten significantly faster, even in pads, than he was last year. Mark Herndon looks so fast that I would be a little surprised if he doesn't get touches in the fall. Demarcus Robinson is once again looking like Florida's best receiver on a daily basis, and he's the only guy who can routinely trouble Hargreaves. Ahmad Fulwood remains towering and surprisingly quick. Alvin Bailey has had flashes on quick-hit throws; Chris Thompson looks like a burner. DeAndre Goolsby and Hunter Joyer have both made nice catches as flexed-out tight ends. Tevin Westbrook looks quicker and faster. Even Clay Burton has made a really good catch in the practices I've seen.
And All-Potential team member Andre Debose, who could be dynamite in this offense, has yet to participate in pads this spring — but that will come soon.
There is a greater level of depth and talent on offense than there has been at any other point in the Will Muschamp era, despite how few five-stars it feels like Muschamp has landed on that side of the ball, and those players are both older and better than they were a year ago and primed to be used better by this offensive coordinator. There are reasons for optimism on the benighted side of the ball.
Finally, things just can't go as wrong for Florida as they did last year.
I know people are tired of me bringing up injuries in part of explaining why things went as wrong as they did in 2013, but there's no way to explain Florida playing as poorly as it did without mentioning them. Florida lost its two best quarterbacks, best running back, best deep threat, three best offensive tackles, best defensive tackle, one of its three best linebackers for the season, and also missed a slew of other really good players at critical junctures due to injuries and suspensions; this left Florida with a kneecapped passing game that allowed defenses to sit on and stuff the run, and left Florida's defense, phenomenally good before Dominique Easley's injury, with small holes that patient offenses always, always eventually turned into fatal and gaping ones, usually in painful ways.
Florida's defense bent and bent and eventually broke, and Florida's offense passed very few stress tests. It was a miserable season for me, too — but I won't lie and tell you that I took it as hard as most of the more frustrated fans I know, because I rationalized that it was going to be a miserable and difficult season as soon as Driskel went down, thinking Tyler Murphy would struggle more while healthy than he ended up struggling in a semi-injured state.
This was the feared nadir, one that could not have happened to any of many other Florida teams with this many injuries; weaker Vanderbilt and South Carolina teams might well have still lost to a depleted, say, 2000 Florida team, and those teams of the past had offenses that were enough to survive weird defensive days against, say, an option team. Even the occasionally anemic 2011 Gators, far nearer to full health than this team was, allowed Furman to score 32 points in The Swamp — but John Brantley and Debose were basically enough on their own to win that game.
All of this losing and the toxicity that came with it poisoned this team like it poisoned the fan base. It was shocking to them to lose seven games in a row, to lose to Vanderbilt, to lose to Georgia Southern at home, to become the punch line to every bad joke from every college football columnist, to hear boos — even if the boos targeted Pease more than them — from their home crowds.
They don't want to repeat 2013 again, either — and I would hazard to say they want to do that even less than you do, Person On The Internet. It might be a good idea to try belieiving in them, and this 2014 season being better, until they prove unworthy of that belief — certainly, that will be a little less depressing.