Here are some thoughts on where Florida stands after 15 fall practices...
Depth is a "huge issue" on the offensive line
Perhaps the takeaway of the two practices I attended last week was how badly Florida's second-string defensive line outplayed the second-string offensive line. Will Grier and Treon Harris looked harried in those practices, but the sieve that let 275-pounders chase them with little resistance was the reason for their running scared.
One big problem: There's no good solution to that. And so Florida will walk a tightrope with its offensive line this year.
I think Florida's first-team line should be solid, and I think some of the more negative reports on that line's performance have a lot to do with how good Florida's defensive line's going to be. (You try blocking Dante Fowler, Jr. for two hours.) I also think some of the issues with pass-blocking are germane to camp — with QBs sitting in the pocket rather than running around like Roper QBs — in a way that they won't be when the games are happening for real, and the ball, either thrown from or tucked into a quarterback's hand, is departing the pocket with alacrity.
But I also think Florida can't count on staying solid if even one or two linemen are forced to miss time. Muschamp sounds very high on Rod Johnson, who has the frame to be an excellent tackle, and David Sharpe has looked very good for a true freshman before suffering a high ankle sprain on Friday. Trenton Brown is a good fourth or fifth tackle, depending on Sharpe's development. That should be enough depth at the tackle spots, where Florida was eviscerated in 2013, to feel fairly good about the Gators' bookends.
On the interior of the line, behind Trip Thurman, Max Garcia, and Tyler Moore, who are likely to be Florida's guard-center-guard combination from left to right, there is a whole lot of nothing.
Brown's worked at guard a bit in camp, but he's just too big and slow to be consistently effective inside, and he's the only guy I would trust beyond the aforementioned seven players in a pinch. Drew Sarvary has been working at center, supplanting Cameron Dillard, who is working at guard, and they haven't impressed me in practice, nor are they turning up in other reports. Freshmen Travaris Dorsey and Kavaris Harkless simply aren't physically ready to contribute. Antonio Riles is still a work in progress, having switched from defensive tackle to guard this spring.
Put simply, there is fragility here.
And, to be fair to Florida's occasionally-maligned offensive line recruiting, injury has something to do with that. Octavius Jackson was being talked about as a possible true freshman contributor last fall before suffering an injury that resulted in his medical disqualification from football this spring, and freshman Nolan Kelleher would probably have been a backup had he not required back surgery. If those two players were available, I think Florida would have nine linemen it could feel comfortable with in a rotation, and though that's not a ton more depth, it would've been a significant boost.
They're not, though, and Florida will have to go into the trenches with its smaller bunch of broad shoulders. If those shoulders hold up, things may be fine on the offensive line, but if they don't, it's going to be trouble. Muschamp called that lack of depth a "huge issue" a split-second after being asked to identify areas of concern on Friday (while also referring to the defensive line, which I'm far less worried about), and he's not wrong to do so.
The fate of the backup quarterback job is in freshman hands
Will Muschamp said Friday that Florida would like to have one quarterback win the backup quarterback job and have one quarterback redshirt — and if that binary isn't clue enough that Skyler Mornhinweg isn't in the running for the position, I don't know what you need to hear.
The surprise, though, is that Treon Harris has really come on this week, and seems like the favorite to be Florida's backup.
I've only been to two practices but it seems clear that Treon Harris will be the backup to Jeff Driskel and Will Grier will redshirt.— Pat Dooley (@pat_dooley) August 14, 2014
Dooley tweeted this on Thursday, and his two practices (I'm guessing) came this week. My two came last week, when Harris was still really struggling, and appeared significantly behind Will Grier. When I noted this, and the amusing way the battle has shifted of late, 247Sports' Thomas Goldkamp confirmed as much, also writing this:
He has come a long way in just the last week. Harris has looked extremely sharp the last few days and has shown remarkable timing on several routes, most notably the outs, digs and curls. Grier probably still has better command of the full route tree, but Harris has been closing the accuracy gap at an alarming rate. He has been more accurate than Grier for the majority of this week, and his decision-making looks a bit quicker, as well.
And Harris adds an element to the 2014 offense even with a healthy Driskel that Grier does not: He can run the Wildcat. Florida has experimented with it already, and we've talked for months about Harris possibly getting a package of plays to run.
Goldkamp thinks that Harris would win the backup job if it were decided today, and I agree, based on what I've heard and read — but there's still a week of camp left to go. And while Harris winning the backup job is close to ideal for Florida for a variety of reasons, he's still nowhere near Jeff Driskel's level of proficiency, and obviously isn't as experienced.
It's good, though, that Florida has a competition for the backup role this season. Tyler Murphy won it almost by default in 2013 without ever really impressing in practice, and both Harris and Grier (and Mornhinweg, too, arguably) have looked better in what little I've seen of them in practice (in Kurt Roper's offense) than Murphy ever did (in Brent Pease's).
Florida's secondary is going to be very young
Florida's got two sure starters in its secondary, per Muschamp: Vernon Hargreaves III, whose name may as well be inked at CB1, and Keanu Neal, who has been stellar this fall. Everything else is up for grabs.
For Florida, that means three positions are open: A safety spot opposite Neal, a corner (likely boundary corner, but it's semantic at this point) opposite Hargreaves, and a nickel corner spot. Brian Poole, Florida's starting nickel corner at the end of 2014, hasn't been impressive this fall at either that position or outside. Marcus Maye, who is very much talented enough to start somewhere, has been inconsistent, as has Jabari Gorman, who entered 2014 as the front-runner to start at one of the safety spots.
And so there is room for Florida's youth movement. Freshmen dot Florida's roster at corner and safety, whether they're redshirt freshmen (Marcell Harris and Nick Washington) or true freshmen (Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson, Deiondre Porter, Jalen Tabor, and Quincy Wilson), and simple math suggests one of them is going to start: Only five upperclassmen — senior Gorman, junior Poole, redshirt sophomore Maye, and sophomores Hargreaves and Neal — are available, and Gorman, Maye, and Neal were basically competing for two spots.
Additionally, of those upperclassmen, the only one with 10 starts is Hargreaves. Poole made six starts in 2013, Gorman made five, and Maye made two, but Neal spent last season wrecking fools on special teams, and didn't record a single tackle on defense.
Youth will serve in Florida's secondary, clearly, even if the upperclassmen start.
For me, this brings back some reminders of 2007, with Joe Haden as that team's VH3 and everyone else doing impressions of buildings on fire. Florida was 98th nationally in passing yards allowed in 2007, and got torched repeatedly (Andre' Woodson threw for 415 yards and five TDs against Florida — Andre' Woodson!) as Florida's defense did its level best to allow Tim Tebow to compile stats to become the first sophomore to win a Heisman Trophy and/or give up any lead the Gators' talented offense could grab.
I think this secondary's going to be better than that one, though. Hargreaves might be slightly better than Haden was at this point, though I'm comparing future Pro Bowlers, and he's got a lot more help. Neither Neal nor any other potential safety is going to be as poor as Kyle Jackson and Tony Joiner were for that defense, and I think I would take every corner on Florida's roster over Wondy Pierre-Louis based only on talent.
This secondary may be young, but it is copiously talented, as Muschamp has reiterated this fall, and Muschamp and Travaris Robinson have done a fine job of making Florida's defensive secondary an unquestioned strength over the last three years. Florida's youth movement is worrisome, but it isn't without talent to compensate for its inexperience.
Health hasn't been a concern for players in camp
On Monday, Muschamp's presser included a ton of relatively minor injury reports. On Friday, the only really important one was Sharpe's high ankle sprain — and while Muschamp literally knocked on wood after relaying all that, it's a good thing. The Hargreaves scare was the dum-dum bullet, and Florida dodged it.
It's also evidence that Florida has had little issue sitting players who don't need contact and on-field reps — Fowler, Matt Jones, Kelvin Taylor — with minor injuries ("injuries" might be a better term) this fall. Call that learning how to manage wear and tear on players, or credit it to Florida having developed players who don't need tons of practice, or chalk that up to better luck than last year: No matter what, it's so far, so good for Florida on the injury front.
Florida's offense is getting better and better
I thought Florida's offense was pretty good last Thursday, and pretty average last Friday, but it sounds as if that offense has come on a fair bit this week. Muschamp's frustrations with his defense have to do with allowing explosive plays to the offense, and there are legitimate concerns about the defense's ability to play assignment football consistently (scroll up two sections and re-read all that), but it bears repeating: Florida's offense is recording explosive plays, something that Florida's offense struggled to do against any defense in 2013, against a loaded defense coached by some defensive whizzes.
Last week felt like the defense showing it is, as usual, ahead of the offense, and it's especially unsurprising that a defense that is reloading is ahead of an offense that is revamping. Driskel, though, has been quite impressive, to the point that I honestly don't think I've read or seen more than quibbles with his play so far, and he's surrounded by a lot of talent: Florida's got basically the same running backs it had last year, but healthier and better; its wide receiver corps is deeper and more athletic; there is a genuine tight end at tight end this year.
All of that talent is being put to good use by Roper, whose rep as a quarterback guru and a disciple of ultimate QB Svengali David Cutcliffe helps obscure how good he was at making once-marginal talents into playmakers at Duke. Few thought much of Jamison Crowder or Conner Vernon as recruits, but they became probably Duke's two best wide receivers ever under Roper ... and I'd argue that every single scholarship receiver on Florida's roster showed at least as much in high school as Crowder and Vernon did.
Sure, there's a great distance between high school production and collegiate production, and talent doesn't always translate. And I'm really optimistic about this offense, and still don't think there's more than a mallard's chance in the Robertson household that Florida's going to have an offense better than its defense.
But it will not need one of those — just an offense better than it's had, and one that can be better than other defenses. The chances of this offense becoming that hypothetical one are quite strong.