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Florida Gators fall practice report: Vernon Hargreaves III injury clouds Jeff Driskel's fine day

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The first open fall practice of 2014 is in the books for the Florida Gators, and Jeff Driskel had a day for those books, at least by his standards.

Al Messerschmidt

Florida's first open fall practice of 2014 featured the best quarterback play I've seen from Jeff Driskel in a practice.

And yet all of that was overshadowed by an injury to Vernon Hargreaves III that became national news before turning into a minor issue.

The silver linings are brighter for the Florida Gators in 2014, clearly  but the clouds still loom.

Standout Performers

  • I thought Driskel, whom I've seen in probably a dozen practices since the spring of 2012, looked sharp, smooth, and comfortable at the helm of Kurt Roper's offense. He still throws too hard and high from time to time, but he showed tremendous touch on a series of three deep balls to DeAndre Goolsby, Demarcus Robinson, and Jake McGee over the course of the practice, and any one of those throws would probably have been the best throw in most of the other practices I've attended. Driskel still looks as mobile as ever, as well, and while my worries about whether he's fully recovered from the broken leg suffered last fall were minimal after he looked fine in the spring, I didn't even think about that injury on Thursday night.
  • I think it's fine to start saying that Demarcus Robinson is Florida's best and most talented receiver. He just is: He moves so gracefully in space, runs routes well, makes great catches — one tightrope catch on a tipped pass was probably the play of the night — and generally appears to be the dynamic receiver that he's been at literally every practice in which he's participated in his time as a Gator.
  • Newcomer Jake McGee is bigger than you think, runs like a deer, and made a couple of very nice catches on passes from Driskel, whom he lives with.
  • Fellow newcomer Brandon Powell, who was held out of spring practice thanks to a lingering ankle injury from his high school days, was my pleasant surprise of the night. I'd heard that Powell looked good in offseason work this summer, but in the flesh, he's quick, strong for a smaller back, and fearless. He took one scamper up the sideline for a touchdown in an offense-defense drill, and took on defensive players in the open field when necessary. Florida's got three running backs that are probably ahead of him on the depth chart, but Powell bears watching.

The Wrong Kind of Standing Out

  • Everyone involved in the fight that sent Hargreaves limping off the field probably felt very stupid about that fight as soon as Hargreaves came up gimpy, but the guys throwing serious punches — Latroy Pittman was one that I saw, and others saw other WRs and DBs doing the same — looked the dumbest. Don't throw punches at people wearing helmets, kids.
  • Additionally, while I didn't see the fight all that well, though 247Sports' Thomas Goldkamp did, and suggests it started over chippy back-and-forth play in a WR/DB drill ($), I don't think anyone would have read much into it if not for Hargreaves, who Goldkamp suggests was trying to break up the scuffle, getting hurt. It's was a fight. Fights happen in football practices and games. They're never not dumb — but they're rarely consequential.
  • The second-team offensive line repeatedly struggled to give Florida's backup quarterbacks any time to throw or think in offense-defense drills.
  • Duke Dawson worked at safety in some offense-defense drills, and had to be manually put in position by Travaris Robinson at one point. Dawson's young, and my guess is that he ends up at cornerback when all is said and done, but it's never a good thing if the coach has to literally put you in your place.
  • Florida's defense ran gassers after practice, with the exception of Dante Fowler, Jr., who missed a breakfast check, and thus provoked the gassers. Running for your teammates sucks; watching your teammates run for you is worse.

Position by Position

Quarterbacks

  • Driskel, as mentioned above, looked as good as he's ever looked in a practice. While that doesn't mean I'm projecting him to be the best quarterback in the SEC or win a Heisman or something like that, it does mean that my confidence level in Driskel in Kurt Roper's offense will remain high.

  • I wrote this spring that Will Grier is "clearly the No. 2 quarterback on this roster in terms of talent," and the arrival of Treon Harris this summer, and Harris's debut before the public on Thursday night, did little to change my mind. Grier was more comfortable and threw better passes than Harris, and is significantly taller than Harris, but doesn't have much of a mobility deficit to Harris. Both worked with the second team as the night wore on, with Harris getting more work with it early and Grier getting more reps with it late, but I think Grier has a leg up in the race to be Driskel's backup — if the race for that position is going to be decided by which player is Florida's second-best quarterback, anyway.

  • Harris does seem like a perfect change-of-pace quarterback for a sub package in which Roper uses the quarterback as a runner, and showed the ability to get out of the pocket in a hurry more than once. But, and maybe Harris wearing No. 3 has something to do with this, I got strong Tyler Murphy vibes from his play. I spent three years seeing Tyler Murphy look like he had a pendulum for the clock in his head in practice before he showed much better pocket presence on the field during actual games, and that was part of why he was a pleasant surprise to me early last fall. And if Harris is reminding me of Practice Murphy, at least he's doing that as a true freshman, not a fourth-year junior.

  • Skyler Mornhinweg worked with Florida's second string, too, and he's still competent, as emergency quarterbacks go. But he simply lacks the arm strength to be a dangerous thrower: Even his 10-yard throws lack zip. If Mornhinweg plays over Grier or Harris this fall, it will be a shame.

Running Backs

  • Kelvin Taylor looked noticeably quicker to me all spring, and he now looks to have added size to that quickness. I didn't notice as much of him as I would have liked, however.
  • Matt Jones worked at both the B position and at running back, and looks healthy enough to be a bruiser with surprising receiving skills; he made a very difficult catch in the flat while leaning backward on Florida's first offensive drive, and took the ball upfield for maybe 20 yards. But he still lacks top-end acceleration, and did not wow me with his speed.
  • Mack Brown and Valdez Showers (probably more wide receiver than running back at this point) each made fine catches downfield, and Gideon Ajagbe made the most surprising catch of the night by snaring a laser with his bicep in the open field. In case you're sensing a theme: Yes, Florida's going to use running backs very often in its passing game.
  • Powell, as mentioned above, stood out to me ... but he also had one terrible drop late in practice.

Wide Receivers

  • Quinton Dunbar is probably still Florida's No. 1 receiver, though Robinson does what he does and better. Dunbar's finest play on the night was a great short slant on which he shielded the defender perfectly and made a safe catch.
  • D-Rob is D-Rob, but, at one point, I called him "making something cool happen," and he immediately dropped the pass he was thrown.
  • Ahmad Fulwood, Andre Debose, and Alvin Bailey all had big drops that I noticed, with Debose's probably being the worst.
  • C.J. Worton and Ryan Sousa were minimally used in their first practice before public eyes, but Worton ran a great route and made a smooth catch of a ball thrown a bit high to him in one route-running drill.
  • Ryan Parrish, a walk-on wide receiver who wears No. 15, has a lot of swag. After making a play in a drill, he high-stepped back to the pack.

Tight Ends

  • DeAndre Goolsby made a really good catch on that aforementioned first Driskel touchdown throw, leaping to haul it in over a defender.
  • McGee is going to be Florida's best tight end.
  • C'yontai Lewis is quite rangy for his size, and could afford to put on some weight.

Offensive Linemen

  • Few observations here: I spent a lot more time watching other position groups.
  • While Trenton Brown was by far the biggest player on the field for Florida all last season, he and David Sharpe look like twin titans now. Sharpe is still raw as steak tartare, but he is a massive human, and has the arms and body to be a dominant tackle once he adds technique to talent.
  • Mike Summers had Florida's offensive line firing backwards in stances up the slopes that are behind the back line of the lacrosse field, if you have any sense of how that works at Dizney Stadium. It didn't look fun.

Defensive Linemen

  • Leon Orr looked strong and ferocious in his first play in front of the public since last fall. He missed spring practice with a wrist injury, so it's good to see him healthy.
  • Fowler is going to be a menace. He moves so quickly.
  • Alex McCalister, who got a bit of buzz this week thanks to teammates talking him up, does not look much stronger to my eye than he has throughout his Florida career, which has been marked by an inability to get strong enough to hold his position. And I saw him get handled in a couple of reps because of that lack of strength. But I also saw his speed cause problems for slower linemen.

Linebackers

  • I watched almost nothing of Florida's linebackers, who mostly worked on the far field.
  • Michael Taylor made the best defensive play of the night on a leaping pass breakup in the open field. It was a surprise, too: I've never thought of Taylor as having good coverage skills, or being likely to develop them.

Defensive Backs

  • Hargreaves is and has been so good in practice that I'd probably write off even a terrible practice from him as a bad day, but the truth is that I didn't see much of anything he did before getting hurt.
  • Florida started its first offense-defense period, which pitted first-teamers against first-teamers, with Hargreaves and Brian Poole as outside corners, Marcus Maye as a nickel corner, and Jabari Gorman and Keanu Neal at safety.
  • Dawson had an interception off a tip.
  • Neal crushed Jones on that first catch-and-run.
  • J.C. Jackson does not look like a freshman, despite wearing an orange non-contact jersey on the night.
  • Maye put on a non-contact jersey at some point in practice; he was wearing it for offense-defense drills late.

Special Teams

  • Florida worked on field goals in its first segment of practice. Austin Hardin pushed a field goal left from the right hash on his first kick, and Virginia Tech transfer Brooks Abbott pushed a field goal right from the left hash on his first attempt. I was not particularly impressed by Florida's kickers, no.
  • We saw very little punting on the night, but one late period of practice included two very good punts that traveled 55 or 60 yards in the air. I don't know if they came from Kyle Christy or Johnny Townsend, but I'd lean toward Christy, because I've seen him punt like that before, especially this spring, and definitely did see Townsend send a below-average punt in between those boomers.

Superlatives

Throw of the Day

Driskel's first touchdown throw was a masterful fade that was thrown where only Goolsby really had a chance to catch it. It ranks up with the best throws I've seen at a Florida practice.

Run of the Day

Powell's touchdown scamper, which covered about 40 yards up the right sideline.

Catch of the Day

McGee's catch of a Driskel deep ball came on a leap, and between a corner and a safety, but Robinson made a superb adjustment to get in position to catch a ball that freshman corner J.C. Jackson made a fine play to tip in the first place, and got a foot down in bounds to make that circus catch, at least to my eye.

Play of the Day

Probably Jones's catch-and-run followed by Neal's lick. That dude Keanu can hit.

Coach of the Day

I heard nothing particularly interesting, but Roper made the most important coaching move of the day: After getting toppled by a receiver during a drill, Roper got up and made a mock bow to his players. Roper's earned a lot of praise this week for being a positive coach, and having the good humor to do something like that certainly jibes with that characterization from players.

Stray Observations

  • The music for stretches began with "Still D.R.E.," which could absolutely be an anthem for this team.
  • Florida practiced jet sweeps for several reps in one segment, with Bailey noticeably getting reps as the runner. It also ran a bump sweep — in which the quarterback left the ball for the sweeping receiver in the air, instead of physically handing it off. This is new.
  • It felt to me like there were many more segments with quarterbacks near fans on Thursday than there have been in past open practices, but, then, there were also a bunch of segments with quarterbacks near fans in open practices this spring.
  • Hargreaves's injury was obviously the most important thing about the practice, but maybe the most important thing about the injury was how many players went over to him to check up during a break between periods. If you don't think Hargreaves is the leader of this team, along with Jeff Driskel, you are thinking incorrectly.