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Florida Gators fall practice report: Defense holds edge on offense, but backs shine

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The Gators look like they'll have another excellent defense this fall. But they also seem to have several strong running backs.

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Even without Vernon Hargreaves III, nowhere to be seen after an injury that produced paranoia on Thursday, Florida's defense ruled Friday night's practice at Dizney Stadium.

And, yes, the Gators' offense still looks better than it ever has before under Will Muschamp.

Standout Performers

  • I feel like I should just begin this section with "Demarcus Robinson" and figure out what to say every time I see a Florida practice. He's the most consistent Gators receiver, the most spectacular Gators receiver, and may be the most athletic Gators receiver; he seems to me to have the best hands of any Florida receiver, too. He made three fantastic plays on Friday night: The first, and best, was a ridiculous acrobatic catch for a TD on the far field that is going to be hard to unseat for best play in a Florida open practice this fall; another good touchdown catch takes the No. 2 spot, and my No. 3 came on a play when he caught a pass in space, then did what amounted to a basketball shake move with his back to a defender and turned upfield to get a few more yards. "If" is D-Rob's curse, but everything I've heard from inside the program suggests that he has put in the work to make success on the field more a matter of when, and his practice performances have always been indicative of a great chance to be a great player.
  • Jeff Driskel wasn't as sharp as he was on Thursday night, but still made a few remarkable throws, including a strike to Quinton Dunbar (that Dunbar impressively hauled in) right near the end of practice. (Driskel also stands out because the quarterback play that doesn't come from him is spotty.)
  • On one play, Kelvin Taylor made the best cut of the night, a lightning-fast jump cut in the backfield, then headed upfield for about 10 yards. He's quicker and more decisive as a runner than he was last year — when he was already remarkably quick and decisive.
  • Mack Brown was my surprise of the night. On one run, he blazed up the far sideline of the near field so quickly that I (and folks I was with) were surprised it was Mack Brown making that play. I believe that Florida's running backs and wide receivers have been directed to either get or stay lean and fit this offseason, rather than adding weight, to better handle the pace of Kurt Roper's offense, and I think many players are going to benefit from that; Brown might benefit most of all.
  • Jarrad Davis is playing fast, instinctive football. There's not a ton that a linebacker can do to stand out in my mind without the sort of full-speed, full-contact hitting that that Florida was just barely getting into last night, in its first fall practice with pads, but Davis closed on Valdez Showers like a missile on one screen pass, and only Showers's drop prevented him from being cleared from his feet.
  • Dante Fowler, Jr. is faster than he's ever been, too, and would probably be dominating these practices if he could actually touch Florida's quarterbacks.
  • The whole Florida defense seemed locked in on this night, as Florida's offense struggled to score and move the ball after a night with consistent movement from the Driskel-helmed first-team offense on Thursday. I'm exceedingly sanguine about Florida's defense under Muschamp, because he's consistently had excellent ones, but it's nice to see that we can understand the offensive success we'll see in practice isn't just coming against mannequins in white jerseys.
  • The two student assistants who threw the ball back and forth near the stands while Florida spent a few consecutive practice periods on the fall field, to the consternation of many fans, were quite good. I didn't see many drops.

The Wrong Kind of Standing Out

  • Andre Debose's night, as I saw it: Didn't participate in one wide receiver drill involving weaving back and forth and cutting, likely because his knee isn't 100 percent after last season's ACL tear, didn't do much work in the slot, where he would fit best for this team, and ended up icing his knee by the end of the night. Scott Carter also saw freshman J.C. Jackson go stride-for-stride with Debose on one of his patented fly routes; while Jackson's a very good athlete, Debose could have smoked anyone on the field in past years as a healthy player.
  • Florida's second-team offensive line has been mauled by the front sevens it has faced, and while I think that's got a lot to do with the depth of talent in Florida's front seven, it's clear that depth is a concern on the Gators' offensive line.
  • During a special teams drill based on reacting to a student assistant's movement and strafing toward him, Keanu Neal cut the wrong way, and was the only player I noticed that did that.
  • Florida's receivers had a lot of drops. A lot. We'll get to that.
  • One flag was thrown on the night, and it was thrown on Quincy Wilson for some of the most blatant pass interference I've ever seen. Wilson tried to grab Dunbar as he worked past him on a cut, but ended up grabbing him with both arms and sending him tumbling to the ground. His physicality will be an asset in time, but he can't be that sloppy and expect to play.

Position by Position

Quarterbacks

  • It felt to me as if Driskel ran less on Friday than Thursday, but you can see from the sheer number of option runs and reads used in these practices that he will have many, many chances to run this fall. He's also still firing bullets at receivers on throws under 20 yards, which is good (he's very good at putting the ball on a man in those situations) and bad (these hard throws may contribute to receivers' drops, and his higher throws can be tipped and picked). I've liked what I've seen from Driskel on deep throws, but he also had his first derp throw last night: With the pocket collapsing around him, Driskel had an open man five yards in front of him ... and threw the ball about a foot in front of him, at his feet.

  • I'd handicap Florida's backup quarterback race as it stands like this: Will Grier leads Skyler Mornhinweg, who leads Treon Harris. Grier's motion can wig out on him, producing variability in his throws, but he's generally good for one excellent throw per practice, and had one last night on a deep pass to Alvin Bailey. I don't think I've seen an excellent throw from either Mornhinweg or Harris, though Harris does have a better chance of making one than Mornhinweg, whose arm strength continually appears to be below average.

Running Backs

  • I would be stunned if Kelvin Taylor does not get at least the plurality of Florida's carries this fall. He may still be lacking as a pass protector, but I haven't seen much pass protection from running backs this fall, and his skills as a runner fit Roper's speed-and-space principles beautifully.
  • Matt Jones looked better tonight than last, and looked more decisive than he did for much of 2013. He also lit up Keanu Neal on a collison, paying Neal back for a big hit delivered on Thursday, much to the offense's delight. I'd love to see more of both him (at the B position) and Taylor on the field at the same time.
  • Brown's standout night combined with Brandon Powell's more nondescript night (I don't remember much of anything Powell did) makes me think Brown's still the backup running back at worst, especially if Florida uses Jones as a B position player.

Wide Receivers

  • Tonight was another night of drops for Florida wide receivers. I saw one from Robinson. I saw one from Showers. I saw one from Latroy Pittman. I realize catching a football isn't easy, but these are very catchable balls that players are dropping.
  • Showers's leaping catch (on a great, tough sideline throw) was the second-best of the night, behind Robinson's athletic grab.
  • Didn't notice any wide receiver standing out consistently other than Robinson, though I thought Florida's secondary and pass rush were both excellent on the night, which helps determine what WRs can do.

Tight Ends / Bs

  • DeAndre Goolsby left practice early, as Richard Johnson noted.
  • Don't remember any specific Jake McGee moments, but it's interesting that we've seen him flexed out in the slot a fair bit over two practices. That's also consistent with how Roper used TEs at Duke.
  • Beyond McGee, Goolsby, and maybe Jones, I don't see Florida getting a lot from other tight ends this year. Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton have been nearly invisible, I've only noticed that C'yontai Lewis is skinny, and I haven't even laid eyes on Moral Stephens.

Offensive Linemen

  • If you were only using these practices as a guide, Florida would seem to have just one tackle position cemented, with D.J. Humphries holding down the left side. Those with some context know Chaz Green's starting at right tackle, though, which is what makes the Gators rotating in Rod Johnson at that position in 1s vs. 1s drills interesting. Green's got an injury history, of course, and he's got dehydration issues that forced him off the field to get fluids last night, so it might just be a move to train depth, or cross-train Johnson at multiple positions. Given how Florida's second-team line has looked, it's not a bad idea.
  • Had quarterbacks been live last night, their red jerseys would have been dirtied. The second-team offensive line breaks down often, and Driskel had a couple of plays where he was dead to rights, including one in which what looked like a missed assignment put him in Neiron Ball's sights. Pass blocking is something I'll watch carefully next week.
  • On the bright side: I noted on Twitter that Florida had 17 offensive linemen, including walk-ons, and all were healthy and working out last night. If players struggle, there are options.

Defensive Linemen

  • If Florida's defensive tackle rotation for this fall consists of Darious Cummings, Joey Ivie, Leon Orr, Gerald Willis, and some help from Jonathan Bullard playing as they are right now, Florida's going to be just fine at DT this year. Cummings is a space eater, Orr is a load, Ivie impressed many with his relentlessness last night, Willis has great quickness, and Bullard is so solid wherever he plays on the line.
  • That said: I'm still not sure Florida has a pass-rusher who can be menacing beyond Fowler. I've seen Fowler moving around a fair bit to make exotic looks happen, but no other end or BUCK has shown me much.

Linebackers

  • Once again, Florida's linebackers mostly worked on the far field in individual drills. I haven't seen much to complain about from them, but I also haven't seen anything, apart from the occasional flash in 11-on-11 drills, to laud.

Defensive Backs

  • It really feels like Florida wants to use Marcus Maye as a nickel corner, which makes sense if getting him and Neal and Jabari Gorman on the field is difficult. He also got shook up despite wearing a non-contact jersey, which feels not good.
  • There were not many open receivers on this night. The few excellent plays made by wide receivers required significant effort. (And, remember, VH3 wasn't playing.)
  • Jalen Tabor has great hair.

Special Teams

  • I didn't see a field goal kicked all night.
  • The punting was minimal, as well.
  • Florida worked on kickoffs (not returns) on the near field and punt returns (from a Juggs machine, I believe) on the far field, and I didn't get great looks at who was working with the punt returners.

Superlatives

Throw of the Day

Driskel's strike to Dunbar. Good decision, excellent velocity, very good accuracy.

Run of the Day

Taylor's cut and run.

Catch of the Day

D-Rob's beauty.

Play of the Day

As part of showing the wide receivers (whom he works with a lot) how to run a route, Roper ran the route himself, made a good catch, and spiked the ball when he turned to face his players. It was a great moment for both the fans, and, I'd imagine, for Roper's players.

Coach of the Day

See previous section.

Stray Observations

  • Walked to the field hearing "Drop That Nae Nae." Florida director of player personnel Drew Hughes did a half-hearted version of it before I made it to the Diz.

  • Neither Wilson nor Drew Sarvary was wearing leg pads. Nick de la Torre writes that Wilson wasn't in full pads because he'd previously missed a practice. (shrug)
  • Late in the final period of practice, I spotted Chris Thompson laying on the ground on the sideline, and inexplicably miming a swimming motion. I needed to share this with you.