What will happen under the lights at The Swamp on this particular Friday night is still up for debate. But we can be sure of one thing: It's wonderful, in some senses, to see the Florida Gators back on a football field again.
Friday's 2016 Orange and Blue Debut (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN) is the culmination of a first full offseason under Jim McElwain for the Gators, after the abbreviated version he got during the 2014-15 academic year. This time, McElwain had his charges from bowl practice through until this first spring game under the lights in Florida's history, one that will shine the spotlight brightest on a few specific positions where fans will be expecting big things.
Let's run down the three biggest areas to watch when the Orange and Blue teams lace up their cleats and strap on their helmets to run onto the field in The Swamp.
Is Del Rio the real deal?
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio has seemingly separated himself from the pack in Florida's quartet of new-to-the-Gators quarterbacks. While none of Del Rio, Purdue transfer Austin Appleby, and early-enrollee freshmen Feliepe' Franks and Kyle Trask have ever thrown a pass in a Florida uniform, the former Alabama and Oregon State signal-caller is the only one of those players whose experience with McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dates beyond January 2016. For that reason alone, Del Rio came into the spring with a big lead in the quarterback competition on the other three throwers, even before considering the likely position change and unexpected suspension of incumbent starter Treon Harris.
Friday night will be Del Rio's first chance to command the Gators outside of a practice setting, and while he can probably sway coaches permanently to his side with a unshowy stint of competent play, he might also face an enthusiasm gap from fans if the rocket-armed trio behind him — especially the freshmen — flash under the lights. I fully expect Del Rio to be Florida's starter this fall, but I expect that to be because he is both the steadiest and safest choice to be the Gators' next starting QB. If he can mix competence with a dash of flash, Del Rio stands to sway Gator Nation en masse.
Where are the playmakers?
With Antonio Callaway also springspended, Florida enters this game with a dearth of established offensive playmakers. Gone are Kelvin Taylor, Demarcus Robinson, and Jake McGee, the Gators' top running back, wideout, and tight end from 2015, and while that offense got stuck in a ditch and backfired for a month straight after Harris took over for Will Grier, the departures of those three players leave holes to fill.
JUCO studs might be able to shore up the first two spots, with Mark Thompson vying for the bellcow's share of carries in a running back rotation that also features Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite and Dre Massey profiling as the burner in a deep recruiting class of wide receivers. But I wouldn't count out freshmen wideouts Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain, more Callaway-like players thanks to their fluiditiy, nor driven freshman runner Lamical Perine, and I don't think any starting spot at either position is so well-cast that there won't be significant flux between now and the fall.
At tight end, it seems likely that Florida will fit players into roles suited to their skills: Deandre Goolsby is the playmaker, C'yontai Lewis is his understudy, Moral Stephens is the bruising blocker, and Camrin Knight is the question mark. If Goolsby can more consistently produce what he was able to contribute in flashes as a freshman, he's the likely starter at tight end, but there are snaps (and targets) available all around.
How deep is the defense?
Florida's vaunted defense is in the process of replacing veteran studs at all three levels — defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister, linebacker Antonio Morrison, and defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal — and will need younger players to step up to maintain an elite level of play. That seems most likely at defensive line, where a host of talented youngsters could team with emerging stars Caleb Brantley and CeCe Jefferson to make Chris Rumph's brand of mayhem happen.
At linebacker and in the secondary, though, the future is murkier. Jarrad Davis is Florida's second-level rock, but it remains to be seen which wingmen will be able to help him out in 2016, with Alex Anzalone recovering from injury, Matt Rolin only coming on late in 2015, and Daniel McMillian still yet to put it all together as a Gator. Early enrollee David Reese might figure into the Gators' linebacker rotation, and a fine spring game would ease fears about his readiness.
In the secondary, the three positions nailed down — those manned by corners Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and safety Marcus Maye — are far less worrisome than the doubts behind and around them. Maye needs a battery mate at safety, and freshman Chauncey Gardner might be the leading candidate to become that player, while the departure of Brian Poole means Florida is also looking for a slot corner. And behind Tabor, Wilson, and Maye, no one in the Gators' defensive backs pool has had more than a handful of snaps on the field.
If some of those relative unknowns flash on Friday night, and it isn't just a product of poor quarterback play, then maybe the Gators have more for new defensive backs coach Torrian Gray to work with than previously anticipated.