Brady Ackerman at Gridiron Now takes up down to the swamp to preview Gator spring football drills.
Jim McElwain’s second spring in Gainesville should be light years smoother than his first.
One big positive is that McElwain — whose team opens spring practice Wednesday — has not had to tour campus dining halls looking for offensive lineman. Florida had only six linemen last spring; there are 13 this year. Plus, there are five returning full- or part-time starters along the line in Cam Dillard, David Sharpe, Tyler Jordan, Martez Ivey and Fred Johnson.
All eyes will be in the quarterback battle, but remember that the pace of practice and the work the Gators can get done should be maximized in year two of McElwain’s tenure.
Priority one: Finding a quarterback. Someone needs to emerge to take the reins. Luke Del Rio has been in the system for a year as a transfer, so he should know what to do and where to go with the ball from Day One. Austin Appleby is a graduate transfer from Purdue with a lot of football under his belt and is the most game-ready guy on campus. Early enrollees Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask will be thrown to the wolves right out of the gate. The guy who can show the best command of the offense and take what the defense gives him will rise to the top of the depth chart.
Strongest position: Secondary. Even with the departures of Vernon Hargreaves, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole, the secondary will be the strength of the team. Jalen Tabor had four interceptions (including two he returned for touchdowns) last season and seems highly motivated coming into the spring. He wants to prove he’s the best corner in the country. Marcus Maye was an All-American at safety, and despite his terrific season, he wants to showcase better coverage skills. The back end also has a future NFL player in corner Quincy Wilson and a talented multi-spot player in Duke Dawson. Throw in Nick Washington and Marcell Harris, both of whom played quite a bit at safety, and the Gators have talent. Highly touted early enrollee Chauncey Gardner, who can play corner or safety, also is someone to watch in the spring.
Weakest position: Wide receiver. There are a lot of unknown commodities. With three early enrollees joining the competition this spring, you have to believe there will be some clarity with this group come April 8. Antonio Callaway has all-conference talent, and look for the quarterbacks to work him more in the quick game. He is a proven deep threat, and he certainly could add the intermediate and quick shots to his repertoire. Junior Brandon Powell, JC transfer Dre Massey and early-enrolling freshmen Freddie Swain and Joshua Hammond should get plenty of opportunities to crack the rotation. This is likely the last go-round for holdovers Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson, C.J. Worton and Alvin Bailey to prove they can be productive playmakers.
Player most on the spot, offense: TE DeAndre Goolsby. McElwain wants a reliable tight end. The graduation of sure-handed senior Jake McGee leaves a void in the passing game, especially on third down. Goolsby has better speed than McGee, but his production faded in the second half of the season. He had only four receptions in the final seven games and needs a big spring showing.
Player most on the spot, defense: LB Alex Anzalone. His health has been an issue. He had surgery on a chronic shoulder problem in September, and the hope is he can go in spring ball. Whether or not he’s limited, he must show he can produce. He is not on the spot because there is someone ready to take his spot but more so because this team needs him. If he can be a reliable, healthy player, this defense will be built to stop teams such as 2016 opponents LSU, Georgia and Arkansas.
The clock is ticking on: WR Ahmad Fulwood. The former four star prospect – he was a top-15 receiver and a top-125 player overall nationally in the 2013 recruiting class – has the size (6 feet 4, 208 pounds) you want in a big-time receiver. But except for a few flashes here and there, he has not lived up to billing. His career numbers: 35 receptions and just two touchdowns. He not only needs a big spring but he has to be head and shoulders better than the young guys. If not, Fulwood will spend his final season on special teams and not in the main rotation.
Newcomer to watch: RB Mark Thompson. He is a junior college transfer who enrolled in January and definitely is in the mix to be the starting tailback. He should receive every opportunity to be a breakout player. Kelvin Taylor had a 1,000-yard season before turning pro, but Thompson (6-2, 228) looks to have more speed. Thompson was extremely productive in the JC ranks, and we have seen JC backs have success in the SEC. Thompson will vie with sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett for the starting job.
Notable players who will miss spring practice: Nothing official has been released, but there could be health questions with Anzalone, Ivey (shoulder), Powell (foot), DT Joey Ivie (sports hernia) and DE Jordan Sherit (knee).
First game: September 3, vs. Massachusetts.