GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida hasn’t announced a starting date for spring practice yet, but it’s probably at least a month and a half away.
In Gainesville, though, it’s never too early to look ahead to the renewal of organized practice and the onset of position battles that will shape the upcoming season.
New Gators coach Dan Mullen has done a great job building momentum through his first offseason back with the program, and that should only amplify further as he and his staff wrap up their first recruiting class at Florida over the next couple weeks.
That won’t affect the storylines for spring practice, though. Those are just about set at this point, and there are plenty.
To take a quick break from the news cycle of official visits, tracking Twitter for the latest prospect posts, prayers-up emojis and commitment announcements, here’s a peek ahead at five topics that will dominate the discussion later this spring.
1. QB, of course
Where else to start? Freshman quarterback Emory Jones moved to campus earlier this month to get a jump start at trying to win the starting job in his first year, but to this point the excitement swirling around Jones’ addition to the program has mostly come from his recruiting profile (ranked the No. 4 dual-threat QB in the Class of 2018 by the 247Sports composite) and how he landed at Florida (flipping from an earlier commitment to Ohio State while choosing the Gators over Florida State and Alabama). Eventually, reporters will get to see him take snaps and throw passes in a college practice while gaining a better sense for how ready he is to win that job.
Meanwhile, there’s additional intrigue to see how the others QBs fit into Mullen’s new spread offense. Redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks will be closely scrutinized after his rough freshman season while redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask and redshirt freshman Jake Allen remain unknown commodities — especially with a new coaching staff and offensive system in place.
2. Transition to the 3-4
Mullen suggested that Florida will ease into its transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense and that the coaches will adjust to the strengths of the personnel.
But there’s no doubt the Gators defense will have a new look to it, and with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham a believer in the 3-4, that transition figures to happen as quickly as the players allow it.
Part of that is the mental aspect of learning a new system and becoming proficient enough in it to operate effectively. The other part is finding the right skill sets to meet the needs. That leads to the next storyline …
3. Who lines up where?
Florida’s defensive personnel was recruited for the old system, and the Gators have tried to address their new needs through this final recruiting push.
Early enrollees such as Amari Burney (safety, nickel or outside linebacker) and Trey Dean (safety or cornerback) bring position flexibility, but it will be especially interesting to see what returning players end up in new roles.
It only stands to reason that defensive end CeCe Jefferson will slide into an outside linebacker role when the Gators are in a true 3-4 alignment. That position, the high-profile pass-rushing position within a 3-4, is the biggest question for the Gators, and Jefferson’s decision to return for his senior season makes perfect sense if he saw the potential to boost his NFL draft stock in that new role.
But what about fellow traditional pass-rushing defensive ends such as Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton, etc.? It will be interesting to see how some of those players look physically after the Gators offseason strength and conditioning program and how the new coaching staff intends to use them.
The same intrigue exists with Florida’s returning linebackers outside of junior David Reese, who seems a safe bet to resume his normal inside linebacker role, and along the defensive line.
And what about Chauncey Gardner? Does he move from safety to corner/nickel where he seems a more natural fit?
Seeing who lines up where during the spring will answer a lot of questions about Florida’s defense in 2018.
4. Full roster in focus
**UPDATE: A source confirmed late Tuesday afternoon that running back Jordan Scarlett, wide receiver Rick Wells and linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston have been cleared to return to team activities and will join Florida’s offseason strength and conditioning program Wednesday. This story was posted earlier in the day before that news broke.
As previously noted, it’s looking more likely that suspended former starting running back Jordan Scarlett returns to the program after he opted not to declare for the NFL draft as an early entrant.
His return is not a done deal and there’s been no official word from the university or program on his status, nor the status of the other four remaining suspended players (linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston, wide receiver Rick Wells and defensive end Keivonnis Davis).
It’s a layered process that ultimately will have to go through a university level before it officially becomes a football matter again, but presumably by the start of spring practice these lingering questions will be answered.
As for a different matter of equal significance, there still has been no official word from Florida or the NCAA as to whether high-upside wide receiver transfers Van Jefferson (from Ole Miss) and Trevon Grimes (from Ohio State) will be approved for immediate eligibility. Jefferson’s case relates to the sanctions levied against Ole Miss and the circumstances of the coaching change there, while Grimes moved closer to home citing a private family health matter.
Both would be significant additions to the offense next fall if eligible.
And perhaps by the start of spring practice, the Gators will know for sure all the pieces they have in play.
5. Implementing playmakers on offense
Building off that last point, it will be interesting to watch how Florida’s seemingly deep array of offensive skill position talent can be maximized by Mullen’s proven spread offense.
Tyrie Cleveland is really Florida’s only proven returning wide receiver, and even he hasn’t seemed to reach his full potential in the Gators’ stunting offense. He finished with 22 catches for 410 yards and 2 touchdowns while sprinkling in a highlight reel of big plays along the way.
Jefferson (91 catches for 999 yards and 4 TDs over the last two seasons at Ole Miss) is a proven SEC wide receiver, and Grimes was ranked the No. 6 WR in the Class of 2017.
That’s a nice array of pass-catchers for whichever QB takes the reins of the offense, and then there’s the cases of Kadarius Toney and Dre Massey.
Toney is a big play waiting to happen at all times, be it as a rusher, receiver or occasional passer. Mullen had pretty good success with a versatile playmaker named Percy Harvin back in his last go-round at Florida, so it stands to reason he’ll find an effective way to utilize Toney.
Massey, meanwhile, has been hyped up for two seasons due to his top-end speed, but it really hasn’t translated into production on Saturdays yet. Maybe Mullen has a better idea of how to use him as well.
Lastly, if Scarlett is back, the competition for carries should be very intriguing with junior Lamical Perine coming off two serviceable seasons, sophomore Adarius Lemons looking to deliver on the potential he teased late last fall and freshmen newcomers Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement bringing their own intrigue. What pecking order emerges by the Orange & Blue spring game? (Not to forget sophomore Malik Davis, whenever he is cleared to return from a serious right knee injury that cut short his freshman season).
Much of this should come into clearer focus during spring practice.