GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The 2016 Florida football team will feature several new starters on both sides of the ball, and the Gators begin establishing those roles this week with spring practices kicking off.
UF lost a starter at every defensive position and is without its leading receiver, running back and tight end from last season, which ended with a 41-7 loss to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
“It makes you really excited to get going on spring ball and get that taste out of your mouth, a miserable taste that was embarrassing,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said of the bowl game. “It was embarrassing the way we played. It was embarrassing the way we took the field. It was embarrassing the way we laid down. That’s what’s great about spring practice.”
Priority No. 1 for McElwain is finding a new quarterback. Last year’s starter, Treon Harris, is currently suspended along with star wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
McElwain said redshirt junior Luke Del Rio, now eligible after sitting out in 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules, has a leg up on the competition over graduate transfer Austin Appleby and true freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.
“He’s been here obviously and been learning,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “He and Austin have done an outstanding job together with those two young guys, Feleipe and Kyle. I’m excited to see routes on air.”
McElwain said the lack of depth throughout the entire offense hurt last season. The Gators now have their numbers up at multiple positions, particularity on the offensive line.
Sophomore Martez Ivey (shoulder) won’t practice this spring, but Florida has 12 scholarship linemen on the roster and several walk-ons.
“We’re better at numbers on the O-line, but we need to get better at that position for us to be successful,” McElwain said. “I will say this … I think you’ll see that we’ve got really good numbers to be able to practice.”
With receivers Callaway and Brandon Powell (foot) out, more reps will be available to newcomers Joshua Hammond, Dre Massey and Freddie Swain. Of the 12 mid-year enrollees Florida had in January, McElwain said those three have stood out to him the most.
He also expects the returning receivers and tight ends to step up over the next 15 practices.
“Moral Stephens is a guy that’s really elevated through his offseason and now there’s a real opportunity to jump in there now with C’yontai (Lewis) and (DeAndre) Goolsby,” McElwain said. “Cameron Knight, who took reps for us last year, and when you see the guy kind of run out there you might go, ‘Jeez, who’s that guy?’ Well, it’s because he’s grown up a little bit.
“We need Ahmad (Fulwood) to step up. We need some other guys at the ride receiver spot, obviously with the three young guys that are in that are new. You look at a guy like (Alvin) Bailey that needs to take some leadership role there and say it’s time to go. It should be a lot of fun when you see those guys out there running around and competing. Chris Thompson’s got to be one of those guys as well.”
The fight for playing time should be just as competitive at running back, where UF will likely replace 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor with a collaborative effort from junior college transfer Mark Thompson and sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett.
“I’m looking forward to Jordan and Jordan and those guys competing at the running back spot,” McElwain said. “We got some bodies there. Mark is a guy pushing the envelope there, too. Here’s the good thing, you see some guys competing every day now knowing that I don’t just have my spot. I think the competition is something that is really good for every position.”
Defensively, a total of six starters are gone from last season at defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety. McElwain said the defense has to establish a new identity with those departures.
“Obviously we lost some really good players,” McElwain said. “For us, it’s a matter of players at those spots stepping up and elevating their play as well. I know you guys get really stuck on starters, but they play a lot. They rotate a lot, a lot of different positions. To me it’s the amount of reps a guy’s ready to take come game time.”
McElwain said the Gators are short on numbers in the secondary and at linebacker, although starting LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder) has been cleared for non-contact drills and redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson has switched from safety to linebacker.
“We were in that situation a year ago with Antonio (Morrison) and Jarrad (Davis), who didn’t practice really at all,” McElwain said. “So at least our numbers now are much better. (Anzalone) being able to do a lot of the non-contact drills is really going to benefit a guy like David (Reese) because he’s going to be able to have a second coach in his ear.”
In the secondary, McElwain is counting on early enrollees McArthur Burnett and Chauncey Gardner to contribute this spring as Florida works to fill the voids left by Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole.
“Chauncey and McArthur are going to get tons of reps,” McElwain said. “And here’s the good thing — they’re going to be taught as well by some really good players, you know. Quincy (Wilson) and Jalen (Tabor), taking the responsibility to help them, learning the nuances of the position as well as with the nickelback as we kind of roll guys into that. Marcell (Harris) and Duke (Dawson), those guys — they’re starters. To have Marcus Maye then helps that communication piece. It’s something that I’m excited to see.”