GAINESVILLE, Fla. — College football returns to SEC Country this month with the start of spring practices.
Florida coach Jim McElwain and his Gators take the field next week, looking to build on an SEC East championship season, but one that ultimately ended in disappointment.
For UF to return to Atlanta and challenge for a conference title and CFB Playoff berth, the offensive side of the ball has to improve.
Here’s where the Gators stand heading into spring:
Returners: Luke Del Rio
Newcomers: Austin Appleby, Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask
The skinny: All eyes will be on this position during the practices. The Gators have new blood under center, and all four of them meet certain criteria that McElwain looks for in his quarterbacks. Del Rio comes into spring with a slight edge because he practiced with the team in 2015, though he wasn’t eligible to play because of NCAA transfer rules. The biggest threat to him is Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue who arrived in January along with early enrollees Franks and Trask. Appleby has starting experience, but lost his job last season due to turnover issues. He must fix that at Florida if he’s going to beat out Del Rio. Franks, an Elite 11 finalist, and fellow true freshman Trask will both compete for the job, but the upperclassmen would have to really play poorly for them not to redshirt.
Returners: Jordan Cronkrite, Jordan Scarlett
Newcomers: Mark Thompson
The skinny: Kelvin Taylor, who had a breakout 1,000-yard season in 2015, has moved on to the NFL and leaves big shoes to fill in the backfield. But thanks to a couple late additions in McElwain’s first recruiting class and this year’s signing of the nation’s No. 1 junior college running back, UF has a trio of viable options to account for Taylor’s production. One guy will eventually separate himself as the starter, but the Gators could deploy a running-back-by-committee approach next fall. Cronkrite and Scarlett each shined in one SEC game last season and appear ready to take on bigger roles. Thompson was a coveted recruit for his rare combination of size and speed, bringing a different dimension to Florida’s run game.
Returners: Alvin Bailey, Antonio Callaway, Ahmad Fulwood, Kalif Jackson, Brandon Powell, Ryan Sousa, Chris Thompson, C.J. Worton
Newcomers: Treon Harris, Joshua Hammond, Dre Massey, Freddie Swain
The skinny: There’s a few interesting dynamics at receiver this spring. The most notable storyline is Harris’ move from passer to pass catcher. He certainly has the athleticism to be a wideout, but must learn the nuances of playing the position. Callaway is the returning receiver who’s been a consistent playmaker. Powell had his moments in 2015, but Massey could challenge him for playing time if his production doesn’t increase. Players such as Bailey and Worton also need to step up and make strides in practice, or they may get passed on the depth chart by talented early enrollees Hammond and Swain. With Demarcus Robinson gone, it’s time for Fulwood to take on more of a leadership role and fulfill his potential as a senior.
Returners: DeAndre Goolsby, Camrin Knight, C’yontai Lewis, Moral Stephens
The skinny: Jake McGee was one of Florida’s most reliable and effective offensive weapons last season, and he’ll be missed at the position. But Goolsby and Lewis are capable of taking over for McGee. Both possess more athleticism and speed than him, and they’ve bulked up over the past two years. Look for the Gators to install several two-TE sets with them as part of their base offense. Knight played in eight games as a true freshman, while Stephens saw action in seven games after redshirting in 2014. Neither recorded any stats, however, and will look to get more involved in the offense this spring.
Returners: Nick Buchanan, Cameron Dillard, Richerd Desir-Jones, Travaris Dorsey, Kavaris Harkless, Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson, Tyler Jordan, T.J. McCoy, Andrew Mike, Brandon Sandifer, David Sharpe, Antonio Riles
Newcomers: Stone Forsythe
The skinny: A team weakness during McElwain’s first year could be a potential strength in 2016. The Gators ended last spring with just six scholarship linemen, but they start practices next week with more than twice that amount (13). UF has plenty of depth and talent at the position now, which will allow the offense to conduct better scrimmages and a real spring game on April 8. There will be position battles across the entire line of scrimmage, some of which will dictate whether promising sophomore Ivey remains at guard or moves to his more natural tackle spot. Players such as Dorsey, Harkless and Mike need to at least solidify themselves as backups, or they could lose their spot in the rotation to some of the up-and-coming underclassmen.