GAINESVILLE, Fla. | The Florida Gators celebrated last season Saturday by getting their national championship rings, then took a look at what's in store for the future.
With 16 starters sitting out, many of them for precautionary reasons, Florida's spring game turned into a showcase for young players who might not even make an impact this fall.
Sophomore John Brantley threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, ran for two scores and led the Orange team to a 31-21 victory over Tim Tebow's Blue squad.
"He had a great spring," offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said. "You watch his presence in the pocket, his poise. He took a shot under the chin and delivered a strike. All the signs and evidence of a guy that's really developing into one heck of a football player.
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"He's a legitimate player, and we have a lot of confidence in him. That was a major deal for the spring, and I think the exclamation point was out there for him today."
Brantley was 14-of-23 passing, with completions of 26, 47 and 50 yards. His 47-yarder to Frankie Hammond Jr. highlighted a 90-yard touchdown drive in the first half. They also hooked up on a 50-yard score on the second play of the second half.
Hammond caught the ball in stride, then juked Adrian Bushell near the goal line and coasted into the end zone. The redshirt freshman finished with four catches for 131 yards and two scores.
"It feels good, but I still made some mistakes," Hammond said. "I'm just trying to contribute and trying to fit in wherever it may be."
The receiver position was one of Florida's main concerns this spring. The Gators lost their top two wideouts, Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, after beating Oklahoma in the national title game in January and weren't sure who would replace them. But Hammond, Deonte Thompson (four catches for 44 yards), Carl Moore (two for 49) and T.J. Lawrence (five for 59) looked to be capable pass-catchers.
"We do have guys," Tebow said. "There's a lot of different guys. There's no one guy. It's a lot of guys competing for the ball, competing for catches. I think that's great because it's going to make these guys work really hard this summer."
Tebow only played the first half and was 7-of-9 passing for 81 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran three times for 21 yards.
Tebow, Thompson, running back Chris Rainey and three offensive linemen were the only starters who played in the spring game. The entire first-team defense got the day off, which might have benefited Brantley the most. Instead of going against the first unit, he faced second- and third-teamers.
Nonetheless, he showed the kind of game-management skills of an experienced quarterback.
"It's really clicked for me that I can do this," said Brantley, who played for both teams in the second half and actually scored once for the Blue squad. "Once Tebow leaves, and if I'm fortunate enough to get the starting job, I can run the show."
Tebow took Brantley around Florida Field for a victory lap after the game, with the duo getting high-fives from some of the about 50,000 on hand.
The day started with players getting one of their three rings. They are still waiting on national championship rings that players designed. This one was a huge silver one with an orange and blue "No. 1" etched between "National" and "Champions."
"My arm's already a little bit sore and I've only had it on a couple of minutes," Brantley said.
With the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and the team's entire defense back from last season, the Gators expect to compete for another title this fall. Even Meyer acknowledged the program is in great shape right now.
"What we can't do is lose our edge," Meyer said. "If we didn't have all those minor dings, you would have seen a hell of a team jog out there today. What did we envision? This is it. This is where we want to be. We just have to be careful, put the pedal to the metal. ... We've got this thing about where you want. Now we've just got to stay and keep recruiting our tails off and keep working."
Meyer said he plans to make summer drills and fall practice the most difficult workouts his players have ever faced, figuring that's the best way to keep them from paying attention to any preseason accolades and lofty predictions that might come their way.
"We'll be hungry and we'll keep that edge because we have great senior leaders," Tebow said. "That's the most important thing. What makes us a good team is that edge, wanting to win, wanting to go out there and fight and dominate teams."
And if Florida stays on edge?
"If we play the way we're supposed to play, we'll be right back in the big game," Brantley said.