Will Muschamp is ready to move forward and stop wasting reps.
With just one day before the Gators begin full-on game planning for the season opener against Toledo, he has most of his starting lineup nailed down. Some spots remain unclear due to injury, but there are fairly clear-cut contingencies for those situations.
Unlike a year ago, Jeff Driskel is the unquestioned starting quarterback and goes into his junior season with enormous expectations. However, there are serious questions about who will be taking his handoffs and catching his passes.
Florida had an obvious choice at running back to replace current Miami Dolphin Mike Gillislee, but sophomore Matt Jones has yet to practice. He suffered a viral infection in July and has not recovered enough to work out with the team, particularly in the melting heat of a Gainesville summer.
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The Gators are prepared to roll into their game against Toledo next Saturday without him. Mack Brown, a red-shirt junior with 167 career yards, could make his starting debut.
“We’ve planned that way the whole time,” Muschamp acknowledged.“When you have an injury situation or a medical situation, you always plan to go without them – and if they’re there, it’s gravy.”
The gravy might not be served until Sept. 21 against Tennessee. UF has no timetable yet.
As inexperienced as Brown is, his current back-ups have seen even less time. Sophomore walk-on Mark Herndon is next in line, followed by converted safety Valdez Showers.
They are ahead of true freshmen Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane. Taylor was expected to challenge for the starting job, but seems to need more time. Muschamp has been upset with his and Lane’s fumbles and inconsistent pass blocking.
“They’re very talented runners, but so much more goes into it than just running the football,” he said.
Tight end is another tricky position. Clay Burton seems to have the top spot ahead of Tevin Westbrook. Both of them are former defensive ends who distanced themselves in front of highly recruited second-year players Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson. All four have combined for four career catches.
At receiver, there are five players who earned Muschamp’s confidence: Quinton Dunbar, Trey Burton, Solomon Patton, Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood.
Dunbar, a red-shirt junior, is the team’s top returning receiver with 36 catches for 383 yards and four touchdowns last year. Trey Burton should start at slot receiver. That leaves a spot outside for Robinson or Fulwood. Those two, both true freshmen, should see significant time this year, but Robinson appears to be the leader.
“He’s been pretty consistently making some vertical plays for us down the field,” Muschamp said.“He’s got really good ball skills. He’s got natural instincts in running routes. So it’s been a very positive thing for our offense.”
Up front, the left side of the offensive line is entrenched. D.J. Humphries won the left tackle job decisively, while Max Garcia held the left guard spot throughout training camp. Jonotthan Harrison returns as a third-year starting center.
The right side requires a Plan B. If Jon Halapio is back from a torn left pectoral muscle, he starts at right guard with either Chaz Green or Tyler Moore at tackle. Muschamp is optimistic Halapio will be cleared by the end of the week, but if he is not, the Gators would start Moore in his place and use Green at tackle.
The defensive line is intact with sophomores Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard impressing at end, and Dominique Easley returning at tackle. The nose tackle will be Damien Jacobs, unless his knee injury is not resolved. Leon Orr is his back-up.
Florida has two of the nation’s best cornerbacks – Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson – and will pair them with starting safeties Cody Riggs and Marcus Maye. Riggs is a former corner who moved to safety this year, and Maye red-shirted as a freshman last season.
Starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison is suspended for the first two games, Toledo and Miami, so the Gators will start red-shirt junior Michael Taylor in his place. Ronald Powell, coming off a torn ACL that cost him all of 2012, is at strong-side linebacker, and red-shirt junior Neiron Ball appears to have won the weak-side linebacker job.
Muschamp has not declared a winner in UF’s kicking battle, but based on three open practices it looks like red-shirt freshman Austin Hardin beat out senior Brad Phillips. Kyle Christy returns as a potential all-America punter. In the return game, Muschamp wants to use Purifoy on kickoffs and Roberson on punts.