By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Florida Gators 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC
Spring practice: March 14-April 7
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 11
Passing: Jacoby Brissett, 18 of 39, 206 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: Mike Gillislee, 56 att., 328 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Andre Debose, 16 rec., 432 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Jon Bostic, 94
Sacks: Ronald Powell, 6
Interceptions: Matt Elam and De'Ante Saunders, 2
Redshirts to watch: WR JaJuan Story, S Valdez Showers
Willie Bailey, DB (6-1, 167), Hallandale (Fla.) High
Jessamen Dunker, OL (6-4, 320), Boynton Beach (Fla.) High
D.J. Humphries, OL (6-6, 271), Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek
Damien Jacobs, DL (6-3, 310), Scooba (Miss.) East Miss. C.C.
Antonio Morrison, LB (6-1, 209), Bollingbrook (Ill.) High
JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Damien Jacobs
SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 Bowling Green
Sept. 8 at Texas A&M
Sept. 15 at Tennessee
Sept. 22 Kentucky
Sept. 27 Bye Week
Oct. 6 LSU
Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20 South Carolina
Oct. 27 Georgia
Nov. 3 Missouri
Nov. 10 UL-Lafayette
Nov. 17 Jacksonville State
Nov. 24 at Florida State
Offensive Strength: On a unit that has struggled ever since Urban Meyer left town, is it okay to say none? There is still plenty of offensive skill depth and versatility, but none of those hefty recruiting rankings have panned out. It's not to say that there is loads of potential, especially in the receiving corps. There is plenty of speed with Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond on the outside while Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard were two of the most highly-touted tight ends in the nation. This group can only improve.
Offensive Weakness: Since this entire offense was "highly-touted" and has yet to stabilize in any sense of the word, really every position could be listed as a weakness. However, the offensive line could feature two true freshman this fall and therefore gets the nod as the biggest area of concern. But make no mistake, the quarterbacks or running game (or receivers for that matter) aren't in much better shape.
Defensive Strength: All areas of this defense are supremely talented and return intact, but if one area is the strength it would have to be the defensive line. Fourteen players registered a sack last fall for Florida and 12 of them are returning, including six of the top seven D-Linemen. This is an active, explosive, versatile and extremely talented front line. Fans have high expectations for uber-recruits Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter and Sharrif Floyd.
Defensive Weakness: This unit is quite the opposite of the offense. With 11 starters returning, there really isn't a glaring weakness. Finding tall corners that fit Wil Muschamp's scheme might be an area of focus for the spring. Developing a physical Alabama-esque edge in the extremely athletic linebacking corps is important. And adding bulk up front are small areas of development for a defense that could be the SEC East's most talented unit.
Spring Storylines Facing the Gators
1. Stablizing the offensive coaching staff had to be Muschamp's top priority this offseason. With the hiring of former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to call plays, the Gators will be featuring its fourth OC in four seasons. Hardly stable. Yet, Pease helped develop one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the nation in Boise and is charged with the continued shift from Meyer spread to Muschamp pro-style. There are a lot of moving parts on the offense and figuring out how they all fit together needs to be done quickly if Pease expects to complete the transition to the more traditional power offense.
2. Finding a quarterback will be Pease's main focus this spring. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Gators truly have no clue who will be the starting quarterback on September 1. Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are dripping with talent, arm strength and size. Yet, both are young, inexperienced and need development. Additionally, Pease has no loyalty to either as he didn't recruit them to Gainesville. It is a quarterback competition in its truest form and the winner of the job will get the keys to one of the most prolific offensive programs in the modern history of college football.
3. Does there seem to be a developing theme with Florida football this spring? With a new coordinator and new quarterback, the next step for the Gators is to develop the offensive line. Both in pass pro and the running game, the Gators front line struggled mightily a year ago. So even though 50 starts return to the O-Line, Pease knows he needs an influx of young talent to advance this bunch. Look for incoming freshmen and early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the No. 1 offensive lineman recruit in the nation, and Jessamen Dunker to push for starting spots in the trenches. These two big-time recruits cannot be asked to step in and be stars right away, but if they can simply play effective football, it should press the incumbents to improve. For a team that finished 73rd in the nation in rushing and 105th nationally in total offense, it all starts up front.
4. Last but not least is the running game. If the new coordinator can design an effective game plan, the quarterback can protect the football and the offensive line can develop, it will fall to the undistinguished ball carriers to pick up the tough yards in SEC play. Ironing out who will be will get the lion's share of the touches is completely up in the air. Mike Gillislee is likely the most dependable. Trey Burton might be the most physical (and best suited for a pro-style attack) but is more of a fullback and H-Back than tailback. And sophomore Mack Brown might have the most upside. Someone in the backfield has to step up after the loss of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps — who didn't really fit Muschamp's desired power scheme anyway despite their success. All three should be pressing in spring camp as they may simply be keeping the seat warm for 6-foot-2, 213-pound star recruit Matt Jones (who is definitely keeping the seat warm for 2013 superstar Kelvin Taylor).
Related Content Links
Athlon Sports No. 3 Recruiting Class: Florida Gators
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012