The Florida Gators will get back to work on the field with the start of spring practice on March 9. While the Gators won the SEC East in 2015 with a 10-4 record (7-1 in SEC play), the enthusiasm emanating from the program in head coach Jim McElwain’s first year in Gainesville was diminished some by a season-ending, three-game losing streak.
Florida comes into the spring with a number of questions and holes to address, including quarterback. While defense has been the Gators’ calling card the last few seasons, that unit has some big shoes to fill with Vernon Hargraves, Antonio Morrison and Alex McCalister, to name a few, no longer on campus.
5 Storylines to Watch During Florida’s Spring Practice
1. Finding a quarterback
Treon Harris ended last season as the Gators’ starting quarterback after Will Grier (who has since transferred) was suspended for using an NCAA-banned substance. While Harris had his moments, he mostly struggled as a starter and doesn’t appear to be in the coaching staff’s plans for the position in 2016. On Tuesday, McElwain announced that Harris and wide receiver Antonio Callaway would not be taking part in spring practice.
With Harris out of the picture, that leaves Luke Del Rio, Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby and incoming freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask to compete for the starting quarterback spot.
After sitting out the entire 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules, Del Rio is considered the favorite to win the competition. Del Rio knows Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s system well as they both were at Alabama in 2013 before the quarterback transferred to Oregon State.
Appleby also has experience, as he began the 2015 season as Purdue's starter before he was replaced by redshirt freshman David Blough. Franks and Trask both enrolled early and will participate in spring practices.
2. The stable of running backs
Florida's starting running back competition will be a critical area to watch this spring. The Gators have a number of talented players who could replace Kelvin Taylor as the featured ball carrier.
Sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett have experience, as each received a number of carries last season, but junior college transfer Mark Thompson also will have an opportunity to win the starting job.
Last season at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, Thompson rushed for 1,298, good for fourth place in the NJCAA. Scarlett, a 4-star recruit from Fort Lauderdale prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas is likely the favorite to win the starting position, but Cronkrite and Thompson should get their chances this spring too.
3. Will a more experienced offensive line result in better play?
Florida had one of the youngest offensive lines in FBS last season and it showed. The Gators gave up 46 sacks in 2015, which was the sixth most in the nation.
Florida will begin spring practice with four starters returning up front, compared to last year when the team had just seven healthy scholarship offensive linemen able to participate. Cameron Dillard will likely start at center, but he missed the final three games of the 2015 season because of a leg injury.
The biggest question on the line is if an injury happens, do the Gators have the depth, unlike last season?
4. How good will the Gators’ defensive line be in 2016?
Despite losing Alex McCalister and Jonathan Bullard, Florida's defensive line is likely the strength of the team once again. Defensive ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Caleb Brantley figure to be the leaders, but there is plenty of talent throughout the roster.
Cece Jefferson and Joey Ivie are favorites to crack the starting rotation alongside Cox and Brantley. Defensive tackles Taven Bryan, Khairi Clark and ends Keivonnis Davis and Jordan Sherit also will likely see playing time.
In addition, Florida has three talented incoming freshmen in 4-star Jordan Smith, 4-star Antonneous Clayton and 3-star Jachai Polite.
5. Who replaces Vernon Hargraves?
While replacing an All-American cornerback like Hargreaves as well as reliable defensive back Brian Poole won't be an easy job, the Gators still have quite a bit of talent in their secondary. Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson are expected to start at cornerback. Tabor has a chance to follow in Hargreaves’ footsteps and emerge as one of the nation’s top corners this fall.
Wilson played a substantial role on last year's team and should be serviceable as a full-time starter. Florida will have to find someone to fill the important nickel back position.
Florida's Pre-Spring Outlook in the SEC
Everyone is focused on the quarterback battle in Gainesville this spring but there are a number of other positions that are just as intriguing. Florida needs to develop more continuity along the offensive line. If the Gators can, that would take pressure off of whoever ends up earning the starting quarterback job.
After a 10-4 season in 2015, many expect Florida to take a step back this fall. Having a good spring would go a long way to proving the naysayers wrong.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.