GAINESVILLE — Florida opens its spring practice, possibly the most critical of coach Will Muschamp's tenure, today.
The Gators are coming off a 4-8 season that has Muschamp on the hot seat — if not with his boss, at least with many fans. There have been staff changes, and Muschamp is opening nine practices, including the spring game, to the public.
"Excited about being on the field," Muschamp said. "Very frustrating, disappointing fall for all of us. We need to get things turned back around."
Here are five story lines to watch:
1. Jeff Driskel's return: Last season began to unravel when the quarterback broke his right leg during the third game. After surgery and rehab, how healthy is he and how quickly can he regain form?
2. Kurt Roper's offense: Florida hopes to revamp its stagnant offense (113th in Division I-A last season at 316.7 yards per game) with new coordinator Kurt Roper, who was hired from Duke. The Gators will make what Muschamp described as "a drastic change schematically," which means players have 15 on-field days to work on the new scheme. That also means Driskel, a junior in the fall, and touted incoming freshman Will Grier will, essentially, start from scratch together. And while Driskel is the projected starter and expected to get the majority of reps, Muschamp has said all jobs are up for grabs after last season. Which players, including running backs, emerge with the best grasp of the system?
3. Kicking woes: New special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler, who comes over from New Mexico, has his work cut out for him. Two years ago, punter Kyle Christy was a Ray Guy finalists, averaging a school-record 45.8 yards. Last season, he struggled so much, averaging 39.6, he lost the job. Johnny Townsend, at 42.0, was only marginally better. Both return. In addition, the touted Austin Hardin made just 4 of 12 field goals as a freshman. Said Muschamp: "Our kicking situation was atrocious last year."
4. Receivers and offensive line: Two of the top three receivers from last season are gone. Senior-to-be Quinton Dunbar (40 catches for 548 yards and no touchdowns) will be the most experienced. Look to see if sophomore-to-be Ahmad Fulwood (17 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown) will improve and if redshirting as a freshman has Armwood High graduate Alvin Bailey ready to make an impact. New line coach Mike Summers, who has 34 years of coaching experience, has to revamp a unit that lost four players who combined for 32 starts last season: Jon Halapio (10), Jonotthan Harrison (12), Kyle Koehne (six) and Ian Silberman (four). Expect some shifts, including redshirt senior Max Garcia (who played left guard and left tackle) to center.
5. Defensive backs: Marcus Roberson, Cody Riggs and Loucheiz Purifoy have to be replaced. Wharton High graduate and sophomore-to-be Vernon Hargreaves played so well last season (three interceptions) he's probably the only player not fighting for his job.