March 25, 2009

Florida opens title defense with few questions

Florida is coming off its second national title in three seasons and likely will head into the 2009 season ranked atop the polls.

But there is some work to do this spring, most notably along the offensive line and at wide receiver. The Gators need two new starting tackles and must find replacements for starting wide receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, so spring practice deserves a close watch.

Here's a look at the Gators as they prepare for spring drills.

florida AT-A-GLANCE
Tim Tebow and the Gators enter 2009 with a good chance of defending their national title.
THE BASICS
Coach: Urban Meyer
Last season: 13-1, 7-1 SEC. Beat Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game.
Spring dates: March 25-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (6): WR Riley Cooper, TE Aaron Hernandez, G Carl Johnson, C Maurkice Pouncey, G Mike Pouncey, QB Tim Tebow.
Defense (11): SS Ahmad Black, E Jermaine Cunningham, CB Joe Haden, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB A.J. Jones, T Lawrence Marsh, T Terron Sanders, LB Brandon Spikes, LB Ryan Stamper, E Justin Trattou, FS Major Wright.
Special teams (2): P Chas Henry, K Jonathan Phillips.
Positions of strength

All 11 starters and 21 of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep are back off a national title team. The back seven headed by linebacker Brandon Spikes should be one of the two or three best in the nation. There is great depth in the back seven as well. Quarterback Tim Tebow has played a big role on two national title teams and has won the Heisman; he is a great fit for coach Urban Meyer's version of the spread. The team speed is tremendous, led by running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey. Aaron Hernandez should be one of the most productive tight ends in the nation. Special teams play a big role for Meyer, and he returns his kicker, his punter and his ace return man (Brandon James).

Help is needed

The offensive line needs two new starting tackles, and guard Carl Johnson might move outside to take one of the spots. Two starting wide receivers are gone, including Harvin - who was the Gators' big-play man last season. The Gators need two or three inexperienced players to step up at wide receiver. If they don't, the passing attack won't scare many people. Depth at tight end is iffy; the same goes with the depth at defensive tackle. A ramped-up pass rush will be a priority.

Keep an eye on

OT Marcus Gilbert: He started twice at guard last season, but his best position is tackle and he's expected to nail down a starting spot at tackle this spring. Gilbert has the talent, but needs to pay more attention to his technique if he is to be successful. If Gilbert struggles, it's almost certain Johnson moves outside from guard. Johnson could move anyway and play the opposite side from Gilbert.

RB Emmanuel Moody: He didn't live up to expectations last season after transferring from USC. He has the perfect size/speed mix for the spread, but he spent most of last season as the No. 3 running back. While the backs ahead of him last season (the 5-8 Demps and the 5-9 Rainey) were tiny "slasher" types, Moody adds a different dimension because of his size (6-0/210). He'll be given every opportunity to win the starting job or at least an increased role this spring. If he doesn't, it's likely he never will.

WR Deonte Thompson: He is expected to get the first shot at Harvin's vacant starting spot. Thompson - a sophomore - has excellent speed, but he's not in Harvin's class as a playmaker. Still, if Thompson performs as expected, he easily could lead the team in receptions. He is one of several young receivers, along with redshirt freshmen Frankie Hammond and T.J. Lawrence, who need to have good springs. Redshirt freshman Omarius Hines will miss spring drills because of injury.

His time is now

Junior wide receiver Justin Williams was a touted recruit out of high school, but he hasn't made an impact except on special teams. He was a backup safety last season, but he has been moved back to his original position for spring practice. He has good size (6-1/205) and with two starting spots open on the outside, Williams needs to get into the mix. If he has a sluggish spring, he's likely to be passed on the depth chart by the younger receivers on the roster.

The buzz

A lot is expected from Florida this fall the defense should be dominant but a lot needs to get done this spring, especially on the offensive line. Coaches have some players they can mix and match, but they want to come out of the spring with a set starting five and at least three or four backups with whom they feel comfortable. Wide receiver (who will be the two new starters?) and defensive tackle (who will provide depth?) are the other positions to watch. Meyer also will be looking for signs of complacency.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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