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March 15, 2011

Florida looks to bounce back under Muschamp

Florida won the national title in 2008 and was a win away from getting a chance to defend that title in '09. In 2010, though, the bottom fell out.

Well, the Gators went 8-5 -- not necessarily bottoming out but close enough by Florida's recent standards.

A few weeks after the end of the season, though, came the real body blow: Urban Meyer, who had won two national titles in his six seasons in Gainesville, announced his retirement.

Athletic director Jeremy Foley moved fast, hiring Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp -- who had been the Longhorns' coach-in-waiting -- to replace Meyer. Muschamp has Gainesville ties, having lived about three blocks from Florida Field until he was in the eighth grade, when his family moved to Georgia.

Florida hopes QB John Brantley is a better fit in the pro-style offense of Charlie Weis.
Coach: Will Muschamp
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in SEC East. Beat Penn State 37-24 in the Outback Bowl.
Spring dates: March 16-April 9
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): QB John Brantley, FB/TE Trey Burton, G Jon Halapio, WR Frankie Hammond, WR Omarius Hines, T Xavier Nixon, WR Deonte Thompson.
Defense (4): CB Jeremy Brown, T Jaye Howard, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Jelani Jenkins.
Special teams (0): None.
Muschamp's coordinators came from the NFL. Former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was hired away from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he had been offensive coordinator. And the fiery Muschamp's defensive coordinator is Dan Quinn, who had been the Seattle Seahawks' defensive line coach.

The new staff has a lot of work to do. They also have a lot of talent to work with, as Meyer and the old staff certainly recruited well.

Here's a look at Florida as it heads into spring practice.

Positions of strength

The Gators have talent. How the new coaching staff deploys that talent is going to be the story of spring practice. As for actual positions of strength, we can go straight to the defense. The tackle spot looks good. If senior Jaye Howard can stay healthy, he has all-league talent. Junior Omar Hunter is squatty and tough against the run. Sophomore Sharrif Floyd impressed the former staff with his work ethic and strength. The linebackers are athletic and can run, though depth is a concern. Cornerback looks really good, too. Senior Janoris Jenkins might be the best returning corner in the nation, and the battle for the starting spot opposite Jenkins should have four candidates, with junior Jeremy Brown, who started eight games last season, the likely winner -- if he stays healthy.

Help is needed

There are questions at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, fullback and along the offensive line. Yes, that's right -- the entire offense. Depth at quarterback looks highly questionable, especially if incumbent starter John Brantley struggles in new coordinator Charlie Weis' attack. Senior Jeff Demps is Florida's best tailback -- and the fastest player in college football -- but can he be an every-down back for Weis? Is there even a true every-down back on the roster? The line was a huge disappointment last season and lost four seniors. T Matt Patchan might be the key. He's a junior, yet never has played a full season; he was injured and missed each of the past two seasons. There's not a proven go-to receiver on the roster. There also isn't a proven SEC-caliber tight end. Defensively, end is a huge concern. Can new coordinator Dan Quinn find a pass rusher? Both starting safeties are going to be new starters, though SS Matt Elam and FS Josh Evans saw appreciable time last season. Special teams are an issue, too. K Caleb Sturgis is returning from a serious back injury that sidelined him for most of last season, and Florida's (presumed) new punter is freshman Kyle Christy, who enrolled in January.

3 guys to watch

SS Matt Elam: He's a former five-star prospect who saw time at safety and at nickelback as a true freshman last season. He's speedy and a big hitter. He has huge shoes to fill: SS Ahmad Black was one of the best safeties in school history. Black didn't have the measurables, but always was in the right place at the right time. Elam definitely has the measurables, but what about his instincts? Coaches start finding out this week.

OT Matt Patchan: Patchan was a five-star offensive lineman in the 2008 class. He played some at defensive tackle that season, then moved back to his natural position of offensive tackle for the 2009 season. But he suffered a torn ACL in practice in late September and missed the rest of that season. He missed last season with a fractured wrist, and during his career at Florida, he also has been shot and hit by a car while riding his scooter. He won't be 100 percent this spring, but he still has to find a way to show the coaches he can be counted upon at left tackle this fall.

E/LB Ronald Powell: Yet another former five-star prospect, Powell -- who will be a sophomore this fall -- played first at end, then moved to linebacker late last season. He could be a pass-rushing force if the Gators use a lot of the 3-4, which is a possibility. His ability to hold up against the run is a question if he's an end in the 4-3. Regardless, he has to flash some playmaking ability this spring.

The pressure is on

QB John Brantley: Florida suffered a huge drop-off at quarterback last season in the wake of Tim Tebow's departure. The former staff talked excitedly last spring and summer about what Brantley could do, but, man, it sure wasn't on view in the fall. He was ill-suited for the spread for one reason: He can't run. But Weis is switching to a pro-style attack, and Brantley graduated from Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic as the leading passer in Florida high school history. He's a fifth-year senior, so this is his final go-round. The new staff is talking about how Brantley will be a good fit for this offense. If he struggles, the backup is touted true freshman Jeff Driskel, who enrolled in January. But does a new coaching staff want to throw a true freshman quarterback to the SEC wolves? Brantley had better produce.

The buzz

This would've been an important spring if Urban Meyer still were coach, so you know it's important now that there's a new staff. There is a ton of work to do offensively, as Weis basically is taking a lump of clay and molding it to his liking. But he's not going to like it unless a quarterback emerges. There is less work to do on defense, though finding some pass rushers would be nice. New coach Will Muschamp is taking all this seriously: For the first time ever, all of Florida's spring practices will be closed.

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

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