Replacing the early departures

The Gators lost four players early to the NFL Draft and will have to fill those roles this offseason. It won't be easy. There are two All-Americans that left the Florida defense while the offense lost its best receiving threat. Spring practice will go a long way in deciding which players fill those roles but the likelihood is that all of the battles last until fall camp before a decision is made.

The Gators will have to replace four early departures before the 2013 season — safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, linebacker Jelani Jenkins and tight end Jordan Reed.

Elam:

This spot will be a battle that carries through spring practice and into fall camp. It's made even tougher by the graduation of senior safety Josh Evans and the transfer of Pop Saunders. The Gators will be breaking in two new safeties at the start of the 2013 season. There is still plenty of experience at the cornerback position with Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins returning.

The safety spots could go a few different ways, but the good news for Will Muschamp and the Florida staff is that there is talent. It just isn't very experienced on the field.

Jabari Gorman and Valdez Showers just completed their second seasons on campus in Gainesville. With the stability of Elam and Evans at safety for the past two seasons, there hasn't been much of a need for either to be on the field. They have gotten meaningful reps on kickoff coverage units.

Gorman (21) recorded one interception in 2012

Florida signed two safeties in last recruiting class—Rhaheim Ledbetter and Marcus Maye. Ledbetter contributed on special teams throughout the season while Maye received a redshirt. Both will be involved in the battle for the starting positions this spring.

The Gators could also receive a boost from another second-year player in 2013. Brian Poole came to campus as a cornerback but cross-trained at the safety position. If the Gators like their depth at cornerback with three upperclassmen, sticking Poole at safety could be a way to get him on the field.

If the coaches would prefer Poole at cornerback, he could add to the depth if the Florida coaches want to move a veteran like Purifoy, Roberson or Watkins to play safety.

There are also three freshmen coming to campus in the summer of 2013 that will factor into the decisions. Marcell Harris, Keanu Neal and Nick Washington should all be able to make an impact, if only on special teams, next season.

Harris is the No. 11 safety in the country

Floyd:

The Gators need to find a space eater in the middle of the defensive line for 2013. Floyd's departure and the graduation of Omar Hunter leaves the Gators thin on big bodies in the middle. That's a big reason why the return of Dominique Easley for his senior season was important. He can play the three-technique and provide a pass rush up the middle while the Gators search for a space-eating nose tackle.

Leon Orr has the build to be that guy. He will be a redshirt junior and is listed at 6-5, 305. While his weight fluctuated during the season after being in the hospital with a kidney infection, Orr returned for the Sugar Bowl and has the entire offseason to continue adding weight.

Orr will play an important role in 2013

Florida added Damien Jacobs as a junior college transfer for the 2012 season, and he'll be a senior for 2013. The coaches are hoping junior college transfer Darius Cummings, who recently enrolled at Florida, will be ready to contribute for the 2013 season, too. The Gators are also trying to get more bodies that are ready to play as they pursue Cummings' junior college teammate Jarran Reed.

As defensive ends Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler played their first year of college football at 271 and 277 pounds respectively, they could also slide inside during passing downs if necessary.

Freshmen Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie could also see time inside. Ivie recently enrolled for the spring semester at Florida, and Brantley's 310-pound frame could earn him time on the field if he comes to school in shape.

Jenkins:

This was the biggest surprise of the four early departures, and the graduation of Jon Bostic makes this loss hurt the Gators even more. On paper, it doesn't look that bad with five returning scholarship linebackers and the expected addition of five in the 2013 recruiting class. It will be somewhat easier to fill in for Jenkins since he was hurt and played in just nine games as a redshirt junior.

Antonio Morrison is expected to take one of the spots. He played as a freshman while listed at 218 pounds, so that needs to increase, but he showed the instincts and hitting ability that the Florida coaches want at the position. Michael Taylor, who will be a redshirt junior, should also be heavily involved at the position after filling in during the 2012 season.

Morrison played a lot as a freshman

Neiron Ball is the one to watch this offseason. He missed the 2011 season after he had tangled blood vessels in his brain. He also didn't get to go through the entire offseason workout before being cleaned for the 2012 season. Muschamp said multiple times during the 2012 season that he expected Ball to take a leap forward with a full offseason under his belt. He can provide a pass rush from the linebacker position that will be needed.

Gideon Ajagbe, Darrin Kitchens and Jeremi Powell are other returning players that could see time on the field. Kitchens started multiple games in 2012, including the Sugar Bowl.

The recruiting class is built to contribute early at linebacker. The Gators have five current commitments — Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, James Hearns, Daniel McMillan and Matt Rolin. Anzalone, McMillan and Rolin are already on campus in Gainesville and will be with the team during spring practice. Rolin tore his ACL in early November and will continue to rehab in hopes of being ready for the fall.

McMillan has an opportunity to play in 2013

Reed:

For a passing game that wasn't elite, Reed was the most consistent threat the Gators had in 2012. Whenever Jeff Driskel needed to hit a big play in the passing game, it was usually Reed that provided it after leading the team in receptions and receiving yards.

It's time for the top two tight ends in the 2012 class to take the next step. Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson were the top two high school tight ends in the country in 2012. Taylor showed some promise in limited playing time this season while Thompson took a redshirt after coming in with a foot injury.

Taylor is more similar to Reed than Thompson is because of his pass catching ability. Thompson is more likely to be used as an attached blocker, but he's still talented enough to catch the ball.

Taylor caught a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl

Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook will also return for the 2013 season.


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