FOOTBALL: Practice observations after this week

Four days into fall practice, the Florida Gators are already showing signs of potential. The influx of speed from another incoming outstanding freshman class, the year of experience gained by last year's freshmen and the overall condition and attitude of the upperclassmen has been a daily reminder that this is a very hungry team, ready to take steps to get to the next level.

Here are position by position observations after four days:

QUARTERBACK: Chris Leak is obviously number one, but the battle for number two and three is shaping up nicely between sophomore Gavin Dickey and redshirt freshman Justin Midgett. Leak is looking sharp in every practice, making quick decisions, throwing with touch and accuracy and seeing more of the field. If there is one thing that sticks out for me as improvement from last season, it is that he is definitely seeing more of the field which translates to being able to spread the ball around more. A spring and summer away from football seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Dickey. If he had thrown the ball this well in the spring and pre-season of 2003, Ingle Martin would have never seen the field. He is throwing with tremendous confidence and touch that was absent the last two years. He seems to be benefitting from the rollout packages that Larry Fedora has put in the offense. Midgett throws a ball that gets to the receiver in a hurry. There is no question he has the strongest arm on the team and he continues to make very good decisions. True freshman Cornelius Ingram has obvious skills, but he's in football culture shock at the moment. It is obvious he will need work on his mechanics, plus he's going to have to learn to read coverages. However, it's also obvious the raw skills are there.

RUNNING BACK: Ciatrick Fason continues look the part of a number one back. A couple of explosive moves once past the hole in Thursday's 11 on 11 raised eyebrows as did a spectacular hookup with Chris Leak for a touchdown on a wheel route that left Channing Crowder in the dust. Thursday was DeShawn Wynn's best practice. He was hitting the hole quicker and showing nice speed bursts past the line. Skyler Thornton continues to look quite solid in every phase of the game. He has the ability to make people miss, then nice acceleration after the juke. Markus Manson is not only a quick study, but he has a very elusive style. He could be electric.

WIDE RECEIVER: This could very well be the most wide receiver talent UF has had since 1996. There are at least eight receivers capable of getting open, making the catch, then doing something with the ball once it's in their hands. Andre Caldwell probably has the most overall potential because of his combination of size and speed, but I'm not certain he will be the one who shows up big this season. While Caldwell has had a few bright moments in the first four days of practice, truly outstanding efforts have been turned in by Jemalle Cornelius, OJ Small and Dallas Baker. Cornelius has been the most consistent of the receivers. He has the great burst of speed to get separation and he runs his routes as crisply as anyone. OJ catches anything thrown close to him and he continues to get open. Baker has been working with the second unit all week. Perhaps the motivation of being in the second group has lit a fire under him. On hitch routes, he's been unstoppable. Not far behind those three have been Chad Jackson and Reggie Lewis. Jackson seems to improve every practice while Lewis keeps showing that once he has his hands on the ball, he can do great things with his feet. Freshman Mike McIntosh has had some moments too. He's got the hands and speed. He'll get better once he learns the nuances of route running. The surprise of the week has been Kenneth Tookes who has played the past two days with purpose and inspiration. He is starting to look like the receiver everyone thought he would be when he signed in 2002. What makes this group of wideouts so interesting is that they all bring different skills to the tables. Offensive coordinator Larry Fedora has enough talented receivers that he is going to be able to match their strengths in combinations that will mismatch against opposing secondaries. All eight of these guys have shown speed enough to get open deep this week.

TIGHT END: This was a position perceived to be weak in the spring, but it could turn out to be a surprising position of strength. Markell Thompson has trimmed down to 265. He's got the size and strength to go with very good speed. He's a big target with decent hands. David Kenner has the strength to be an outstanding blocker although he still doesn't look 100% comfortable as a receiver. Brian Crum is starting to show some signs that he will emerge to be a legitimate pass catching threat at this position. He has always had the speed and athletic ability. He's over 230 pounds now and just starting to exert himself in practice. Thursday was his best day yet, perhaps a sign that he will emerge as a tight end who can go deep. Keep an eye also on Darrell Carpenter. He's up over 230 pounds now and he still has the best hands of the tight ends. True freshman Dane Guthrie seems poised to make a move up the depth chart. Tate Casey, another true freshman, has hands and speed, but he's only 219 pounds. I expect him to redshirt.

OFFENSIVE LINE: If there is a surprise in the first four days it is that Steve Rissler seems to be establishing himself as the man at right guard. Rissler's earned the spot by getting stronger and more comfortable with the offense, while Mo Mitchell, although a vocal leader on the team, has allowed his weight to get totally off the charts. With Mike Degory solid at center, Lance Butler entrenched at left guard and Randy Hand set at right tackle, Rissler's right guard spot and the left tackle spot presently manned by Jon Colon are the only spots of contention. Colon moved well Thursday, although he was dinged a bit and limping on Wednesday. The second unit line at present has Tavarous Washington and Carlton Medder at the tackles, Mo Mitchell and Anthony Guerrero at the guards with Billy Griffin at center. Griffin can also move easily to guard. Expect to see true freshman Drew Miller move up the chart at guard. True freshman tackle Jason Watkins is a quick study who has the ability to move up the depth chart quickly. From my perspective it seems that true freshman Phil Trautwein will likely redshirt as will guard Jim Tartt, who is trying to come back from shoulder surgery. It's hard to tell how well the line is doing at this point. Next week when the pads are on and there is full contact, we'll get a better idea of how this unit is shaping up.

DEFENSIVE END: The depth here is outstanding. Jeremy Mincey and Joe Cohen are first unit right now, but it seems that all the DE's are interchangeable. Tranell Morant, Jarvis Moss and Steve Harris all have size, speed and ability. Watch for true freshman Derrick Harvey to get into the mix. Harvey has great speed and tremendous wingspan. Moss, says Zook, is 240 now, still skinny but still very, very fast. Cohen is the human tree trunk. Morant just looks the part of a DE, big, tall and fast. Mincey seems to have the speed and athletic moves of a Jevon Kearse or Alex Brown. Watch him to really step up quickly to become a playmaker. Once the pads go on and it gets full contact, we'll be able to see if any of these can be consistent run stoppers. They all have pass rushing abilities.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas are running with the first group, both looking strong and quick. I believe that by September, the backups who will rotate in first are true freshman Brandon Daniel and redshirt freshman Mike Hill. Daniel is 290 with a nice first step. Hill is 280-plus with very nice lateral moves. Right now Eric Holcombe runs second unit and I keep waiting for him to show me something. Perhaps he will once there is contact. Kenny Parker's back may limit him but if the freshmen can step up their games, he will only be required to give a few quality snaps per game. I think that true freshman Michael Brown is going to start making a move up the charts once it goes to full contact. He's got the size and quickness to be very good.

LINEBACKER: The first unit of Channing Crowder, Earl Everett and Travis Harris could be something special. I like the way Todd McCullough is moving. He gives quality depth to all three linebacking positions. He's also a vocal team leader who is well respected, and his intelligence is obvious on the field when he's able to make the right defensive calls. True freshman Brandon Siler has the speed to be an impact player. Javier Estopinan will be the backup to Crowder within a few games. A pair of walkons are going to be quite helpful here. Richard Brown has serious speed and years away from football while he was in the Yankees organization have not dulled his instincts. He is going to be a player. Redshirt freshman Alvin "1600" Butler is going to help on special teams for sure, and if he continues to improve as he has each day in practice, he'll be a solid backup. The way Brown and Butler are coming on makes me feel better about the depth situation.

CORNER: The lights went on for Dee Webb at Thursday's practice. He played like a man possessed. If this becomes a matter of consistency for him, he will be a bigtime player this year. Reynoldo Hill continues to look better. Deshawn Carter hasn't had a spectacular first four days, but he has moments when he looks very good and at least so far, he's not had the mental lapses that have plagued him in the past. True freshman Dawayne Grace is going to figure in the mix at some point. Jermaine McCollum certainly plays bigger than 5-9, 180. I like the way he breaks on the ball. Vernell Brown does well in coverage when he doesn't have to jam a bigger receiver at the line. Tremaine McCollum had a nice practice Thursday and he seems to be stepping up his game.

SAFETY: Tony Joiner has the look of an impact freshman. He's got the speed and the natural instincts to step in and make plays immediately. Terrence Holmes has done nothing but improve with every practice. He's such a big hitter that he will probably look much better next week. Corey Bailey seems most comfortable when he's playing the nickel safey where he's played the past three years. Jarvis Herring hasn't played poorly, but he needs to step his game up or he might get left behind. Kyle Jackson hasn't come on as strongly as Joiner, but he's another freshman who seems capable of living up to the hype.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Eric Wilbur has begun showing some consistency once again with his punting. On Tuesday and again on Thursday he launched some missles. Matt Leach looks like he's added four or five yards to his distance without losing any accuracy.


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