FOOTBALL: Gator Country Spring Breakout Players

In terms of past experience and success, the Florida Gators enter the spring with a number of players who are expected to build upon what they have accomplished in the past. An offense that features a two-year returning starter at quarterback and some of the best wide receiver talent in the nation provides an air of excitement as Coach Urban Meyer arrives with a new offensive scheme that has set records in his two previous coaching stops.

That offense is bolstered by a returning starter at tight end, three returning starters and several veteran backups on the offensive line, and two talented running backs who have had a few outstanding moments in the past.

The defense returns plenty of players who have experience on the line and while depth is a problem at linebacker, there are two outstanding returning starters and a third linebacker who has seen the field in 29 games. Depth is also a problem at corner, but there is a returning starter there and two returning starters at safety.

Although there are so many players with starting experience, this is a new spring with a new coach so everyone takes the field with a clean slate and a chance to emerge as a player or even as a potential star. Here are the players I think will have breakout springs.

On offense, it all starts with the quarterback. Chris Leak has started two years and was the SEC's top passer last year. Florida's offense led the SEC in most passing categories. Leak will be under a new watchful eye and at the helm of a new offensive scheme. One that is similar, yet different to the last. The similarities come in some of the passing routes and plays and the fact that the offense will be spread across the field. The differences are along the lines of decision making as to options in the offense and the physical tools needed by the position to run the offense. Meyer has been adamant about Leak's physical ability to play in the offense.

The second quarterback in line is a big question heading into spring drills. Junior Gavin Dickey is playing baseball, but has been working out with the football team when he can. He will miss some but probably not all practices. Redshirt freshman Cornelius Ingram may be faced with a big dilemma very shortly. Is he going to tour with the basketball team and play through March Madness, or will he give it up with the little time he has spent on the court, and participate in spring drills? I think he sticks with basketball for now. This leaves True freshman and early enrollee Josh Portis a chance to entrench himself high atop the depth chart. Portis is my pick on offense for breakout player.

It isn't that I think Portis will beat out Leak, I just think he has more of the physical tools that Meyer considers ideal for this type of offense. He is a true dual threat to run and throw the football. Ingram and Dickey are in the same mold but with their absence from the field Portis can only move up. Portis comes in at 6-4 and 200 pounds or so. He has been timed in a sub 4.5 second 40-yard dash. He was's number five rated quarterback in the entire nation. He also comes in with equal footing as the other players at his position. He was smart enough to graduate early and enroll at UF so he can participate in spring practice. He ran the same style of offense in high school where he had dazzling offensive numbers. He was the only quarterback recruited by Meyer at Utah and at Florida. There is a reason for that.

On the defensive side of the ball, the starting cornerback opposite Dee Webb will be the hottest position to watch on defense this year. The problem there is that most of the players vying for that one spot and the backups to both corner positions are probably of very similar talent. It is really hard for me to see one shine far above the rest. At linebacker, I think the physical abilities of the starting three (Earl Everett, Todd McCullough, and Brandon Siler) will keep the backups at bay for the spring. I expect the three moved over from offense (Billy Latsko, Eric Rutledge and Brian Crum) to be fixtures on the second team with solid but not spectacular springs. The defensive end position will be deep and most likely more productive than a year ago.

My pick for the breakout player of the spring on defense is Mike Hill. He played approximately 90 plays at defensive tackle last year and he had productive outings. He sat out the 2003 season after suffering a heat related illness in preseason practice. He is 100 percent healthy and has a year of experience under his belt. With Marcus Thomas missing spring drills due to a back injury, Hill has a chance to really establish himself as a starter next to Ray McDonald. Hill is somewhat a physical clone of Thomas and McDonald as all weighed in between 280 and 290 last year. I think Hill has more up-side, as he came farther after rehab than the starters did last year.

There could and should be others who breakout, but these are the two that I'm expecting to show they have what it takes in the next four weeks.

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