Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gators get to rest Sunday other than for some afternoon meetings. For the first time since fall camp opened the players won’t have to slip on their helmets and practice.
Meanwhile, the coaches have perhaps their most important day of camp. Gators coach Will Muschamp referred to Sunday at Decision Day.
“We need to start making decisions on who is going to be getting turns and reps as we start to prepare because we are going to have a two-a-day Monday and a situational scrimmage on Tuesday,’’ Muschamp said following Saturday’s open practice. “Wednesday is the first day of school. We’re going to give them off Wednesday, start prepping for Bowling Green on Thursday.”
Season 2 for Muschamp is almost here, which means it’s time to answer some of the looming questions hanging over the Gators two weeks prior to hosting the Falcons in the season opener Sept. 1.
The quarterback battle remains the most intriguing question. Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel took reps at Saturday’s practice and both will continue to battle for the job through next week. Muschamp suggested that a starter might not be named until Aug. 27, which is the date of his Monday press conference prior to the season opener.
“It’s been a very healthy competition,’’ Muschamp said. “We still have another good situational scrimmage on Tuesday to put them through. They are very even to this point. Both quarterbacks looked good and did some nice things [in Friday’s scrimmage]. Very even in what they are doing and how they are managing our team.”
Another key position battle is at receiver. While Frankie Hammond, Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose figure prominently into the rotation, true freshmen Latroy Pittman and Ralph Andrades have had their moments in camp. Solomon Patton is also a factor and the versatility of tight end Jordan Reed and running backs/receivers Trey Burton and Omarius Hines offer options.
Muschamp urged the receivers to pick up their performance following Friday’s scrimmage.
“I think we’re better [than a year ago in camp],’’ Muschamp said. “Frankie is very consistent. Quinton is more mature than he was a year ago and understands what it takes down in and down out. It’s about getting guys in the right spots so they can be successful.
“We need some guys to continue to step forward at the receiver position.”
Muschamp said the coaching staff will review each position battle on Sunday in a discussion that could easily reach two hours or more. What they determine will dictate on how the players are used moving forward.
“We’ve got to start figuring out where these reps are going, and that includes special teams, offense and defense,’’ he said. “It’s a critical time. We will go over our entire roster about where we are.”
There’s one question that trumps all others for Muschamp: “Who are we going to win the SEC Championship with? That’s my question,’’ he said. “It’s not about who we can win with. We understand our goal here and where we need to go. Who are the guys we can count on?”
While the Driskel-Brissett competition has captured most of the headlines in camp, here are other interesting position battles:
Offensive line – Xavier Nixon figures to start at one tackle spot and Jon Halapio (right guard) and Jon Harrison (center) appear solid at their positions. That leaves James Wilson, Kyle Koehne and Sam Robey competing at left guard and Chaz Green and Matt Patchan at the tackle spot opposite Nixon.
SAM linebacker – With Lerentee McCray at defensive end/buck in place of the injured Ronald Powell, Neiron Ball and Darrin Kitchens are in a good competition here. Both are athletic and look much-improved (Ball hasn’t played since 2010).
Defensive back – Four players are competing to start at cornerback, a group that features Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins. Muschamp said Saturday that Riggs and Watkins are also working inside in certain nickel and dime packages, so expect to see all six players on the field regularly.
Meanwhile, the safety position seems to be in good shape with Matt Elam and Josh Evans. Muschamp is seeking to build depth behind them, providing plenty of opportunities for playing time.
“They understand that we’re going to be playing anywhere from probably six to nine defensive backs a game,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s a luxury.”
Muschamp said freshman offensive lineman D.J. Humphries is likely out “two to three weeks max” with an MCL sprain. “We think he’ll be back and certainly will contribute for us.” … Defensive back Marcus Maye (swollen knee), McCray (hamstring), Reed (knee), linebacker Michael Taylor (shoulder), defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd (shoulder) and defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee) are slowed and listed day-to-day. Muschamp said none of the injuries appear to be serious.
“We need to get a full roster back in our hands,’’ he said. “ And really, honestly speaking, there is not a huge injury report. There is a difference between being hurt and having an injury. We’re all hurt right now. We’re all tired. You’ve got to push through it and I think this football team has done that.”
The Gators spent most of Saturday’s practice open to the public and media working in situational drills. Players worked out in shells (helmets and shoulder pads) following a physical scrimmage on Friday.
Muschamp said you do want to use some caution on how much to show during the open practice considering the season opener is only two weeks away.
“We did discuss it very briefly as a staff,’’ Muschamp said. “Obviously with today’s technology anything you say, do, show, it’s out there. It’s going to be on the Internet five minutes later.”
RUNNING BACK REPORT
The Gators have heavily emphasized building a down-hill running game in camp, which essentially means being able to move the chains by running between the tackles. So far, so good.
While senior Mike Gillislee has performed well in the starter’s role, true freshman Matt Jones, redshirt sophomore Mack Brown and Hines have also made plays. Hines had a 61-yard touchdown run in Friday’s scrimmage. He missed much of training camp a year ago due to a hamstring injury.
“Very explosive,’’ Muschamp said of Hines. “A guy that we’re trying to find different ways, as you saw today, to get him the football.”
With more options, Muschamp has a more versatile plan in deciding how to distribute carries.
“We’ve got a good stable of guys back there that we feel like are running the football well,’’ he said. “No. 1, hot guy. No. 2, how many carries can each guy handle. Obviously, to me, [Gillislee] has still distanced himself from an all-around back standpoint: protections, carrying the ball, doing the little things, carrying the fakes out. He is very driven. He is a guy with top-end speed and can finish some runs for us.”
DEPTH HAS PAID OFF
One of the biggest advantages in Year 2 for Muschamp is that the Gators have more depth than in his first season.
That has been evident during the two scrimmages thus far. He said the team took around 130 reps (special teams, offense and defense) in its first scrimmage and around 120 on Friday.
“I think last year the most we could scrimmage was about 80 snaps,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s just to tell you the difference between the numbers and guys being healthy. It’s very pleasing.”
QUOTE OF NOTE
“Every day he gets some extra football work in along with the workouts he’s doing in the weight room and the rehab on his knee. Ronald Powell’s work ethic has been off the charts.’’ – Muschamp on the recovery of Powell, who suffered a torn ACL in the spring game.