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August 3, 2008

Fall Practice Breakdown

It has finally arrived Gator football is back in session with the start of fall practice. Bright and early Monday morning Florida will hold their first two-a-day practice out at the practice fields in preparation for the season ahead. Can the Gators regain supremacy atop the SEC East and make a run at their second national title in three years? Follow the team this season as we find out the answers. GBN will be there every step of the way with daily practice reports, photo galleries, notebooks, interviews, video features and much more.

Here are a couple of lists for Gator fans to look over while you wait for our first live practice reports from the field to be posted in the Alley starting at around 6:30 Monday morning.

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TIME TO SHINE: If the Gators are to successfully compete for a National Championship, these five players will need to bring their 'A' game.
1. Percy Harvin, Jr., WR: There are two very big questions surrounding his contribution level for the upcoming season. The first question is, how healthy is he currently and can he stay healthy for an entire season? Harvin, still not fully recovered from a heel injury, has a history of bumps and bruises that seem to limit him a couple of games a season. The second question is, what is his role on the team? The Gators, and Harvin, will be much more dangerous if a running back, any running back, steps up and shows that he is capable of taking some of the load off of Harvin. If he can see more time at WR, and limit his time in the backfield, the Gators will be hard to stop offensively.
2. Tim Tebow, Jr., QB: Tebow bringing his 'A' game doesn't mean he needs to match or exceed his eye-popping 2007 statistics. He can do a little less while getting his teammates a little more involved and the Gators will be better off for it in the long run. He needs to do a better job managing the offense and making better decisions with the ball. Much like with Harvin above, if UF can find a reliable back or two, it will take some of the burden off of his shoulders.
3. Carlos Dunlap, Soph., DE: This young man, this freak of nature, is this high up because the fate of the defense, in a large part, rests on his being able to put pressure on the quarterback. If Dunlap can create a little commotion, it will help improve a shaky but improving secondary.
4. Brandon Spikes, Jr., LB: He was the only player in the league to be a unanimous selection to the Coaches' Preseason All-SEC Team. That shouldn't be that big a surprise considering he is coming off of a season in which he recorded over 130 tackles. The thing is, it still seemed like a quiet season for the most part, devoid of many big plays. Part of the reason being that he was playing behind a substandard set of defensive tackles. If that position has improved at all this season, Spikes could truly have a year to remember.
5. Joe Haden, Soph., CB: Last year, for the most part the true freshman looked to be the most solid of what was an ordinary group. With a year of experience under his belt, he should only get better. If the Gators can boast of having at least one above average corner, they can shade the coverage over to protect the other side. Haden looks to be the one with the potential to be that guy.

IT'S THEIR TIME: Though these five players have performed to a certain extent over the years when called upon, none of them have been considered top notch contributors thus far. This fall these Gators will all get an opportunity to make their mark.
1. Kestahn Moore, Sr., RB: Here in his senior season, a new running back coach likely means new life for the often embattled running back. He has the tag of being a player who will put the ball on the ground. That came about after two fumbles last season. While it may have been a few in number, they were at critical times. He isn't the breakaway back type, meaning he needs to be reliable to be on the field.
2. Bryan Thomas, Soph., S: Not long ago, it was wondered aloud whether or not he would ever be a player who would contribute at Florida. A couple of season ending injuries later and he is squarely in the mix to see the field this year. Thomas, who has battled his own knee injuries, was on the field over the spring. If he doesn't establish himself early on over the younger guys, chances are he never will.
3. Javier Estopinan, Sr. DT: The coaches rave about him, but mostly because of his leadership qualties and the fact he does the right things off the field. On the field he has battled injury over injury during his career. This, his senior season, is his final shot at being more than just what Urban Meyer often describes as a 'Good Guy' type.
4. Riley Cooper, Jr., WR: He has more natural talent than any of the other four players listed in this category. He's big, he's strong, he's incredibly fast, with better than average hands. And all that added up to 8-catches last year. But even with that limited amount of production, he's shown to be a playmaker (22.8 ypc average & 3 touchdowns). If he's healthy, and concentrating on football, those numbers should increase significantly.
5. David Nelson, Jr., WR: Despite the fact that he played in every game last year, he was only able to contribute 4-catches on the season. The knock on him has always been his inability to gain the size needed to go with his tall lanky frame. He looks a little better this fall, but is still on the slender side.

IMPACT FRESHMEN: With what Florida lost from last year's team, there are positions on the depth chart available to members of this past signing class. These five seem to be ready and play at a position of need.
1. Caleb Sturgis, Kicker: The lowest rated player in the class star-wise (kickers usually are) is the top dog on this list because he is the one player who is walking into a position that is totally wide open. Sturgis has a leg, but his accuracy over the spring wasn't the greatest.
2. Will Hill, Safety: As if they weren't already high enough, the expectations for Hill went up even more after a couple of players in the secondary went down (with injuries). Hill has the ability, but can he adjust fast enough to pass players such as Ahmad Black?
3. Matt Patchan, Defensive line: He went from an eventful recruiting process to an even more eventful off-season. Being shot and dinged up has hampered his ability to gain much needed weight, but the coaches still love his ability to get off the line at the snap of the ball.
4. Omar Hunter, Defensive tackle: When the 'Omar Hunter Watch' officially ended, the guess here is that the coaches probably wished that Hunter had 'watched' his weight a little more. Despite being out-of-shape, he is still strong as a bull and a very likely contributor.
5. Jeffrey Demps, Running back: Throw away depth charts and learning curves, when a player has this type of speed, coaches find a way to get him involved.

FALL SUPRISES: While these five may not have done much so far, if there are going to be some pleasant surprises this fall, it wouldn't be at all shocking if they came from this group.
1. Terron Sanders, Soph., DT: In less than a year he has gone from out-of-shape and looking to leave to a player who will be counted on to contribute in the middle. Sanders, down in the 300-pound range, has the ability to be a solid player in the middle while Florida waits on several of the 'chosen ones' to step-up and perform to their immense talent level.
2. Maurice Hurt, Soph., OL: He sat out the spring with an injury, but when healthy, he's the roly-poly type that Meyer likes on the inside. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see him end up as the second string center as well as a valuable backup at guard.
3. Jonathan Phillips, Sr., K: While Sturgis was gaining the headlines over the spring, Phillips quietly had his best set of practices as a Gator. He's not too very far behind Sturgis in leg strength (though he is definitely behind) and looked to be a little more accurate. If Sturis happens to stumble, watch out for Phillips.
4. Lawrence Marsh, Soph., DT: In his first two years he has looked both damn good and lost in space at different times. Now that he's outgrown defensive end for good, look for steady improvement in the technique department and an up tick in playing time.
5. Tate Casey, Sr., TE: He looked like he was going to be an offensive fixture during his freshman season, but then disappeared for the most part over the next two years. This is his final shot to make an impact at Florida. He's gained some muscle on his frame to help with blocking. Does he have the speed and quickness to become a factor in the passing game?

BATTLE ROYAL: 3 Position Battles to Watch
1. Starting running back: The Gator Nation is probably surprised that this is even a battle. The thinking was that surely all-everything Emmanuel Moody would have locked down the starting spot over the spring. A lack of knowledge when it comes to the playbook prohibited that from happening and opened the door for Chris Rainey and Moore to remain very much in the running.

The winner is... There very likely won't be a starter set in stone because they will rotate several guys in and out, but Rainey looks to be a couple of big plays away from wrestling the majority of the carries away from the other two. However, with no proven fullback, two of the three could find themselves together in the backfield often.

2. Backup quarterback: In a twist, both Cameron Newton and John Brantley will be on the field at the start of practice. Last fall Newton sat out the start with some issues and then over the spring, Brantley did likewise. If they are both healthy and on their 'A' game, Brantley has the higher ceiling as a passer, while Newton is more athletic.

The winner is... Newton, based on the fact that he has seen game action and is a year older, is likely to nail down the backup spot. However, it wouldn't be shocking to see both of them get playing time this year.

3. Strong safety: It is a wide open contest between Will Hill, Ahmad Black, Bryan Thomas and (if they make it official) T.J. Lawrence. None of them have significant enough game experience to have a leg up on the others.

The winner is... This might be the most interesting battle of the fall, and may not be settled until the coaches can see what the players are able to do on the big stage, in front of a game day crowd. Early on, Black and Hill have to be considered the co-favorites.

THE TERRIFIC TEN: Top 5 players on Offense/Defense
1. Percy Harvin
2. Tim Tebow
3. Chris Rainey
4. Cornelius Ingram
5. Maurkice Pouncey
1. Brandon Spikes
2. Carlos Dunlap
3. Jermaine Cunningham
4. Major Wright
5. Justin Trattou/Joe Haden

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