Florida's offense offers reasons for optimism

Quarterback Jeff Driskel runs upfield behind his blocker Demarcus Robinson during the Orange and Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 7:49 p.m.

I heard it in the press box, read it on Twitter and saw it on text messages at halftime on a perfect Gainesville day.

Should there be concern about the Florida defense?

To which Kurt Roper should just say, “Thanks for the compliment.”

Florida’s offenses scored more points in the first half of the spring game than the Gators did in any game last year. After three incompletions on the first drive, quarterback Jeff Driskel looked sharp, completing 10 of his next 14. The Gators appear to be thick with running backs and have seven receivers they really like.

Oh boy, the defense is in trouble.

When a team is coming off a 4-8 season, the glass is rarely full, but on a day when Florida fans wanted reasons for optimism, they saw a team having a blast on offense.

“It’s a very fun process,” wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood said. “We’re all excited like little kids.”

That was what Will Muschamp wanted to see Saturday, the fun back in Florida football. Defensively, the talent is there, but there’s plenty of work to do. Of course, Florida had its two starting defensive tackles out with injuries and its two best defensive players — Dante Fowler Jr. and Vernon Hargreaves III — sitting because, well, what was the point in taking a chance on an injury?

Saturday was a day for the offense to show off what it has learned, a day to show a lot without showing too much, a day to make defenders grab their hips to catch some wind.

“I have concerns (defensively) from the standpoint of tackling in space,” Muschamp said. “That’s a huge concern. We’re better with (the missing players) in there, but we needed to play a lot of young guys and we need them to understand how far they have to go.”

Roper’s uptempo offense makes it hard on a defense and even harder to sneak tweets in between plays. What we saw Saturday was just the basic package of plays. It didn’t include quarterback runs because the QBs were wearing the red jerseys and were whistled down as soon as they crossed the line of scrimmage.

“I had a couple of plays where I could have had more yards than I got credit for,” Driskel said.

That’s one of the things I saw Saturday, that when they include the quarterback run package this offense will only get better. I also saw this, which I consider to be the most important thing about this spring game — GUYS GOT OPEN!

That’s the way I wrote it down on my notebook — all caps and an exclamation point — because it has been awhile since receivers have been getting open on a regular basis.

“Playing in a no-huddle, there’s something about it where you can get it rolling,” Driskel said.

After last season’s anemic offense, just seeing a 15-yard pass on third-and-3 was almost enough to make you spit-take your soda.

“It’s real fun,” receiver Chris Thompson said, “because it’s getting everybody open.”

After his news conference, I asked Muschamp about guys getting open and he simply reiterated the theme of the spring, “Guys are having fun.”

Now comes the most important part of next season — getting in great shape and staying out of trouble. In a perfect world, the Gator Nation won’t read any news about its football players until the coaches reveal the preseason All-SEC team in July.

“Our older guys understand the importance of this time of year,” Muschamp said.

It’s crucial. It’s crucial for Driskel and the receivers to work on their timing. It’s crucial nobody gets suspended or dismissed for poor behavior. And it’s important that these guys continue to work to get into shape.

They thought they were in shape. Then came Roper’s offense.

“The first couple of practices, we came off dying,” Fulwood said. “We almost couldn’t run three straight plays. But as the spring went on, we got more and more used to it.”

Said Driskel, “It was rough, not so much for me but for the offensive linemen and receivers. It’s going to take a lot of effort on our part to get in condition.”

We’ll see how this offense translates to meaningful games. But we know for sure it can’t be as boring as last year’s. The potential is there for an offense that can win games, not just try to avoid losing them. This team is still only going to go as far as Driskel takes it, but he has a glint in his eye we haven’t seen since he’s been at Florida.

“I think I’m seeing the field really well,” he said. “It’s allowing the game to slow down for me.”

Now about that defense …

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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