First practice has UF fans spilling over with optimism
Published: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 10:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 8, 2014 at 12:12 a.m.
Florida graduate Mark Springer drove close to five hours from Sunrise to watch UF's first open football practice of the season Thursday night.
"I've been a Gator fan all my life," Springer said. "I just miss it when football season is not here."
The mood was upbeat and optimistic as close to 1,000 filled the Donald R. Dizney Lacrosse Stadium for the first of eight open football practices. Fans were eager to turn the page from last year's 4-8 campaign, Florida's worst record since 1979. Injuries and an inept offense contributed to seven straight losses to close the season.
But with quarterback Jeff Driskel healthy and throwing touchdowns to new tight ends Jake McGee and DeAndre Goolsby, there is hope for better results in 2014.
Fans got a first look at new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's scheme and came away impressed with what the former Duke coach brought to the table.
"Last year, it is what it is," Gainesville native Steve Woulard said. "But watching Duke in the ACC championship game and watching that offense transfer to the talent that the Gators have, we have high hopes that that offense along with the Gator talent will produce more wins than last year."
How many more wins? Stefanie Nixon, a Florida graduate student from Pensacola, will take just one more win to be satisfied.
"As long as it's more than four wins, I'll be happy," Nixon said.
But other Gator fans Thursday night had higher expectations. Bobby Pritchard of Gainesville thinks Florida will be able to sneak up on some teams based on last season's dismal showing.
"This is the first time in years that we're going to be overlooked going into the season," Pritchard said. "That's a role we used to relish."
Woulard was pleased by what he saw from the offense Thursday night. He's predicting a big season from sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor.
"I'm seeing a different style of spread which will attack downfield, between the hashes, outside the hashes and getting the running backs involved," Woulard said. "Because once you get the offense opened up where you worry about the downfield pass and then the quarterbacks will get the ball to the running backs, they'll have all kind of space to do what they need to do."
Pritchard also has high hopes for Roper.
"I'm hoping that he's got a great imagination," Pritchard said. "That's one of the things (former Gator coach Steve) Spurrier used to bring to the table, having written plays, being able to anticipate what the defense is going to do and counter that."
The mood of the crowd was dampened somewhat when star sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, arguably UF's best player, left practice with an apparent left knee injury.
That's the kind of trend the Gators are looking to avoid this season. Florida sustained injuries to 21 of 24 starting positions last season, including season-ending injuries to Driskel (broken leg), running back Matt Jones (torn ACL) and former standout defensive tackle Dominique Easley (torn ACL).
"Let's hope we don't have any injuries this year and the Gators have a good chance this year," Springer said. "I think they've got some good guys (back from) last year. We were pretty good at the beginning of last year, we just need to carry it through the whole year."
Pritchard said based on last season, he expects Florida to play with a boulder-sized chip on its shoulder. Florida opens the season with the first of three straight home games Aug. 30 at The Swamp against Idaho.
"I think our players are fired up," Pritchard said. "The fair-weather fans are going to fall away as they always will. I think by the end of the season you'll have the bandwagon fans join us again because we're going to be rocking it this year."
Contact Kevin Brockway at 374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.