GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators’ depth chart at tailback reads like this: Kelvin Taylor or Matt Jones or Mack Brown.
The way freshman Brandon Powell looked in camp, you should probably expect to see him too in Saturday’s season opener against Idaho.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp knows what he saw during camp from Taylor, the most decorated of the four backs prior to their arrival at Florida.
"He’s much improved. He’s got natural running ability, natural running skill and he sees things very well," Muschamp said Wednesday. "But he’s improved his hands out of the backfield, catches the ball much better than he did a year ago. Protection he has just been a marked improvement of where we were a year ago — stronger and tougher."
Taylor came on late his freshman season once Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the sixth game. He finished with 508 yards — second on the team to Brown’s 543 yards. However, he was often a liability in pass protection and had only five receptions in nine games.
In the up-tempo offense installed by first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, running backs are prime targets in the passing game. Taylor’s improvement in that area should give him additional opportunities to use his quick feet and cutting ability in space.
"He worked extremely hard," Muschamp said.
NATIONAL FORECASTERS LIKE GATORS
For a team coming off a 4-8 season, the Gators have a lot of respect nationally.
While Florida is unranked in the preseason polls, the Gators only missed out by two spots in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today Amway Coaches Poll.
Meanwhile, FoxSports.com college football analyst Bruce Feldman writes that "Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel will be the most improved player in the country" in his bold predictions list.
And veteran ESPN.com college football writer Ivan Maisel predicts "Florida will return to the land of the living" in his prediction column.
DRISKEL HAS R-E-S-P-E-C-T
The last time we saw Driskel in a game was when he suffered a season-ending broken leg in the third game of last season against Tennessee. He walked off the field on his own power, which after the severity of his injury was released, earned Driskel major tough-guy points.
Driskel said Tuesday that he "wasn’t trying to be a hero. I wasn’t trying to have any kind of moment or anything like that."
Mostly, he didn’t want to be carted off after throwing an interception on his final pass of the season that was returned for a touchdown.
Much of the optimism about Florida’s chance to have a big turnaround season is based on Driskel’s improvement in Roper’s offense. He will need to make better decisions and let his natural ability do the rest.
Driskel doesn’t need to be concerned about his teammates’ respect.
"I know personally that I have a lot of respect for Jeff and I know that falls through to a lot of guys in the locker room," linebacker Michael Taylor said Tuesday. "We know a lot of our success will be in his hand."
As for any flashbacks or extra emotions when he steps back onto Florida Field on Saturday night, Driskel passed.
"That’s not really in my mind at all," he said.
HARGREAVES AS VETERAN
Last year sophomore defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III was where they are now: an untested newcomer about to make his college debut. Hargreaves passed the test. He intercepted passes in his first two college games.
He is now considered the leader of a young secondary that is expected to rely on several newcomers in 2014.
"I understand the defense and I felt like it’s my job to get the younger players ready," Hargreaves said Wednesday. "I kind of take it upon myself to tell them what I see, tell them how I would play it, give them advice. I think they’re all ready. They all can play. They all look good at practice."
True freshmen Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson and Quincy Wilson, and redshirt freshmen Nick Washington and Marcell Harris all are on the Gators’ two-deep depth chart entering Saturday’s opener against Idaho.
Several new faces will play.
"We’re very young in the secondary," Muschamp said. "It’s probably going to take us a couple, two, three games to figure out which of those guys are mature enough to run out and play in The Swamp in front of 90,000 people."
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said Wednesday that the talent is there. All that is lacking is the experience.
The young defensive backs will start to acquire that soon enough.
"We’re not shy about playing young guys," Durkin said. "Get them out there and going. It’s their responsibility to know what’s going on. They’ve done a good job of that."
Max Garcia is much more comfortable in the transition from guard/tackle to center than he was in the spring when shotgun snap issues surfaced. "It’s gotten to the point to where some practices I don’t have any bad snaps. You can see the development," Garcia said Wednesday. Driskel said the same Tuesday: "Snaps are a non-issue for him" … Muschamp reiterated on Wednesday’s SEC Media Teleconference that there was little separation between freshmen quarterbacks Treon Harris and Will Grier during camp. While Muschamp named Harris the second-string quarterback, he said Grier continues to take consistent reps at practice … Redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye, projected to start at nickelback, is listed day-to-day with a hamstring injury.