Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army was good enough to fill us in on the goings on in Gainesville.
1. What's the general vibe been in Gainesville this spring, coming off the strong 11-1 season followed by that disappointing Sugar Bowl loss?
I think it's cautious optimism. Florida fans who I talk to are generally better informed than the average, but they believe in Will Muschamp, and his recruiting, and so they see a bright future. I think a lot of them also realize how great an 11-1 season with wins over Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, and Florida State was, which mitigates much of the bitter aftertaste of that Sugar Bowl loss.
2. Jeff Driskel had a bit of an up-and-down 2012. How's he progressing?
Unevenly, according only to what we've seen on the field in the months since - which isn't much. Brent Pease has ridden Driskel about watching film on Twitter, and I think that's the really important thing of the next few months for him: How much work is he putting in to get his quarterbacking skills and comfort at the position up to speed with his athleticism and instincts? Driskel's said some of the right things about that in interviews, but the proof will only be in his play.
3. Personally, I expect Kelvin Taylor to step in and be the SEC's 2013 Freshman of the Year in replacing Mike Gillislee. How's he looked this spring?
Very good, but he's got a problem in front of him in the form of Matt Jones. Jones is Florida's starter at running back, and has looked better than Taylor thanks to his comfort with the offense and his lead on Taylor in terms of time in the weight room. Jones was also great late in 2012, and is a bigger, stronger back compared to Taylor's smaller, shiftier style. Both backs have good speed, so it's not quite a thunder and lightning situation, but I think they'll work well enough in concert to essentially steal carries from each other, so that Jones will only barely be in range of 1,000 yards and Taylor won't be a great candidate for any stat-based honors.
But, basically, I don't think Florida's running game will get worse in 2013.
4. On defense, the Gators have a lot to replace with Matt Elam, Jon Bostic, Shariff Floyd etc... departing. How's that side of the ball coming together?
I think the worry is that Florida will struggle up the middle: The Gators lost both starting defensive tackles, Bostic at MLB, and Elam and Josh Evans at safety. But Florida has depth that has been in Muschamp's system at those positions, something that wasn't the case in 2010, the last year when Florida had to turn over most of the core of its defense, and it's got an offense that knows ball control well, which will probably help take some of the pressure off.
And if Florida can build leads that force teams to go away from the running game, things are much more promising for the defense's prospects against the pass. Florida has a slew of upperclassmen corners led by Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, and the Gators have super-recruit Vernon Hargreaves III coming in in the fall. Those folks will be hell on receivers, while the return of Ronald Powell from injury and the development of Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard should produce a pass rush.
5. My general feel for this team is that Florida could be in for something of a "step backwards to move forward" season. Perhaps an extra loss or two sprinkled in, but more consistent overall and without the struggles the 2012 team had versus teams like Bowling Green and ULL. Do you feel the same, and how would such a season be received among the Gator faithful?
I think Florida could be a lot better in 2013 than it was in 2012 and still go 9-3, which I think is sort of what you're hinting at here. Whether that will be acceptable for most is another question: Smoothing out the issues in the passing game and developing a new defense will make Florida fans a lot more confident about Florida's chances of competing for SEC and national titles going forward, but losing a close game to Florida State or Georgia because Florida got outplayed would be painful.
Going back to my original point, though, I think more Florida fans believe in Will Muschamp than doubt him. And if Florida's 9-3 comes via the same process that produced 2012's 11-1, I'll bet not many jump ship.