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Spring Check-In: Florida

We check in on the Gators with Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army.

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1. Overall, what was the feeling coming out of Gainesville this spring? Is Florida still in position for another division title, or is this a team with some growing to do?

I think, for most, Florida's spring generated the same sort of guarded optimism that has been part of Jim McElwain's first two years at Florida. The offense seems to be progressing toward consistent production, the defense might not fall off as hard as some fear, and the upside seems larger than the downside. While there's growing to do, and few truly think this is a national championship-caliber roster, the East still isn't quite a minefield, and Florida gets its toughest foes at home this fall, so the Gators being "in position" to go to Atlanta again is very much a viewpoint that can be supported.

2. We saw that Feleipe Franks came through with a nice spring game at quarterback. Safe to believe he'll be the starter this fall?

I think it's safe to assume that he's the front-runner, at a minimum. He showed why his physical talents exceed Luke Del Rio's and Kyle Trask's in the spring game for the second straight year, but also played with some composure and steadiness that he did not have in his disastrous 2016 spring showing. And, certainly, he's the guy Florida fans want to be The Guy, because he looks the part both in the flesh and in terms of reputation as a four-star hot-shot who stands tall and throws darts.

But this gets complicated by Florida's months-long connection to Malik Zaire, whom I think is physically inferior to Franks and who would be an odd stop-gap solution for the Gators, but who probably wouldn't be considering Florida as a possible destination if Franks (or any other Florida QB) had an unbreakable stranglehold on the QB1 role. I don't think Zaire is likely to beat out Franks if he does ultimately transfer to Florida, but it's possible — maybe more possible on a temporary basis, given the risk of throwing Franks to the wolves against Michigan in a huge season-opening game — and so I can't be fully certain of anything at QB at this point in April.

3. We know Antonio Callaway is a great talent, but what other players on this offense look ready to emerge as playmakers?

You're an LSU fan who remembers a Florida wide receiver catching the longest touchdown pass in Tiger Stadium history, right? That guy, Tyrie Cleveland, is likely to be the big wideout opposite Callaway who can be more of a deep threat as a long strider than the quicker, smaller Callaway is. Florida also still has Brandon Powell, a Callaway Lite jitterbug, and a few younger receivers who could make the leap from occasional target to playmaker.

But the running game might be the strength of this team if Florida's offensive line gels under new line coach Brad Davis, and Jordan Scarlett was already threatening 1,000 yards last season despite sharing carries and dealing with Del Rio and Austin Appleby as his quarterbacks. Add in notorious Jamal Adams piggyback ride-giver Lamical Perine and a few other options, and Florida has depth at running back that it hasn't had since the Urban Meyer years.

4. How is the defense looking after losing more stud talents, and an excellent coordinator in Geoff Collins?

Florida had five defenders drafted over the first two days of the NFL Draft — and it played without three of them for almost all of the final month of the season and its bowl game. The Gators shut down LSU when it mattered without Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, and Alex Anzalone, and actually allowed fewer yards to Florida State and Alabama in lopsided losses than they did in Baton Rouge, with turnovers helping Florida win at LSU and lose convincingly to the Seminoles and Crimson Tide.

But Florida played without those three guys and Collins against Iowa, and thoroughly thrashed the Hawkeyes in that bowl game, allowing their fewest yards per play since October to a team that had done enough to beat Michigan and put up 40 on Nebraska in its last three games. Randy Shannon's simplified calls and new pressure schemes seemed to be part of the difference then, and his different approach might help a younger Florida defense in 2017; Collins, for many of his good qualities, was faulted for getting too clever by half at times, and Shannon's linebackers, both seasoned and raw, have been among the most consistent performers on Florida's defense over the last two seasons.

5. Opinions still seem a little mixed with Gator fans on Jim McElwain, despite his success in getting to Atlanta. Does another East title help, or does it still matter more than the offense gets back to scoring big numbers?

I think two East titles that only truly earned two blowout losses to Alabama in Atlanta put in stark relief how far away from national championship contention Florida really has been at the end of these last two seasons, and I think that the Florida defense essentially bleeding out in both of those games (and in both FSU games) after scrapping all year to prop up decent-to-pathetic offenses shows how important it is for the Gators to engineer an attack that can give its defense some room to breathe this season and beyond.

I have long said that I think many Florida fans' Platonic ideal of a winning football team is one that can win games by 52-20 or 51-21 scores, not one that wins by 27-3 or 31-0 counts, but while I've impugned some of those fans for lusting after offense and not fully appreciating Florida's talented defenses of the last half-decade, the pleading for offense is, at this stage, less about stylistic preference and more about accurately calling out a lack of offense as the thing preventing Florida from being a national title contender again. If Florida goes to Atlanta this year and gets blown out by Alabama again, McElwain's going to feel a lot of heat — and rightly so, because he will not have built the offense that can score on heavyweights that he was brought to Gainesville to build.

I'm optimistic about his chances of finally building an offense that can do that sustainably in 2017 — the 2015 and 2016 offenses showed flashes before starting QBs got hurt and/or gun-shy, and Florida has a better shot at keeping its starter healthy this fall than it has had in recent years — but I know full well that another East title isn't going to be enough on its own to keep the noise in the system tamped down.