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March 17, 2010
Florida won the national title in 2008 -- its second in three seasons -- and the Gators were prime contenders to repeat in '09. But they fell in the SEC championship game to Alabama, which went on to win the national title.
After the loss to Alabama but before the Sugar Bowl blowout of Cincinnati, coach Urban Meyer unexpectedly stepped down -- for a day. Instead of retiring, he decided on a leave of absence that will end with the start of the Gators' spring practice.
Meyer didn't take his leave until after the recruiting cycle was over, and he and a rebuilt staff hit it big on the recruiting trail, reeling in the nation's No. 2 class. Eleven signees already are enrolled and will go through spring ball, and some of them -- most notably QB Trey Burton, S Matt Elam, CB Joshua Shaw, TE Gerald Christian, KR Robert Clark, S Jordan Haden and CB Jaylen Watkins -- have a shot to end up on the end-of-spring depth chart.
But this spring mostly will be about John Brantley taking over for Tim Tebow at quarterback and finding two new starters at defensive end and at linebacker.
Here's a look at the Gators as they prepare to open spring drill
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
The offensive line should be one of the most physical -- and best -- in the nation. T Xavier Nixon didn't make enough starts as a true freshman (he made five) to make our list of returning starters, but he has the talent to eventually be an All-America performer. Mike Pouncey is replacing his twin, Maurkice, at center. If that transition goes smoothly, Florida is in great shape. Florida returns its top four tailbacks, highlighted by the speedy Jeff Demps, who is one of the fastest high school sprinters ever. The Gators are deep at defensive tackle, with the health of Lawrence Marsh -- a full-time starter in 2008 who was bothered by injuries last season -- a key to what could be a great rotation. Janoris Jenkins has a chance to be the best cornerback in the SEC, and the safety tandem of Ahmad Black and Will Hill should be excellent.
HELP IS NEEDED
Tim Tebow is gone, so there will be a changing of the guard in many ways for the Gators. Junior John Brantley is the new starter. Though he has big-time potential as a passer, he hasn't had to produce since he was a senior in high school in 2006. He will be working with a receiving corps that, for now at least, lacks a go-to receiver and many proven commodities. Both starting defensive ends are gone, and two starting linebackers must be replaced -- though the talent appears to be bountiful at that position. The cornerback spot opposite Jenkins also bears watching. The Gators need a new return man after four seasons of Brandon James, and there are a lot of candidates -- most notably true freshman Robert Clark.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
LB Brandon Hicks: Florida lost two productive starting linebackers (Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper), and Hicks is the leading candidate to take over for Stamper on the outside. Stamper wasn't the most athletic guy, but he always was where he was supposed to be and doubled as a team leader. Can Hicks fill both roles? He has been a part-time starter the past two seasons, and the senior can nail down a full-time starting job this spring.
WR Deonte Thompson: Florida's passing attack struggled last season, and three of the top four targets are gone. That means Thompson, a junior, needs to show he can be the go-to guy this spring. Florida is expected to open up the passing attack with Brantley at quarterback, and Thompson -- who has great speed but hasn't always shown the best hands -- could be a big beneficiary. Florida needs Thompson and at least three or four other receivers to step up this spring, or the passing attack could be iffy again this fall.
DE Justin Trattou: While Florida has some holes at receiver, linebacker and in the secondary, the Gators still should be just fine at those spots. Defensive end, though, is another matter. Both starters are gone, and Trattou -- a senior who has played extensively -- must prove to coaches that he can be a steady replacement along the line and in the locker room. Trattou doesn't have the athleticism of Carlos Dunlap, the guy he's replacing. But Trattou is a high-effort guy whose consistency shouldn't be an issue.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
G James Wilson: Wilson, a junior, is a former five-star prospect from Ponte Vedra Beach (Fla.) Nease, where he was Tebow's teammate. The lone starting spot available on the offensive line is at guard, and Wilson will be given every chance to win it. His main competition looks as if it will be senior Maurice Hurt. Both have battled injuries in the past. If Wilson struggles this spring, he risks being passed on the depth chart by a bevy of young linemen.
Meyer's travails this offseason have been well-documented, and he says he will be there when the Gators open spring drills. Meyer and a rebuilt staff -- there are four new assistants, including defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who had been the Arizona Cardinals' secondary coach -- have a ton of talent on hand. How Brantley fills Tebow's shoes will get all the headlines, but the real concern for Gators fans should be how new starters at defensive line and linebacker adjust this spring. The offense should be excellent this fall, thanks to what should be a tremendous offensive line. But unless the rebuilt defense meshes, all that offense isn't going to matter.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.