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Monday, March 04, 2024

With the brief spring practice season and the annual intrasquad scrimmage in the rear-view mirror, the Gators will now head their separate ways this summer.

As Florida’s coaches hit the recruiting trail and begin preparing for the season, they are limited by NCAA rules to little contact with their squad. The players, meanwhile, will move into offseason strength and conditioning and run their own seven-on-seven drills.

“This is a critical time for us,” UF coach Will Muschamp said after Saturday’s Orange and Blue Debut. “The leadership needs to take over. I challenged some guys in the locker room. It’s time for them to step up.”

Looking to make up for a poor finish signing this year’s recruiting class in February, Florida’s coaches will also have to step up.

Mike Farrell, the national college football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said the transition from Urban Meyer to Muschamp made it difficult to secure a premier class — something UF is looking to bring in next year.

“It’s just sort of a reloading situation at Florida,” Farrell said. “They were behind the 8-ball a little bit, so this year’s really important for them. They need to have a top-five recruiting class to get all the fans back on board, recruiting-wise.”

It’s worth remembering, Farrell said, that any coaching change will cause a slight dip in recruiting due  simply to the lack of continuity. On top of that, Muschamp’s late arrival — and the time it took him to solidify his coaching staff — forced him to squeeze the year-round recruiting process into a few months of work.

“This is an important year because they’re starting fresh,” Farrell said. “They’re starting on equal terms, pretty much, with everyone else for 2012. I think it’s going to be a barometer for the fans to see … can this guy recruit at the same level Urban Meyer did after his initial trial by fire when he was hired.”

The Gators have already received verbal commitments from nine 2012 recruits, including two running backs, Mike Davis and Matt Jones, and three defensive tackles in JaFar Mann, Dante Phillips and Quinteze Williams. Along with linebacker, Farrell said, Muschamp and Co. will place a lot of emphasis on players in the trenches.

And the verdict at this point, as UF enters a critical stretch 10 months before 2012’s National Signing Day?

“So far, so good,” Farrell said.

With their coaches busy on the recruiting trail and restricted from working with them, the Gators will be largely responsible for their own development during the summer.

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Muschamp and his assistants had their first chance to install their system and teach as much as possible, but now, the team’s veterans will have to emerge within their position groups and take the younger players under their wings.

One specific case Muschamp singled out Saturday was that of A.C. Leonard.

The freshman tight end, an early enrollee out of Jacksonville University Christian School, caught a game-high three passes for 18 yards and showed signs of promise at a position offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has utilized extensively in the past.

Muschamp said Leonard, in his first semester at UF, was OK during the opening weeks of the offseason training program, but he came into his own in the final part of spring practice under the tutelage of Weis and tight ends coach Derek Lewis.

The most “veteran” player at the tight end position, however, is Jordan Reed — a redshirt sophomore with six career receptions. But Muschamp’s charge extended beyond the team’s upperclassmen, as the Gators carry only eight scholarship seniors.

“They don’t need to be a senior; we don’t have many seniors,” Muschamp said. “They need to understand it’s their football team; it’s not mine. We will only be as good as we are next year with the work ethic that takes place.”

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