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New ingredients, same recipe
Gators' spring priority is filling holes on defense
Posted: Monday March 15, 1999 05:39 PM
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- With a cold wind blowing through Florida Field, it felt more like the end of the regular season than the eve of spring practice Monday.
Once the Florida defense takes the field for the first of 15 spring workouts Tuesday, it should quickly become clear that the real season is several months away.
The Gators head into spring practice with a new defensive coordinator, two other new coaches and nine starting spots to fill on defense.
The nine vacancies on defense marks the largest number of open positions Steve Spurrier has had on one unit since he became Florida's coach in 1990.
"We do have a lot of young players who haven't done much around here," Spurrier said. "So it will be a little bit more of an interesting and important spring practice maybe than some other years."
Spurrier has never been one to place too much importance on spring practice -- he only participated in one as a player here in the late '60s -- but he conceded there's a lot of work to be done this year.
Among those gone on defense are lineman Reggie McGrew, cornerback Tony George and linebackers Jevon Kearse, Mike Peterson and Johnny Rutledge -- five players who started a combined 56 games last year and should all be selected somewhere in next month's NFL draft.
Left on the depth chart are linemen Derrick Chambers and Gerard Warren, linebackers Alex Brown and Keith Kelsey and defensive backs Marquand Manuel and Rod Graddy, all significant contributors last season, but still needing to prove themselves.
Spurrier said he hopes to emerge from spring practice with a fairly solid depth chart on defense.
"But again, then you have to see what happens in summer, what happens when a few freshmen show up," he said.
Melding this unit will be new defensive coordinator Jon Hoke, who came from Missouri after Bob Stoops left the Gators for Oklahoma.
Like the star recruits he brings in, Spurrier seems to be holding back praise for Hoke, waiting to see how he'll perform in his first big test at a higher level.
"I'm excited about Jon, he's a proven coach," Spurrier said. "But he knows he's got to do it in real ballgames right now."
The Gators appear a little more settled on offense, with only the receiving corps taking a significant blow due to the loss of starters Travis McGriff and Nafis Karim.
At quarterback, Doug Johnson is expected to miss the bulk of practice as the fibula he broke in last season's 31-10 Orange Bowl victory over Syracuse continues to heal.
Spurrier said Johnson will still be penciled in as the starter ahead of Jesse Palmer. Johnson's absence will give Palmer, Tim Olmstead and incoming freshman Rex Grossman more repititions this spring.
"We'll give them all a chance to pitch, throw, get in some scrimmages," Spurrier said. "We'll give them a chance, but again, we've got to get guys ready who are going to play in the fall."
Like all schools, the Gators are allowed a total of 15 practice sessions, 12 in pads. The last of them will be the annual Orange and Blue Game, set for April 10 at Florida Field.
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