A 34-year coaching veteran, it takes a lot to get Mike Summers excited these days. But that is exactly the emotion he said he felt when new Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain asked him to be the lone holdover from Will Muschamp’s coaching staff.
“I’m extremely excited to be retained and be a part of Coach Mac’s staff, to move into a new era of Florida football. Certainly the opportunities, the energy, the excitement that’s around the program right now is something I can really feel. I sense it from the players. I sense it myself, my energy, there’s pep in my step as I walk around. Everyone is excited about where we are and looking forward. Certainly that involves me, and I’m very excited to be a part of this,” he said last week.
Summers was far from the longest-tenured member of Florida’s staff – in fact, he was one of three new coaches to join the program ahead of the 2014 season – but he was perhaps Muschamp’s best hire last offseason.
He pieced together an offensive line that lost three starters to graduation ahead of the season, created versatility among the players he had (including a number of injured upperclassmen) and was even forced into tough mix-and-match situations during games, tasks he seemingly took on with ease. Perhaps his most impressive work was molding fifth-year lineman Max Garcia not only into the Gators’ starting center but one who did so well playing the position for the first time in his career that he earned an invitation to the 2015 Senior Bowl.
“When I came in last year, I wasn’t sure what all we had. There were guys who were injured, some guys who didn’t go through spring. I wasn’t sure about all the pieces and how they would fit together,” he explained. “I was excited to see as the time went on that that group came together as a unit, just in how they thought, how they talked, what they did, how they related with me. As we went through the season, I saw improvement and was very encouraged with what they did through the season. I thought they hung tough in the face of adversity.”
When McElwain was faced with the tough job of filling out his initial coaching staff, those on the exterior of the program pinpointed a number of assistants that could have been retained. Ultimately, Summers was the only one to keep his job.
“Let’s understand that I’ve had previous history with Coach Summers, and we’ve been in like systems – if you look at the history of some of the people he’s been with, they probably go along the same line as what we’ve done,” McElwain said last Monday. “I had a great comfort level there. Another thing is, shoot, that’s a position that’s been rolled over it seems a little bit, too. Those guys are such a unique deal that having some continuity in their life and obviously a great ball coach and guy who’s been through a lot of different things and a lot of different systems.”
Second to the wide receivers, Florida’s offensive linemen have seen more position coaches walk through the door over the last four years than any other group on the team. Summers is glad to have the opportunity to bring some stability to the role and looking forward to seeing what he can get out of the players.
“I had a prior relationship with Coach Mac. We’ve known each other for a while. I guess one of the advantages of being an old coach is that you have the chance to touch a lot of people. The circles and the people that Coach Mac has been a part of are also circles that I’ve been a part of,” he said.
“Being retained on this staff is something that energizes me, makes me feel like some of the things that I’ve been able to do have been appreciated. More than anything, the work that was started with the offensive line on this team can continue.”
There is a lot working against Summers, such as the Gators’ dwindling numbers on the offensive line. Junior left tackle D.J. Humphries and redshirt junior offensive lineman Tyler Moore have both declared early for the 2015 NFL Draft. Coupling their departures with the losses of Garcia, redshirt senior right tackle Chaz Green and senior Trenton Brown leaves Florida with eight scholarship offensive linemen on its current roster (two other players retired due to injuries).
That is not to say all is bad for Summers and UF’s offensive front. His coaching talent is obvious. McElwain has stated – on numerous occasions – that he is focused on heavily recruiting offensive linemen ahead of National Signing Day in early February.
Summers also has a pair of young tackles in redshirt freshman Roderick Johnson and freshman David Sharpe to bookend his rebuilt unit, and the relationship between Summers and Johnson appears to be a special one.
“Rod Johnson is just an absolute pleasure to be around, a kid that you just love to put your arm around and watch him grow. He’s like a plant that you put water on and you just see him start to develop. He’s got such passion to be a great football player. I was so encouraged with what he was able to do this year,” said Summers.
Johnson has not been made available to the media since the regular season but has tweeted about Summers often as McElwain filled out his staff. “The relationship I got with coach summers is priceless,” he wrote on Jan. 6.
Summers is also pleased to fill a transitional roll for McElwain as a coach who has a “baseline knowledge” of the roster, which should help McElwain when it comes to building relationships and earning trust.
He has even spoken highly of another of his new bosses, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who he’s only known from a distance until McElwain brought him on board.
“He’s got energy, he’s got passion, and he’s a really knowledgeable football coach. Just the short time we’ve worked together, I’m so excited to be on a staff that he’s on. He and I already have got a great working relationship and that’s something that’s going to be exciting as we go forward,” Summers said.
“I really am confident about really this whole staff. It’s a bunch of guys that have experience that understand that we are on the front end of something that can be really special but there’s also a lot of hard work that has to be done as well. All of us are ready to roll our sleeves up and go to work and put this program where it needs to be so we can sustain success.”
The relationship that really matters, though, is between McElwain and Summers – and both coaches with the team as a whole. In that regard, Summers reiterated his enthusiasm.
“We’ve got such an excitement around this football team. From Coach Mac’s first team meeting, the players walked out of there with an excitement with a buzz about the direction and what we’re going to do. One of the great things that came out of that meeting was how interested he is in the relationship part of coaching, how interested he is in the players and what they’re feelings are and what their attitude is and what their relationships are with us as coaches,” he explained.
“Certainly that fits with my philosophy of how I’ve been able to stay in this for so long. It’s more than stepping with this foot and putting your eyes on this landmark. It’s about who the players are, the trust relationship they have with me and all the coaches. When you strengthen that trust relationship, then when things get into crunch time, then they trust what I’m telling them. That’s Coach Mac’s style. That’s what his philosophy is and that’s been something that’s in step with how I’ve been able to do this for so long.”