For five days from March 5-9, OnlyGators.com has handed a guest editor role over to you, the loyal reader. This is the third in five Readers’ Choice posts covering topics you want to know more about concerning the Florida Gators athletics program.
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Updated on March 10 at 1:30 p.m.
Among other buzz words Florida head coach Jim McElwain has thrown out when speaking about the task that lies ahead of him to rebuild the Gators football program, improving the “infrastructure” has been at the top of the list.
Most think of the term “infrastructure” as relating to physical facilities, and in that regard, Florida is already taking steps forward by spending $15 million on an indoor practice facility set to open in September, making plans to improve the locker room and training area, redesigning and increasing the space and flow of the football offices, and looking at how to improve the athletic dorms.
But to McElwain, “infrastructure” also includes the Gators’ top-to-bottom organization from assistant coaches and operations directors to quality control coaches and staff assistants.
“One of the things you do constantly is you have to evolve and obviously bringing some of the things that we have done [at] previous places,” McElwain explained during his National Signing Day press conference. “As we build our player personnel department and get our pieces in there, things will continue to get better.”
Florida is already on its way to matching Alabama from an overall staff capacity standpoint, though it is not there yet; McElwain very much wants the Gators to replicate Nick Saban’s structure with the Crimson Tide. Saban employs a separate recruiting staff solely focused on identifying talented players and compiling packets of information that the director of player personnel, assistant coaches and Saban himself use to go out and bring in the top-rated prospects in the nation.
To that end, McElwain retained Drew Hughes, Florida’s director of player personnel under Muschamp. He also added Kevin Barbay as an assistant director under Hughes; Barbay held Hughes’s job under McElwain at Colorado State. McElwain was pleased with how Hughes kept the Gators’ class intact through the beginning of February and explained on Signing Day how he plans to help that department improve.
“I thought Drew did a really good job. He was a guy that was able to hold it together. We were able to add Kevin Barbay; we are still in the process of adding some more people that have a lot of experience in those areas that are going to help us move forward in the player personnel department – and that’s part of the infrastructure change that we are getting ready to make,” he said. “It evolves over time. But obviously Drew had a real handle on what was going on and knew where a lot of the players were.”
As McElwain alluded to, he is still in the process of filling out that staff, but there are a number of program assistants already working under Hughes and Barbay. Casey Calathan, the brother of Florida defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan, has served in the role since 2014. Both Saphira Lazarre and Ryan McGee are entering their third seasons with that title; they help coordinator recruit camps, travel and communications and also work with alumni, NFL scouts and the families of Gators’ athletes. UF also has other assistants in administrative roles and is still growing the department.
But the Gators have also filled out their football support staff with a number of other interesting names, many of which have jumped aboard just this offseason.
“We’ve been fortunate to attract some outstanding talent, guys that are going to be able to help this program move forward in their roles,” McElwain said on March 10. “Some of the value as far as looking forward to film breakdowns and things like that is huge. Getting another set of quality eyes on your product that can kind of sit back and see it a little bit from afar and bring some really good value to what you’re trying to accomplish. I think we’ve done that in those spots. We’re not filled up yet.”
He also explained how such roles benefit the organization and coaches themselves.
“Part of it is the people you get to work with, the new set of ways of doing things and just kind of refreshing yourself as a coach. These are transient positions by nature, which is great because we’re able to give an opportunity to a coach to advance his career and then, at the same time on the other end, we’re able to possibly bring in new ideas to stay fresh,” he said. “That’s part of how this works. The other thing is, if a coach does move on to a head coaching job or something like that, it allows opportunities for guys internally and externally. I’ve seen it first-hand. It really is the way of moving forward and our administration has been fantastic.”
Quality control specialists and assistants break down film, analyze data and do much of the background work in preparing coaches and players for upcoming opponents. They can sit in on coaching meetings to help players learn tendencies and answer questions and even work during practice with the scout team in order to ensure it gives players on the active roster an accurate representation of what they will go up against on Saturdays. Many see “quality control” as an entry-level coaching job but one that is necessary if a coach wants to learn the game from the ground up, gain experience and rise up the ranks.
John Garrett: With 19 years of offensive coaching experience (15 in the NFL), two years working as an NFL administrator and another year serving as an NFL scout, Garrett is listed as a quality control assistant at Florida but certainly brings a lifetime of knowledge and experience to the table. Garrett, 50, served as the Oregon State offensive coordinator last season but was jettisoned from the role when Gary Andersen was hired in place of Mike Riley. Ivy League-educated, he is also the brother of Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, serving alongside and under him on the Cowboys staff from 2007-12.
Mark DeBastiani: After a decade as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at FCS Norfolk State, DeBastiani had decided to move on to Hampton but jumped at the opportunity to join Florida with a role under defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. A 22-year coaching veteran who also worked at Bethune-Cookman, Appalachian State and Division II Shepherd, DeBastiani is familiar with both McElwain and director of strength and conditioning Mike Kent, according to the Virginian-Pilot, which asked DeBastiani about his decision to head to UF. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity. I couldn’t ask for anything better. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “A guy I’ve known a long time that’s been a coordinator at the I-AA level for quite a while, a guy that gives us an opportunity, another set of eyes on defense,” McElwain said of DeBastiani on March 10.
Marquel Blackwell: A St. Petersburg native and former quarterback at South Florida who at one time held most of the program’s individual passing records, Blackwell got into coaching after a short professional career. After serving as a head coach at Freedom High School, he became a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky and then the director of player development back at USF. He is expected to work under offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. “[He] brings some instant credibility from the area and yet has coached at the collegiate level, has coached at the high school level and – quite honestly – needed a break,” McElwain said on March 10.
Marc Nudelberg: Cincinnati’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator last season, Nudelberg (a Florida State alumnus) began his career in a variety of non-coaching roles under Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher with the Seminoles (quality control, equipment, staff assistant). Special teams coach Greg Nord will have Nudelberg as his quality control specialist. “[He] learned from some really good special teams guys along the way [and is] another set of eyes that can sit in there and help Coach Nord and myself on special teams,” McElwain said on March 10.
Jeremy Darveau: Serving as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Southwest Minnesota State last season, Darveau will move to Florida to work under offensive line coach Mike Summers. A former Summers pupil at Louisville, Darveau started 19 games with the Cardinals from 2004-05, helping Louisville achieve a 20-4 combined record those seasons. He continued his career in NFL Europe and the Arena Football League but began coaching at SMSU in 2008 and moved his way up to offensive coordinator.
Andy Belluomini: A long-time Florida graduate assistant, Belluomini has worked with the offensive staff and has moved into a quality control assistant role.
University of Florida students enrolled in graduate-level classes, these assistants have a wide range of responsibilities that can change as needed.
Former Gators defensive end Duke Lemmens joined the program as a graduate assistant ahead of the 2013 season after failing to latch on with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. He remains with the program in a defensive role. Justin Hinds, who worked under Collins at Mississippi State, jumped aboard this offseason as a GA for the defense.
Florida added Jacksonville defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach James Rowe as a defensive graduate assistant in February. Rowe, who joined JU as a GA in 2012 and worked as the team’s wide receivers coach in 2013, is a former USF baseball player who began his career as a high school coach before taking a job at Bethel University. The Gators have also brought on Christian Pace as an offensive graduate assistant.
The only notable names missing from the football support staff roster are former Florida quarterback Chris Leak, a graduate assistant hired in 2013 who turned into a quality control coach and then wide receivers coach but was seemingly not retained by McElwain and has yet to find a role with the organization (though it was believed he would), and ex-Gators linebacker Mike Peterson, who earned his degree and now serves as a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator under Kent.
So there you have it, a look at Florida football’s burgeoning infrastructure, per reader request. Be sure to check back soon for the fourth of five OnlyGators.com Readers’ Choice installments heading into McElwain’s introductory press conference for spring practice on March 10.