The Florida Gators began 2014 spring practice on Wednesday, taking the field for the first of 15 times over the next few weeks. The pad-less practice was open to fans and reporters, which got a first-hand look at the team as it went through the motions of offensive and defensive installation. Afterward, head coach Will Muschamp discussed practice, provided injury updates and went over a number of hot topics.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE OFFENSE
Muschamp made no bones about it on Wednesday when he matter-of-factly stated that Florida’s “number one priority … is the installation of the offense.” So important is the Gators improving on offense, in fact, that he has explained to defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and the defensive players that they will need to be patent as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helps get things on track with his new system.
“There’s a lot of give and take in the installation process,” Muschamp said, “and you have to make sure [the defense does not] get too far ahead of the offense.”
To that end, he confirmed that the Gators will be operating their up-tempo in the shotgun. He now prefers to save Florida’s players under center for when the team has to “kneel down at the end [of a game] after a good win.” He quipped, “I don’t want to be in shotgun doing that.”
Roper will try to instill two important tenants into the heads of the players on his side of the ball. The Gators have to play with urgency and need to master execution…and do all of it at a pace that will keep opposing defenses on their toes.
“They understand the advantages of [lining up] quickly and getting themselves in the right spots and the disadvantages it can create for a defense,” explained Muschamp. “Our players talk between offense and defense. The defensive kids talk about how difficult it can be and how stressful it can be under the circumstances of when they do align fast and get aligned quickly.”
Though Florida has run some up-tempo in practice before, Muschamp pointed out that was “nowhere near what we did [Wednesday]” when neither side of the ball huddled. The fast-paced nature of practice understandably got both halves of the team tired, especially considering it was the first day, though he did not see that as a excuse.
“The execution on both sides really fell off. The communication really fell off. The focus. There were more busted assignments,” he said.
“That’s what happens when you get tired. Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Muschamp also made a point to offer praise for Roper in how he handled his first day coaching the Gators on the Sanders Practice Fields.
“I spend most of my day on defense, which I always do, but [I noticed that he’s] just a really good teacher, very fundamental in his approach,” he said. “[Roper is] certainly philosophically on the same page with me and what we want to do and that’s be balanced. We’re not going to get away from running the football. [We will find] different ways to run the football, but I think [he is] just a really good teacher and more than anything just a positive guy. His positive energy is very contagious in the building. He’s a very good fundamental football coach.”
NO DILEMMA AT QUARTERBACK
Fans may not be convinced that redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel is cut out to be Florida’s starting signal caller but no one on the coaching staff appears to have any doubts. The Gators pushed back spring practice a week in order to ensure that Driskel, recovering from a broken fibula he suffered during the third week of the 2013 season, would be able to start from day one, and it should be no surprise that he looked like the best of the bunch on Wednesday.
“We’ve kind of put him in a position where he feels much more comfortable at the position and [we’re] taking advantage of his strengths,” said Muschamp, alluding to the fact that Roper will spread the offense out and allow Driskel to run the ball.
The head coach is also pleased with how Driskel has continued to grow as a leader, someone his teammates look up to as one of the toughest guys in the locker room.
“He and I’ve talked a lot, and Jeff’s hard-edge. He’s a tough kid,” Muschamp said.
“I mean, to walk off the field after what happened to him. Those doctors told me that’s amazing. He’s got great respect from his teammates because of the toughness he has, the toughness he displays as a player and an athlete. So, I don’t worry about Jeff’s mental condition; Jeff’s a tough kid. He’s fine. … I know the type competitor that he is and the type toughness he has. You put on that Miami film and see some of the hits he took, and when he stepped into the dig over on their sideline and got splattered. That guy’s got a great toughness about himself and a great mental resolve.”
Second-string behind Driskel, for now, is redshirt sophomore Skyler Mornhinweg, who Muschamp said has gotten “much further along from an experience standpoint” but is nevertheless not expected to keep his job long. Freshman Will Grier is currently running with the third team but will eventually step up behind Driskel though the hope is that he will never have to see the field in 2014.
LINING UP THE DEFENSIVE BACKS
As noted during OnlyGators.com’s defensive preview posted Wednesday morning, senior Jabari Gorman and redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye (the backups last season) began spring practice as the primary safeties. Sophomore Keanu Neal and redshirt freshman Marcell Harris will also work at the position with redshirt freshman Nick Washington rotating between every job in the secondary.
Washington will likely wind up playing cornerback where he, junior Brian Poole and freshman Jalen Tabor will compete for the starting jobs at nickel and opposite sophomore Vernon Hargreaves III on the outside.
» Neal (hamstring) aggravated an injury that first popped up in the offseason.
» Redshirt senior linebacker Neiron Ball “banged his knee” but should be fine after icing it, said Muschamp, who noted that the player “had a fantastic offseason.”
» Redshirt senior fullback Gideon Ajagbe (hamstring) is expected to practice Saturday.
» Redshirt sophomore defensive end Alex McCalister cramped up. “He needs to eat more,” deadpanned Muschamp.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» InsidetheGators.com senior writer Bryan Holt noted Wednesday that redshirt junior running back Valdez Showers, who switched from defense to offense last season, spent most of his time lined up as a slot receiver. It appears that Roper will plan to take advantage of his athleticism as Showers “was a popular option on underneath routes and bubble screens.”
» Punt returner was a position of flux for Florida in 2013. As such, the Gators are looking for someone to grab a hold of the job and are giving a number of players the opportunity. Hargreaves, Poole, Tabor, redshirt freshman wide receiver Alvin Bailey and freshman defensive back Duke Dawson all hauled in punts, according to Holt.
» On an important step to evaluating players: “You’ve got to take it from the meeting room to the field – that’s part of our evaluation. And then there’s going to be game day. We’re going to have to make game day adjustments; we have to make practice adjustments. If you can’t make the adjustments sitting out there with a great crowd for the first day – which I appreciate the great showing we had – but if you can’t make the adjustment out there, you’re not going to make it in front of 90,000 people. That’s part of the evaluation. And I tell our coaches all the time, ‘Make some adjustments [in practice].’ I’ll walk up to D.J. and say, ‘Let’s switch how we’re going this’ in the middle of practice. If kids can’t handle it, then that’s part of our evaluation. We’ve got to get ready for game day. So those are things you’ve got to continue to work for.”
» On redshirt freshman running back Adam Lane, who did not run with the primary teams: “Adam is a power back. He was a guy that showed some things on scout team that we very pleased with through the fall.”
» Muschamp said that all of the former Gators currently in Gainesville – either taking classes towards their degree or training ahead of the NFL Draft – have been by the program and visited with the players. In particular, he noted that Matt Elam has “gone through our offseason workout about every day as far as coming out and working out with our players and going through the drill work and doing everything.” Elam has even sat through installation meetings.
» On Washington not being on the baseball team now and whether he will be allowed to play both sports in the future: “I haven’t really discussed that. Nick felt like after the injury in the fall, he wanted to get his feet under himself as far as football’s concerned. We’ll have those discussions as we move forward. But again, it’s all about the Gators for me. If it’s going to help [head baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan] and those guys, I’m all for it.”
» Florida’s first padded practice will be on Saturday.