By Adam Silverstein and Mike Brandes (OnlyGators.com Contributor)
Nearing the end of the second full week of spring practice, new Florida Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper met with the media on Thursday to discuss how his unit is progressing and whether he sees the start of a turnaround in a unit that finished 112th in scoring offense (18.8 points per game) and 113rd in total offense (316.7 yards per game) by the conclusion of the 2013 season.
STEP ONE: INSTALLATION
Learning a new offense is difficult for any group of players, especially when it is – in many ways – night and day from one they have run for a number of years. But if the Gators are going to have success in 2014, it will be their offense making the greatest improvement, and that has to begin right away.
“They’re starting to understand more and more every day. Part of the process is you add things to them every day,” explained Roper on Thursday. “I think what we’ve tried to do is create an offense that is easy as possible for us to learn but still complicated to defend. So, I think it’s an offense that, over time, over 45 practices before our first game, that we’ll have a pretty good understanding of.”
Florida new up-tempo set will have a base formation of three-wide. Players will check in with the sideline for each play call and be focused on executing fundamentals on the field rather than trying to trick the opposition with complicated routes or blocking assignments. Roper believes things are going well early on despite the fact that some fans have heard him yelling plenty of times in open practices.
“When you’re practicing early, you hear a lot of coaches yelling and a lot of that yelling is fixing problems before they happen – whether it’s an alignment or their eyes in the right place or whatever it may be,” he explained.
“I think the first scrimmage [on Saturday] is going to tell us more when [the coaches] get off the field and we try to limit the communication and see where we are. Again, I think we’ve got a lot of time to get this thing right, and we’re going to have it concise and they’ll understand it. But, I think the thing right now, you don’t always know because you’re coaching on the run rather than sitting back and seeing it like a Saturday game will be.”
Overall, the players seem to be pleased both with the offense’s ease as well as how things will look once it is completely installed and becomes second nature.
“It’s always tough to get adjusted to a new offense,” said senior fullback Hunter Joyer. “Coach is trying to make it simple on us and trying to get us going.”
Added redshirt senior running back Mack Brown: “People are having much more fun, more laid back, more competition because there’s going to be a lot more playmakers this year. Every game there might be 11 people touching the ball. It seems like everybody is having fun right now.”
STEP TWO: THE SNAP
An offense can be installed and comprehended to perfection, but the Gators still have plenty of work to do with on-field execution, beginning with how each play starts – the center snapping the ball to the quarterback.
With Jonotthan Harrison graduated, Florida has players vying for the starting job in the middle of the offensive line that have never played the position before.
Head coach Will Muschamp said earlier in the week that redshirt senior Max Garcia, a transfer from Maryland who started at left guard last season, and redshirt freshman Cameron Dillard are both having problems snapping the ball, something the coaches expected would happen.
“Is it difficult? Yes, it’s difficult. The [shot]gun snap is difficult,” Roper noted. “It used to be, it wasn’t that long ago, nobody got in the gun. I’m talking mid-90s. Everybody was underneath center – ‘Let’s not put the ball in jeopardy’ and those type things – then everybody said, ‘You know what? We can do this on third down and we can get in gun and pass protect and run draws because the center’s sitting back.’ Then somebody, and I can’t tell you who, started saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to come off and be physical and still snap the ball and do it.’
“It’s a very challenging skill to try and be physical and go forward while you’re gun-snapping. It’s not easy; I think you obviously keep working on it. We work on it before every practice, then they work on it I-don’t-know-how-many times during a practice, where it’s happening live.
“It’s huge, I mean, go back to the first play of the Super Bowl, this year, what happened on the gun-snap? There was a miscommunication and the ball went by. So, it’s at every level, it doesn’t matter what level you’re at. You still try to focus on that as much as you possibly can. It’s a skill. There’s a lot going on for that guy up front. Other than just snapping that football, try to keep getting better at it.
“Am I happy with the way Max is working? Yeah. I think he can do it and be really good at it, I do. I think he’s talented. I think he’s got really fast hands and that’s not easy. He’s able to snap it and then get his hands up and get his hands inside.”
STEP THREE: QUARTERBACK PLAY
Roper likes redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. In fact, he really likes him, respects his knowledge of the game and is excited that Driskel is his starting signal caller in his first year at Florida. He did not hide any of this on Thursday when he gushed about the fourth-year field general.
“He’s really talented; I didn’t get to see much before I got here,” said Roper. “That’s a big, powerful, fast-twitch, natural throwing motion. He’s talented, folks. I mean, we’re sitting here talking about a guy who’s really, really gifted.
“His experience shows when we have conversations; he understands football. It’s not his first rodeo. When we start talking coverages, or fronts, or how pressures are mirroring each other, he understands. His eyes end up in the right places a lot, right now.”
Roper does not think Driskel is perfect, however. Far from it, in fact. So, he laid out all the ways in which he thinks Driskel can improve before the start of the season.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time working fundamentals, he said. “Now it’s working out all the new things, how we run curls, how we run digs, the depths of it. How we run option routes, being on time and those things you work it out. And that’s from now through the summer when he has to be in charge of it, when coaches can’t be out there, through fall camp. He has command of the football, and that’s harder to teach. You either have it or you don’t, and he has command of it.”
There are no concerns on Roper’s end that Driskel will be able to comprehend and execute these lessons as he noted that conversations between the two are “at a high level” when it comes to football. Some of Driskel’s teammates have also noticed how sharp he looks despite not having been on the field since last October.
“[He looks really strong],” Joyer said. “I really can’t tell if he’s hurting at all, his ankle or anything is bothering him. He looks like he’s about 100 percent to me.”
STEP FOUR: ADDING SKILL PLAYERS
Once the plays are called, the ball is snapped in the shotgun and Driskel catches it, the onus will be placed on the skill players to do what they can to move the Gators vertically down the field. Roper broke down some of his thoughts about each position – and the skill players in general – at this early point in spring practice.
On how the running backs are adjusting to a zone read game that is not predicated simply on hitting a pre-determined hole: “The footwork takes time. What we call the ‘mesh’ or the exchange between the quarterback and the running back takes time – and working out all the little fundamentals. In most exchanges in offense you see the quarterback looking at the pocket of the running back and putting the ball on his belly. But in this run game, there’s a lot the quarterback is looking at other places, so the running back has to create the mesh and make sure its solid.”
On how much Florida will emphasize the tight end position as more than blockers: “I think the biggest the thing when you put together an offense is you want a defense to defend the field and to defend all your skill players, all the guys that are capable of making a play with the ball, that are wearing the right number. Those guys are a big part of our offense. I think they’re going to be put in position to make some plays. It’s been fun to evaluate, we’ve had some big plays made by those guys.”
On the importance of the Gators having one or more deep threats at wideout: “I think it’s always important. You hopefully have more than one in that position to make the plays. You like to have them on both sides, so they have to cover. … You’ve got to be able to, again I say, threaten all fields, all areas of the field. I think we’ve got some speed, we’ll take some shots. You watch [Quinton Dunbar], he can run, Chris Thompson can run, Demarcus Robinson can run, have some speed. The guys on the inside, in different ways, can stretch, still can get down the field a bit; [Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers], those guys can run and make them turn it over.”
On whether Florida has enough quality skill position players: “I think we’re talented. I think we’ve got some guys in space that can make plays. I think the thing that we’re trying to figure out, first and foremost, is the tight end/h-back in our offense, who we call the ‘B.’ Who is that? Who is the guy that is going to be the best in that situation? … We’ve got some talent there, some experience there, some speed there. It just has to keep growing. We’ve got guys at just about every position that have played a lot of football here, been in a lot of tough battles on the field. I think that B position, because it’s so different from what they were doing in the past, is probably the thing that we’ve got to watch the most close.”