Last Friday, one day before the Florida Gators‘ Saturday scrimmage, head coach Will Muschamp provided a number of updates about his players and discussed some hot topics concerning the team.
REBUILDING THE PASS RUSH
Once Florida lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending injury in 2013, the Gators pass rush suffered. With Easley now headed for the NFL, UF is on its way to ensuring that it will be able to pressure the quarterback this season.
Leading the pack, of course, is junior Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr., who led Florida with 10.5 tackles for loss and finished second with 3.5 sacks as a sophomore. “Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough. He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and really competes,” Muschamp said. “I think we have a special rusher in Dante.”
Junior defensive end Jonathan Bullard, long expected to be Fowler’s bash brother coming off the edge, played well in 2013 but continues to be worked inside at tackle as well in order for the Gators to build depth and get as much top-tier talent on the field as possible. Muschamp likes how Bullard matches up against guards because of his athleticism and is able to play him inside because of how redshirt sophomore Bryan Cox, Jr. has developed as an edge rusher.
“I think it’s his motor. He plays hard. Football is really important to him. He plays with an edge. He goes out every day and works hard,” said Muschamp of Cox. “Bryan was an off-the-ball player in high school, came in and we didn’t know if we were going to play him at linebacker or defensive end. He still has a lot of growth potential.
“I think his strength levels are up, his body weight’s up to 260 the other day. He’s being able to hold the point much better, he’s using his hands much better on the lien of scrimmage than he did a year ago. He’s made a really remarkable improvement with using his hands on blocks. …
“I’ve been really pleased with just how he continues to progress. He’s very coachable. You can’t coach a motor. A guy either plays hard or he doesn’t. You can coach him through it and you can bring him along, but the guys that have that natural ability to play hard, you can build off that a lot.”
Also stepping up and giving Muschamp more flexibility with his defensive front seven is redshirt sophomore DE Alex McCalister, who Muschamp said is on track with his development after only playing two years of high school football.
“He has the things we saw. We knew it was going to be a while. You never know in those situations how quickly they’re going to take off and go. Just real pleased with how he’s coming along. We need another edge juice rusher. We need someone else on the edge to give us a little pressure.”
CORNERING THE SITUATION
Save for sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Gators lost basically their entire starting secondary from 2013 and are in the midst of rebuilding the unit. Going a long way to helping solve this problem is the development of freshmen Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, who have both been getting high reviews from Muschamp and the coaching staff throughout spring practice.
On Dawson: “Duke is playing corner and nickel, very physical. He’s really heavy-handed, meaning he gets his hands on people really effectively. He’s very strong in his upper body, weighing 195. Very well put together, athletic, has really good ball skills, is a physical player.”
On Tabor: “Jalen is a guy that’s got some length on him. I sat him down the other day and said, ‘You know, when you’re a fastball pitcher, you throw fastballs.’ He’s got to stay on the line of scrimmage more in his press. He’s backing off people. … Back off every now and then but stay with your fastball; what you do well is play on the line of scrimmage with your hands on people. I think he did a much better job of that Wednesday and Thursday as opposed to Monday.”
Dawson and Tabor being quick learners and coachable players is especially important in their development, Muschamp said. “They’re listeners and they listen extremely well. They take it from the meeting room to the fields extremely well. They adjust very well on the run, which we have to with our defense and what we’re trying to do. I’m very pleased with both players.”
There will be plenty of competition for the job opposite Hargreaves as well as the role as starting nickel cornerback, with junior Brian Poole and redshirt freshman Nick Washington both expected to have their say, but Dawson and Tabor being so impressive this early should help mitigate some of the losses UF suffered at the conclusion of the 2013 campaign.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Andre Debose (torn ACL) returned to practice on Thursday after being cleared for non-contact work.
“It’s good to get him back on the field and get him involved in the offense,” Muschamp said. “He can be really special with the ball in his hands. I think his work ethic from last year was very good up to his injury. I was extremely pleased with where he was. To me, with Andre, it’s always been the battle of consistently doing it well. I think he understands that. I like where he is right now from a maturity standpoint, form a work ethic standpoint. All of those things, I’m extremely pleased at this point.”
While Debose returned, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson, sophomore WR Chris Thompson (undislcosed) and redshirt freshman DL Jordan Sherit (hyperextended elbow) are all expected to be back in action on Monday.
Joining redshirt senior linebacker Neiron Ball (sprained MCL) as out for the remainder of spring as freshman offensive lineman Nolan Kelleher (back) and redshirt sophomore tight end Colin Thompson (foot), who is no longer listed on the UF roster.
Kelleher and Thompson will both be seeing specialists.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Muschamp on the punting competition: “Johnny Townsend and Kyle Christy are hitting the ball extremely well. Both guys can really punt the football well. We’ve got a great competition there.”
» Muschamp said redshirt sophomore kicker Austin Hardin continues to be more consistent with his leg swing but still needs to work on his accuracy.
» Muschamp singled out junior left tackle D.J. Humphries and redshirt seniors center Max Garcia and right tackle Chaz Green as three standouts on the offensive line at this point in spring practice.
» Muschamp on how redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel has been playing: “Jeff completed over 70 percnet of his passes [Thursday] in situations where I created longer down and distance situations, throwing situations.”
» Muschamp on freshman TE DeAndre Goolsby: “I’m very pleased with where he is. He’s a really good athlete. He’s a guy that can do some different things with what we’re looking for at that position. He fits it extremely well. … I think it’s a little early to tell right now how much he’ll contribute.”
» Muschamp on freshman DL Taven Bryan: “A really strong core guy. He’s got really good strength. He’s still learning what we do defensively, but I’m very pleased with where he is. He’s a guy that’s got the intangibles and he’s got the physical ability and athleticism to be a really good player. Now when that’s going to be, I don’t know. But he’s got what we want. He’s got length and he’s a really good athlete, really can bend his lower body and change direction. Just got to learn how quickly the game moves, especially up front.”
» Muschamp on moving redshirt freshman Marqui Hawkins to safety: “We felt like we needed to create some more depth there. He was a safety in high school, wanted to move him and give him some opportunities to see how he looks there.”
» Muschamp on Northwestern players unionizing: “I have been totally immersed in our football team and March Madness. To be honest with you, can you tell me what happened? I don’t even know what happened. … That’s way above my pay scale right there.”
» Redshirt senior LB Michael Taylor on how leadership can improve on the team: “Leadership isn’t something that’s appointed; it’s something that happens naturally. It’s something that’s not done vocally, it’s done through your actions. Guys will try to be vocal leaders and say every word in the dictionary, but you can say whatever you want, if you’re not setting the right example [it doesn’t matter]. [Last year we had the] wrong kind of leadership, more vocal rather than action. We need action rather than just people just saying what they’re going to do or just telling people what to do.”
» Taylor on who has stood out on offense: “Demarcus [Robinson] is a freak. Some of the stuff that he can do is crazy.”