Florida Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin met with the media on Thursday for the first time this offseason and had an opportunity to provide some insight now that the team is two-thirds of the way through spring practice.
OFFENSE HELPING DEFENSE
Florida’s offensive shakeup is certainly a welcome sight for fans, but it is also benefiting the Gators own defense as it is giving the team the opportunity to practice against a more explosive spread set as opposed to the pro-style unit they have been working with for the last three seasons.
“It’s been great for us that way. That’s been good; we’re seeing it every day. In the past it’s been you get to game week, alright, we’re kind of changing the way we practice. We’re talking about tempo. We’re doing different things. Where now it’s really kind of becoming the norm,” explained Durkin.
“Now it’s going to be the flipside. We’re going to have to formulate how we’re going to practice against some two-back teams and power running game because we’re still going to face that, too. You got that handful of games every year where you’re going to face that. It’s kind of flipped that way, but in terms of spread and all that, it’s been great. Our offense is doing a great job, and I feel like they’re preparing us for things we’re going to see.”
For their part, Florida’s offensive playmakers are enjoying themselves.
“I like it man. It’s a great offense. We get to play in more space. It’s fast, very explosive,” said sophomore running back Kelvin Taylor. Added sophomore wide receiver Chris Thompson: “I feel like is more my style because I’m able to use my speed and we’re spreading the ball around.”
The duo was also complimentary of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and the impact he’s had early on.
“He’s a great guy. [He has us playing fast and just getting used to the new offense and everything,” Taylor said. “I’m just out there working hard and very excited about the season.”
Thompson concurred: “Coach Roper is a good guy. He’s teaching us a lot. He’s bringing a lot to the offense by allowing us to use our speed and spread the ball around.
Furthermore, Taylor indicated that he is confident in the Gators’ ability to turn things around offensively this season.
“We feel pretty good about this year. Last year was a rough year, but we got a lot of guys that really, truly learned from that last year. This year we’re just coming out in spring really playing fast and having a good time and just bonding with each other on and off the field,” he said. “We’re going to have a good offense this year, and we’re going to be very explosive, and we’re just going to have a great time doing it.”
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Earlier in the week, teammates singled out junior Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr. as an especially vocal leader during spring practice, and his coordinator corroborated those claims on Thursday.
“He’s doing a great job, having a great spring. … Our thing with him was to be more consistent on and off the field. In terms of leadership, he’s done a great job. He’s really growing into that role and understanding of how important that is for not only him but for us as a team and as a defense. I can’t say enough for how he’s done it so far this spring,” Durkin said.
“He’s been consistent throughout spring. He’s come to practice; he’s practicing really hard on the field. He’s had his moments to speak up or say something, off the field or with the guys on the sidelines and he’s done that. I think he’s bringing some young guys along as well. I’m most proud of how he’s been consistent throughout the spring.”
Taylor is equally impressed. “He’s a monster, man. We go at it every day. We compete hard. He gets me better, and I get him better,” he said.
STEPPING UP IN THE MIDDLE
Florida is still looking for players to step up at linebacker one full year after the departures of Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and with Ronald Powell now out the door as well, the Gators have even more talent they need to replace.
Sophomore Daniel McMillian only saw spot action during his true freshman season but was highly-regarded coming out of high school. Durkin believes he is finally starting to see him come around after a rough inaugural campaign.
“He’d be a guy I’d point to as one of the most improved guys throughout spring. That’s always been the deal for him, just being sound assignment-wise knowing what you’re doing so you’re not thinking so much and just reacting,” he said.
“He’s got great ability; he’s a really good football player. His progression has been a little slower than others just learning to pick up the defense, which is fine. No one works harder at it than him. Throughout the spring, he’s playing his best football right now, we’re really proud of where he’s at and really happy with where he’s at and he’ll be a contributor for us.”
Durkin is also impressed with redshirt senior Michael Taylor, who is viewed as starting-caliber (and does start sometimes) but said earlier in the week that he has spent a lot of time working with the second and even third strings during practice.
“Mike, in our mind, is a starter for us. He’s one of our most experienced guys, obviously,” Durkin said. “Mike knows the defense really well; he’s been great for D-Mac and some of the younger guys. He takes time to bring another guy along. He has spent time with Daniel off the field, too, just helping bring him along. Talk about a leader, and a valuable guy, you can’t say enough about Mike Taylor for us.”
Also thankful that Michael Taylor is a part of the team is sophomore LB Jarrad Davis, who added more and more playing time as the 2013 season progressed and is now one of the better players Florida has at the position.
“When I came in and I was kind of lost in the system, he reached out to me and he pulled me along,” explained Davis. “Once I got on my feet, he was a guy I could always still lean on and definitely go to if I’m not seeing things right, if I need someone to talk to about anything. Mike Taylor is that guy for me, and I really love him and appreciate him for that.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Durkin on where he is most concerned defensively: “Obviously in the back, we’re young back there. I really like where we are talent-wise back there. A lot of things that they see, they’re seeing for the first time.”
» Durkin on the young players working at safety: “Keanu Neal is a guy we’re really excited about he’s been out a little bit here in the spring with a hamstring, hopefully we’re getting him back here soon. … We got a good group of guys, it’s just continuing to get them reps and have them see things and react and communicate.”
» Durkin on how much spring practice can help determine fall starters: “It’s going to go far; the guys we face every day in practice are pretty darn good. They’re getting tested well. We’ll obviously have some opinions and things we’re going to decide on during spring and that will carry over into August as well. When you’re dealing with young players, there’s a development process.”
» Durkin on special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler: “Coleman’s great, a great addition to our staff. Obviously he and I have worked together before and for a long time. He understands our scheme; there wasn’t a big transition process. … Coleman’s familiar with our defensive scheme, too, so it wasn’t a matter of not training up a coach so he can learn what we’re doing. He already knows it. Now he gets to go coach his guys, his position on the finer details of what we’re doing defensively. I think that’s helped our players more than anything.”
» Kelvin Taylor believes he is now faster and quicker coming out of his cuts. He also thinks his hands have improved, which makes him more confident coming out of the backfield.
» Thompson on defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson running his mouth during practice: “He never gets annoying cause I like to talk, too, so me and him go head-to-head every day.”
» Davis on being able to play as a true freshman: “It was really a great experience to come in as a freshman and really have the opportunity to play, just get to go out there and experience what college football is like at such an early level. It was really cool for me and it was a great experience. I loved it that the coaches never lied to me; they always came straight to me and said I had an opportunity to play, just had to take advantage of it.”
» Davis on how he believes the defense is coming together: “Every day we get better at becoming more of a unit. That’s what you need to play defense in the SEC or anywhere across the country. You need to be a unit out there because you need to go out there and be able to trust the guys that they’ll do their assignment and you’ll do your assignment. That’s what you need and that’s what we’ve become.”