Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp, redshirt senior linebacker Lerentee McCray and seniors LB Jon Bostic and running back Mike Gillislee represented the team on Wednesday by appearing at a number of press gatherings at the 2012 Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, AL. Below are highlights from Muschamp’s session along with some player comments.
TEAM INJURY UPDATE
» Junior Buck LB Ronald Powell (torn ACL): Cleared for all weight room activities including straight-ahead running but not changing direction or taking blocks. “He’ll play for us this year,” Muschamp said. “When that will be, I don’t know yet. There’s nobody that’s worked harder or has handled the situation better or more mature than Ronald has. He’s really grown up this summer, and I’m very proud of his efforts.”
» Redshirt junior wide receiver Stephen Alli (stress fracture – leg): Underwent successful surgery after spring practice concluded and is expected to be cleared in the “middle of August.”
» Redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Brown (fractured wrist): Having surgery Wednesday for an injury he suffered over the summer, should be cleared on Sept. 1.
» Freshman safety Marcus Maye (torn meniscus): Should be cleared for training camp after having surgery while still a senior in high school.
* Muschamp said no players are currently slated to be suspended for any games.
STARTING QUARTERBACK REMAINS A QUANDRY
The battle between sophomore quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel lasted all spring and as expected has continued into the summer session, should infiltrate fall training camp and may even extend into the regular season, Muschamp confirmed.
“If you saw our spring game, you saw what I saw for 14 practices – two guys that are very even in their competition. They’re even going into fall camp; they’ll get equal reps,” he said. “I would like to name a starter before the season, but I’m not going to put a timetable on that. If we need to play both of them, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do what we got to do to win football games.
“Both guys have a similar skill set, so it’s not like there’s one offense we run with one and one with another. And there’s a possibility you could see both in the game at the same time. But they’re both guys that can contribute to our football team. Jeff and Jacoby have handled the competition very well. It’s been good for our football team. Their competition has made each other better, has made our offense better, has made our football team better. I’m really pleased with how that has worked and how it will work in fall camp.”
START FAST – START STRONG
Florida has traditionally begun seasons on a roll, but the Gators will be faced with some tough tests early in 2012 with a pair of conference road games against Texas A&M and Tennessee in the second and third weeks. Muschamp has been using those contests as motivation to ensure that he players are ready to go right out of the gate.
“I know that’s been a really good motivating factor for our players to understand that we need to start fast,” he said. “They understand the pride that we have in playing at home. We didn’t play well at home against our rival the last time we were in the stadium. So it’s critical for us, Sept. 1st against Bowling Green, to play well and be prepared well.
“Those other two games, we can get a leg up on the competition in the SEC by playing [well] early. I look at it as a great opportunity for our football team, a great motivating factor for our players this summer to report in shape, which they will be, and ready to go with a great mindset to have an outstanding year.”
Muschamp is pumped to turn things around beginning with fall training on Aug. 3 following a “very frustrating, disappointing first year” under his watch that “didn’t meet the expectation level that we expect at Florida on the field.”
“I do feel like we have built a very solid foundation for where we were headed,” he said. “We did not get the results we wanted on the field [last year]. But I feel like within the locker room, the weight room, the attitude of our football team, the discipline of our team, we’re headed in the right direction. I think we have an outstanding foundation. Every decision I make is for the long term success of our program. As I said plenty of times, we’re building a program, not a team. That’s where we are right now.”
Read the rest of Muschamp’s thoughts on the Gators…after the break!
OFFENSE: NEW FACE, SAME GENERAL PRINCIPLES
Hiring offensive coordinator Brent Pease in the offseason was a big splash for Muschamp and Florida, one which may have been made a year earlier had a certain former Super Bowl winner not been available to join the Gators.
“I think always as an assistant, aspiring to be a head coach, you always got a list. He’s always been on the list,” Muschamp said of Pease. “Things work out for a reason. You don’t always understand why they do, but I was very fortunate this year to be able to hire him at Florida. I think he’s a great addition to our staff – very bright, intelligent guy. He and his wife Paula are a great family. I’m really pleased with how that transition has occurred and where we’re headed.”
Now that he is in the fold, Pease is tasked with turning around a Gators’ offense that completely fell apart in the second half of the season, and Muschamp believes he will be able to do exactly that.
“People ask, ‘What will be different?’ We better score some more points,” Muschamp said, half-jokingly. “But he brings a lot of formation variation, motion shifts. We will be a more downhill running game because of the backs we have. That’s not a shift in philosophy. That’s what we wanted to be last year, but we didn’t necessarily do that because of our front wasn’t as good and the backs were smaller so we were more of a stretch outside running game.”
Helping to improve that front is new offensive line coach Tim Davis who, according to Muschamp, “brings a much-needed energy to the position.” Muschamp said the offensive line was Florida’s most improved unit during spring ball, one that “needed to take huge steps forward” and did just that thanks to Davis’s coaching.
DEFENSE: MATURED AND EXTREMELY TALENTED
The Gators concluded the 2011 season with the No. 8-ranked defense in the country, though that did not necessarily paint a true picture as to how the unit performed throughout the season. Florida finished 113th nationally in turnover margin (14 acquired, 26 given away) and was outrushed in the majority of their games. Muschamp has spent the entire offseason focusing on fixing those problems.
“Our team emphasis, obviously the number one thing is turnover margin,” he said. “It’s a minor miracle we won seven games. That’s not a new point of emphasis. It is every year.” He continued, “We need to be more physical on both lines of scrimmage. I think our depth will help us. We’ve recruited well at those positions and we got more guys with more game experience that I think are more game ready.”
The Gators will have to accomplish those feats early on without Powell in the fold and with McCray filling in for him at the Buck position at least part time. Muschamp said he is confident in his player’s ability to do just that as long as he can find some players to rely on at Sam linebacker.
“I think the wildcard there a little bit is Neiron Ball. Neiron’s a guy we’ll play at the Sam, he and Darrin Kitchens, see if those guys can continue to develop, which we think they can, to be really good players,” he said. “Then we can just take Lerentee, move him full time at the Buck position. At this time I feel very comfortable about Lerentee.”
The positive note about Florida’s defense is its depth and overall youth. An inexperienced unit in 2011, most of the Gators’ freshmen and sophomores saw extensive playing time and will be ready to improve on their production from a season ago.
“We return 15 of our 16 top tacklers, so that’s exciting. We had a lot of first year starters last year,” Muschamp said. “Defensively going into last season, we had less starters than anybody else in the SEC. We had a very young, inexperienced group, and I think that attributed a lot to our inconsistent play across the board. That’s where we need to improve there. […] We inherited a good, young, talented team; over 70 percent of our roster last year was freshmen and sophomores. All those guys back, a year more maturity. I’m excited about what we can do on that side of the ball.”
SPECIAL TEAMS: STURGIS ON A MOUNTAIN TOP
It may be scary for fans to admit this but Florida’s best player relative to his position heading into the 2012 season is undoubtedly redshirt senior kicker Caleb Sturgis. Muschamp said just as much on Wednesday, noting that he used the recognition Sturgis has received as motivation for the rest of his team.
“Caleb Sturgis again I think is probably the best kicker in the country,” he said. “He was voted All-SEC First Team by the coaches. I texted our team, ‘Congratulations to Caleb Sturgis, and the SEC coaches must not think much of the rest of you guys.’ He’s really good. He’s accurate; he’s got a great leg, very dependable. Just got to keep him healthy.”
Muschamp also addressed the rule changes regarding kickoffs, primarily that they will move from the 30 to the 35-yard line and touchbacks will be played on the 25-yard line.
“D.J. [Durkin] and I have talked a lot, talked to people around the country about that,” he said. “We have a guy that can kick it out of the end zone, but you’re going to get the ball at the 25-yard line now.
“We have talked about some sky kick situations as far as trying to pin them down. We do run well as a football team, that’s why we are really good on special teams. We emphasize it an awful lot. We talked about trying directional kick the ball with height and see if we can’t pin ’em back in even further. That’s something we worked through in spring. We talked about a lot; we repped a little bit. Certainly we’ve had our kickers working on that. We will do that again in fall camp.”
MUSCHAMP NOTES AND QUOTES
» He expects redshirt junior WR Andre Debose to be the main kickoff returner for the Gators though he did say that Gillislee and junior WR Solomon Patton could see some action there. He noted that things are much less settled at punt returner with Debose being just one of five players the team is considering to hold that role.
» On taking back The Swamp: “Last time we played in The Swamp, we didn’t coach very well; we didn’t play very well. We need to get in front of our fans and do an outstanding job.”
» On which incoming freshmen he expects to contribute right away: “I don’t know. When we start practicing, I’ll be able to figure all that out.”
» On Georgia’s tumultuous offseason: “Really I [just] worry about Florida.”
» On Florida’s schedule in 2012: “In our league, it’s all hard. Where you play ’em, when you play ’em, it’s difficult, it’s a good league. It’s got really good players, really good coaches. Regardless of when you’re going to see them, they got to see you, they got to play the Gators. I don’t put a lot of thought into that. Things I can’t control, I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about.”
» On if he feels added pressure in year two and what he has learned after a full season as a head coach: “Well, no more pressure at all. The pressure is what you put on yourself, and I put an awful lot on myself whether it’s year one or year 10. […] But certainly year two, as far as from a job standpoint, I feel like I’m much more prepared just from the day to day operation of the things that come across your desk as a head coach. No different from year one as a coordinator to year two. That’s natural.”
» On former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and the 2011 season: “Talked to Charlie yesterday. We were talking about last season. You know, again, going in the season, we felt like if John Brantley stays healthy we’re going to have a chance. John goes down in the fifth ballgame. […] You know, what happens so much in athletics, in any sport, confidence is so key. When you have confidence in what you’re doing, you believe in what you’re doing, things are moving well and you’re playing well. […] When John went down, that handcuffed us there a little bit. That was the most frustrating thing. And then some of our deficiencies in other areas started to show up when we lost that experience. Very frustrating year to go through as a coach, but I appreciate how our players pushed through it, continued to fight and play. I never questioned our effort in most situations.”
» On the Gators not having a losing season since 1979: “Yeah, I know, I was told a couple times.”
» On his social media policy: “Well, we don’t have a lot of rules. Number one rule is: Don’t embarrass the program, the university or your family. We monitor that through a service we have to make sure. We ask them to not talk about any football business on there. Unfortunately we got some knuckleheads here and there that will make poor decisions and put something on there. They don’t understand the ramifications of putting something out there that’s not appropriate, but we handle it quickly. I think freedom of speech is one of the great things we have in this country. I don’t have any problem with it, as long as they handle it the right way. Now if a guy doesn’t handle it the right way, he won’t be on it because he doesn’t deserve the right.”
» On some believing the Florida-Georgia game should be moved out of Jacksonville, FL: “Coach [Vince] Dooley never complained about it being there.”
PLAYER NOTES AND QUOTES
» Gillislee on Muschamp regretting not playing him more in 2011 (via SEC): “[Coach Muschamp] told me he regretted it, but I don’t really see it as a regret because that’s in the past. Now is my opportunity and I will keep it that way by going out there every day and keeping up with the other running backs because they are just as good as me.”
» McCray on if Florida is an underdog team that could win the SEC East (via SEC): “I feel like we were neck-and-neck with [South Carolina and Georgia]. I feel like if it weren’t for a couple mistakes, we could have easily won more than half of those games that we lost [last year]. We are definitely an underdog [this season]. We are ranked lower than all those guys. We are definitely going to come in with a chip on our shoulders and come out ready to play and be physical.”
» Bostic on McCray being ready for a breakout season (via The Gainesville Sun): “The whole mentality aspect of him hasn’t changed. Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody. He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that is going to run right down the middle of people and basically he makes somebody feel the pain before he does. I’ve always liked that. I remember when he first got here he was 210, 215 and he was going head up with offensive linemen and putting them on their back. He’s finally found a position where he fits in and he feels comfortable there.”
Photo Credit: Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun