A handful of Florida Gators met with the media on Tuesday to discuss both how fall practice is going and how the team is coming together ahead of the 2014 season. Others met with the media last week to discuss similar topics.
Junior defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr. had his share of moments during his sophomore campaign. He looked strong at times and explosive at others but had little help around him to stop the double teams and allow him to be truly dominant.
With 2014 now approaching, Fowler has the opportunity to step up and be the dominant name on Florida’s defense, even more so than sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. According to some of his teammates, he’s on his way to earning that type of recognition.
“He’s been relentless,” said sophomore safety Keanu Neal. “Effort, that’s what he’s bringing. He’s bringing a lot of effort and continuing to work on his technique to get better.”
Fowler has also taken over Dominique Easley’s role as a leader on the Gators’ defense. That baton was ceremoniously passed when Easley relinquished his Chucky doll and allowed Fowler to be the adoptive father. Fowler tried to fill in for his role model last year, but even with Chucky in tow, he had a ways to go. This year, it seems he is putting it together on the leadership front.
“He’s one of my best friends. Me and him were roommates last semester, so we’re pretty close. Every time I’m on the field with him it’s like playing next to one of my good friends. He pretty much brings me up, tells me to work hard. He’s definitely a good guy, definitely a good role model,” explained sophomore defensive tackle Joey Ivie.
Fowler is doing all of this without Chucky in the locker room, at least for now.
“I haven’t seen the doll yet. I don’t know if I will,” redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor said. “I wasn’t scared of it; it was just a matter of fact that you got a little doll that kills people in movies. Besides that, no, I haven’t seen it. We might see it soon, but I don’t know. We’ll have to see at the first Gator Walk.”
FINDING HIS GROOVE
Though he may be in his second year on the Florida football staff, former Gators quarterback Chris Leak is very much a rookie coach, one leading a position he has never played. Nevertheless, Leak is already earning praise from the wide receivers he’s coaching, including redshirt senior Quinton Dunbar, who will be playing for his fifth position coach in as many seasons.
“Chris Leak, he’s very passionate about the game. You can tell he loves the game. He makes that extra effort to make sure guys are OK and guys are making the extra effort to make plays. I feel like he’s going to be a great coach,” he said.
Sophomore WR Ahmad Fulwood, who was recruited by exiting receivers coach Joker Phillips and played well during his freshman campaign, compared the two on Tuesday.
“Leak’s a little more proactive. Coach Joker was a very laid back kind of guy. Leak’s more of a run-around, if he would, he would run the route for you or with you, I would say. He’s more of a step-for-step kind of coach. He’s going to be with you every step you take, every rep you take. He’s doing a good job,” Fulwood explained.
He also noted that Leak is always happy to pick up a football and throw some passes with the wideouts. The pass catchers definitely notice his famous spiral, which Leak is still tossing to this day.
“If we don’t have a quarterback, he’ll definitely throw to us. He prides himself on still being able to throw the spiral. You can’t let him get back into his old days because he might go out there and steal some reps from Jeff [Driskel] every now and then if he could,” Fulwood joked.
“Having a national champion throwing you balls, telling us what it takes to win one is very important to us. One of things he implemented to us is that we have to go attack the ball. Ever since he showed us tape of how that wins championships, we’ve been doing that lately.”
CLOSER THAN EVER
Team unity has been a major topic of conversation for the Gators during the offseason, especially considering the team appeared to split along the line of scrimmage due to the offense’s lack of effectiveness and defense’s perception of it being the only successful unit on the field. That cohesiveness is something that head coach Will Muschamp addressed both after the season and during spring practice. According to a pair of offensive linemen, it is much improved.
“I’ve never been as comfortable around the team from the top to the bottom. I feel like we’re all really like one big family right now. Everybody cares about everybody,” said junior left tackle D.J. Humphries. “Everybody has the same mindset and same goal of trying to get better every day.”
Added redshirt senior center Max Garcia: “A lot of what we saw this summer was just guys hanging out with each other, which has really helped us as far as team chemistry goes. That’s one of our principles is team chemistry. We really just emphasized us picking each other up, building each other up, not bringing each other down, not being negative. Everyone humbling themselves and realizing that we went 4-8 together and that this season is about us staying together, being together. We are all that we have. We are all that we need. Just having that kind of mentality that we’re in it together, this is us, this is what we have.”
Junior running back Matt Jones dealt with obstacle after obstacle before his sophomore campaign, missing fall practice and the first game of the season with a serious viral infection and tearing his meniscus just a couple games after he returned to the field.
Now Jones, who has missed a couple practices with knee swelling as he continues to rehabilitate the injury, claims he is “feeling good, feeling healthy” while trying to block out the disaster that was the 2013 season.
“Just being on the sideline watching the team just break and fall apart, that was probably the toughest thing,” he said. “Last year was very difficult for me just getting over my sickness and then going into the season and getting hurt. I just feel like I’m a step ahead of my game right now. I’m just glad I’m here right now in camp with my boys.”
Jones said Florida is no longer thinking about its 4-8 record. Instead, the Gators are excited about the possibility of a bounce back year with a brand new offense run by coordinator Kurt Roper.
Likely to be used both as a running back and at the “B” position, a hybrid role that stands behind the line of scrimmage and can both block and catch passes out of the backfield, Jones is excited about what is in store for him this season.
“I love the offense. I love what Roper’s doing with the running backs, giving us a chance to show people we can really catch the ball. That’s going to up our stock [as we] try to go to the next level. I feel good about catching the ball,” he said. “I’ve been confident since high school about catching the ball. I ran this kind of offense in high school, so I love catching the ball. Definitely in this offense, I love running receiver routes and catching the ball.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Driskel on Garcia moving to center and starting this season: “He’s had a really good camp. During the spring we had some issues early on snaps. He’s never had any issues with blocking, but his snaps were an issue. He worked really hard this summer, something he focused on more than anything else. We’ve only had a handful of bad snaps this camp so it’s something that we’re not worried about anymore. … He’s a hard worker and definitely one of the leaders on this offense and on this team.”
» Driskel on redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee and living with him over the summer: “He’s been great. He’s made some big plays for us. He knows what he’s doing, which is really big. You can tell he’s been around football a lot. He has really good ball skills and he’s going to be a big help for us. … He’s just a really nice guy. I was with him on his visit, just immediately knew he was a good guy. I just wanted him to be able to meet some people and have some connections before we just jump into camp and practice. It was a good summer [living with him].”
» Humphries on freshman defensive end Gerald Willis: “G was born with a lot of good talent that he has. He doesn’t even know how to use all of them yet. Once he develops fully into the player he’s supposed to be, he’s going to be phenomenal too. … He’s just naturally blessed and able to run real smooth and drop moves real smooth. It should be an easy transition for him coming to college.”
» Jones on freshman RB Brandon Powell: “He’s the next rising star. I mean, I love him. He’s a very competitive guy, got a lot of heart. If he gets knocked down, he wants to get up again. He can catch the ball really well, he can block very good, and you can see he’s got a burst on the field. So, he’s just the next rising star.”
» Fulwood on the backup quarterbacks: “They’re smooth. They look comfortable doing their thing out there, especially Treon [Harris] since he’s just gotten here the past couple of weeks. He looks pretty comfortable not knowing the offense so much yet. Will [Grier] has kind of gotten a jump start on him. As the days go on, you can see he’s getting more comfortable. If he doesn’t have the three seconds to throw the ball out, he’s starting to run and look for other options. He’s trying to get it out. He’s picking it up really quick, they both are, and they’re doing good out there.”
» Fulwood on the freshmen cornerbacks: “They’re hungry. You can tell that they want to be on the field competing with each other and they want to be competing against us. They’ll sometimes bicker about who will take the next rep against us. You can tell that they’re going to be very good. Right now they’re all just learning the defense I’m sure it’s complicated. Muschamp’s got a nice little [handle] on that.”
» Fulwood on if the team is conditioned for the up-tempo offense: “Conditioning this offseason has just been preparation for what we’ve been doing. … That’s when the pain was [during the summer]. Now it’s paying off. We probably ran several times around the world by now.”
» Fulwood on the play names and not huddling up but rather getting calls from the sideline: “We make them up so you can’t mess up something you made up.”
» Dunbar on whether he was close with Harris in high school: “We had a very close relationship. He was always like a younger guy around the older guys who wanted to tag along, so we were very close. I was showing him the ropes on and off the field, especially during camp. … He feels like he’s finally learned the offense now, so he’s able to play a little faster.”
» Dunbar on how he thinks his 2014 season will come together: “I’m going to be consistent in my routes. I’m going to be consistent in everything I do. … I’m not going to predict anything, but I feel like I can catch more balls than last year.”
» Neal on his scooter accident: “I had a scooter accident. My nail came off. It doesn’t bother me anymore, but it kind of scared me a little bit. … [My girlfriend, gymnast Kytra Hunter] like landed and skidded on her stomach and kicked her legs back and bounced up. I like tumbled and hit every part of my body. She came off with a little scratch, and I came off with every scratch.”
» Neal on how Florida’s passing game looks from his perspective: “It’s getting a lot better. Coach Roper just came over and we got a new offensive scheme. It’s coming along very well. People are starting to understand it. It’s speeding up, getting a lot faster. The tempo’s getting a lot faster and it’s getting a lot better. A lot more confidence form the receivers, the quarterbacks, just understanding the offense.”
» Neal on the secondary as a whole: “We’re doing good this year. We have a lot of young guys. We’ve brought them along with the playbook and things like that. They’re all very athletic. We’re all athletic now. It’s just understanding the playbook and understanding what to do on the back end. We’re doing that, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
» Neal on whether the up-tempo offense is helping the defense in practice: “Not every team runs fast tempo and things like that. The fast tempo allows us to get into whatever we need to get in, recognize certain formations and things like that. So when it’s slower against teams like Alabama and things like that, it’s cake.”
» Ivie, who is up to 288 pounds and feels like he has more power, on not redshirting but also not playing much as a freshman: “I feel like a lot of people want to redshirt from only playing 30-40 snaps, but I feel like that experience made me realize what it’s like to be on the field. This year I’m not going to be as nervous getting out on the field and playing against big teams.”
» Taylor on how Ivie has looked out on the field: “he’s been playing very well. He’s been busing his butt. He’s been going hard every day. He’s bene making a lot of plays. We had our first scrimmage and he was player of the day in the scrimmage. That just speaks volumes for how far he’s came since he’s got here. He’s been playing really well, so look for 91 to make a lot of plays in the fall.”
» Taylor on the young secondary: “If we handle everything up front with the front seven, pass rush, blitzing, the guys won’t have to cover for too long. So that’s our goal. When they do have to cover, they do a good job of it. They haven’t given up many good pays. The plays they have given up, they’ve bounced back and made a play right after that. I have full trust in those guys to be right there behind us.”