Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media on Tuesday to open up game week ahead of the first game of the season against the Idaho Vandals at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel and redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor also shared some comments to kick off game week.
This post was updated Wednesday will comments Muschamp made during his weekly appearance on the Southeastern Conference media teleconference.
OPTIMISM AND CONFIDENCE
A new season is on the horizon for the Gators, and Muschamp knows that his team is ready for the opportunity to prove to doubters that 2013 was a fluke and not how Florida football is supposed to be played. He has seen the renewed drive and dedication from his team on the field, in meeting rooms and during events outside of the facility. Now he just hopes that UF will be able to put it all together on Saturday.
“Any time you go through a tough time in your life, you reflect and you get humble and you work hard and you pull together and you understand that people around you are close to you. Certainly in the building, number one, but within that locker room, number two, I’ve seen a very close-knit unit,” he said.
“In that locker room, there are a lot of guys that know how to practice, know how to practice the right way. They know how to compete and get after each other but also how to take care of each other. It’s been a lot of fun in training camp. I’ve really enjoyed being around the guys. You can see the camaraderie and togetherness in this football team, and I really look forward to seeing them competing in front of our fans.”
Taylor said the excitement around the program is palpable, and the Gators have an opportunity to ride the wave of momentum into the season by pulling off a victory over the Vandals.
Most important for Florida will be finding and maintaining a level of confidence this season. Taylor does not believe it was ever lost in 2013 but rather hidden because of the team’s lack of success.
“We’re in the position now to have the same confidence that we’ve had in previous years and to be able to display it on the field on Saturday night. I feel that it’s there. I feel like the camaraderie is there. I feel like there is no reason we shouldn’t be successful in what we want to do,” he said.
Driskel concurred with his teammate, noting that UF’s confidence stems from its offseason successes.
“During the spring, we had a lot of big plays and that carried over the summer. During camp, I think we had a really great, great, camp. We protected the ball and made big plays. When you can put those two things together, you’re going to be looking at a pretty good offense,” he explained.
“I think we were confident as a team going into last year. I think we’re more talented this year. I think we know what we’re doing a little bit more this year. The more time you put in, the more time you spend together, the more confident you’re going to be.”
ANOTHER CHANCE TO IMPRESS
Driskel’s second season as a full-time starter was lackluster to say the least, though it was not all his fault. Sure, he floundered early in the season with turnovers at Miami and got knocked out for the rest of the campaign after throwing a pick-six against Tennessee, but Driskel also displayed some improved knowledge and field vision early that year.
Muschamp believes that Driskel has only gotten better.
“I think we never really, as a fan base, got to enjoy the progress he made from year two to year three, last year. But I’ve seen much more command, comfort level,” he said.
“We’re also much better around him. We’re better up front. We’re better at wideout. We’re better at running back. We’re better at tight end. All those components come together, he’s a much better player because of the people around him.
“But, I also see a guy that’s very driven, which he was always driven; very competitive, which he was always competitive. I don’t think we ever got to see the improvements he made going into last year because of the limited time he had.”
Driskel said he has a better overall understanding of Florida’s offensive scheme, “where we want to go with the ball in certain situations, when we want to do run checks.” He is also confident in his abilities to study film and understand opposing defenses, so much so that he added the responsibility of being the first-team holder to his repertoire.
“I’d like to classify myself as a versatile player,” he said with a chuckle. “I think it’s an opportunity to where it can give the field goal block team some issues, give them more things to think about during the week. Anything that I’m asked to do, I’m willing to do.”
OPTIONS IN THE BACKFIELD
Like at many positions, Muschamp did not name a starting running back on Tuesday, though sophomore Kelvin Taylor was the first of three names listed on the depth chart. Junior Matt Jones, however, is in line for plenty of work this season whether it comes as a pure running back or at the hybrid B position, which sets up just off the line of scrimmage.
“He’s a very good player, really smart, has outstanding hands, he’s very good in protection. He’s up to 235 pounds, looks really good carrying it,” said Muschamp of Jones. “He looked outstanding [Monday] night, looked very fresh [Monday] night running the ball. Some of our defensive players commented that they’re happy on Saturday that they’ll be tackling somebody else. He’s a good football player, and I’m excited about getting him back in the Swamp playing again, healthy.”
Redshirt senior Mack Brown will also factor into the rotation, but freshman Brandon Powell may be the biggest difference-maker of the group when it comes to changing pace at the position.
“Brandon Powell is a different back than all of those guys because of what he can present in the passing game,” explained Muschamp. “He’s very good at protection. He gives us, certainly, a different change-up from what the other guys do very well. The other guys are good players, so we’re excited to have just a different skill set as opposed to what those other guys bring us.”
On Wednesday, Muschamp addressed Taylor’s improvements in pass protection and receiving, noting that stepping up in those areas has made him a more complete back.
“He’s much-improved from the standpoint of it starts with pass protection. That was an issue and it normally is with young backs, something they struggle with as far as protection is concerned,” he said. “Kelvin is a great young man; he works extremely hard. He’s got natural running ability, natural running skill. He sees things very well. He’s improved his hands out of the backfield, catches the ball much better than he did a year ago. With protection, he’s just had a marked improvement from where he was a year ago – stronger and tougher.”
Despite all four players being enrolled and healthy the entire offseason and there only being four days left until the first game of the season, no starters were named at kicker or punter when the first depth chart was released on Tuesday.
Redshirt senior Frankie Velez and redshirt sophomore Austin Hardin continue to be in competition for the kicking job, though based on Muschamp’s comments, it appears as if both will likely be playing in games this season.
“We haven’t really decided yet as far as Austin and Frankie, who will kick. We have confidence in both guys. Both guys had really strong camps. We can win with both guys. I do know that,” he said.
“We’d like to be able to get it done before game time, but I’ve got confidence in both guys and both guys understand that. Frankie’s been very accurate from 30 [yards] in; Austin past that has a little stronger leg. Frankie was 1-for-1 in team competition during camp from 50+ [yards], so I think both guys are very capable.”
At punter, senior Kyle Christy has not yet officially beaten out sophomore Johnny Townsend even though Muschamp said both have been impressive in practice. Out of pure practicality, it would make sense for Christy to be the starter with Townsend finally taking his redshirt if everything is indeed even in the competition.
“We haven’t made a decision on the punter yet as far as Kyle and Johnny. We will punt through the week and see where we go there,” he noted.
Redshirt sophomore defensive back Marcus Maye, who is listed as the starting nickel cornerback on Florida’s first depth chart of the season, is the only player questionable to play on Saturday as he is still dealing with a significant hamstring injury.
However, Muschamp expects Maye to return to practice on Tuesday or Wednesday and ultimately be available for Saturday’s contest.
There were no other injuries mentioned at Muschamp’s press conference, and he has not yet divulged whether there will be any players missing the game for disciplinary reasons.
Update: On Wednesday, Muschamp called Maye “day-to-day” but noted that he will “probably” play on Saturday.
HONORARY MR. TWO-BITS
Florida will continue the year-old tradition of having celebrities fill in for Mr. Two-Bits, dressing up like the UF icon and leading the cheer before football games. (Though seemingly for marketing and ticket sales purposes only, the Gators will actually be allowing a fan to take over the prestigious honor once during the season.)
On Tuesday, the school announced that former Florida defensive back Lito Sheppard has been given the honors for the season opener against Idaho. “I definitely think I can do a better job [than Errict Rhett] as far as getting the crowd hyped,” he claimed in the announcement on the school’s website.
Good luck with that, Mr. Sheppard.
Muschamp expects there to be nearly 20 players seeing their first action in The Swamp on Saturday including nine true freshmen, eight or nine redshirt freshmen and a couple of transfers.
He said that this is not a decision made due to Florida opening the season against a weaker team like Idaho but rather because these players need to see the field early and often no matter what in order to get into a rhythm for the season.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing Saturday,” he explained. “Those nine [freshmen] would have played going into the game. Those ones somewhat on the bubble would be on the bubble. Given our situation in the secondary, we’re going to play some freshmen regardless. The other guys, in my opinion, are all very good players and deserve the opportunity regardless of the opponent.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Muschamp on how new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has energized the offense: “Players are a reflection of their coach, and Kurt is a very upbeat, positive guy who has got a little edge about him. I think you’ve seen a certain carry-over to our offensive football team, there’s no question about that. I think he’s been a very positive addition, as well as the confidence of a Mike Summers, a seasoned veteran. Our guys have really bought into and understood some of the things, technique-wise, he’s teaching. … Kurt’s got an edge about him that I really like.
» Driskel on how Roper is helping energize the team: “I think we have the players to really flourish in the system that we’re running. We have a lot of players that can make plays in space, but Coach Roper is always up-tempo. He’s always a positive guy, and we needed that around here. He’s not going to be one to have an off day on the field. He’s always going to be bringing the energy, and that’s what we need in a coach.”
» Muschamp on junior wide receiver Latroy Pittman, Jr. stepping up in his third season: “Really has matured and understands what it takes off the field to be successful on the field. Sometimes it takes guys some more times than others. Latroy and I talked the other day about it at length about how far he’s come and how proud I am of him and what he’s accomplished. It’s not add water, instant player. I know you guys all think that. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time for a guy to really come into his own. I think he’s done some really nice things as far as going across the middle and catching the ball, which you’re going to have to do in the slot, winning the slot. He’s been a very reliable guy for us so far in camp.”
» Driskel on Pittman developing and maturing: “He’s a talented player. … Don’t know if he knew what he was doing [when he was younger] but he’s a talented player. He’s very gifted, and I think he’s really got a grip of what we’re doing. He knows that this year is important to him, and he’s putting a lot of time and effort in to make sure he’s on the field and contributing.”
» Muschamp on whether sophomore WR Demarcus Robinson is still dealing with his 2013 season-ending suspension: “He’s handled all of those situations, so far.”
» Muschamp on whether he prefers to play in night games: “Absolutely, early in the season, it’s much better for our fans and much more comforting for them to have the sun go down a little bit. We appreciate the Southeastern Conference helping us out with that. Dr. [Bernie] Machen and myself, Jeremy Foley have nothing to do with the schedule of the time of the day we play. That has to do with TV and our conference, so send your e-mails there. From that standpoint, it certainly helps our fans. Our guys are used to playing in the heat. They’re used to being out there in that. We look at it as our advantage. So whether it’s 7:00 at night, it’ll still be pretty hot out there, even for us. It’s no big deal when we play.”
» Driskel on how redshirt senior center Max Garcia has been snapping the ball: “Snaps are a non-issue for him. He put in a lot of time during the summer on his own. Having a good snap is an underrated thing in our offense. If the snap is off, it throws off the timing, and he understands that. He did put in the work as far as snapping the ball, and as far as getting the offensive line on the same page, he’s second to none.”
» Driskel on getting better protection from the offensive line: “People like to think of sacks as an offensive line stat, but it’s a total-team stat. The average fan doesn’t realize that the running back has to pick up blocks and the quarterback doesn’t have all day back there. We’ve really worked together, and we understand our protections very well. We know what we’re doing, and we can play fast.”
» Taylor on Idaho: “We can’t take any opponent lightly. We have to go and be ready to play regardless of their previous record.”