A pair of defenders are ready to lead the way for the Florida Gators both on and off the field, while players disagree with some critics labeling head coach Will Muschamp as soft in light of his decision to reinstate three suspended players for the Eastern Michigan Eagles game on Saturday.
THE MAN FOR THE JOB
Losing Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell last year – plus Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd and Lerentee McCray the season before – the Gators spent a portion of the offseason searching for veteran leaders to unite the program and take it to another level in 2014.
In stepped redshirt senior linebacker Michael Taylor, a 10-game starter in 2013 who is as confident off the field as he is aggressive on it. Not only have his Florida teammates fallen in line behind him, the coaching staff also views him as a trustworthy extension of their teachings on the gridiron.
“Mike, really his entire career, has been about all the right things and what we stand for as a program. He’s never an issue off-the-field. He’s a very tough, physical, hard-working guy. He loves football. He’s really into it. He’s already graduated from here,” explained defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.
“Mike stands for a lot of things we stand for as a program. He has continued to mature and grow in terms of his leadership role and his positive effect on others throughout his career. Right now, he’s doing an unbelievable job. He has respect from the whole locker room, the team, the coaches, everyone.
“He just carries himself in that way. He’s always been a tough, physical guy on the field, but I think his maturity off the field is taking the natural progress of a guy 18-22. He’s doing a great job, and we’re counting on him as a leader.”
That leadership is apparent in the way Taylor speaks about his teammates and how much things have changed for the Gators over the spring and summer.
“The maturity is definitely there. The focus is definitely there because of the way we prepared during the fall and during the spring. We’re a much closer group,” he said. “When you have people who are fighting for something together, it’s a lot stronger than for people who are just fighting for something individually.”
Taylor previously declined the opportunity to set any individual goals for himself this season, stating that all he cared about was winning while noting he would do whatever possible to help Florida be successful each week. He does, however, have one thing in particular on his mind now that he has not played a complete game in nine full months.
“Out at practice [Tuesday] I got mad because I’m like, ‘Dang, I can’t take nobody to the ground.’ You don’t want to unleash on your teammates,” he said.
“So it’s just like, when I finally get out there, pray for them.
“That’s how we all feel because we’ve got some stuff we need to let out. It’s been a while, so we’re just ready to take the field.”
UNLEASHING THE BEAST
Told about Taylor’s anxiousness to get on the field and hit someone, junior defensive end Dante Fowler, Jr. smiled and doubled down on what his teammate said.
“I was ready. … It was just a different vibe in the locker room. You can just tell we were ready to go out there and play. Not being able to show Gator Nation what we were about just kind of sucks,” he noted in reference to the Idaho game being suspended.
“[It’s tough], especially when you get your hopes up high and you keep getting hopeful and then nothing really happens, it’s just a lot of stuff built up in you ready to get out. We’re just going into this week hoping it doesn’t happen again and ready to take everything out on Eastern Michigan.”
Fowler, regarded by many analysts as the top professional prospect on the Gators this season, has done whatever he can this offseason to get ready for what he hopes to be a breakout campaign.
Not only has he worked harder in the weight room and on the field, Fowler has also cut out his favorite food – McDonald’s Big Macs.
“I’m like six months clean or something like that,” he joked. “I feel good just eating healthier, staying in shape, feeling better. My body is more leaner; I don’t have a lot of fat on me. I can just run around and play football.”
TOUGH BUT FAIR
There has been some criticism thrown Muschamp’s way for reinstating the three players suspended for the opener despite the game not being played.
In fact, Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, went so far as to call it an “intellectually and morally lazy” decision that did not teach the players a lesson but rather that, “’Hey, my coach is a chump. … He didn’t even have the guts to punish us.’”
That does not appear to be the message that the Gators took from this incident or get from Muschamp in general.
“He’s always been a tough guy, but he can also cut back and have fun. It’s not all military-style and stuff like that. He’s the type of coach you want to make plays for and don’t want to disappoint, I can say that,” explained junior wide receiver Latroy Pittman.
Taylor said Muschamp did not let off the three players “with a slap on the hand or a warning” and that his coach always makes it be known that there are “consequences to be paid for your actions.”
As far as the players that were suspended but did not miss a game, Taylor provided their perspective (and his opinion) on the situation.
“They’re happy that they didn’t have to miss anything. They’re happy to be back out there ready to play just like we all are. They’re fortunate that they didn’t have to miss any time with their guys and any playing experience,” he said.
“It’ll be all of our first game, rather than just their first game. I think I’d rather have it that way because we’re coming into this thing as a team, and you don’t want to have to start without anybody. Us having everybody together, you want to start it with everybody and finish with everybody, just as we’re going to need everybody. So I’d [rather] have it this way.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Durkin on redshirt senior defensive tackle Leon Orr taking a featured role: “Leon is doing well. We’re counting on him to play more snaps in the games. … He’s playing well, doing a good job. I think he understands his role has changed a little bit now. He’s been behind some really good players through his time. Now it’s his turn to step up and take on more of those reps. I think he’ll do a great job with that, and he’s embracing it. … I see no reason why he won’t play great.”
» Durkin on redshirt freshman DT Caleb Brantley progressing as a reserve: “Caleb has made great strides from throughout his time here, from when he got here until right now. He’s gone leaps and bounds. He’s a very talented guy. He’s always been that. We kind of had to work on his practice habits and things that he does. That’s natural, he’s not the only one that’s ever happened to. He’s in a good spot right now. We’re going to play him, he’s in the rotation, and we’ll see how he does with his snaps.”
» Taylor on redshirt sophomore LB Jeremi Powell (knee) being out for a few weeks: “Me and JP are real good friends. He had a really good camp, found his role on the team. It’s just unfortunate that he got hurt, but he’ll be back. He’s going to make a lot of plays for us in the fall. He’s just missing the first couple games. He could’ve got some good stats out there, but unfortunately, he’s not going to be able to play.”
» Pittman on how he’s turned the corner and earned a starting job: “I just matured over the years and just came into my own now, my junior year, and I’m ready to make a statement.”
» Senior safety Jabari Gorman on redshirt sophomore defensive back Marcus Maye (hamstring) and his rehabilitation: “He’s a fighter. He’s been fighting this injury. That’s all I can say. He’s been fighting and doing whatever he can to get back on the field.”