In this week’s edition of Florida Football Friday Final, OnlyGators.com takes a look at the Florida Gators (5-4) as they prepare to play their second-to-last game under head coach Will Muschamp against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (9-2) on Senior Day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday. The game will kick off at noon and air live on the SEC Network.
THIS WEEK ON ONLYGATORS.COM
Story: Will Muschamp earns praise, talks dismissal with class
Story: Dante Fowler Jr. declares for NFL Draft on Twitter
Story/Notebook: Gators lose two linebackers for season; two defensive backs return for Saturday’s game
Story: Florida coordinators talk Muschamp firing, EKU, future
The Silver Lining: Answering reader questions about the Gators’ future
SENIOR DAY IN THE SWAMP
Lost among the firing of a head coach and subsequent start of a search for a new one are two simple facts: the Gators are one victory away from bowl game eligibility, and Muschamp will not be the only one who spending his last Saturday on Florida Field.
“Senior Day is a huge day for our guys. Certainly want to get bowl-eligible for them and send them out on the right note,” said Muschamp this week.
“Whenever you send those guys out, you don’t get to coach them again. We’ve had great relationships with these guys on this team. That’s always tough no matter if it’s the first year or the fourth year. No matter if it’s my recruiting class or not, it’s Florida’s recruiting class, the way I’ve always looked at it. It’ll always be tough to know that you won’t be on the field with those guys again. … These guys have given a lot to this university; we need to send them out the right way.”
Muschamp added: “It’s always emotional, Senior Day, seeing guys moving on, knowing you had a positive impact on their life and made a difference. That’s important to me. Regardless of me being here or not, it’s always an emotional day. And then coupled with that, knowing it’s my last game in The Swamp will certainly be emotional for me as far as those things are concerned. I’m looking forward to it in a lot of ways and certainly, when it’s over, will be disappointed.”
Though the unit has been much-maligned throughout Muschamp’s tenure, there are without a doubt a number of players that have made huge contributions on offense during their time at Florida. Wide receivers Andre Debose (sixth year) and Quinton Dunbar (fifth year) may not have been as productive as hoped, but each made their dent on the Gators.
Debose will leave Florida as one of the best returners in school and Southeastern Conference history, while Dunbar has been the team’s second-leading receiver in each of the last three years.
The Gators will also lose running back Mack Brown (fifth year), who stepped up as UF’s leading rusher in 2013 (543 yards, four touchdowns) and four converted players who are now listed as tight ends. Hunter Joyer was an important recruit for Muschamp as the team’s only true fullback, and both Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook moved over from defense to become a tight ends as Florida lost two recruits to transfers. Gideon Ajagbe became a backup fullback first until the position was eliminated this season; he also switched to tight end.
Right tackle Chaz Green is the most veteran member of the Gators’ offensive line, with a pair of graduating transfers in Max Garcia (fifth year) and Trenton Brown also serving important roles for the team over the last two seasons.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around those guys,” offensive coordinator Kurt Roper said. “Max, he’s really, really good. It would’ve been a really big-time struggle without that guy. He needs to walk around in bubble wrap for a couple more weeks. You got Chaz Green, who I think is technically as sound as anybody; he really does a great job and understands what we’re doing. It’s tough. He’s constantly fighting things to get himself out on the field to play. You really appreciate that as a football coach. And then Trenton Brown, I think he’s as talented as I’ve been around. I’ve seen him grow and mature in a lot of ways. He’s a really, really talented human being.”
» Garcia on Florida: “Being at this school has really changed my life, having the opportunity to play at the University of Florida. Being a transfer, I never thought I could play at this type of school with so much prestige and so much tradition and history. Just the people that I’ve met have really changed my life. I’ve grown so much as a man. When I got here, I was just a boy, I was just a little kid. I didn’t know how I could play the game to this level that I’m playing at. I could never do that at the other school I was at. I’m just truly blessed to meet coach Muschamp and the other people around here.”
» Green on Muschamp and his senior sendoff: “Everyone on the team feels like we want to get these last two wins for Coach Muschamp and send him out on the right note and let everybody know we’re behind him 100 percent. … I think it just speaks to him and his character as a man that he can touch each individual on a level deeper than football. I think it shows in these last couple of weeks, given the circumstances, everybody feels heartbroken that we’ve lost a mentor figure in our lives and not just a football coach.”
» Westbrook on playing the last game of his career in The Swamp: “We’re just trying to win these last two games: send the seniors out in a good way, send Champ out in an even better way. I just want to get these two wins, get to a bowl game and get a good win there, too. … We all love Champ. We’re just ready to win these last two games so we can leave on a good note. … Just a lot of emotion, it being the last time we run out of the tunnel and then to have Champ there, knowing it’s his last game, it’ll definitely be an emotional game. We’ll try not to let that get in the way of us this weekend because emotions tend to get in the way sometimes.”
» Trenton Brown on playing his last home game: “I’m not too emotional when it comes to stuff like this. I won’t have too many emotions. It will be kind of bittersweet my last time running out the tunnel, my last game in The Swamp. I just want to go out the right way and send Champ out the right way, too. … I can only speak for myself and what I’ve heard from a few other guys. It’s pretty sad right now. Even though Champ is walking with a smile on his face and he’s the same Champ, but we can tell he’s kind of down. I just want to send him out the right way.”
The Gators are losing just as much on defense.
Transfer defensive tackle Darious Cummings has made major strides as a senior, even if he does commit a boneheaded penalty from time to time. Leon Orr has seen plenty of action at Florida but will not even be participating in Senior Day ceremonies after being dismissed from the team two weeks ago.
“I’m really pleased with Darious and how he’s performed this year. He’s played his best football as a senior. Anytime you can say that about a guy, no matter what level it is, that’s what you want. You want a guy playing his best football his last year, and Darious has done that,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said on Wednesday. “He’s been consistent for us inside. He’s been dominant at times, a hard guy to move. I think our D-line as a whole has played well throughout the year, and a lot of that has to do with him. … He’s done great. I think he’s got a lot of good football ahead of him, too.”
Safety Jabari Gorman is another player who’s had his share of struggles, but he is also playing important minutes for the Gators in his final season. Fifth-year linebackers Neiron Ball and Michael Taylor have not only been on-field contributors but also locker room leaders, especially Ball who overcame tremendous adversity just to get back on the field for Florida.
“I’ve been able to see Mike Taylor and Neiron Ball kind of grow up through five years. I’m very proud of those guys and how they’re playing. I think they’re playing their best football,” said Durkin. “All the things that Neiron’s had to go through – he just had another injury – you talk about a remarkable guy and a resilient guy, he’s got a lot of football ahead of him. That’s been enjoyable to me. A lot of times as a coach you don’t always get to see that, from the start to the finish of a guy’s career at one place. Being able to do that with those guys, that’s been special to me. Obviously we’d like it to finish out a little better as team, but those guys have nothing to hang their head about. They’re playing really well for us.”
Ball will not be able to play Saturday after injuring himself last week, but Taylor, Gorman and Cummings will undoubtedly lead the charge for the Gators this week.
“We need to go play well for them. Those guys have put a lot into this program, done a lot of great things for us. We need to do it as a team –coaches players all alike – go perform really well for those guys and send them out the right way out of The Swamp,” Durkin said.
» Taylor on Muschamp’s departure and his last game in Gainesville: “I’ve played a lot of games here, so emotions will run high because it’ll be my last home game. It’ll be an emotional game. The main goal is to get a victory and to go out as a winner in The Swamp, that will be the main thing to honor all the people who supported us, who cheered for us, honor all the people who came in with us and left and came in with us and are still her. Just put all that together and go out and play on Saturday.”
SPECIAL TEAMS / WALK-ONS / OTHER
Punter Kyle Christy, kicker Frankie Velez (fifth year) and long snappers Drew Ferris (fifth year) and Kyle Crofoot will also be playing their last games in The Swamp.
Christy, who posted one of the best punting seasons in school history in 2012, struggled mightily and lost his job in 2013 before regaining some of his form and being his team’s only punter during his senior season.
A walk-on, Velez did not play until 2013 but has converted 18-of-22 field goals and 34-of-35 extra points over the last two years. He has stepped up and filled a need as the team’s primary field goal kicker, which became especially important as Florida continued to struggle offensively.
Ferris played in all 25 games he was active in 2011 and 2013, serving as the team’s primary long snapper on both field goals and punts, and holds the same role again this season. He was forced to miss nearly the entire 2012 season after breaking his collarbone in the season-opener, and Crofoot filled in for him.
There are also a number of fifth-year walk-ons who will be on Florida Field for the last time including quarterback Christian Porvancha, WR Ryan Parrish, FB A.J. Mobley and WR Michael McNeely, who earned a scholarship this past season and scored an important fake field goal touchdown against Georgia. Redshirt junior walk-ons QB Ryan McGriff and defensive back Ben Peacock will also call it a career on Saturday.
Redshirt senior TE Jake McGee, a transfer from Virginia who suffered a season-ending injury in the Gators’ opener, has yet to decide whether he will attempt to receive an injury waiver from the NCAA to remain in school or instead graduate and become a professional. The game will also be the last in Gainesville for junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who has already declared that he will leave college after this season.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Muschamp coached at Eastern Kentucky in 1999 and is looking forward to playing against his former program in The Swamp. “We got our work cut out for us on Saturday, and our guys will be ready to go at noon in The Swamp,” he said.
» Muschamp on giving maximum effort the next two weeks: “I’ve been with these guys, I brought these guys on this campus. I told this football team, you’re not going to see anything different. … We’re going to coach these guys hard. They deserve that, the University of Florida deserves that. I’m totally invested for two weeks to be the coach at Florida, and that’s what we’re going to do. … Our guys will respond the right way and they’ll handle it with class, just like they have in all situations. It’s important for us to get these seniors a win here in The Swamp and these next two weeks get two Ws.”
» Roper on freshman QB Treon Harris: “He is a playmaker. He is a guy that has a lot of… there’s really no fear. When he goes out there, he’s just competing and playing football. There’s still so much to learn for him, but he does have the ability to play the game pretty well.”
» Roper on Florida’s young quarterbacks: “I think there’s some playmaking ability there, I do. I think here’s some arm talent there. I think they enjoy football, I think they like working at it, I think they like being on the practice field. They’re both young and they got to keep growing and understanding how do you study as a quarterback. It’s much more than just the weight room and the practice field. Doing all the little things preparing to be quarterback. They’re two guys that are talented and fun to coach.”
» Durkin on sophomore Alex Anzalone, who may start at linebacker on Saturday: “He’s played well. He’s done a good job with the roles we’ve asked him to do. He’s very intelligent player so he knows all the spots for us, which has been good for him and for us that he can fill in wherever we need him. Now those snaps will increase, and I think he’ll do well with them.”
» Durkin on the defense’s propensity for giving up early touchdowns: “If I knew how to [stop] it, I would. It’s good news, bad news. There’s three weeks in a row where we gave up an early touchdown – that you’d say we probably shouldn’t have, and teams executing well against us, too, give them credit. But I think the good news about it is our guys have bounced back in each one, really tied things down, we’ve made some adjustments on the side and they’ve played well for the rest of it. I’d like for us to start faster and not give up that quick seven, but I think it’s been a different issue each time, not the same thing popping up. We’ve addressed it with our guys, they know it and understand it, that’s our challenge.”
» Garcia on Muschamp: “He’s a family-oriented man. His kids are always around. I respect that. He’s tried to get to know my family. He’s just always been there if I ever needed him, he’ll be there. If I ever call him, he’ll answer his phone. That’s a big deal because a lot of coaches, sometimes they don’t’ do that. … I just told him how much I appreciated him and everything that he’s done for me.”