Florida Gators interim head coach and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin met with the media on Thursday to discuss the early portion pf practice ahead of the 2015 Birmingham Bowl, injuries, roster developments and the team’s preparation for the East Carolina Pirates. Florida and ECU will square off on Saturday, Jan. 3 at 12 p.m. at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
UP-AND-COMER SIDELINED FOR BOWL
Redshirt sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. began to show some flashes as the 2014 season came to a close, but he will be unable to take advantage of the 20 bowl practices to take his game to the next level ahead of spring practice.
Cox, who announced on social media that he underwent surgery, has officially been ruled out for the bowl game after having a procedure on his hip.
“Bryan Cox had surgery and he will be out for the bowl game,” Durkin said. “It was a hip injury, something that was deteriorating over time that he needed to have done.”
In his second year of on-field action, Cox finished with 29 tackles (six for lost yardage) and four sacks. He will likely step into a starting role with the Gators in 2015.
HOPING TO OVERCOME A LOST YEAR
When Florida learned that Virginia tight end Jake McGee was set to transfer into the program, the offensive coaching staff – and head coach Will Muschamp – rejoiced. The Gators were in dire need of a sure-handed, pass-catching, play-making tight end and got one that was able to join the program in the offseason and become a reliable target for redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Unfortunately for the player and team, McGee broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg two quarters into his first game at UF and missed the remainder of the season. McGee, who was hoping to work his way into a second-day grade for the 2015 NFL Draft in his one year at Florida, suddenly found himself with a tough decision to make. Rehabilitate and go straight to the pros, potentially falling late in the draft or out of it completely, or return to school and try to do in 2015 what he was unable to accomplish in 2014.
“He’s trying to do that. We’re trying to get him another year,” Durkin announced Thursday. “I totally believe he deserves it and that should work out for him. But we don’t know the answer on that yet.”
McGee receiving a sixth year of eligibility is no sure thing, however, as the NCAA will first review his waiver and decide whether to award him the extra season. It will likely be given to McGee if he took his freshman-year redshirt at Virginia for medical reasons; if not, it will be more difficult to get a sixth year approved.
The Gators failed to get a sixth season approved years ago under similar circumstances for former defensive back Dorian Munroe, though the difference here is that McGee was injured in his final season and was not even able to play a single full game after transferring from Virginia to Florida.
A BIG JOB AT A STRANGE TIME
Most coaches – in any sport – hope to be the man in charge at some point in their careers. Durkin is finally getting his chance, albeit on an interim basis, but is also int he unique position of being out of a job once his task of leading the team is completed on Jan. 3.
Asked about the situation on Thursday, Durkin would not say he felt “awkward” about the position he’s in but rather that it just comes with the territory.
“You’re around coaching long enough, go through different changes, everything kind of unravels a little differently, you see different things. Unfortunately, it’s part of the job,” he said. “It’s not awkward. I think everyone involved is professional about it. You understand you can be on either side of things as they go down at any time. You just kind of handle it that way.”
On Tuesday, rumors began to surface that Durkin had interviewed with Texas A&M and North Carolina for their open defensive coordinator positions. A source told OnlyGators.com that there is no mutual interest in the UNC job, but TAMU is very much in play for Durkin. Another outlet has reported that a deal with the Aggies may come sooner than later.
“I have not accepted any sort of job anywhere, here or anywhere else other than the job as interim coach for the bowl game,” explained Durkin.
“It’s a great opportunity. I’m really excited about it. Obviously there are some challenging things that go along with it, but for Jeremy Foley to have the trust in me to do that, I’m appreciate of that. Most importantly for our kids… I’ve been here five years with our guys, so our fifth-year seniors, fourth-year, the guys in the locker room that I’ve been here with, I want to make sure they get my very best as a head coach, to go win this game and finish things off the right way. That’s where my focus is.”
Durkin also noted that he has spoken with some of his colleagues about his unique position and future opportunities, though he would not disclose whom he spoke with or what specifically was said during those private conversations.
“I’ve talked to several other guys that are head coaches or have been in this type of circumstance before,” he said. “I received really good advice. It’s a unique thing. It presents some different challenges, but every job does, so you put your head down and go to work.”
NEW COACH LOOMING LARGE
As he noted he would during his introductory press conference, new head coach Jim McElwain has been observing bowl practices, keeping a watchful eye on assistants he is considering asking to stay and assessing players that he is trying to place in roles ahead of next season.
“He’s out there and he’s been observing practice, and I think will continue to do that. That’s a great opportunity for coach to evaluate guys, see how they work and start making decisions in his mind of where guys are going to fit in what he wants to do,” Durkin said. “[The players] know he’s out there watching; I’m sure that makes a little difference, too. You want to make sure your first impression is a good one.”
McElwain’s evaluations are just one of many motivating factors for Florida’s players as they prepare for the Birmingham Bowl. Durkin said Thursday that his message to the team has been to find a motivation – any motivation – to not only gear up for the game on Jan. 3 but keep them going throughout their football careers.
“There’s a million different motivations, and that’s fine, just be motivated. Be a guy that’s motivated at practice, motivated to go play,” he said.
“Our guys will do that; we have good leadership. We have a group of guys, I know things didn’t go right all the time, but no one can say we didn’t go out and compete and play hard. Our guys respond; they’re resilient, and I expect nothing different from them in this game.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Durkin will call the defensive plays in the bowl game.
» Durkin on East Carolina: “They are a really good football team. The thing that stands out to me is all three phases of the game -offense, defense, special teams – their guys play extremely hard. They compete really hard and you can tell they’ve really bought into what’s going on in their program there. Their coaching staff does an unbelievable job. Those guys play the right way. We’re really excited and know we have a big challenge ahead of us. Offensively everyone has seen the numbers they’ve put up and they’re real. They do it. They have legitimate skill outside at the receive position. They have NFL type guys that are as good as anyone in the country. … It presents a whole list of issues for our defense. Our guys know we got to be locked in and ready to play. It’s a great challenge for us. Their defense, they’ve done a great job stopping the run all year long. They play physical, they play hard, they fly around, they do a bunch of stuff up front and our guys understand that we’re going to have to work to move the ball. It’s a great challenge for our guys.”
» Durkin on the health and status of freshman QB Treon Harris: “Treon’s good. He’s healthy. He’s throwing it well. He’s another young guy that I think has a really bright future ahead of him. He’s’ doing well with the practices, and we expect him to play great.”