No. 3 Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp and a handful of players met with the media after practice on Friday to preview the 2013 Sugar Bowl against the No. 21 Louisville Cardinals and provide thoughts on the team heading into the game.
NOT TAKING ANYTHING FOR GRANTED
On Thursday, Muschamp discussed why it was critical for the Gators to win their 12th game of the 2012 season. One day later, he explained when Florida hit rock bottom one year ago and how the program has pulled itself up by the bootstraps.
“The month of October  wasn’t a whole lot of fun,” he said. “Two games – Alabama and LSU – we got physically dominated. We had our opportunities in some other games. We didn’t make enough good decisions as coaches or players to put ourselves in position to win those games.”
Senior left tackle Xavier Nixon acknowledged that the coaching staff identified the problem soon after those losses and began working to put the Gators back together. “We had a problem with complacency and we found out how to deal with that, and we’ve become a better team,” he said.
Now Florida is back at the top of the heap, a great accomplishment for a second-year coach like Muschamp but one he promises that the program is not taking for granted.
“Certainly when you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, so to speak, at a place like the University of Florida, it makes you appreciate things a little bit more,” he said. “That’s something where you’ve got to stay grounded in your approach as a player and a coach to understand you don’t just roll the hat out there and win football games. It takes work, it takes preparation, it takes recruiting, it takes development, it takes strength program, it takes character building, it takes all of those things to encompass to have the type of program you want to have at Florida.
“We understand that every day. I understand getting out of bed every day knowing that just because it happened yesterday doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. You got to make it happen and that’s what I think these players understand a little bit more.”
That never-say-die attitude has defined the Gators’ season. Including the awful performance against Georgia, in which Florida was perhaps a play or two away from potentially winning the game, it always found a way to make lemonade out of lemons.
Junior cornerback Jaylen Watkins pointed to a strip-fumble made by junior safety Matt Elam on a deep pass during the LSU game as one play in particular that was a paradigm of the entire 2012 campaign.
“I think that play defined our season. It just showed that we won’t quit,” he said. “Every game we’ve showed it. That’s one play that’s come out that’s shown it. He could have gave up on the play or could have just made the tackle, but he went the extra mile to make the strip.”
That is why Wednesday’s game is so critical. In addition to giving the Gators the 12th win they are pining for, it also shows that the turnaround is complete.
“This is a very important game for the program. I believe it’s a statement game,” redshirt senior Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray said. “Coming out of the season last year, we had to make a statement versus Ohio State going into the season of what it was going to be. Ohio State finished undefeated. We beat them last year and we finished 11-1. It’s a big statement to finish strong in your bowl game.”
Read the rest of what the Gators had to say…after the break!
A FESTIVE RETURN FOR DEREK LEWIS
One of two members of the Florida football program from Louisiana (junior defensive tackle Damien Jacobs being the other), tight ends coach Derek Lewis has plenty of memories from growing up and living his post-football career in New Orleans.
Lewis, who injured his knee and was unable to continue playing professional football, spent a few years as a city bus driver in New Orleans before deciding to get into coaching. His father, who drove buses in the city for 30 years, pulled him into the job when he caught his son feeling sorry for himself. Suffice to say, it was a rough gig.
“When you drive a city bus in New Orleans, you get spit on, shot at, cussed at and talked about,” Lewis told GatorZone.com in April 2011. “You get told you’re driving too slow, you’re driving too fast, you’re careless. ‘Bus driver, you missed my stop,’ and on and on and on.”
He then put a plan together and decided to get into coaching, asking Texas head coach Mack Brown for an internship, which is where he met Muschamp and eventually formed a bond with the defensive coordinator.
“He tried life without football and decided he needed to be a coach,” Muschamp said Friday. “Great example of a guy that has been through a tough time, has pushed through it. He’s committed to being a football coach from the standpoint of working another profession and understanding the importance of affecting young people’s lives. I know that’s what he enjoys.”
McCray, who operates on the opposite side of the ball from which Lewis coaches, described him as “real intense” and someone who really gets into his pre-game speeches. “He says a lot of stuff. You’d probably have to censor it for me to say some of that stuff,” the player joked.
He also recounted an incident earlier in the year when Lewis slammed his hand into a white board during pre-game and eventually appeared on the sideline in a cast. “I was definitely right there. I was over in my locker just looking at him like, ‘This man crazy. He drew the first blood,’” McCray said.
Now just six years after turning in his bus keys for a coaching whistle, Lewis is back in the Big Easy not only as a member of a football team but as a position coach for one of the nation’s elite programs looking to win its first BCS bowl game since 2009.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Muschamp on how the team has been practicing: “Two good practices and good retention from Gainesville as far as the game plan is concerned.”
» Muschamp said sophomore punter Kyle Christy (Brownsburg, IN) and redshirt junior offensive lineman Kyle Koehne (Indianapolis, IN) got stuck at home due to a snow storm but arrived in New Orleans late Thursday and practiced with the team Friday.
» Redshirt senior tight end Omarius Hines on if new offensive plays have been installed for the bowl game: “It’s the same old plays. We got some new stuff, a little bit, but it’s still the same plays though.”
» Nixon on if Louisville has been partying more than Florida: “We come to practice and we’re focused on the game. We’re not really worried about partying too much.”
» Nixon on if he’s seen anything strange on Bourbon Street: “I went out there a little early so I missed all the after-dark stuff.”
» Nixon on his four years being over: “It’s kind of just flashed by, man, in the blink of the eye. I can remember almost everything from last time I was here. As soon as I walked in the Hilton, I started having flashbacks.”
» Redshirt sophomore right tackle Chaz Green on sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel: “Sky’s the limit. He’s a great quarterback. He’s got the potential to be one of the great ones here. He can do it with his feet [and] with his arm. He’s a smart guy; he can read defenses. The sky’s the limit, like I said. I’m looking forward to playing and blocking for him next year.”
» Green on if senior running back Mike Gillislee gets better throughout the course of a game: “We build off of it. When we see him getting the tough yards, it makes us want to block even harder. It’s all a good thing. It helps our offense go.”
» Watkins on why the Gators have been so successfully defensively against top-tier quarterbacks: “Everybody is just doing their job. We believe in our coaches and the schemes that they put up against them. When we do that, we go out and do it like we’re supposed to.”
» McCray on finishing out his career the right way: “Going out my last year, being able to be a top team in the BCS and finishing strong in the top three in the nation, that means a lot for the senior class and this team.”
» Junior defensive end Dominique Easley on his future: “I think we should address that another time, you know?”
» Easley on Elam: “Go-get-it. He wants to be where the ball is at. He wants to hit. He wants to be the best, really. He wants to be a leader.”
* All quotes courtesy of the Sugar Bowl.