Friday Final: Florida Gators prepare for emotional Senior Day in The Swamp

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.

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9/8: Muschamp sees room for improvement

Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators (1-0) met with the media on Monday to open up game week ahead of his team’s Southeastern Conference opener against the Kentucky Wildcats (2-0) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

INJURY (AND REPLACEMENT) UPDATES

Muschamp confirmed Monday that redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee’s leg surgery, to repair a broken tibia and fibula, was successful with the player expected to leave the hospital later that afternoon. No decisions have been made by McGee about his future, Muschamp said, which is understandable considering the incident just occurred. CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang had McGee rated as a fifth- or sixth-round selection prior to the injury.

Senior Clay Burton will take most of McGee’s snaps at tight end, while senior Tevin Westbrook and freshman DeAndre Goolsby battle for the second-string job. Goolsby was potentially headed for a redshirt but is unlikely to have that luxury anymore.

“We plan on activating him and getting him going,” Muschamp said. “That means you’ve got to get him going on special teams and get him going on offense. That’s our plan.”

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Florida Gators 2014 season-opening depth chart

Though things will undoubtedly change for the Florida Gators throughout the 2014 season, likely even before its season-opener against the Idaho Vandals on Saturday at 7 p.m. inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, head coach Will Muschamp on Tuesday released the team’s first official depth chart in nine months.

OFFENSE

QB: 6 Jeff Driskel, 3 Treon Harris
RB: 21 Kelvin Taylor OR 24 Matt Jones OR 33 Mack Brown
F/B: 41 Hunter Joyer, 25 Gideon Ajagbe
TE/B: 88 Clay Burton, 83 Jake McGee
WR (X): 1 Quinton Dunbar, 11 Demarcus Robinson, 89 Alvin Bailey
WR (Z): 5 Ahmad Fulwood, 4 Andre Debose, 85 Chris Thompson
WR (Y): 9 Latroy Pittman, 10 Valdez Showers, 14 C.J. Worton

LT: 70 D.J. Humphries, 78 David Sharpe
LG: 63 Trip Thurman, 73 Tyler Moore, 71 Antonio Riles
C: 76 Max Garcia, 72 Drew Sarvary
RG: 74 Trenton Brown OR 73 Tyler Moore
RT: 75 Chaz Green, 55 Roderick Johnson

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8/15: Muschamp updates injuries, evaluations and competitions after Florida’s 15th practice

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media on Friday following his team’s second-to-last open practice of the offseason. The Gators are now 15 practices deep and will spend Saturday only wearing helmets during a one-hour Fan Day showing.

INJURY UPDATES

Freshman offensive tackle David Sharpe, who worked his way into being the fourth option at his position, suffered a high-ankle sprain during practice Friday morning and is currently day-to-day.

“We need to get him back. He’s a really good football player,” Muschamp said. “He’s very athletic, 6-foot-6, 330 pounds. He moves his feet extremely well. [He’s] a guy that’s going to help us this year.”

The news is better for some other players. Junior running back Matt Jones (knee swelling) and redshirt junior guard Trip Thurman (shoulder) will return to action on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Bryan Cox, Jr. (shoulder) could already be back in practice but will instead return on Monday after spraining his AC joint.

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Muschamp: Townsend out 8-10 weeks, issues at line of scrimmage, Florida playmakers step up

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media just over one week before the 2014 Orange & Blue Debut spring game to provide updates on individual players and how the team as a whole is progressing heading into its final practices.

INJURY UPDATES

Sophomore punter Johnny Townsend, who took over the starting job from senior Kyle Christy in 2013, underwent surgery on his wrist and will miss 8-10 weeks of action. Muschamp expects Townsend to be fine for the regular season and disclosed that Townsend’s injury happened over time – wear and tear through his years of playing football. The surgery does open a door for Christy to prove that he can once again handle the starting job in his final year with the program.

Redshirt senior fullback Gideon Ajagbe has also been ruled out for the remainder of spring practice with a shoulder injury. Though he does not need surgery and likely would have come back had there been two weeks of spring left, Ajagbe will heed the caution of Florida’s trainers, which suggested that he just rest up and get ready for the summer.

Sophomore safety Keanu Neal (hamstring) finally returned to the field but was limited, and redshirt junior right guard Tyler Moore (elbow) has been pushing through a weak arm while wearing a brace. Muschamp noted that Moore did not do any strength training until the start of spring practice.

The Gators also hope to get redshirt freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (concussion) back on Monday and believe freshman running back Brandon Powell (foot) could be able to participate in non-contact work if his X-ray comes back clear.

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3/19: Renewed optimism as Gators open practice

The Florida Gators began 2014 spring practice on Wednesday, taking the field for the first of 15 times over the next few weeks. The pad-less practice was open to fans and reporters, which got a first-hand look at the team as it went through the motions of offensive and defensive installation. Afterward, head coach Will Muschamp discussed practice, provided injury updates and went over a number of hot topics.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE OFFENSE

Muschamp made no bones about it on Wednesday when he matter-of-factly stated that Florida’s “number one priority … is the installation of the offense.” So important is the Gators improving on offense, in fact, that he has explained to defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and the defensive players that they will need to be patent as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helps get things on track with his new system.

“There’s a lot of give and take in the installation process,” Muschamp said, “and you have to make sure [the defense does not] get too far ahead of the offense.”

To that end, he confirmed that the Gators will be operating their up-tempo in the shotgun. He now prefers to save Florida’s players under center for when the team has to “kneel down at the end [of a game] after a good win.” He quipped, “I don’t want to be in shotgun doing that.”

Roper will try to instill two important tenants into the heads of the players on his side of the ball. The Gators have to play with urgency and need to master execution…and do all of it at a pace that will keep opposing defenses on their toes.

“They understand the advantages of [lining up] quickly and getting themselves in the right spots and the disadvantages it can create for a defense,” explained Muschamp. “Our players talk between offense and defense. The defensive kids talk about how difficult it can be and how stressful it can be under the circumstances of when they do align fast and get aligned quickly.”

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9/3: Pease dismisses “vanilla” tag for Florida; discusses Jones, Showers, freshmen receivers

Florida Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease met with the media on Tuesday ahead of the second game of the season against the Miami Hurricanes on Sept. 7.

“WE DIDN’T HAVE A ‘VANILLA’ GAME PLAN”

Asked Tuesday if the Gators purposely held back on offense in order to not put some of their new plays and vertical passing game on tape – or if Florida was simply the same old offense that could not do much other than run the ball – Pease appeared to be a bit offended by the implication that the Gators’ offense was vanilla and not creative. He responded with the following (extremely long) rant.

“First off, I don’t know what ‘vanilla’ – because I’ve heard the word ‘vanilla’ – I don’t know what ‘vanilla’ is. I’ve never made a game plan with vanilla and that’s never what I would go into a game plan with. I would feel too uncomfortable thinking we got to save all this, we got to save all that.

“I look at it, compared to what we did last year… We controlled the ball for 40 minutes, finished the game with the last 6:38 on the clock. We rushed for 262 [yards]; we passed for 77 percent. We had one turnover we need to improve on. We had nine explosives. We were 6-of-12 on third downs, which last year at this same thing, we were asking each other what we got to do on third downs. We were 3-for-3 on 3rd-and-1s, which last year that was a concern in our first [press] conference.

“OK, yeah, do we need to improve on sacks? Yeah, we had two sacks. Our protection, our scheme got us. Happy for Mack Brown, happy for Trey Burton how they kind of stepped up with their opportunity.

“We threw the ball down field seven times. Coverage takes some things away. Do you ask a quarterback not into coverage deep? Yeah, you do. We hit Trey Burton on two, we had two check downs, we got a protection issue on one. We’re stretching the field. We can stretch the field if we want to stretch the field. Did we have to stretch the field at a certain part in time? No. Did we have it in the game plan to do it? Yes. I’m not sure what everybody wants. …

“Are we going to throw the ball 75 times a game and throw vertical? No. When a team plays corners coverage like Toledo, you don’t throw the ball vertical. You throw the ball in intermediate to check-down throws. Did we try to throw the ball vertical in the red zone? Yes, we did. Well, they played coverage. So what’s Jeff [Driskel] do? He checks it down to Gideon [Ajagbe], guy bounces off Gideon, Gideon runs for 15 yards, gets a first down, we’re in good position and we continue to score.

“We didn’t have a ‘vanilla’ game plan. You saw reverses. I can’t handle what the refs don’t see but yet they call and it keeps us out of the end zone. …

“Should we have come out in the third quarter and probably had more production in the first two series instead of three-and-outs? Yes. … I think we hit a lull that we got to be able to step it up and not be able to do that, score at the end of the game. So if you’re measuring us against points, yeah, we left points out there. But we had things in control and we ran the last – I don’t even know how many plays – but I know there was 6:38 on the clock and we walked off the field with the offensive on the field. We were on the one-yard line or three-yard line, whatever we were on, trying to score.”

He later added:

“Do I want to see 300 passing yards? Absolutely. Is that going to be a reality? I don’t know. I don’t measure success totally on that. We completed 77 percent yet we have two drops, two tips and a pass that he probably should’ve hit on the end zone but he overthrew it and it got away from him. That’s what I see. The kid’s making good decisions. He’s managing the game. … He’s productive with his hands running it. He’s putting us in the right plays in the run game. That’s what I look at. Are we having a chance to win the game? Yeah, explosiveness, but I’m not measuring it on yards. That’s called you trying to get your guru card. Maybe when I was 30 years old, but I’m not 30 years old anymore.”

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Gators RB Mack Brown’s career changed Saturday

You can’t blame him.

Redshirt junior Mack Brown has stood inside the tunnel ready to run onto Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium dozens of times, but he never thought he would do so as the starting running back for the Florida Gators.

That changed on Saturday.

“It felt good,” he said. “Still ain’t feeling real right now.”

But Brown – who was all smiles after his 25-carry, 112-yard, two-touchdown performance in the season opener – expressed a different emotion when he was standing in that tunnel, his helmet shielding his face from his teammates and coaches.

“I had tears in my eyes, man.”

Brown played in just two games as a freshman, picking up a redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility. He carried the ball 12 times in his second year despite dressing for every game. Last season, as the only veteran back-up running back on the roster behind starter Mike Gillislee, he was beaten out for the second-string job then-freshman Matt Jones. Brown carried the ball 25 times for 102 yards.

He never had more than 10 carries in a game, never scored a touchdown and never had a rush longer than 13 yards.

That changed on Saturday.

“I felt like I was useless the last couple of years, you know? [I] got an opportunity, took the best and ran with it,” he said.

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