10/12: Quinn focuses attention on defensive line

As the Florida Gators prepare for their second-straight road game on Oct. 15 against the No. 24 Auburn Tigers, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn met with the media on Wednesday to discuss last week’s game and the team’s upcoming contest.

DEFENSIVE LINE NEEDS TO STEP UP, BIG TIME

If this headline looks the familiar, it should, because it is unchanged from Quinn’s meeting last week. Speaking Wednesday about the area in which the defense must show the greatest improvement going forward, Quinn admitted he was disappointed with the defensive line and how it has performed over the last two weeks. “Us and our staff take a lot of pride in the way we play run defense. Certainly when one of the things that you really are counting on to be a backbone of your core, and you don’t play the technique quite as well as you want, certainly there was some frustration there,” he said.

One player in particular – sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd – earned some praise from Quinn, though he did not offer up much for the rest of the unit. “Floyd would have been one that stood out and had a better performance than the week before. Overall one of the things we’re really emphasizing is getting our hands and getting knock backs and separation – really moving back the line of scrimmage. It’s such an important part of playing defensive line. It’s something we’ve emphasized from the time we’ve gotten here,” he said.

“As as whole unit, there may be certain guys here and there that shined to us, but it was a tough performance for all of us and not a lot to pull from to be honest with you. We didn’t single anybody out necessarily that stood out to us one way or another.”

PICKING UP POWELL

One man who was expected to be a big playmaker for Florida’s defense, sophomore Buck linebacker Ronald Powell, has been relatively quiet the last three weeks after helping force two interceptions with his pass rush against Tennessee. Quinn on Wednesday expressed his disappointment with Powell’s production lately.

“At that position we certainly want the production to be higher,” he said. “When the rush opportunities are there, converting faster into your rush. [The] technique of edge setting when we’re playing that way. I wouldn’t say it’s one thing. It’s something we’re working on daily in practice with him. In pass rush, it’s all about our get-off with him. In the run game, the outside guy has to set the edge. It’s a daily thing with he and a lot of the guys to say how are we going to play our brand of football better.”

Quinn was quick to note that changing Powell’s position to less of a hybrid role was not under consideration at this time. “He’s in the right spot for the system. What we’re looking for at that spot is a guy who has speed and length and he certainly has those two,” he said. “For him, like a lot of our guys, it’s just a function of us playing better. The evaluation on him, like a lot of the guys, is nowhere near complete. At that position, along with others, we really need to play better.”

STOPPING OFFENSES AND CREATING TURNOVERS

The main area in which the Gators have struggled over the last two weeks has been stopping the run. Florida’s opponents put up season-high numbers against them, which is not exactly the goal going into the game. Quinn, though he praised Alabama and LSU, did not want to make excuses for the line. “We’ve faced some talented backs and some talented offensive lines. Really it says we’ve got to play a certain way. When you face a good team – whether it’s a good offensive line or a good running back – you really have to be on your technique,” he explained. “It told us, ‘This is where we are today. This is where we have to get to.’ That’s the message I gave to the club. I told them, “These are the errors we made. This is how we’re going to play.’ And we’re working hard to getting back to the style we want to play.”

Quinn also spoke about the team’s inability to get off the field on third downs and how the Gators have been unable to secure a single takeaway in their consecutive losses. “It’s our job to stop them. Some of the times for the long drives we missed a critical third down where maybe we could have got off the field,” he said. “We’re firefighters and let’s go put out the fire. If it’s third down, we got to get off the field. If we didn’t stop it, we had to go another series, then it’s on us to get it stopped and really get the ball. That’s one of the things we’ve been most disappointed about the last few weeks – not creating opportunities for the offense. Zero takeaways for us is really hard to swallow. It’s something we’re working hard at.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Quinn said that an eight-man rotation on the defensive line is optimal.

» On how the linebacker rotation will change with Dee Finley transferring: “Certainly Mike Taylor is the top backup inside behind Jon [Bostic] and Jelani [Jenkins]. We’re kind of working in as we have been the last few weeks Graham Stewart and Juice Johnson.“

» On Finley transferring: “I wish him the best.”

» On preparing for an up-tempo offense like Auburn’s: “It’s not uncommon at times, when you have to prepare for a team that could do some tempo to use two huddles. When a group of five guys go out, maybe the offensive line stays the same and maybe a different set of running backs and receivers comes in. That’s one way to simulate the speed. Certainly our offense has the ability to go in and out of that system as well. For us, being able to go against our offense or try to simulate it in practice was really a critical part of our preparation this week.”

» On how the team has prepared for Auburn’s offense: “The scout guys had a really critical role in this to watch tape together and see how fast the action went. How fast you have to get back to the line of scrimmage. That was really an important part of it.”

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9/26: Will Muschamp’s Monday press conference

Head coach Will Muschamp and a few players meet with the media each Monday to wrap-up the previous Saturday’s game and look ahead to the Florida Gators next opponent. Below are some of the most important notes and quotes from the availability.

OPENING STATEMENT AND PLAYER AWARDS

Muschamp began his portion of the press conference by commending Florida for a terrific team effort against Kentucky and recapping Saturday’s game.

“[It was the] first road win for us. A SEC victory is always important,” he said. “I felt like offensively when you rush the ball for 400 plus yards that’s always exciting. Two guys went over 100 yards in Jeff [Demps] and Chris [Rainey] but really blocked well up front, played very physical on the line of scrimmage. [We] had a 99-yard drive to be able to flip the field, come off the goal line, obviously the 84-yard run was huge by Jeff. It was well blocked. Our downfield blocking was outstanding in finishing some runs. That’s really what creates explosive runs for you. Defensively we affected the quarterback. We stopped the run. We were 82 percent on third down which is critical on getting off the field. We created four turnovers and had three fourth down stops, which we count as a turnover situation.”

He also handed out his weekly awards, which can be found below along with honors that one Florida player received from the Southeastern Conference:

Offensive Player of the Game: Senior running back Jeff Demps
Scrap Iron Award (best OL): Redshirt sophomore tackle Kyle Koehne
Big Play Award: Redshirt freshman tight end Gerald Christian (45-yard touchdown)
Extra Effort Award: Redshirt senior RB Chris Rainey (blocking)
Defensive Player of the Game: Junior linebacker Jon Bostic
Hard Hat Award: Junior safety Josh Evans
Ball Hawk Award: Sophomore S Matt Elam, redshirt freshman LB Michael Taylor, redshirt senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard, redshirt junior DT Omar Hunter, redshirt sophomore LB Jelani Jenkins
Special Teams Players of the Week: Freshman LB Chris Johnson (coverage)
Scout Team Players of the Week: James Wilson, Mike McNeely, Scott Peek

Howard was also named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.

WEEKLY INJURY UPDATES

Redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Brown (knee), who has yet to play in 2011, will be the only player out of action for Saturday’s game against Alabama. Redshirt sophomores TE Jordan Reed and wide receiver Andre Debose – both of whom traveled to Kentucky but did not suit up for the game – are healthy and able to return to the field.

Apparently injured on Saturday, redshirt sophomore right guard Jon Halapio is “good” and feeling better, according to Muschamp. Redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley also appeared to get dinged up but he said all he felt Monday was some soreness. “I feel good. I took a couple shots bu that happens in football,” he said.

ADVICE FOR ALABAMA DEFENDING DEMPS AND RAINEY

Between Demps and Rainey alone, the Gators rushed for nearly 300 yards on Saturday. Asked how he would negate the speedsters if he was the opposition’s defensive coordinator, Muschamp offered his honest thoughts on the subject.

“I don’t have to, so that’s a good thing,” he joked. “I don’t think there’s one answer for that. That’s something that could take a long time to really talk about. Obviously you’ve got to gain the edges, but we do run the inside zone and some different things that are off-tackle and inside plays. It’s not like it’s only a perimeter run game. You got to get speed on the field.

“Do you match up in nickel or do you match up big people? It’s a little bit of a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ so to speak as far as what you want to do defensively and what you want to try to take away. I don’t know all the answers to that. That’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about as far as our preparation is concerned. You got to look at those two guys and understand they’re doing a lot of things well as far as running, blocking and catching the ball. When you’re talking in terms of defending them, something that has got to hang in your mind is that one missed tackle is pretty costly.”

DOWNFIELD BLOCKING CREATES EXPLOSIVE PLAYS

Rainey’s reverse-field 27-yard run that brought the ball down to Kentucky’s goal line was one of the highlights of the evening. Watching the tape on Sunday, Muschamp said he was glad Rainey’s a Gator and explained that his “great vision” is what “keeps plays alive.” That and the downfield blocking by the receivers and offensive linemen.

“We always talk in terms of our extra effort award on offense is generally some type of downfield blocking. It’s been going to a wideout or an offensive linemen and this week Chris. That’s something that we really talk about because generally explosive runs are created by some sort of downfield blocking on a secondary defender or a linebacker trying to finish a play,” he explained.

“Our players understand the importance of that and they understand the importance of explosive plays. How do those happen? Generally in the run game they happen because of some downfield blocking. They all complement each other very well as far as players are concerned in blocking for each other. It’s part of what we’re preaching as a football team. Be unselfish – don’t be a selfish player. In doing so, that shows a lot of unselfishness as far as our players are concerned.”

One player had a slightly different take on Rainey’s play. “It’s magic. That’s all you can say. I’ve seen him do crazier things than that [in practice],” Jenkins said.

MUSCHAMP’s ENERGY “GETS THE PEOPLE GOING”

Anyone who has watched Muschamp on the sideline this year (or in the past) has obviously noticed how emotional he can be at any given time. Discussing whether or not his players feed off that emotion, Muschamp was unsure but said it did not matter much. “I’m going to be who I am. If it’s working and it’s good than I think it’s good,” he said. “If it’s not then we’ll change and do something different. It’s about being who you are. The worst thing you can do in a leadership position is try to be somebody you’re not.”

Sophomore defensive end Sharrif Floyd somewhat agreed with Muschamp’s explanation, noting that every player is different. “A good group of us feed off of Coach Muschamp’s emotion. We love it. It gets us going. It wakes us up. It’s amazing to me, actually, watching him pour his emotions out on game day and throughout the week,” he said.

Agreeing with Floyd’s assessment is Jenkins, who believes Muschamp “has the ability to get his team really fired up about going out there and playing,” something that makes him “really enjoy going out there and playing full speed for him.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Muschamp was asked if his relationship with Saban is like a “master vs. padawan” thing, a reference about Star Wars. Confused by the reference, Muschamp quipped: “What’s a ‘padawan?’ Huh? I watched Star Wars one and after that I watched Empire Strikes Back. I ain’t see nothing after that. I don’t know what a padawan is. You didn’t call me a bad name, did you? I don’t speak French either.”

» Muschamp on Florida’s three offensive turnovers: “I credit Kentucky there before the half with the nice play on their defensive back. Well-thrown ball by Jeff [Driskel] caught by Frankie [Hammond] – it’s a tough one to hold on to. That was a nice play by Kentucky. The other one we got to have better ball security in the pocket and protection with Jeff. And then Mike [Gillislee] there he’s got to keep that ball high and tight.”

» Muschamp on if his emotional nature ever clashed with Saban: “We’re both intense guys.”

» Muschamp on how the team’s depth at linebacker is doing: “I think Mike [Taylor]’s done some nice things for us in his opportunities. Obviously he was very productive the other night. We’ve got to continue to play better behind that. Dee Finley, Graham Stewart and Chris Johnson [and Darrin Kitchens] have all been guys who have got some opportunities. All of those guys need to continue to progress in order to give us some quality snaps.”

» Muschamp on the recruiting implications of Florida-Alabama: “To me a young man who makes a decision to go to college is not based on one game. It’s going to be based on a body of work – academically, athletically, socially, support system…”

» Muschamp on if the atmosphere will be intense on Saturday: “I hope – I’m sure it’s going to be loud. We got the best fans in the country, so I know they’re going to be excited.”

» Muschamp on how Christian has done in place of Reed: “Very well. Caught the vertical route there down the middle. Very pleased with that. Thought he blocked well. He did a really nice job in the pass game, had a critical third-down conversion coming off their goal line when we were backed up there. I’m very, very pleased with Gerald’s production.”

» Muschamp on Christian temporarily switching positions in the spring: “Gerald’s very intelligent. He can handle a lot. We would not have asked a player to do that who maybe couldn’t have handled it. The bottom line is, the best thing for our football team was for him to play tight end. He plays a little bit of what we play the F – a move position when we’re in 12 personnel – and the on-the-line tight end. He plays two positions offensively and there […] are different assignments on different plays based on what he’s doing. He handles all that very well.”

» Muschamp on how getting Reed back helps the team: “Vertical passing game, he’s a guy that can stretch the field. He’s a guy that blocks well at the point of attack. He’s also a guy that you’ve got to account for in the passing game. He’s an accomplished receiver.”

» Floyd on the importance of the defensive line’s play on Saturday: “I feel like every game we come across it’s going to be defined [by] how we play up front. A lot of teams want to run on us, a lot of teams want to run, so we got to defend the run before we can defend the pass.”

» Easley on being a unique character on- and off-the-field: “I just try to have fun. That’s how I get in my zone, just dancing, that’s how I just have my fun.”

» Easley on what he does that is “wacky” and if Muschamp’s intensity allows him to “get away with” his antics: “To me? Nothing. A lot of people say the Chucky doll is ‘wacky.’ [...] It’s not really me getting away with it. It’s just who I am. I’m just really different.”

Brantley on Muschamp putting less of an emphasis on rivalry games than Urban Meyer did: “There’s certain games that bring the intensity. They mean the same on the schedule – a win’s a win. Different games bring different intensities, but we try to be as intense from game one to game 10.”

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9/5: Will Muschamp’s Monday press conference

Head coach Will Muschamp meets with the media each Monday to wrap-up the previous Saturday’s game and look ahead to the Florida Gators next opponent. Below are some of the most important notes and quotes from this week’s availability.

OPENING STATEMENT AND PLAYER AWARDS

Opening statement: “I thought it was a solid performance. I was really pleased with our mental focus coming into the game and how our kids approached the game, understanding we’ll play better people throughout the year to be realistic here. I thought for a first ball game we had some hiccups here and there, some things we got to get cleaned up, a lot to teach from the tape but a lot of positives as well.”

Offensive Players of the Game: RBs redshirt senior Chris Rainey and senior Jeff Demps
Scrap Iron Award (best offensive lineman): Redshirt senior transfer guard Dan Wenger
Big Play Award: Demps
Extra Effort Award: Junior left tackle Xavier Nixon
Defensive Player of the Game: Sophomore defensive tackle Dominique Easley
Hard Hat Award (big hit): Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins
Special Teams Player of the Week: Redshirt junior kicker Caleb Sturgis
ST Big Play Award: Sophomore wide receiver Solomon Patton
Scout Team Players of the Week: Offense-Evan Holmes (fr.), Hygens Succes (jr.); Defense-Michael McNeely (fr.); Special Teams-Solomon Schoonover (sr.)

SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week: Redshirt senior DT Jaye Howard

INJURY UPDATES

Sophomore RB Trey Burton (bruise) and redshirt senior WR Deonte Thompson (head) “should be fine” going into next week’s game. Redshirt junior WR Omarius Hines (hamstring) is expected to return this week.

Redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Brown (knee) and sophomore WR Robert Clark (hamstring) will be either probable or questionable based on how they perform throughout the week in both practice and the training room.

A TAKE ON ALABAMA-BIRMINGHAM

Muschamp provided his perspective on Saturday’s opponent, Alabama-Birmingham. He said he is familiar with head coach Neal Calloway and knows that he “understands about toughness” in regards to a football team’s mentality. Muschamp expects a one-back offense behind a very experienced offensive line that has combined for 118 starts and is returning all five starters from a year ago. He said UAB moved the ball on every opponent they faced one year ago, noting that offensive coordinator Kim Helton played at and graduated from Florida before beginning his coaching career. Muschamp said a new defensive coordinator, Tommy West, will provide the Gators with some unknowns heading into the game and that UAB’s rugby-style punt team will be an something Florida will be prepared for going into the contest.

NOTES & QUOTES

» In regards to sophomore DT Sharrif Floyd’s NCAA eligibility and status, Muschamp partially deflected the question but seemed confident that all would work out in the end. “He’s fine. I have no comment on that at this point,” he said.”

» On if 32 combined touches were too many for Demps and Rainey: “A little of that had to do with Trey [being injured], but we scored 41 points, so we were kind of happy about that.”

» On redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley’s performance: “I thought John was outstanding. I thought he directed the offense, got us in and out of the right runs and passes – no different than I felt watching the film. I thought he was very accurate with the ball, took it to the right places with what they were giving us –t hey were playing more of a sink, soft coverage taking away some vertical things down the field. We hit swing passes all night.”

» On the 10th anniversary of September 11th: “That’s a tough deal. Obviously an attack on our country, to go through what I know a lot of people close to me went through with that is just a tough deal. To have to think through all of that happening – it seems like it was yesterday to me, not 10 years ago now. It’s a tough deal.”

» On how he dealt with his team that weekend: “Getting our team ready was an afterthought after that happened to me. It was more about circling the wagons, understanding why it happened, explaining it to young men why something like that happens. You can’t. You can’t think rationally with irrational people. What happened was totally irrational.”

» On freshman fullback Hunter Joyer’s performance: “We planned on playing him. He’s really progressed well. He really, for a first ball game going out there, was very productive for us in protections, in blocking. A guy that I’m very excited about having on our football team. He gives you a lot of variety of what he can do. He’s very tough; he’s going to be a really good football player for us and we’re very pleased with where he is right now in his progress.”

» Muschamp said that redshirt sophomore WR Andre Debose is getting better and better each time he sees him and is one back-up who really stood out to him on Saturday. “Andre Debose continues to make progress,” he said, “made a really nice catch on third own there on the seven-cut on our sideline.” Defensively Muschamp shouted out freshmen safety De’Ante Saunders, cornerback Marucs Roberson linebacker Graham Stewart and redshirt LB Michael Taylor as players who caught his eye.

» On not getting any turnovers but giving up three: “Yeah, it was a huge concern. That’s something we’re trying to emphasize I think in camp. We did a decent job with that. We were minus-three in turnovers and we were plus-eight in explosives. We had 10 explosives offensively and gave up two defensively. Those are the two factors that we can talk about – all the others you want to talk about – those are the two most critical ones: big play ratio and turnovers.”

» On whether or not he is pleased with how the team has bought into his blue collar mentality: “I want to credit Urban [Meyer] and his staff. A lot of that credit goes to Mickey [Marotti] in the weight room because that’s really where the foundation of your team [is set]. Coaches can only touch the athletes so many times out of the year by the rules. Mickey is with them 12 months out of the year. Certainly his work ethic, his approach and what they’ve been engrained through this program – and that’s why I wanted to retain Mickey for the job he does. They knew how to work, they knew how to compete, they knew how to work out, they knew how go to the practice field every day and have a business-like approach to what we’re trying to do. They certainly have bought in from day one, in my opinion. Some better than others and the ones that didn’t as much aren’t here anymore. I feel very comfortable where we are as far as the work ethic and the approach. Can we do it consistently? We’ve got some young guys that have got to display that over a period of time. We’re talking about one football game at this time. We’ve got a long season ahead of us. That’s the big challenge, and I’m going to challenge the football team today. ‘You’ve got to do it consistently. Now you’ve shown you can, now it’s a week-in, week-out deal. It’s a day-in, day-out. You can’t just show up some days because you’re excited because it’s the first game. It’s got to be week-in, week-out.”

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8/11: Christian, Sturgis, Jenkins, Bostic speak

With the Florida Gators having completed their first two-a-day practice of the 2011 season, a number of prominent players from all three units met with the media on Thursday to discuss how the team is progressing early on in camp.

CHRISTIAN’s TURN TO STEP UP

With freshman tight end A.C. Leonard going down with a torn meniscus and set to miss up to the entire season due to the injury, the onus is on sophomore Gerald Christian to play at an even higher level now that he will permanently play across from or in relief of starter redshirt sophomore Jordan Reed. Christian is unfazed by the increased responsibility. “Any time a man goes down, it puts pressure on the other players to step up,” he said. “I feel good. I like this offense a lot better than last year. It fits me and what I do. Out of high school I did the H-back and was a motion-type man.”

He also believes that the new offense gives the team a wide variety of options that may not have always been available last year. “Since we have two speedsters – Chris Rainey and [Jeff] Demps – we can spread the field like we’re running the ball and then we can also fake the play action and do play action passes; me and Jordan running routes; [Quinton] Dunbar, Frankie Hammond and Deonte Thompson – they’re fast too, can thrown the ball to them.” Hammond has impressed him in particular. “[He] has been looking really, really good,” Christian said. “He’s been consistent every day catching balls.”

STURGIS HEALTHY AND KICKING AGAIN

After missing most of 2010 due to multiple back injuries, redshirt junior kicker Caleb Strugis is healthy once again and not limited “at all” in his range of motion. “A lot has healed, and I’ve been taking better care of [my back],” he said. “Every day I go in and see AP, our athletic trainer, and he just has a routine for me everything I need to do – stretching, cold tank, massages.”

Sturgis explained Thursday that his back was so bad last year that it eventually “got to the point where I couldn’t [sleep].” He continued, “At the beginning of the season it was bearable and then it got worse and worse. […] I noticed it midway through camp, but I think it was one of those things that I progressively made it worse.” He said he is hitting field goals fine from upwards of 50 yards and is anxious to begin playing football again.

LINEBACKERS STILL SHAKING OUT

Aside from junior Jon Bostic and redshirt sophomore Jelani Jenkins holding down the fort on the inside, Florida’s starting linebacker situation remains very much up in the air. One thing Gators fans can be sure of is that Bostic and Jenkins communicate well both on and off the field, a quality that will certainly help the unit going forward.

Both players mentioned Thursday that redshirt junior Lerentee McCray (a defensive end who is also playing SAM linebacker) is spending a good amount of time playing with the starting unit at the latter position. Others rotating in and out of the outside roles include redshirt freshman Michael Taylor, redshirt sophomore Dee Finely, sophomore Darrin KitchensGideon Ajagbe and freshman Graham Stewart. “We’re all learning at the same pace; we’re all stepping up,” Jenkins said. “They have a lot of talent. Most of the stuff that they have to work on is just the mental aspect because they don’t have the most experience. As soon as they get it down so they can play fast, I think they’ll be fine.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

Christian on how Leonard is holding up: “He’s doing fine. I talked to him – he’s fine.”

Christian on sophomore wide receiver Robert Clark: “They don’t have him with the first team and stuff, but every time Robert gets reps he makes the most of it. He’s not a starter, but I think he’ll get time as an inside guy.”

Christian on Clark’s mentality: “One thing about Robert – he doesn’t whine or anything, he just goes hard and gives whatever he has all the time. That’s why I think he makes a big impression on coaches.”

Christian on what running two tight end sets allows: “We can run the ball – we have two points on either side so we can run the ball to either side. We have a H-back tight end, which is me, so I can always come off the ball and move into the fullback position and block off the edge.”

Sturgis on watching the Mississippi State game from the sideline:
“Any time your team loses, it’s tough to watch. That was pretty hard. It was hard putting Chas [Henry] through that – he hadn’t kicked since high school. He turned around after that though.”

Sturgis on losing Henry: “There’s no replacing Chas, he was the best punter in the country I think for a few years. There’s no replacing him, but Kyle [Christy] is a good freshman, and I think if he matures a little bit he’ll be good.”

Bostic on if Florida is a “young” team: “Somewhat, but a lot of the guys are really stepping up. Some of the sophomores are taking that leadership role.”

Bostic on how comfortable he is with the defense now in the fall: “Throughout the spring, I picked up the defense very easily. Even these two-a-days I still have a little rust on me where there is some stuff I have to work on.”

Jenkins on the defensive transition: “It’s a completely different system. It’s completely new, but we’re still able to run a lot of different pressures off of it.”

Jenkins on the percent of time the defense will be in the 3-4: “I think we’re going to be mainly in the 3-4 for running situations but I’m not too sure. The way we’re practicing, you can’t really tell what we’re going to be doing during the season.”

Jenkins noted that freshman cornerback Marcus Roberson has “been doing a good job” while others like freshman Jabari Gorman “have been coming through.” He also commented on a few second- and third-year players. “They’re just ballers from the get-go. Matt Elam and Cody Riggs and Josh Evans, they’re all guys that have a little bit more experience but are holding it down in the secondary.”

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8/6: Muschamp’s first practice in the books

The Florida Gators took the field for the team’s first fall practice under new head coach Will Muschamp, and the man himself provided an update afterwards touching on how certain players looked and some of his philosophies going forward. Florida will be stuck with wearing helmets only (no pads) for the first few practices due to NCAA rules. The Gators will be operating in split squads for the time being with the older players practicing early and the younger one later in the day.

MEDICAL REDSHIRTS HANDED OUT

Four 2010 freshmen – wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, running back Mack Brown, safety Josh Shaw and offensive lineman Ian Silberman – received medical hardship waivers from the NCAA last week, allowing them to keep four years of eligibility and enter the 2011 season as redshirt freshmen rather than sophomores.

TOP THREE WIDE RECEIVERS

Though not as big of a question mark going into the season like some of the other positions (namely the offensive line and linebackers), the Gators’ wide receivers have a unique opportunity to impress and either steal or solidify their rolls on the offense. Muschamp noted Saturday that three in particular have emerged from the group.

He labeled redshirt junior Frankie Hammond, Jr. as the team’s “most consistent receiver” overall. “Frankie really consistently has been our best receiver as far as catching the ball, finishing plays, [and] blocking,” Muschamp said.

The other duo – Dunbar and redshirt senior Deonte Thompson – have provided the explosion. “Quinton and Deonte have been our most vertical threats down the field, big-play receivers. [They] have created some more explosive plays for our offense.”

EARLY FRESHMEN STANDOUTS

With so many young faces on the field from Florida’s newest signing class, each has a unique opportunity to impress early and earn playing time during their first year. Muschamp pointed out a few in a short statement (annotations added for clarification).

“[Tight end] A.C. Leonard is a guy we’re excited about. [WR] Ja’Juan Story looks like a guy that eventually can help us. How quick that will happen, I don’t know. [Fullback] Hunter Joyer did some nice things for us. Both quarterbacks looked very good. [Offensive lineman] Trip Thurman has done some nice things for us in the offseason. We’re pleased with his flexibility, power and where he is as an athlete. Both corners – [Marcus] Roberson and [Louchiez] Purifoy – we think can be good players. They’re both athletic; they both looked good tonight. The safeties were solid. [Linebacker] Graham Stewart flashed, doing some things instinctively. Making some plays in space. He’s got some command and leadership to him.”

He also spoke about how freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett looked on his first day. “Jacoby is very bright. Just after one day, I’m very pleased with where he is,” he said. “He’s certainly got a certain command about him. He’s a guy that is very well respected by his teammates. He’s an outstanding athlete, but he really can throw the football.”

DEVELOPING TEAM CHEMISTRY

In addition to strength and conditioning coordinator Mickey Marotti working the players hard and forcing them to bond over the summer, Muschamp explained that additional initiatives have been undertaken in hopes of bringing the team closer together.

“We took the locker room and we didn’t really do it by position or by class, we kind of separated it – young, old, offense, defense, guys that would never interact with each other unless they had to,” he said. “We put a players’ lounge back in the locker room. We built that and think that’s important. Terry Jackson, he’s our life skills director and spiritual development director, he’s going to have a lounge upstairs so the players have two different places to go and relax.”

Muschamp noted that the NCAA taking away athletic dormitories was a blow to creating team chemistry because players instinctively stick with guys from their own class and don’t venture outside of that comfort zone. ”You don’t get to know the other guys as well – especially if they’re on the other side of the ball,” he said. “We [also] tried to create some leadership groups this summer, they were made up of teams and it was a competition that Mickey created for them.”

NIXON’s GIRTH A KEY FACTOR FOR O-LINE’s SUCCESS

Earning a starting role as a freshman but falling off slightly as a sophomore, tackle Xavier Nixon’s main goal over the summer was gaining weight. Suffering through a sickness that actually caused him to drop some lbs., Nixon ended up succeeding his goal and is now up to 290 lbs. heading into fall camp. Muschamp said that getting bigger and stronger was a necessity for not only his success but also the entire unit’s.

“He’s an important player for us to have a good year offensively. As a football team, we needed him to have some girth [to play] in this league,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to run the ball, and you’ve got to be able to anchor and set edges. He’s certainly athletically has got all the tools to be successful. Him adding that girth and that strength and being able to sustain through our season is going to be critical for us.”

NOTES AND QUOTES

On the first day of practice: “It went OK. Everybody’s excited. We had some very good retention – especially with the older players. Some decent retention with some of the younger players.”

On if senior running back Jeff Demps looked a little lost coming back: “Looked great actually. Really good. I thought he looked great this morning. He and Chris [Rainey] both.”

On where the leadership will come from: “We have some younger guys that are going to be playing a lot, start. Those guys need to step into that role.”

On not being able to fully practice pass rush until later in the fall: “We’ll have three full scrimmages in the fall where we will have good tackling, crisp tackling, so we ought to be solid coming into the first game.”

On what stood out about the Gators’ pass rush in 2010: “I don’t know that we didn’t pressure the quarterback well; we didn’t sack the quarterback well.”

On Brown’s first day: “He was good. It’s hard on a running back when we’re [just] in helmets. He went and did everything.”

On redshirt junior T Matt Patchan’s return: “He can move around good, got his hands out there and on people. He was fine as far as all that. It’s hard to determine until they are truly able to put their pads on, play with pad level and strike. It’s very frustrating to be in helmets sometimes.”

On Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s misinformation rant: “If he wants to put something on a message board, somebody will have to put the computer on for him, show him how to use the mouse and probably keyboard it as well. He’s not very advanced as far as technology is concerned.”

On his own injury information policy: “Our policy really is we’re going to be as honest as we can. But it’s not the NFL; we don’t have to disclose anything. So that’s going to be my policy.”

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The Countdown: Florida Gators roster (59-50)

With just 50 days to go until the Florida Gators‘ 2011-12 football season gets underway, the fifth part of OGGOA‘s new series, The Countdown, takes a look at those players expected to contribute on the field wearing jersey numbers ranging from 59-50.

58 – Nick Alajajian (New Port Richey, FL)
Redshirt sophomore center
6’4” 295 lbs.

Quick Bio: Majoring in sociology, Alajajian saw some time as a back-up offensive lineman in 2009, playing in seven games including the season opener. He was a four-star guard coming out of high school but has since changed positions.

2010 Season: Played in all 13 games mostly on the field goal unit, seeing just a few snaps on the offensive line as a reserve right tackle.

2011 Outlook: Originally listed as the back-up center on the spring depth chart, Alajajian may be back down to third string after tearing his meniscus in practice and seeing redshirt sophomore Jonotthan Harrison take the first-string job. His surgery, which occurred in April, was supposed to keep him out three months but allow him to participate in summer workouts.

55 – Graham Stewart (Middletown, CT)
Freshman linebacker
6’1” 216 lbs.

Quick Bio: A four-star recruit coming out of high school, Stewart was ranked as the best prospect coming out of Connecticut by Rivals.

2011 Outlook: Stewart may earn the opportunity to see some time on special teams but could be in line to take a redshirt for his freshman season. Head coach Will Muschamp is excited about what he can bring to the team. “He has all the critical factors. We had him in camp; he has all the good measurable on him,” Muschamp said in February. “He’s a very physical player, plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

54 – Christopher Guido (Altamonte Springs, FL)
Redshirt sophomore long snapper
6’2” 225 lbs.

Quick Bio: A former high school team captain who majors in health science, Guido took a redshirt after dressing but not participating in game action during his freshman season.

2010 Season: Played in all 13 games for the Gators during his third year with the team, starting as the long snapper for the punt unit.

2011 Outlook: With John Fairbanks having graduated, Guido will also take over starting long snapper duties with the field goal team.

52 – Jon Bostic (Wellington, FL)
Junior linebacker
6’1” 240 lbs.

Quick Bio: A four-star recruit and health education & behavior major, Bostic returns as a veteran defender and team leader. He has appeared in 25 games throughout his Florida career and goes into his third year looking to break out.

2010 Season: After leading all freshmen with 18 tackles in 2009, Bostic started six games in 2010 but was out on defense for the majority of snaps during the season. He appeared in all 13 games and registered 57 tackles (third on the team), 1.5 sacks and three interceptions.

2011 Outlook: Named to the Preseason All-SEC Third Team by the league’s coaches and placed on the watch list for the 2011 Butkus Award, Bostic earned high praise from Muschamp during spring practice for his work ethic and leadership. He is set to begin the season as the starting middle linebacker.

51 – Michael Taylor (Atlanta, GA)
Redshirt freshman linebacker
5’11” 220 lbs.

Quick Bio: The No. 3 linebacker in the country coming out of high school, Taylor was a four-star recruit who currently majors in social and behavioral sciences. Though he dressed for four games in 2010, he did not see the field and took a redshirt.

2011 Outlook: Taylor was listed as Bostic’s back-up on the preliminary spring depth chart but could have that role adjusted as the Gators try to figure out how the final depth chart will look for the middle men on defense. Either way, he should see the field in 2011 and could earn additional playing time if he makes an impact early.

50 – Sam Robey (Louisville, KY)
Redshirt junior center
6’4” 295 lbs.

Quick Bio: A three-star recruit coming out of high school, Robey sat out his freshman year with an injured left knee but played in 13 games in 2009 including the SEC Championship and Sugar Bowl.

2010 Season: Played in 10 games, seeing time at center in four contests. Served as an extra lineman in Florida’s goal line package and on the field goal unit.

2011 Outlook: A player who some fans wanted to see get time as a starter at center instead of then-senior Mike Pouncey, Robey looked to finally have the job to himself in the spring. However, after starting as the No. 1 guy on the first depth chart released, he was supplanted by Harrison, who worked at the position for the first time since high school. Robey can still win the job during fall practice, but early word about Harrison is that he is comfortable and succeeding in his new role.

THE COUNTDOWN: 99-90 | 89-80 | 79-70 | 69-60 | 59-50 | 49-40 |
39-30 | 29-20 | 19-10 | 9-1

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Gators’ 2011 freshmen pick uniform numbers

Athletes care about their uniform numbers, and now that Florida Gators football is preparing to begin practice for the 2011-12 season in just about a month, it was time for the team’s newest members to choose theirs. The freshman roster as of May 2011, according to the University of Florida‘s media guide, is as follows:

» No. 5 – Marcus Roberson (Fort Lauderdale, FL), four-star cornerback
» No. 15Louchiez Purifoy (Pensacola, FL), four-star cornerback
» No. 16 – Jeff Driskel (Oviedo, FL), five-star quarterback
» No. 17 – Jacoby Brissett (West Palm Beach, FL), four-star quarterback
» No. 20 – Valdez Showers (Madison Heights, MI), three-star cornerback
» No. 21 – Jabari Gorman (Miami, FL), four-star safety
» No. 26 – De’Ante Saunders (Deland, FL), four-star cornerback
» No. 33 – Chris Johnson (Ocala, FL), three-star safety
» No. 41 – Hunter Joyer (Wesley Chapel, FL), three-star fullback
» No. 44 – Kyle Christy (Brownsburg, IN), three-star punter
» No. 55 – Graham Stewart (Middletown, CT), four-star linebacker
» No. 63 – Trip Thurman (Dover, DE), four-star guard
» No. 65 – Tommy Jordan (Ridgefield, CT), three-star guard
» No. 80 – Ja’Juan Story (Brooksville, FL), four-star wide receiver
» No. 81 – A.C. Leonoard (Jacksonville, FL), four-star tight end
» No. 86 – Clay Burton (Venice, FL), three-star defensive end
» No. 97 – Tevin Westbrook (Coconut Creek, FL), three-star defensive end

There have also been a number of uniform number changes for current Gators:

» No. 1 – Chris Rainey, redshirt senior running back (formerly No. 3)
» No. 2 – Dominique Easley, sophomore defensive tackle (formerly No. 58)
» No. 3 – Jelani Jenkins, redshirt sophomore linebacker (formerly No. 43)
» No. 4 – Sharrif Floyd, sophomore defensive tackle (formerly No. 73)
» No. 92 – Lynden Trail, redshirt freshman defensive end (formerly No. 85)

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FOUR BITS: freshmen, Tyus, Sweeting, McDonald

1 » Orientation for freshmen student-athletes is underway as both of the Florida Gators incoming basketball commitments and the remaining 12 football signees are now in Gainesville, FL getting their college careers started. Five-star guard Brad Beal (St. Louis, MO) and three-star forward Walter Pitchford (East Lansing, MI) join four-star quarterback Jacoby Brissett (West Palm Beach, FL), four-star defensive back Jabari Gorman (Miami, FL), three-star DB Chris Johnson (Ocala, FL), three-star offensive lineman Tommy Jordan (Ridgefield, CT), three-star fullback Hunter Joyer (Wesley Chapel, FL), four-star DB Louchiez Purifoy (Pensacola, FL), four-star DB Marcus Roberson (Fort Lauderdale, FL), three-star DB Valdez Showers (Madison Heights, MI), four-star linebacker Graham Stewart (Middletown, CT), four-star wide receiver Ja’Juan Story (Brooksville, FL), four-star OL Trip Thurman (Dover, DE) and three-star defensive end Tevin Westbrook (Coconut Creek, FL) as the latest players to don the Orange and Blue hoping to make Gator Nation proud. The players will be meeting with academic advisers, taking physicals, beginning workouts, taking drug tests as they prepare to begin workouts and college life in general.

2 » With the 2011 NBA Draft approaching on Thursday, Florida forward Alex Tyus appears to understand exactly what is likely to happen over the course of the event. “Honestly, for Thursday, I’m not expecting to get drafted,” Tyus told InsideTheGators.com’s Kyle Maistri. “But anything can happen.” Having only worked out for four teams since participating in the 2011 Portsmouth Invitational (where he had a strong showing and was one of the event’s standout performers), Tyus understands that his best bet at earning a spot on a NBA bench may come as an undrafted free agent or by working on his game some more in the NBA Development League or overseas. OGGOA will have extensive coverage leading up to, during and after the NBA Draft.

3 » Down two sets in his opening round match at Wimbledon, former Gators tennis player No. 69 Ryan Sweeting came back to defeat opponent No. 50 Pablo Andujar 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(7-1), 6-1. His reward? Taking on the ATP’s top-ranked player in the world, Rafael Nadal, Wed. at 11:30 a.m. in the second round of the event. Nadal, of course, is 2-0 all-time against Sweeting, last defeating him 6-3, 6-1 at Indian Wells earlier this year. Sweeting won his first ATP World Tour event in 2011 and is 10-9 overall this year.

4 » In a conversation with The Sacramento Bee, former Florida defensive end Ray McDonald expressed his desire to earn a starting job in the NFL. Set to become an unrestricted free agent when a new labor deal is signed, McDonald (currently of the San Francisco 49ers) could re-sign with his current team or look elsewhere. “I know I’m an every-down player, a starter,” he said. “And that’s what I’m looking to do this year. I’m not looking to back up anybody. I’m looking to start this year. […] I’ve been waiting four years for this. [Being a free agent] would make my life. That would change everything as far as me going ahead with my future in my NFL career. So that’s some good news – no, excellent news – for me.”

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