Gators 2014 Spring Football Preview: Defense

Spring practice for the Florida Gators football program begins on Wednesday, March 19 and lasts for 15 practices concluding with the 2014 Orange & Blue Debut spring game on Saturday, April 12. Below is the first of OnlyGators.com‘s two-part series that takes a look at the team on a position-by-position basis.

PART ONE: Offense

Due to extensive team injuries, more players started for Florida at times in 2013 than normal. In this case, the term “starter” is being used as applicable per position.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Returning starters (1/2): Redshirt senior Leon Orr
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, sophomore Joey Ivie

Losing Dominique Easley so early in the season gave senior Darious “Bear” Cummings more field time than he likely would’ve had during his first year with the program as a transfer from East Mississippi. So while Florida will only be entering 2014 with one returning starter in Orr, who should be primed to finally put everything together at nose in his final season with the team, Cummings may also be poised to have a breakout year if everything lines up correctly. Ivie was on his way to a redshirt before having it pulled due to depth concerns; he saw action in three of the final games. Brantley and Bostwick, on the other hand, were able to go the distance without seeing the field in 2013. Both are expected to be major contributors this year with head coach Will Muschamp mentioning more than once last season that he was on the verge of pulling Bostwick’s redshirt and getting him some playing time.

DEFENSIVE ENDS
Returning starters (2/2): Juniors Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard
Fresh faces: Redshirt sophomore Alex McCalister, redshirt freshman Jordan Sherit

Fowler returns as Florida’s starter at the hybrid Buck linebacker/defensive end spot after leading the Gators with 10.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013. He also checked in second on the team with 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries, amassing 50 total tackles in the process. Bullard was unable to find much of a groove at end – he rotated in at tackle on occasion – but still managed to be productive; he should be even more so this year as a matured junior. Neither McCalister, who entered the season with high praise from the coaching staff, nor classmate Brian Cox, Jr. saw much action last season, and Sherit (torn meniscus) wound up not stepping foot on the field in 2014. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing will have his work cut out for him not only helping his starters improve but coming up with a solid second-string to spell them at times.

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3/11: Muschamp provides Florida football updates ahead of the start of 2014 spring practice

With the Florida Gators set to begin 2014 spring practice on Wednesday, March 19, head coach Will Muschamp media Tuesday to discuss a variety of topics concerning the team. He provided injury updates, offseason player evaluations and went over a number of hot topics entering the season.

INJURY UPDATES

Redshirt senior wide receiver Andre Debose (ACL): Cleared on March 28 – “Has been in our offseason program, has progressed very well, and we’re pleased with his progress and where he is. He’ll be in non-contact situations for us in the spring.”

Freshman RB Brandon Powell (foot): Cleared late in spring practice – “Had a pre-existing issue with his foot from high school, had a small fracture. We decided in February to go ahead and have surgery and put a pin in that. … To that point, in January, had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills. Great change of direction and speed. We’re really excited about that. He’s one of the guys we’re really excited about. It’s unfortunate that something like that happened from high school.”

Redshirt senior defensive tackle Leon Orr (wrist): Cleared on May 1 – “He has a fractured wrist from the season. It was a situation at the end of the season, he had about a month to go in the year and we felt like it would rehab itself. Going back and looking at it the first of February, we got a second opinion of whether to have surgery. … He would probably have been limited reps anyway with as many young guys as we need up front go help reps.”

Junior running back Matt Jones (meniscus): Cleared on May 1 – “Matt Jones is progressing well. … He will not go through spring. He will not go through non-contact. He will rehab there in the pit during practice but extremely pleased with his progress and where he is.”

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TWO BITS: Gators team awards, game-winners

1 » The Florida Gators football team participated in its annual banquet on Saturday in which members of the team are presented with a number of awards for everything from on-field performance to working hard in practice and how courageous a particular player may be throughout the season. Below are the 2013 award winners along with some award explanations and additional details.

Coaches’ Choice Awards
President’s Academic Award: Michael McNeely
* Second-straight year that McNeely won the award.
Gene Elleson Community Service Award: Jaylen Watkins, Mark Herndon and Darrin Kitchens
Iron Gator Strength and Conditioning Award: Solomon Patton
Chris Patrick Courage Award: Solomon Patton, Damien Jacobs, Jon Halapio, Neiron Ball and Ronald Powell
* Second-straight year that Halapio and Powell each won the award.
Most Valuable Offensive Scout Team Award: Antonio Riles, Tim Clark, Caleb Brantley | Defensive: Case Harrison, Adam Lane, Cameron Dillard | Special Teams: Chris Thompson, Ryan Parrish

Players’ Choice Awards
Rex Farrior Most Team Spirited Offense: Jonotthan Harrison | Defense: Michael Taylor
Greg See Tenacity Award Offense: Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison | Defense: Dominique Easley
* Second-straight year that Halapio and Harrison won the award for offense.
Most Valuable Player Offense: Solomon Patton | Defense: Dante Fowler, Jr. Special Teams: Jarrad Davis
James W. Kynes Award (Best Mental/Physical Toughness): Jon Halapio and Dominique Easley
* Presented to the “player who best exemplifies the mental and physical toughness and ‘iron-man’ determination.’ The award is traditionally won by offensive linemen.
Ray Graves Award (Team MVP): Solomon Patton
* Third-straight year that a senior offensive player won the award.
Fergie Ferguson Leadership Award: Jeremy Brown, Kyle Koehne and Darrin Kitchens
* Presented to the “player who displays outstanding leadership, character and courage.”
Captains: Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison, Solomon Patton, Trey Burton and Dominique Easley
* Second-straight year that Halapio was named a team captain.

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11/27: Muschamp talks Gators injuries, Pease

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp made his scheduled appearance Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference‘s weekly coaches teleconference and touched on a number of topics surrounding his team heading into Saturday’s game against the Florida State Seminoles.

INJURY UPDATES

Muschamp said redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy (shoulder) is “still questionable” though he did throw some early in the week. Others who might be able to play include junior cornerback Marcus Roberson (ankle) and sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard (knee).

Sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries (MCL), redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor (MCL) and freshman LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder) are all out for the game.

OFFENSIVE EVALUATION

In his only question of the day, Muschamp was asked to evaluate the job offensive coordinator Brent Pease has done as a play-caller this season.

“I think when you lose three offensive tackles and two quarterbacks and a 1,000-yard rusher, it makes it very difficult to call plays,” he replied. “Brent is a good play-caller and an outstanding football coach. It’s been frustrating for all of us, including him, in our production offensively this year.”

Muschamp then provided one more statement which fits closer in line with his comments regarding the offense over the last couple of weeks. “We want to do what we got to do to win games. That’s what you want to do, and we haven’t done that this year,” he said.

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11/25: More Florida injuries; Muschamp on coaching changes, fixing the Gators in 2014

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media on Monday to discuss his team’s 26-20 loss to the Georgia Southern Eagles and upcoming season finale at home against the No. 2 Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, Nov. 30. The game will kick off at 12:00 p.m. and air live on ESPN.

INJURY UPDATES

The Gators will be without at least two more players on Saturday as redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor (sprained MCL) and freshman LB Alex Anzalone (dislocated shoulder) have already been ruled out for the game. Taylor will avoid surgery, but Anzalone will be forced to go under the knife.

Muschamp also called redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy (shoulder) questionable and listed sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries (sprained MCL) as doubtful.

Junior cornerback Marcus Roberson (ankle) has already been cleared to play, and sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard (knee) is probable to see the field.

COACHING CHANGES COMING?

Muschamp refused to address the recent reports that it has already been decided that adjustments will be made to Florida’s offensive staff.

“There’s no changes that have been made at this time,” he said. “I’m not ready to make any statement on that at this point. We’re still playing out the season and those guys are going to coach their butts off. I’ll make that decision when I think it’s ready.”

In a similar vein, Muschamp was adamant that he was not at all concerned about his future with the Gators.

“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if he was worried about his job. After being questioned about his confidence in returning next season, Muschamp similarly answered, “Absolutely.”

He also once again put the blame on his shoulders – “It’s on me. We’ll get it fixed. I can assure you of that” – but admitted that it was nice to have the support of the players in addition to that of the administration.

“I think it’s important. Obviously I think that they understand where we are and where we’re headed with the program.” Muschamp said. “They have total confidence, in my opinion, of where we’re headed. I think they understand the plan and what we need to do … as we move forward.”

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11/23: Florida vs. Georgia Southern post-game report; Muschamp places blame on Gators offense

The Florida Gators (4-7) lost their sixth-straight on Saturday, dropping their first game to an FCS opponent in program history and guaranteeing a losing season for the first time since going winless in 1979. The Georgia Southern Eagles (7-4) upended the Gators 26-20 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL, dominating both sides of the ball on the way to their first-ever victory against an FBS program.

Following his team’s loss, the worst in program history, Florida head coach Will Muschamp met with the media to provide some of his thoughts on the defeat.

DEFLECTING BLAME

Though Muschamp has made a habit in the past of taking accountability and putting pressure on his own shoulders following a loss, he did exactly opposite on Saturday – even if there were times in which he squeezed in similar phrasing.

After the game, Muschamp criticized Florida’s offense, which was led by a third-string quarterback in redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg but nevertheless only generated 279 total yards and 20 points on the afternoon.

“You got to change the scoreboard offensively. You got to be able to change the scoreboard. We’ve just struggled scoring points offensively. It’s been a week-in, week-out occurrence. My job to get it fixed and it will get fixed,” he said.

“Very disappointed for our program, an embarrassment in this situation. We had our opportunities there, the kids kept playing hard. It’s very difficult for us to create explosive plays to get anything down the field. Just don’t ever do it.”

Asked to pinpoint the Gators’ offensive struggles, Muschamp explained that there was no one thing wrong with it but rather the entire side of the ball was failing as a whole. Should he somehow remain Florida’s coach after this season, Muschamp has certainly set up his offensive staff to take the fall.

“Where do you start? From a protection standpoint, the run game, being able to consistently run the ball, move the front. It’s been an occurrence really for us all season for the most part,” he said. “We just have a hard time in protection. We hit the play-action pass where the quarterback got his chin splattered when he threw the ball, too.

“It’s a combination of things. It’s just hard right now. It’s hard, as many moving parts as we’ve had, it’s difficult. It becomes infectious. It’s hard. When you give up 17 points, you hope you can score 17. So it’s hard right now. You can look at where we’ve rolled since about middle of the season to this point. That’s what’s happened to us.”

Nevermind that UF offense, indeed with a third-string signal caller and an incredibly banged up offensive line, managed to generate 20 points while the team’s defense coughed up 26 to Georgia Southern via 429 yards of total offense.

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Friday Final: Florida focused on defending triple option, Gators desperate for a win, fan support

Florida Gators coaches and players spoke this week ahead of Saturday’s contest against the Georgia Southern Eagles, which is scheduled to kick off at 2:00 p.m. from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL, and air live on pay-per-view.

Below are some stories, notes and quotes that either broke towards the end of the week or fell through the cracks and did not make it into one of the six posts already published here on OnlyGators.com (see links below).

Monday: Will Muschamp previews Georgia Southern, updates injuries, more
Tuesday: Brent Pease talks offensive line, running game | Florida’s freshmen wideouts still works in progress
Wednesday: Two Gators ruled out for Saturday | QB Tyler Murphy not ruled out, but Skyler Mornhinweg in line to start

DEFEATING THE TRIPLE OPTION

Florida on Saturday will be tasked with defending Georgia Southern’s triple option. One of a dwindling number of teams that still uses the offense, GSU expertly runs it and has since Paul Johnson took over the program in 1997. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who along with the other defensive caches has been preparing for this since the summer, discussed UF’s defensive plan and how it has been communicated.

“It’s something different than what our guys see week to week. Usually you go from one opponent to the next you have a different game plan but you build off certain concepts that you normally carry and work on, there’s carryover. This week there’s not as much carryover. It’s kind of a whole different game plan of how you play it,” he explained.

“It’s just responsibility football; it’s everyone doing their job. Everyone has an assignment on each snap and they gotta do their job and not worry about the guy next to him and try to guess and do what he’s doing. Option football, that’s what they make you do, they’re gonna make sure everyone’s doing their job and if not they’re gonna make you pay. They’re good enough at it, they do enough of it, they can read the right way and if someone’s not where they’re supposed to be, it’ll show.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Michael Taylor said he has experience facing the triple option in high school and noted that defending it all starts with stopping the dive.

“If you’ve never seen it, you can be like, ‘God, this is tricky.’ But most of us have seen it before. This is a pretty high-tech level of triple option,” he said. “They’re probably the best to do it; them and Georgia Tech. We have a lot to prepare for. It’s just going to be a good week of preparation and hopefully have a good Saturday.”

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Leon Orr expects the triple option to be “something of a challenge” but has confidence that the Gators will be able to defend it well.

“It’s a total technique change,” he said. “It’s all about focus, when it comes down to it. It’s something our defense [has to] hone in on and be able to focus on your role and not trying to do too much and going out there and doing your job like the coaches always preach.”

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11/16: Florida at South Carolina post-game report; frustrated Muschamp tells fans to “get a grip”

The Florida Gators (4-6, 3-5 SEC) lost their fifth-straight game on Saturday, dropping five in a row in a single season for the first time since 1979, by falling 19-14 to the No. 10/11 South Carolina Gamecocks (8-2, 6-2 SEC) on the road at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. Following his team’s loss, Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media to provide some of his thoughts on the defeat.

OPENING STATEMENT

“Very proud of our guys’ effort. We followed the script of what we felt like we needed to do to win the game and that was ball possession, field position, eat the clock, play good defense – which we did for the most part through the night against a very good offensive football team. Extremely proud of our players and the way they’ve continued to fight in the game.

“A lot of negativity out there and these guys pulled together and showed you a little something what those guys are about. We need to make some plays in those situations to win the game. The bottom line is winning and we didn’t do it. We did not get the job done. So that’s on me. We’ll go back and continue to work hard and get these last two. We’re looking forward to that. …

“I’m extremely proud of our staff and our players of pulling together, trying to put ourselves in a position to win the game on the road against a very good football team. We just got to come up with a couple of those plays here and there. … We have our opportunities we got to make the plays and that’s on me. We got to keep working.”

FRUSTRATED MUSCHAMP TELLS FANS: “GET A GRIP”

Suffice to say, Muschamp was fired up at halftime Florida took a 14-6 advantage into the locker room. Asked after the game while his hand was all bloody and taped up, Muschamp explained, “I hit a chalkboard. Dumb.”


Following the loss, Muschamp was asked about his team’s grit and toughness while going up against a ranked team with a third-string quarterback and a number of other replacement players due to injuries suffered by the Gators throughout the season.

“It’s not excuses. It’s real. It really is,” he said. “You can say what you want to say and you can write whatever the hell you want to write. It’s real. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for that locker room. To hell with me. I worry about the kids. These kids have fought their butts off.

“There’s a lot of negativity out there and some of our fans need to get a grip. They really do. They got a bunch of kids in that locker room fighting their butt off. They can criticize me all you want, I’m great with that, they pay me enough money to deal with that. But those kids don’t, they really don’t. And they’ve fought their butts off. And they’ve continued to fight and play hard.

“Nobody’s ever questioned their efforts. I’m just extremely proud of them and the resolve and the fight and pulling together like Florida Gators do. Extremely proud of them. We just didn’t get it done. That’s on me, that’s my fault, nobody else’s.”

APPRECIATIVE OF THE ADMINISTRATION

On Wednesday, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and president Bernie Machen released statements of unequivocal support for Muschamp and the job he is currently doing with the Gators football program. Given the opportunity to respond in kind, Muschamp did just that publicly.

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