Friday Final: Florida hopes for offensive rejuvenation but defense will lead Gators

By Adam Silverstein
September 4, 2015

In this 2015 season’s first edition of Florida Football Friday Final, takes a look at the Florida Gators as they prepare to open the campaign against the New Mexico State Aggies at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m.a nd air live on SEC Network.

This week on

Honoring the greats: Gators to wear Ray Graves helmet decal, have Bill Carr serve as first Mr. Two Bits of 2015

Missing in action: Safety Keanu Neal, offensive tackle Martez Ivey “doubtful” for Saturday, joining three suspended Florida players

Starting it off: Sophomore Treon Harris gets the call over redshirt freshman Will Grier for first snap at quarterback

Really?! Junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III may play offense, too

Perfect Thursday

Prior to preparation day on Friday, the Gators took part in what head coach Jim McElwain calls “Perfect Thursday;” in other words, an opportunity for Florida to perfect their game plan ahead of Saturday’s contest.

“We hit all situations at a very fast pace – ball’s not on the ground. Guys are hustling, knowing, they’re memorizing the first eight [scripted plays], knowing the first calls in every situation,” explained McElwain.

“A lot of it goes on to the understanding in the players’ mind of what to expect. We try to paint a picture for them, so when they get to Saturday, they’re a step ahead and not the unknown. … It’s one of those things that we’ve done for a long time. When the guys kind of really figure out what Perfect Thursday is, it helps them play faster on Saturday.”

Defensive greatness could save still-improving offense

There should be no question that Florida is hoping for an offensive rejuvenation under McElwain, but with a thin offensive line, unsettled quarterback situation, questionable perimeter playmakers and a unit that has simply not gotten it done in years, the Gators will ultimately rely on their stout defense to keep them in close contests and pull out victories this season.

To that end, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (and co-coordinator Randy Shannon, for that matter) have the unenviable task of following Will Muschamp, Dan Quinn (and to a lesser extent, D.J. Durkin), all of whom kept Florida’s defense rolling and ensured it was one of the best in the nation over the last few seasons.

While following Muschamp sounds like a dream for an offensive-minded coach like McElwain, Collins has a lot to live up to. The good news? As much as Muschamp struggled to recruit and develop offensively, he did a tremendous job defensively. The Gators enter 2015 with arguably the deepest and most talented secondary in the nation as well as a young and explosive front seven (peppered with some talented veterans).

In other words, it’s an embarrassment of riches for someone like Collins.

“It might be the most competitive group of kids I’ve ever been around. If you put a ball down or you say there’s a winner or loser, and there’s some kind of competitive situation, these guys just thrive and they shine. That’s been a great thing to be a part of and to be around,” he said this week.

“They’re highly intelligent, hard workers and they compete every single day. We talk about how there’s no depth chart on defense around here. If you’re above the line, you’re going to play. If you’re not, you still have some work to do. Those guys take it to heart, and we stress it every single day with them. They’re competing to get reps on that field, and it fluctuates every single day. They do a great job earning their spots and playing time.”

Collins is so impressed with Florida’s defenders that he has them believing they are the best defense in the nation, a moniker that may very well be accurate at season’s end. He wants to set high expectations internally for a unit that receives so much praise from the outside that it is tough to ignore.

But how can the Gators get that way?

“The big thing for us is creating turnovers. We always talk about the truest value to your team as a defensive player is where you are at the end of the play. If you’re around the ball, you’ve got a lot of value to the team. You’re probably going to get a lot of reps. If you have the ball at the end of the play and you’re a defensive player, your value goes through the roof,” Collins explained.

Also helpful for Collins? His staff, including the aforementioned Shannon, veteran defensive line coach Chris Rumph and young defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan.

“We’ve had discussions in the room: They’re awesome. They’re high-level. We bring up some things that maybe the other person may didn’t see. And then when we get in front of the kids, it’s one voice and everybody’s on the same page – everybody’s on the same accord. It’s just been a pleasure working with those guys,” he said.

He took some time out to deliver some special praise for Rumph.

“Great person. Great human being. Great coach. Out at practice, he’s loud and he’s gets after it with a lot of energy, a lot of juice. I can’t say enough about the guys I get to work with every single day. It’s a pleasure,” Collins noted. “When you’re going to sit 16 hours in a room with somebody, it’s nice if you really like them and respect what they have to say and what they have to offer. I think the kids see that, and they recognize that you can’t fake it. We genuinely like each other. We genuinely care about each other, and it’s fun to come and work with them every single day.”

Even more fun than going to work? Winning football games. That is what Collins, as one of McElwain’s top two assistants, will be tasked with doing come Saturday.

Notes and bits

» Senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said this week what the entire team is likely feeling entering Saturday’s contest. “Right now, nobody really fears the Gators, and that’s what we want again.”

» McElwain on not putting too much on the plates of his players: “I always get a kick out of these professors that make the test so darn hard that all the class flunks it and then they’re kinda proud of themselves. I believe it’s our responsibility to help teach them so they got some answers to the test on Saturday, so really it becomes a reflection more than anything [on our teaching]. … I think, for the most party [any mistakes made Saturday] will be correctable.”

» Collins on how the Gators’ defense rolls when thin at a certain position: “The way we do things is basically every kid on defense has to learn the whole defense. We don’t really care about positions [or specialties]. … We have very interchangeable [parts]. … We kind of learned to just cross-train them so that they can learn and play a lot of different positions so we can just roll them in and out. … That’s really not a concern. I’m pleased with how well they run to the ball, how well they affect the D-linemen to get them to play fast and give them the calls, give them the checks. That whole group has been really pleasing.”

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