Florida Gators At SEC Media Days 2014: From The Cheap Seats

Florida Gators coach Will Muschamp had his turn under the spotlight on Monday at the media bonanza otherwise known as SEC Media Days (as did QB Jeff Driskel, CB Vernon Hargreaves, and DE Dante Fowler III). By virtue of the schedulers in the conference media office, Muschamp followed 2013 SEC Champion Gus Malzahn at the podium – a coach whose team’s trajectory the Gator Nation certainly wouldn’t mind following this coming year. After an 0-8 SEC record in 2012, Auburn stormed back to fall just short of a national championship in 2013. What team (including a 4-8 Florida team who posted a losing record for the first time since 1979) doesn’t dream of a similar rebound?

That being said, here are my top three takeaways “from the cheap seats” in Atlanta after watching the Hoover, Alabama press conferences on television:

It’s a new day in Gainesville

Positivity. Confidence. Composure. Those are the three words I’d use to describe the Florida Gators’ appearance at SEC Media Days by both players and coaches. The realistic, but optimistic, tone was refreshing after so many months of the “4-8” chatter. Muschamp doesn’t want any part of it – and not in a way that he’s ignoring last year, but rather recognizing and moving on. I’ve certainly had my criticisms of Muschamp over the years, but yesterday went far beyond my expectations for the fourth year head coach.

“There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business. That’s part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we’re going to do.” (Will Muschamp)

Talk about confronting the problem head on. He recognized what his and the team’s task is in 2014, addressed what was not acheieved in 2013, and most importantly, slayed the elephant in the room before it became the story of the hour (again). He then went further when pressed about the “hot seat talk” by a reporter in the room:

“Control the controllable is always what I’ve said. Control the things you can control. I haven’t always practiced it, but try and just control the things I can control. That’s coaching our football team, developing our football team.”

One of my major issues with Muschamp, especially last year, is that the man came off as an arrogant ass more often than not. I’m not saying he tried (or ever tries) to be, but he does – and not in the Steve Spurrier “Oh, that’s cute” sort of way, either.

Particularly after a stinging loss and promises of “we’ll change” this or that (again and again) and then not delivering, I came to loathe those press conferences (and really, his smug expressions and attitude) last season – especially after the game that won’t be mentioned. He seemed clueless, angry, and throwing whatever reasoning or excuse he could at the wall to see what stuck. As a lifelong Gator fan, I felt like the program, and I (as a ticket buying fan) deserved better.

Monday, however, was different. Muschamp took what responsibility he needed to (a mea culpa, of sorts), but quickly, efficiently, and confidently changed the subject to this season and moved on. Even Florida beat writers took notice.

Players also chimed in their thoughts and agreement with Muschamp’s assesment:

And this eye-opening statement from Jeff Driskel will definitely cause some discussion in Gator (and SEC) circles moving forward, as well.

Talk about a change from 2013. Let’s hope the players’ and coaches’ confidence in these statements is backed up with both action and results this year.

Focus on special teams

Little noted in yesterday’s conference (but I will point out, was noted by this writer several months ago), was that Muschamp addressed the biggest hindrance (next to the stagnant offense) of last year’s team: special teams. Again, it was absolutely refreshing to see Muschamnp not ignore the issue as he seemed to most of last season, but call a spade a spade, and provide answers about improving the once-vaunted unit.

“Our specialists did not perform as well as we thought they could have last year. I think we’ve made some amends there.”

Just to recap, the Gators scored 30 points fewer than their opponents on field goals in 2013. In total, they were 12-for-21 in the kicking game (8-for-8 from 20-29 yards out; 3-for-6 from 30-39 yards out; 1-for-7 from 40-49 yards out; and 0-for-1 from 50+ yards out). Improving this unit, and not leaving clearly attainable points on the board (as was the case last year), is on Muschamp’s list of “must-do’s” heading into this season

“Frankie Velez and Brooks Abbott, a walk on that’s kicked at Virginia Tech. Certainly some guys that possibly can help us in that situation.”

For the record, Velez was 7-8 in the Orange and Blue debut in April, while returning junior Austin Hardin was 7-9.

Revamping the offense

I’m not going to rehash the offense from 2013. It was bad, folks. Like, dead last in the SEC and 112th out of 120 nationally bad. But, looking ahead with the Kurt Roper hire, the offense is returning with new packages, up-tempo plays from the shotgun, and no-huddle sets – all perfect for Driskel.

Driskel started 11 of 12 games for Florida in 2012, and threw for 1,646 yards while running for 408 - including a TD beauty I was lucky enough to see in person at Vanderbilt. Yet in only three games before breaking his leg last season, Driskel subjected Gator fans to a 2 TD, 3 INT (including two in the red zone in a loss at Miami) and a paltry 38 yards rushing. It’s been written about ad nauseam, but the Florida Gators need to (and I truly believe will) improve on offense if they have any hope of returning to relevancy in 2014. Muschamp addressed these issues in Hoover by saying:

“I felt like our kids had lost confidence in some things we were doing offensively…In our 15 days of springs, we got a lot more done than I thought we would. (Kurt Roper) is an outstanding fundamental football coach. Very positive. It was good to see our offensive kids having fun again on the field. Really excited about that…Probably what excites me the most is this is probably the most talent we’ve had on offense in my four years at Florida.”

In addition to winning the Captain Obvious Award for recognizing that, he also gave us all a nugget of hope by succinctly recapping spring, and expressing hope for next season. Good stuff for Gator fans who have desperately wanted to something … anything, really, on offense since Muschamp arrived in Gainesville in 2011.

To give you an idea, in the three years Muschamp has coached at Florida, the Gators rank, on average, 4th nationally in total defense (299 ypg) but only 112th in total offense (326 ypg).

However add a new (competent) offensive coordinator, some play makers at the skill positions, a talented QB (yes, Driskel is a talented quarterback, folks); sprinkle in a defense that should again rank at or near the top of the SEC; and if the offense is at very least serviceable, this team might be in for a special run.

Muschamp also addressed the running back/receiver/tight end corps for 2014. I wrote in May that I believe this is the deepest Florida has been at the skill positions in a long time. Remember, last year most of the “playmakers” (and I use that term more loosely than how a dress fits on prom night) at these skill positions (minus TE since there wasn’t a tight end who had more than 2 reeceptions all year) were freshman. These young men were thrown into the gauntlet and tried by fire in Coral Gables, Baton Rouge, Jacksonville, Columbia, and have experienced the sting of defeat both to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern, as well as rival FSU in Gainesville. They’ve been there, done (and lost) that – unlike a vast majority of their SEC counterparts.

LSU, UGA, or South Carolina didn’t have their freshman gaining the experience (even if it was a losing one) that Florida did. These young men have tasted defeat, and will be one year wiser than many of their competition. It will serve to further the program in 2014. Muschamp, in a long way, reinforced this sentiment:

“Deep and talented at receiver and running back, Kelvin Taylor had a great year for us. Mack Brown is going into his senior year. Matt Jones missed most of last year and missed all of camp with a viral infection, I think the fifth game against LSU, he tore his meniscus. He’s up over 230 pounds now, carried it extremely well watching him this morning. Receiver Quinton Dunbar has been a steady player for us. Andre Debose who missed all of last year with an ACL, to get him back, a guy that can really play in space. I think this offense benefits Andre as well. We played three true freshmen (at WR) last year, receiver Chris Thompson, DeMarcus Robinson, and Ahmad Fulwood, all guys that are a year older, a year more mature, stronger, faster, a little bit more savvy about the game of college football. I think those guys will all make jumps going into this second season. Latroy Pittman and Valdez Showers, two young men as well that have done some nice things for us. So again we’ve improved our talent level there.”

Then there is tight end transfer Jake McGee, who is probably the one player I am most excited about this upcoming season. McGee fits perfectly into Roper’s up-tempo style of offense, as there are numerous options for the tight end position – be it from the slot, the nickel, or down the field. McGee is also familiar with Roper, having seen firsthand the former Duke coordinator’s offenses over the past three ACC seasons. He was UVA’s leading receiver last season, bringing down 43 catches for nearly 400 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, 26 of those 43 receptions went for a first down. During his tenure at UVA, McGee played in 36 games over three seasons, caught 71 passes for 769 yards and notched seven touchdowns. Even Muschamp appears excited about the transfer’s prospects:

“Then I think the addition of Jake McGee at the tight end position can be big for us. Jake is an outstanding athlete, had over 40 catches last year at the University of Virginia. That’s a pleasant addition for us.”

Pleasant doesn’t even begin to describe what having the best tight end at Florida in over half a decade feels like there, Willy Boy.

Bottom line: the defense shouldn’t really miss too much of a step in 2013; the offense is progressing nicely, from all indications; the special teams is a question, though maybe not as big of one as it was before; and if all three can work together in harmony, Florida could be a surprise contender for the SEC East this season.

I’m not predicting an Orange and Blue invasion of the Georgia Dome in December, but definitely a return to relevance in both the division and in the conference.

As an added bonus: only two players will miss contact drills when fall camp starts on Aug 3. Compare that to the seven last season at the same time. Good omen? Let’s hope so.

If you want to see the Q&A sessions at SEC Media Days with Muschamp, Driskel, Hargreaves, and Dante Fowler, I’ve embedded them all below.

Will Muschamp

Jeff Driskel

Vernon Hargreaves III

Dante Fowler