The Florida Gators opened the doors to eight spring practices this year and it didn’t take long to see the drastic changes that Kurt Roper is bringing with him to Gainesville.
The past three seasons under Will Muschamp, the Gators have developed a reputation as one of the strongest defensive teams in the conference and the country. Unfortunately, the offense didn’t keep pace with the defense, finishing no higher than 10th in the SEC the past three seasons.
Roper’s fast paced, spread attack will have defenses trying to keep up with the orange and blue offense; a statement that would have been laughable in recent seasons.
The biggest change, obviously, is the pace that Florida will play with but there is another thing that will stick out to Gator fans; the formations that Florida will line up in. Specifically adding a true slot receiver to the mix.
The ground-and-pound style of offense called for a lot of two running back and two tight end sets for the Gators. With Roper, Gator fans will be treated to three- and four-receiver sets; something the Gators had success with during their national championship runs.
Typically, slot receivers are smaller, quicker players but Roper doesn’t want to pigeon hole himself by committing to a certain body type at any position.
“I think what you try to do is put a receiver in there that is going to be productive. I don’t think I necessarily look at size,” he said. “When I was at Duke we started with a guy that was from Miami that was, he’s going to say 5-8, that’s debatable if he was 5-8 or not, and he had a year catching the ball over 1,000 yards and left Duke as the all-time leading receiver at that point until Connor broke it.”
“So he was really productive in that position. Last year we played with a guy that was over 6 foot, over 200 pounds, more physical, was a bigger body. So I don’t sit there and say OK, here’s the body type.”
This spring Florida worked in three players, all built very differently into the position. Latroy Pittman (6-0, 210) appears to have a hold on the starting gig at the moment but Valdez Showers (5-11, 190) and Alvin Bailey (5-11, 185) also received reps this spring and both are still competing to earn playing time this season.
A junior, Pittman has just four receptions in his first two seasons but should be a bigger part of the offense heading into his junior campaign. Pittman is a strong route runner; something the position calls for. He has solid hands and a big frame that he isn’t afraid to use. Playing in the slot calls for a lot shallow routes over the middle. That’s right into linebacker country, a place where the SEC breeds monsters to patrol the middle of the field. Pittman isn’t worried running routes into the teeth of SEC defenses.
“It’s not a big change for me,” Pittman said. “I’m a big-bodied guy, so going across the middle or taking those big shots from a safety or a linebacker isn’t much concern for me at all. I love that kind of physicality. That’s my game.”
Showers isn’t built like Pittman. The converted defensive back has a more slender frame and his game is centered on speed and quickness. Showers spent extra time after each practice in front of a JUGS machine working on his hands.
Showers doesn’t wear gloves in practice either. The receiver gloves that players use today have a strong, tacky palm that helps hold on to passes. Despite being new to the position, or maybe because he is new to the position, Showers doesn’t want to make things easy on himself in practice.
“I mean, you practice in hard conditions and that makes you better,” he said. “I didn’t have gloves on in practice. In a game, if I do wear them, it’s going to be much easier.”
The receivers are part of a renaissance movement in Gainesville. The past three seasons Florida’s offense was stuck in the dark ages. It only took 15 practices for Roper to install a new offense and a new sense of enthusiasm in his players.
Roper kept things simple, something the previous coordinators didn’t do. With less to think about and dissect pre-snap, the receivers and the offense can play faster and with more confidence. It’s making things fun again.
“I think it’s like a fast tempo. It’s go-go-go-go. Not much thinking. Keep it simple. Simple routes, simple things to do,” Pittman said. “It’s not about the confidence of the offense, it’s more like get it in and get it out and keep it simple for the players. Less thinking and more playing. Makes it more fun.”
The offense may be fun now but the only way to keep having fun is to win games when it matters. Will Muschamp knows that last season was unacceptable. He’s making the summer rounds, speaking to Gator Clubs across the state and he’s making one thing clear at each and every stop.
“We’re going to have a good football team next year,” he said at a stop in Jacksonville. “That’s not just a false sense of being positive. It’s real. I feel really good about this team, where we are, where we’re headed.”