Coming on the heels of the biggest win during his tenure at Florida, Gators second-year coach Will Muschamp was in an unfamiliar spot on Monday.
While there were a number of questions concerning Florida’s 6 p.m. Saturday matchup on the road against Vanderbilt, Muschamp spent an equal amount of time explaining how his No. 4 ranked Gators will handle their surprising early season success.
As expected, Muschamp downplayed the resonating hype from Florida’s 14-6 victory against LSU on Saturday, but he had no problems telling reporters the areas the Gators need to work on.
Along with quarterback Jeff Driskel, Muschamp spoke with the media discussing the team’s victory, keeping their same approach, and the challenge the Vanderbilt Commodores will bring to the Gators on Saturday.
Monday Morning Quarterback
Despite the Gators’ victory on Saturday, there’s no doubting there were a bunch of mistakes still made by the Gators, particularly in the first half. Throughout times this season, Gators fans have been frustrated with different recurring events such as Driskel’s inability to get rid of the ball at times.
However, an ongoing issue on Saturday caused a number of groans from the Gators’ faithful — punt returns.
On several occasions on Saturday, with seemingly no one around him, UF return man De’Ante “Pop” Saunders signaled for a fair catch. Fans understandably became increasingly upset with Saunders, as he appeared to be handicapping the Gators in a game where field position was critical. Muschamp made no excuses for Saunders and said that while you have to give LSU punter Brad Wing credit for his sky-high punts, the Gators will have to find someone who can properly execute. Muschamp said that normal return man Andre Debose was a little dinged up which is why he wasn’t able to return punts at times on Saturday. Despite Saunders’ mistakes though, Muschamp said it’s easy for those not in his position to criticize Saunders’ decision-making.
“He’s gotta make a judgment as he sees the flight of the ball,” said Muschamp. “Then see where the coverage and how close the coverage is to him, to whether or not he can return it, field it or fair catch the ball. “Which is easy for you and I to sit here on Monday afternoon to talk about — a little different when its hung up there and you got some guys who can really run down the field and you gotta make that decision. But we need to make better choices and decisions in those situations … Its one of the toughest deals — you’re standing looking at a ball and you got guys running down the field ready to hit you – I never did it so I don’t know – but I can imagine its pretty daunting.
The other seemingly recurring issue on Saturday — and the season — was Driskel’s inability to get rid of the ball on time. Muschamp again stated that while the issue will continue to be addressed — as it has all season, some should probably put themselves into Driskel’s shoes.
“Again, those situations are easy for you and I to sit here on Monday afternoon but when Mingo’s running at you, it’s a little different,” Muschamp said. At the end of the day, I thought the guy (Driskel) made some really good decisions and we won the football game.”
You Have to Fall in Order to Get Up
Muschamp indicated how experience and maturity are factors for any team’s year-to-year improvement, but it’s also the fashion in which the Gators were defeated last season that the current Florida team carried over to this season. The Gators found themselves on the wrong end of some brutal beatings last year, and according to Muschamp, those kinds of losses are hard to forget.
“Obviously because of some injury situations last year they (the losses) were tough to overcome … we went through some tough times and I also think sometimes you have to fall in order to get up — and I think those guys sitting in those locker rooms last year, and going through some tough times, certainly grew up maybe a little quicker than you having some success and not understanding what its like to get knocked down — and we certainly got knocked down—there’s no question.”
When asked if the Gators’ season last year was a “blessing”, Driskel was quick to say that it wasn’t, but at the same time the team took away some important an important lesson on finishing. “It got drilled into our head that we’re gonna have to be better in the second half,” Driskel said. “Even if we would have played in the second half well last year, we would have prepared the same this year. It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but like I said we worked hard and really focused on being a second half team.”
Speaking of learning lessons, despite the Gators’ victory over Vanderbilt last season, Florida was pushed to the limit by the Commodores in their matchup. Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers — brother of Green Bay Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers — had a coming out party of sorts against the Gators, and according to Muschamp, the team is fully aware of how dangerous the signal caller is. “He’s a guy that’s very effective throwing it, but he will pull it down at any spot and run the ball,” Muschamp said. “Pass rush disciplines gonna be key — he hurt us with his legs last year — he (also) hurt us throwing the ball.”
Gilly for Heisman?
Florida running back Mike Gillislee has been arguably the SEC’s best rusher this season. Muschamp found no shortage of superlatives for the senior running back on Monday, but when the inevitable question of Gillislee’s Heisman contention was brought up, Muschamp reacted as many would at this point in the season: “We’re in the 5th game of the year – next question.”
While it may be too early to mark Gillislee on Heisman ballots, there’s no doubting that Florida’s rushing game has been the strength of team so far this season. According to Muschamp, the Gators intend to keep it that way, but they are also preparing for league defensive coordinators who will be scheming against the Gators’ rushing attack.
Because of the strong Florida run game, the Gators have not displayed much of a vertical passing game so far this season. However, Muschamp said the two actually work hand in hand. “It (running the ball) ought to create opportunities for you down the field — and that’s where we need to start capitalizing on some things.”
The Gators run game has undoubtedly been strong this year, but seemed to be especially potent on Saturday. According to Muschamp, the reasoning is simple. “Well, I think the first thing is from an assignment standpoint of getting a hat on a hat in the run game and that’s difficult — especially against teams that move around a lot and do a good job up front which they (LSU) do.
“I think the second thing is finishing blocks and that’s something that we really put an emphasis — as we continue to move forward in the season against some of the people that we’re gonna play against — you gotta finish blocks — because most of the people we play from here on out, they don’t stay blocked long, so you gotta finish people and that’s something that jumped out to me on tape and I was very pleased with.”
One particular alignment that appeared to work well for the Gators on Saturday was their “jumbo” package in which the Gators brought in two offensive tackles — Ian Silberman and D.J. Humphries — as blocking tight ends to have a total of seven offensive linemen on the field at one time. Saturday was the first time the package really stood out to fans, but according to Muschamp, the Gators have been using it all season.
“We’ve used that in every game, so that’s something we’ve been using for a while, but both guys (Silberman and Humphries) have done a nice job and I’m very pleased at getting those guys involved more because they deserve those opportunities.”
Players of the Game
When naming a player of the game, sometimes a coach will go off the radar and name a player who quietly helped lead his team to a victory. That wasn’t the case on Monday as Muschamp handed the award to two players who took over the game from the beginning in Mike Gillislee (offense) and Matt Elam (defense). Muschamp called Elam’s performance “the best since I’ve been here.”
One surprise Muschamp did have was the naming of Loucheiz Purifoy as the Gators’ special teams player of the week. Despite punter Kyle Christy’s booming punts that left LSU with a short field all afternoon, Muschamp felt that Purifoy’s performance in his role as a gunner was even more integral, as he was often the first one down the field to make a play on the return man which was no easy task considering he was covering “50 yard punts” according to the coach.
The “Scrap Iron Award” was given to the entire offensive line as well as the Gators’ tight ends and fullback. Jaylen Watkins recorded the Gators’ lone interception on the day and he was awarded the team’s “Ball Hawk Award: as a result along with linebacker Jon Bostic and freshman lineman Dante Fowler — who Muschamp said both provided pressure on the play. Linebacker Neiron Ball and defensive back De’Ante Saunders were also named as recipients as they both recovered fumbles on Saturday.
As far as injuries go, Muschamp reported that Ronald Powell had a “revision” on his ACL and will continue his rehab. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins who returned to the LSU game for the first time in two games after sustaining a thumb injury, left the game on Saturday with a hamstring injury, but will be “probable” for Vanderbilt.