By Alex Gray
Coming off the heels of their most comfortable win in quite a while, the Gators will get a chance to relax with a bye this week. Despite getting a break from the whirlwind that is game week — a week that finds players and coaches dealing with everything from game-planning to handling ticket requests — this Florida team still appears to have a sense of urgency this week, with their toughest test to date coming to The Swamp next week in LSU. Opponent aside, the Gators also have a rash of injuries that they have been dealing with and hope that a week away from the meat-grinder will allow them to heal.
The Gators looked impressive against Kentucky, but the team and fans alike know that the Gators have a number of improvements that need to be made especially before heading into a challenging stretch that will find them facing off against three of the current top-six teams in the nation. On Monday, Head Coach Will Muschamp met with the media to discuss the injury-plagued Gators, the success they have had in the first third of the season, and what improvements need to be made for them to have a different October than they did last season.
Florida didn’t quite receive Kentucky’s best shot with Wildcats starting quarterback Maxwell Smith watching from the sidelines, but nevertheless, the Gators had a solid performance in putting up 38 points and also keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard altogether. Said Muschamp: “Wrapping up Kentucky, 7-to-1 explosive plays, got two turnovers 3-to-1 and two of those led to 14 points. Obviously Jaylen’s interception was big. Balanced offensively over 200 yards rushing and passing …we were over 70 percent on offense on third down, which is something we’ve tried to emphasize.”
Muschamp said that defensively, the Gators need to do a better job at stopping the run and that the perimeter run game especially, is something that the team will work on during the bye week. However, he was pleased with the shutout that the Gators pitched on Saturday saying: “Any time you’re able to shut somebody out in this day and age of football, it’s great.” So far this season special teams have been arguably the Gators’ strongest unit with the play of senior kicker Caleb Sturgis and sophomore punter Kyle Christy. Apparently Muschamp agrees: “Special teams, I thought our coverage units were really good again. They’ve done a nice job. Caleb is obviously kicking off very well and then Kyle Christy’s just been outstanding. He needs to continue to progress forward but that’s been a huge weapon for us as far as flipping the field and the job he has done.”
It wasn’t all positive for the Gators however, as a few issues that have haunted the Gators all season haven’t exactly disappeared according to Muschamp. There are some things we need to clean up. “Obviously, short yardage and goal line — until the last game — has not been what we want. We’re going to study that. Third down and red zone, we always rep one-minute in the open date to have opportunities to put our players in situations. We had situations that came up the other night. We need to get three points there. That’s something. Jeff needs to get rid of the football. Those are things where we’re going to try and create those opportunities for our players. The run game, I think has been very good for us. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking on the perimeter. That’s where you get big runs is when you’re blocking on the perimeter and finishing the blocks down the field.
On defense, Muschamp said defending those same one-back perimeter runs will be a priority this week, as well the defending of two back sets which they will see plenty of against LSU in two weeks. Muschamp called the Gators’ pass rush “very sporadic” and said part of the reason for that is the style of quarterbacks they have gone against. The Gators will also be looking to clean up their defensive red zone woes. “We’ve got to continue to do a better job of rushing four guys in the red zone defensively. We’re seven of ten as far as allowing touchdowns. We’ve got to force some field goals down there, and I’m looking at that right now.”
Injuries are an understood part of football, but the Gators looked a lot like a MASH unit on Saturday. Several key players were out of action Saturday, but the prognosis does sound promising for most. “Injuries, Chaz Green, Dominique Easley, Trey Burton and J-Reed should be fine for LSU. I think based on the information I have. How much they will do this week, we’ll determine that as the week goes, but I think all of those guys should be fine. Jelani Jenkins, I’ll know more later in the week, I don’t right now. I don’t have the information right now, so I think he sees the doctor Wednesday. Right now in the off week, our players are off today unless they need to come in to get treatment. They’re not having to lift or anything today. They’ll lift on Wednesday and Friday, then our coaches are all out on the road recruiting. They’ll be again on Friday. Tuesday and Wednesday, we’re going to work on Florida.”
Offensive Tackle Matt Patchan suffered an injury during pre-season practice that the Gators expected to keep him out of action until the Tennessee game at the latest. Now, it appears that Patchan won’t even be ready for the LSU game, but Muschamp says that the injury-plagued fifth-year player will return to action this season. “Felt like all of those guys should be fine but Matt, probably not for LSU, but we’re holding to hopefully get him some work next week, not this week but next week on the field. How healthy he’ll be at that point I don’t know. But again it’s a pec strain. He had some tear on the muscle. It’s a painful injury and up front you’ve got to be able to use that to be able to block. Rehab has gone well; he’s worked extremely hard as far as that’s concerned. We’re just hoping to get some snaps. But he will play this year, yes.” Muschamp said that the sprained knee Sharrif Floyd suffered on Saturday will not be an issue for the LSU game.
What’s the Difference?
Last year, to put it simply, the Gators were absolutely manhandled by LSU—especially on the offensive side of the ball. While this year’s edition of the Gators undoubtedly looks different, Muschamp was asked why fans should expect to see a different team on the field this year. “I think, again, I think you’ve got to be multiple in what you’re doing, “said Muschamp. “Against some of the defenses we’re going to face starting with LSU, you’re not going to be able to line up in stagnant positions and consistently run the ball – their fronts are too good. So you’ve got to be creative in the run game, which I think Brent does a fantastic job. He and Brian White and Tim Davis kind of do our run game and those guys do a fantastic job of getting our guys in situations to be successful. You’ve got to be able to run the ball north and south, be able to run the A-gap, which we’re going to run in every game, but have different ways to get to it. And then also, the perimeter running game has loosened up some things inside for us. Tennessee was much bigger inside than they’ve been, but our perimeter run game opened up some things inside for Mike (Gillislee). So I think we’ve complimented each other in the package of the speed-sweeps of Solomon Patton, some of the perimeter run game has helped our inside game, as well as our inside game has helped our perimeter run game. But we’re going to continue to find different ways to get to that style.” Muschamp said that the team is able to do more this season offensively because of the improvement of the offensive line. Muschamp said that another emerging position has led to the Gators’ renewed confidence on offense as well. “We’re getting very productive play from the quarterback position with Jeff. We’ve made plays down the field and created opportunities for ourselves at the receiver position, which really we didn’t last year as far as catching the hitch and scoring and things like that that we didn’t do as much last year. The run game is different, which has helped us with the vertical passing game. Everything compliments each other with what you do and how you do it. Very pleased to this point.”
Muschamp credited more diversity in the offense’s play-calling this year along with the addition of Mike Gillislee’s “north-south” running style as reasons for the Gators’ offensive turnaround. Muschamp said that the Gators started preparing for LSU last night and called the Tigers’ “tough” and “physical.” Muschamp said that he watched the Tigers’ nail-biter against Auburn on Saturday, but he did so as a “fan” rather than a coach.
Waiting for something special
Entering the season, the Gators held open try-outs for their punt-return man. By the sound of it, that competition will be opened up again this week. “Special teams, we need to get more production out of our punt return group. We’ve got some explosive guys. We need to settle on a guy and get a guy back there that’s No. 1 going to field the ball, but No. 2, can get the ball north and south. Stick your foot in the ground and get north and south. We haven’t been very productive as far as our block unit is concerned. We’ve called blocks in the game we haven’t gotten there. And then more production out of our kickoff return unit. Again we’ve got some guys that got some ability, some explosive ability. We’ve got to do a better job of blocking, staying on blocks. We’re going to spend a good portion of both of these practices Tuesday and Wednesday really working on special teams in regards to the punt block and kickoff return unit.”
One player that many expected to be the game breaking special teams weapon for the Gators this season was Andre Debose. However, for reasons unknown to fans Debose has yet to play a significant role for the Gators this season. Rumors have run rampant regarding Debose essentially since the day he stepped foot on campus, and according to Muschamp, the rumors about Debose’s lack of consistency have been quite far from target. “You know, again, anybody who is in the coaching profession, there’s a key to every kid, and we’ve got to find that key to motivate any young man, not just Andre. Day in, day out, to consistently perform well, to consistently do it the right way. Because generally your practice habits carry over to the game. I’m young but I’m old-fashioned. I believe that. Guys that don’t go out and consistently perform well in practice, it generally carries over to the game. As coaches, we want guys that consistently do it well and do it right. We promote that within our program. We’re going to practice what we preach around here to our football team.”
Bye, Bye (Week) Birdie
While the Gators will obviously cut down on practice time during the bye week, the team knows this week is still very critical. “We’ve got three huge days to improve. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are opportunities for our team to get better. We met yesterday as a team, and I told our guys, starting with me all the way down, we all have room for improvement. Let’s figure out and let’s be coachable and lets be understanding. A good place to take care of themselves, but let’s accentuate on the negatives of our football team right now and understand what they are, and let’s get better. Let’s take this opportunity to get better on Tuesday and Wednesday. In my time here, that is the one things guys will do. They will work, and they have been very understanding of the things that we need to do to improve.”
Muschamp said that there are pros and cons that come with a bye week, with the big pro obviously being the time for injured players to heal. As far as the drawbacks are concerned, Muschamp is hoping that his team doesn’t “cool off” from their hot start during the week. “I think we do have a lot of momentum right now as a football team. That’s a negative. You feel good about going into another game. I could probably give you a list of very positive things and a list of very negative things, but at the end of the day the result of next Saturday will determine how good of an off week it was for us. That’s really at the end of the day how I view it.”
Players of the Game
It seems that each week, the Gators have had different players that have stepped up when needed. This week, a veteran player who has had a star-crossed career in Gainesville finally got a taste of the success he envisioned upon arriving in Gainesville as James Wilson was named Offensive Player of the Week. Another such player, Omarius Hines was given the “Big Play Award” and the “Scrap Iron Award” went to Jon Halapio and Xavier Nixon.
Just like James Wilson, defensive tackle Omar Hunter came into UF with high expectations when former Head Coach Urban Meyer said that he would be the “Tim Tebow” of the Gators’ defense. While Hunter hasn’t exactly lived up to that billing during his tenure at UF, his play on Saturday not only garnered him the team’s Co-Defensive Player of the Week, but the SEC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week as well. Defensive Back Jaylen Watkins was the other Co-Defensive Player of the Week after returning an key interception for a touchdown against the Wildcats. The “Ball Hawk Award” recipients for this week were Michael Taylor, Watkins, De’Ante “Pop” Saunders, and Lerentee McCray. The Scout Team Players of the Week were freshmen Jeremi Powell and Alex McCallister, as well as AJ Mobley on the offensive line. The Special Teams Player of the Week was again Kyle Christy as he continues to “flip the field” for the Gators with his booming punts