The Florida Gators football team officially kicked off its 2011 campaign with its annual media day on Friday afternoon.
New head coach Will Muschamp’s team will begin fall practice tomorrow, and their goals have been clearly outlined by the man in charge.
The excitement is unmistakable.
“It’s been a long time coming since the opening press conference to now, having an opportunity to get on the field and coach and do what you enjoy,” Muschamp said.
The team will be split into freshmen and upperclassmen for the first two training sessions, which will both be in helmets and shorts due to NCAA restrictions.
After that, the team will reconvene as a whole and begin the long grind to the start of the season on Sept. 3 against Florida Atlantic.
For a first-year head coach, Muschamp certainly has a clear vision what he wants his team to get done in fall camp.
“You hit training camp, we have goals, things we want to accomplish,” he said. “I think the first thing in talking in terms of our team is continuing to demand great effort and develop toughness in our football team. We can talk about those things in the offseason program, we can put the players through an awful lot of things to demand those things, but I think when you get on the field, that’s what you find out about your football team.”
Muschamp will be looking for two things in particular as camp begins.
He wants the Gators to continue to develop team chemistry and leadership. Without those, he doesn’t feel his team can be very successful in the SEC.
“That’s two huge things that we’ve got to be able to do,” Muschamp said. “We’ll find out about those in training camp when it’s tough. They’re all going to be excited tomorrow. Practice 12, let’s find out about our leadership. Practice 18, practice 22 when we face adversity through all the way this year, that’s when we find out how far we’ve come in those situations.”
And, for the first time in a while, Florida will be facing significantly less expectations than normal.
The Gators were picked to finish third in the SEC East and were ranked 23rd in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll released Thursday.
When asked what he thought about the expectations heading into the season, Muschamp responded sternly and forcefully.
“I could care less.”
He’s told his players the same thing.
“Do what you’ve got to do to be a good football player,” he said. “Quit worrying about all the external things that you will let affect you that aren’t really important at the end of the day. I’ve talked to our staff about that as well about our football team.”
In terms of what he’d like to see from a football standpoint, Muschamp clearly outlined his plans for fall camp.
“I think offensively and defensively, we’ve got to continue to teach our scheme, identify what our players can do, what they do well,” he said. “Get the ball in our playmakers’ hands offensively. Defensively, create the one-on-ones that we need to make sure that those guys can win the battles.”
Muschamp made it clear returning senior quarterback John Brantley is the unquestioned starter. Beyond that, he’d like to establish a number two quarterback quickly in fall camp.
“John needs to continue to play well, and we need to create some separation after John,” Muschamp said. “Tyler, Jeff, Jacoby are all very talented, we feel certainly very capable players. We need to get some separation and direction going there.”
He’d also like to see some more playmakers emerge at wide receiver. While he feels confident in the ability Frankie Hammond, Jr., Quinton Dunbar and Deonte Thompson showed in the spring, he’d like more players to step up to become threats for the Gators.
“(We need to) get guys who are consistently making plays in space and big plays down the field for us in the passing game besides the guys that kind of came through in the spring,” Muschamp said.
Finally, a big part of fall camp for the offense will be developing some consistency and chemistry on the offensive line.
Muschamp singled out Xavier Nixon, Ian Silberman, Jon Harrison, Jon Halapio and Chaz Green as five players he’s comfortable with on the offensive line, and those appear to be the starters from left to right.
But with so many guys banged up in the spring, Florida has yet to develop much depth along the offensive front.
That will be a priority this fall.
“Obviously with the moving parts we had going through spring ball, that’s something we need to gel and we need to gel early,” Muschamp said. “We need to get five guys playing well together. And you’d like to build that number to seven, eight, nine, 10 guys if you can, but build depth on the offensive line of scrimmage.”
On defense, the biggest key for the Gators in fall camp is developing a pass rush. Florida really struggled pressuring quarterbacks last season, despite putting up great defensive numbers.
With a few key players gone in the defensive backfield, getting good pressure will be even more important in 2011.
Muschamp said it simply comes down to guys making plays.
“Defensively, we’ve got to have more pass rushers,” he said. “You’ve got to affect the quarterbacks in this league. When you create one-on-ones, which I think Dan does a great job of studying protections and looking at those things and getting a guy in one-on-one situations, you’ve got to go earn your scholarship.”
The linebacker position is still a bit of a question mark for Florida, too.
While Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic are firmly entrenched at the weakside and middle linebacker spots, respectively, the strongside linebacker spot is still up for grabs.
Junior Lerentee McCray leads for the job there, but Florida will be looking for playmakers there, as well as capable backups for Jenkins and Bostic.
“Develop some more depth at the linebacker position,” Muschamp said. “We’re very comfortable with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins. After that we haven’t had guys that have played in our league and understand what it takes to be successful in our league.”
In the secondary, Florida will replace three of four starters. The Gators are young and inexperienced.
Surprisingly, Muschamp didn’t seem all that concerned about the unit at media day. Perhaps that’s because his fingerprints will be all over the unit.
“Secondary, I really I like our athleticism,” he said. “I like starting with athleticism. I’d rather start with that than experience if I could take one of the two.”
With his team’s goals pretty clearly outlined heading into fall camp, Muschamp and the rest of the Gators are ready to go.
Players seemed ready to strap on the pads and hit the fields at media day. After a season like 2010, that’s understandable.
“Great to get started with our season,” Muschamp said. “As a staff, we’re very excited as we head into training camp.”