What to do, what to do. That is on the mind of every Gator fan out there. What should Brent Pease do about the offense? What should D.J. Durkin and Will Muschamp do about the defense? What should Champ do about Pease, or any other assistants, for that matter? What should Jeremy Foley do about Muschamp, the fans, the boosters, you name it? The answers are not clear, despite what some factions steadfastly to believe.
Chicken or Egg?
One of the problems muddling decisions on what to do is the fact that it is not very clear to the fans what – or who – is to blame for everything. Or anything.
Substantially, who is to blame for the lack of performance on the field? Players or coaches? And if it is the players, does that not make the circle back to the coaches? And if so, then what of the old saying that “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jesses and Joes”…? I can see the right plays are being called every week and most of the plays Saturday in Jacksonville, and the players are simply failing to execute most of them.
Well, to spare the suspense, I am going to jump right to the obvious answer. One that has been made before. I take a creationist view of this: our issues this year were created in part by depth problems left from the Meyer regime that Champ has not yet overcome with just two of his own recruiting classes on campus. But really, the injuries stand alone. Since we’ve covered this ground before, I won’t belabor it. However, I did want to state it in as clear a set of terms as has been made to date. So here goes.
Champ won 11 regular season games last year and is trending toward 6 wins this year. What is different? What changed?
The body count.
Last year, Champ won 11 games. He did so with very significant limitations in offensive personnel. This year, Champ is trending to 6 wins. Here is a pretty compelling rationale: Last year, just over a half dozen starters injured, most of them concentrated on the OL This year, 20 starters have missed time (17 with injuries, 2 with ejections and one with a suspension).
Yes, you read that correctly. Twenty. There are, mind you, 22 starters on offense & defense combined. When you consider that we’ve lost five starters for the entire season, well five is a pretty small number so it may be easy to dismiss the incredible impact of just who those five players are. Right? Dominique Easley, Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and Andre Debose. Imagine what our team may have done to this point if the five lost for the season were instead Leon Orr, Trey Burton, Quinton Dunbar, Tevin Westbrook and Hunter Joyer?
The team is struggling mightily? Well of course it is! Losing the starting quarterback (Driskel) or the best player on the team (Easley) after the third game of the year would spell a drastic change in their season’s expectations for all but a couple programs in any year, but the Gators have lost five key starters for the season and 15 other starters for various stretches of the season, many of them for multiple games. The question everyone is asking is, “How can the Gators be 4-4?”… but whereas most fans are wondering how they lost four games, they should really be wondering how they were able to win four.
All teams have injuries, but nobody loses 20 starters for various stretches in one season. That’s 91% of the starting team. And the Gators also have lost six backups to injuries – half of them gone for the season, too. No coach in the nation is going to be successful when that happens, especially when they started the team with little depth and microscopic margin for losing starters to injury. Not Urban Meyer, not Nick Saban, not Bill Walsh, not Steve Spurrier in his prime. None.
I mentioned this number on the forums this week and the number was questioned, so just to head off any further doubts, here is the list:
Jeff Driskel QB Injury; Season
Matt Jones RB Ilness/Injury; Season
Mack Brown RB Injury, Part of LSU game
Jonotthan Harrison C Injury/Ejection, Part of Miami game/LSU game
Chaz Green OT Injury, Season
D.J. Humphries OT Injury, 1 full (UGA), part of multiple
Jon Halapio OG Injury, 2 Games
Macx Garcia OG Injury, Part of Miami game
Tyler Moore OT Injury UT game, part of Miami
Andre Debose WR/KR Injury, Season
Damien Jacobs DT Injury Missouei/part of LSU
Dominique Easley DT Injury, Season
Leon Orr DT Injury, Part of UT game
Ronald Powell LB Injury, Missouri
Antonio Morrison LB Suspension, 1 Game
Darren Kitchens LB Injury, Missouri
Loucheiz Purifoy DB Injury, Part of UT
Marcus Roberson DB Injury, 3 games
Brian Poole DB Ejection, Part of 1 game
Cody Riggs DB Ejection, 1 Game
We have also lost six key backups to injury, half of them lost for the year:
Valdez Showers RB Injury, 2 games
Colin Thompson TE Injury, 5 games
Jeremi Powell LB Injury, Season
Matt Rolin LB Injury, Season
Alex Anzalone LB Injury, 2 games
Nick Washington S Injury. Season
So, look no further. We have a winner. When a coaching staff goes into a season scheming and coaching up 22 players to carry the program’s hopes through the year, and all but two of them miss significant game time, and five of the most key players on the team are lost for the whole season, then you’ve got problems, my friend. And they are not coaching problems.
Give Pease a Chance?
Or has he already been given chance enough? I don’t know what Champ’s mindset is, but Brent’s job may indeed be in trouble.
One of the biggest issues at hand is something that was very apparent Saturday: even when Tyler Murphy had time in the pocket this year, he is usually finding nobody open.
While nobody in their right mind would ever choose Solomon Patton, Quinton Dunbar and Trey Burton as their top three receivers in the SEC, they are not bad players. Certainly not bad enough that they can rarely ever get open, even against weak secondaries like that of LSU and Georgia. I can’t see on TV what our passing trees are, but I can’t believe we run very effective routes. From the issues we have getting open, we must have the easiest routes to cover in the country.
I know Champ’s concentration is on the running game first, but it may be critical for him to bring in someone who understands the passing game a lot more than Pease. If Pease is retained, I believe he would benefit greatly from the hiring of a passing game coordinator.
I am certainly not advocating the firing of Brent Pease, but I would understand and even welcome at this point someone else running this offense next year. While I think he has done a very good job at many junctures of the last two years coming up with the right combinations of plays to work around the personnel limitations, he has fallen short too many times.
The perfect example is late in the second half when Florida had taken all the momentum, taken Georgia’s will and made it a three-point game. At that point, not a single person on either side of the rivalry thought that UGA would win. But then, after forcing a turnover on downs just shy of midfield, out of nowhere he started calling the same old conservative garbage that has not worked a lick all year. Worse than the ultra-conservative nature taking all the wind out of the UF momentum sails, reversion to that chapter of the playbook also reverted to broadcasting everything we were doing. The defense shut us down easily from there and put our defense on the field one too many times. They had nothing left. They started the game with no heart, which caused them to spend the whole first half on the field, and caused them to finish the game with no gas.
A coach, and certainly offensive and defensive coordinators have to work with a blend of calculating prudence and real-time read of the game. Whereas last year I thought Pease lacked in the first half of that combo and excelled at the second half, he has been terrible in the second half this year. Sometimes you have to go with the hot hand, read the game and strike when aggressively when the defense is begging for it, and at that point in the game, the UGA defense was begging to be put away. But rather than drive the steak in its heart, Pease gave the UGA defense mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Having Burton run an option play was the stake in the heart of the Florida hopes.
I don’t think his stable of skills nor his UF career can be defined by that horrendous decision to go into a shell, but he also has to have a feel for the series, not just the game. The entire heart of Gator Nation was hanging on the pivot of a three-game losing streak and reclaiming the series. And he pulled the head back into the turtle’s shell. And UGA ran it over. Florida simply cannot have an offensive coordinator who does not understand this. Florida cannot have an offensive coordinator who cannot ascertain after two straight years of almost 100% abysmal failure, that Trey Burton should never run an option play again, and under penalty of professional death he should never be called to run one with the Cocktail Party on the line.
Still Fighting for the Gators
The second half effort in the Cocktail Party is what the Gator team should have given all year. After watching the first half, I was thoroughly disgusted; after watching the second half, I was not. Losing always stinks, and losing to UGA stinks more than losing to anyone – but there is no shame in losing to a better team when you play your heart out and compete like the Gators did in the second half. And make no mistake, UGA is a better team. Even coming off injury, Todd Gurley is an elite back in the nation and we have nobody who even compares to him (yet). Their QB is one of the statistically best in the country and our quarterback was supposed to be our third string scout team quarterback this season. Their OL is better than ours and they are healthy, while ours is not. We don’t have a single receiver who would at this point in their development even see the field for UGA right now, even with so many receivers injured for the Dogs.
And the fact that at 17-0 down, the Gators were left for dead, and they did absolutely nothing good in the first half, that they were able to take the halftime speech from Muschamp and come out fighting like champions and take the game back from a superior opponent, speaks volumes to the fact that Champ has not only NOT lost this team, this team is still squarely bought in and in his corner. And speaking of corners, in the second half, we may have seen the Gators turn a very important corner. The only way in my mind that Muschamp does not project to a great season in 2012 is if he loses this team in 2013. It was clear that to this point he has not.
And Jeremy Foley knows this. And he knows that no coach in the world could succeed this year with the hand Champ has been dealt. So Will is coming back next year regardless of what happens the rest of the season and no matter what some angry boosters have to say about it. The day Jeremy Foley lets a faction of the boosters run his program for him is the day you can expect the best athletics director in the country to tender his resignation.
What Else Jeremy Knows
Jeremy hired Will for long-term program building. He hired Champ with the full knowledge and understanding that he had no head coaching experience and there were going to be some growing pains in the early years through on-the-job learning. A learning process that was worth the price to lock up who was the hottest head coaching commodity among assistants in the nation. And worth the price for getting a young coach who would have the capacity to stay with Florida for a long, long time – and just as importantly, one who would have the desire to stay for a long, long time. One who would have a loyalty and devotion to Florida much the same as Spurrier had – and much different than hiring a hot shot upwardly mobile head coach with a mercenary mind set like Urban Meyer, who would come in and squeeze Florida for everything he could and then abandon Florida in a mess at the first sign that things were getting tough. It was a tradeoff Foley made to fit the young, loyal Gator gun template he wanted filled, but there was nothing in the tradeoff that involved being able to repeat an 11-win season when 91% of our starting team is unavailable to play.
What to Do, What to Do…Pt 2
So Champ is a first-time head coach and was hired with the assumption that he would have to learn some things on the job. Let’s all either embrace that or accept it and get over it. Doing so allows us to ask what Champ needs to do to become a complete head coach.
One of the things he needs to learn as it turns out is how to get his team to stop beginning games flatter than the champagne the White Sox got for winning the pennant in Eight Men Out. This is a problem they had for even most of their big wins last year. He is great at motivating his players with in-game and halftime attitude adjustments, but in the SEC, no team can continue to start the game with no emotion or lack of focus as the Gators do every week. I know he has the capability because it was something that he specifically addressed at one point last year. However, whatever it is either did not stick or he needs to keep it a singular focus. Or something. He just needs to figure it out.
Another issue he needs to learn is to control himself so that his team doesn’t mirror his road rage antics on the field, hurting the team with moronic penalties. Again, this is one of those things he has addressed and improved in the past, but it is something he needs to be far more aware of and keep far more under control. Spurrier used to be just as volatile on the sidelines and at practice, and he used to excuse it away by saying he is simply a football version of the average basketball coach. However, basketball is not the violent, emotional sport that football is, and a coach simply can’t be like a basketball coach and expect his players to play with discipline. Spurrier paid for it by seeing his program be the most penalized in the SEC and nation most years, much as Muschamp has. Difference was that Spurrier had the horses and the talent edge to constantly overcome tons of dumb penalties. Muschamp currently does not.
Champ will get 2014 to show that 2013 (and not 2012) was the anomaly. That’s assured. He can lose out this year and he will still be coming back next year. It was clear in the second half against UGA that this team is still bought in and is still Champ’s team. It would be nice if all the fans of Gator Nation could show that sort of character in such a trying season. Champ will be bringing in his third-straight elite singing class in February, and will finally have the team populated by more of his guys than Meyer’s guys.
And he won’t have 91% of his starters missing games or out for the year in 2014.
What he does with this may hinge on staff changes over the offseason, and may depend on how much further he comes along the head coaching learning curve. However it plays out, we’re going to see it. And I think it will be fun for Gator fans to watch.