GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Near the mouth of the tunnel where Florida's football team bursts into The Swamp, the Gators' 2011 highlight video plays on loop. After a few viewings, most have the same takeaway: Man, an awful lot of those highlights came against Kentucky.
I came to Florida's spring game on Saturday to improve that. Several media types were invited to serve as "guest coaches," and I arrived armed with a plan to help a program that has slid from annual national title contention into the middle of the pack in the SEC East. I figured at some point, I would sit down with head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Brent Pease to lay out my scheme. They would resist at first, but then they would relent and follow my advice to install the Wishbone. (Trust me. The SEC isn't ready for it.)
Alas, I learned that the entire "guest coach" conceit was purely for show. My main job would be to stay out of the way. The Gators didn't need a first-team defensive tackle tripping over me and breaking a leg. Coincidentally, this also was my main job description as a freshman walk-on offensive lineman at Florida in 1996. Guest coaching was considerably less painful, though. The first time around, my job also entailed getting clobbered daily by future first-rounders.
Though my Xs and Os acumen was correctly shamefully ignored, the access did offer a chance to get a closer look at Florida's personnel and at the coaches leading those players. This is a critical year in Gainesville. The Gators went 7-6 in 2011. Though the SEC is historically tough at the moment, a fan base accustomed to being in the mix for at least a division title almost every season will not accept mediocrity for long. The narrative has shifted to the mess Urban Meyer left behind for Muschamp, but it really wouldn't have mattered if Meyer had cut every player on the roster and burned down the stadium before he left. Given the resources Florida has, the base expects a winner. Another .500 regular season -- three wins against non-AQ teams and three wins against the dregs of the SEC with a loss to Florida State -- might test the base's patience.
Those in power at Florida understand that Muschamp inherited some issues and have promised as much leniency as possible, but it will be interesting to see how they feel if the Gators are sitting at 6-5 headed to Tallahassee in November. That's the challenge Muschamp faces now.
In the offseason, Muschamp revamped his staff. Strength coordinator Mickey Marotti joined Meyer at Ohio State, so Muschamp hired Jeff Dillman. To understand why, Muschamp offered a peek at the LSU strength staff organizational chart, circa 2003. That year, the Tigers won the national title. "[Current LSU strength coach] Tommy Moffitt was in charge," Muschamp said. "Scott Cochran, who is at Alabama, was an assistant. Jeff was also an assistant." Muschamp's meaning is clear. The other two strength coaches faced off in last season's national title game. Dillman came up through the same system.
Dillman will work with some well-fed players. After a brief meeting with Muschamp, the guest coaches joined the team at the training table for a pregame breakfast that included eggs, bacon, grilled chicken and steak and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Nutrition coordinator Chelsea Zenner hung near the buffet to help players choose the correct menu options for their particular needs. Undersized offensive linemen, for example, might need an extra scoop of potatoes. A double-wide defensive tackle might want to trade that third steak for a chicken breast. Zenner even offered some dietary advice to sportswriters who definitely fell in the double-wide category. "We have some beautiful fruit over there," she said.
The fruit may be beautiful, but that adjective hasn't described Florida's offense since 2009. Coordinator Pease replaced Charlie Weis, whose one-season tenure at Florida was a disaster. "Coach Pease understands us more," receiver Quinton Dunbar said. "He's more of a teacher instead of just yelling at us all the time."
Pease came from Boise State, where he replaced Bryan Harsin after Harsin went to Texas prior to the 2011 season. To Florida, Pease brought an offense heavy on basic plays disguised by multiple formations and frequent pre-snap motion. "It's like a Jedi Mind Trick at first," Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said of defending the offense. Jacoby Brissett, one of the two quarterbacks competing for the starting job, said the action around the play keeps defenses from disguising their intent. The idea is that as the defense adjusts to the motion, it will tip off blitzes or coverages. "They've got to open up," Brissett said, "and tell us what they're running."
Of course, anyone who watched Harsin's offense at Texas last year knows the shifting means nothing if the players can't win one-on-one matchups. This is where the Meyer-left-the-cupboard bare meme comes in. It isn't entirely true. Meyer left Florida with a ton of talent on defense. But because of the scheme Meyer ran and a number of recruiting misses, the offense still needs serious work.
Florida returns four starting offensive linemen from 2011. That should be a plus, but that line didn't block well in 2011. Muschamp said he has seen improvement under new line coach Tim Davis, but on Saturday, when the first team faced the first team, the Gators didn't exactly dominate their defense -- which is an excellent approximation of what they'll see from elite SEC opponents. Tackles Xavier Nixon and Matt Patchan look like next-level players, but will they develop? Muschamp said Nixon, who as a freshman in 2009 started five games for a team that went 13-1, has gotten better this offseason. "The light has come on for him," Muschamp said.
Meanwhile, tailback Mike Gillislee also looks the part. Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, Florida's former star backs, were perfect for Meyer's offense, but they weren't suited to carry the ball against elite SEC defenses. (What most forget is that when Meyer's offense truly hummed, he had a 235-pound single-wing tailback named Tim Tebow carrying between the tackles.) The 5-foot-11, 201-pound Gillislee has averaged 6.3 yards per carry for his career, but his inability to pick up pass protection schemes kept him off the field in the past. Gillislee will have to figure out the blocking now, because the Gators need him to carry the ball.
The most mystifying aspect of Florida's offense the past few years has been its inability to develop a go-to receiver. At the moment, the Gators' best pass-catching option is tight end Jordan Reed. Saturday, none of Florida's veteran receivers stood out, but one freshman did. Latroy Pittman, an early enrollee from nearby Citra, Fla., caught a 43-yard pass down the left sideline. Coaches said Pittman made similar plays throughout spring practice. For Brissett or fellow quarterback Jeff Driskel to have a chance, Pittman and at least one of Florida's other receivers -- perhaps Dunbar or Andre Debose -- will have to stretch defenses.
So which sophomore will start at quarterback in September? Saturday offered no clues, as Driskel and Brissett played to a near draw. Driskel is the better runner. I learned this while leaping to avoid the 235-pounder as he sprinted across the defensive sideline to avoid a tackler. Driskel is big, and he is fast. But he and Brissett both throw well, and both players have grown after deer-in-headlights stints against Alabama (Driskel) and LSU (Brissett) while replacing injured starter John Brantley in 2011. "Last year, unfortunately, both of them played," Muschamp said. "But now I'm glad both of them played."
For those who still want to handicap this neck-and-neck race, Brissett and Driskel offered their own takes.
Brissett: "I guess I'm slower. That's what I'm lacking."
Driskel: "We don't play basketball. He's a little better at basketball than me."
Brissett: "I look better, but that's just something he's got to deal with."
Meanwhile, Florida's offense will have to deal with the fact that the defense is the far more attractive unit from a talent-evaluation standpoint. The Gators may not be Alabama- or LSU-good on that side of the ball, but the defense is good enough to carry Florida in some games if the offense can improve from pitiful to adequate.
Muschamp hopes to move Sharrif Floyd, who played defensive end out of necessity as a sophomore, to defensive tackle full-time. That would give the Gators a stout middle of Omar Hunter and Floyd, and Floyd's experience playing end will help when Florida shifts to a three-man-front look.
In fact, the defensive line seems to be the soul of the team. Muschamp said he found himself preaching leadership last season. He doesn't feel the need to do that anymore, he said, because leaders have emerged organically. In the locker room Saturday, defensive end Ronald Powell provided the bulk of the pregame chatter. Even though he was headed to a glorified practice with his job already secured, Powell hopped around as if he expected South Carolina to appear on the opposite sideline. Later, when the entire team came together and everyone fell silent, Floyd spoke.
"Do your job!" he yelled. "Not the man next to you. Do your job."
Saturday, coaches limited Floyd's workday to a few snaps. They probably wish they had limited Powell's. While trying to make a tackle near the sideline in the first half, Powell went down. On the opposite sideline, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and defensive line coach Bryant Young didn't seem too concerned; the collision didn't look bad, and Powell's day was probably close to done anyway. When coaches returned to the locker room, they learned the injury might be far more serious. As the team streamed into the tunnel, Powell, using crutches, left the stadium with a trainer. Monday, Florida announced that Powell had torn his left ACL and will miss four to six months.
Powell's day summed up the one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of Muschamp's Florida tenure to this point. The coach seems to have an excellent plan to return Florida to its place among college football's elite, but the parallel progression of the rest of the SEC and a fan base unaccustomed to waiting may not allow Muschamp the time to implement his plan. The Gators will have to win with what they have.
On a wall near that highlight video loop in the Florida Field tunnel hangs a board showing Florida's 2012 schedule. If they turn their heads to the right, players see it every time they emerge from the locker room. It may be the best reminder of how hard the Gators will have to work this offseason, because, at the moment, it's awfully difficult to find the eight or nine wins that will keep the natives happy.