Gators coach Will Muschamp at a Sugar Bowl practice in New Orleans.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If Gators coach Will Muschamp turns on the NFL Pro Bowl Sunday, you can’t blame him if he keeps a close eye on three players in particular.
New York Jets safety LaRon Landry is on the AFC roster and Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton and Seahawks defensive back Earl Thomas are on the NFC. All three played for Muschamp in college.
“And all three of those guys are different stories,’’ Muschamp said.
Landry was the first to work with Muschamp, showing up at LSU in 2003 as playmaker in pads.
The Tigers won the 2003 national title and Muschamp credits Landry as one of the primary reasons why.
“He’s a guy I remember our first scrimmage at LSU, he has unreal production,’’ Muschamp said. “I remember Nick [Saban] coming to me and saying, ‘We need to find a way to get this guy out on the field somehow.’ He was able to learn the defense. He is very intelligent, very smart and he has a great feel for the game.”
Landry’s emergence in camp allowed the Tigers to move Travis Daniels from safety to cornerback. Landry replaced Daniels at safety and the Tigers went on to lead the nation in total defense with Muschamp as defensive coordinator.
He recently completed his first season with the Jets after five years with the Redskins. Landry finished with a career-high 99 tackles, two interceptions and four forced fumbles as one of New York’s top players.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Melton, a defensive tackle and the 105th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He rarely got his jersey dirty when he first got to Texas to play for the Longhorns.
“Henry Melton was a seldom-used defensive lineman when I got to Texas [in 2008] and then I really saw a lot of athleticism and huge upside for him,’’ Muschamp said. “You’ve really got to credit [Bears scout] Chris Ballard of recognizing his talent level and drafting him, and [former Chicago defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli has done a fantastic job with him -- a guy who just had some untapped potential.
“He had some ability and you just needed to pull it out of him. Certainly Henry has capitalized on his opportunities there in Chicago.”
Melton, in his fourth season, finished with 44 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles this season.
Finally, there is Thomas, the 14th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft who has put together three strong seasons with the Seahawks. Thomas was an All-American at Texas and is one of the most talented players Muschamp has coached.
“Earl was as productive of a safety/nickel that I’ve been around as far as production on the field,’’ Muschamp said. “He just had a phenomenal year the year we played for the national championship at Texas and won the Big 12 championship.’’
Thomas had 66 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one interception return for a touchdown this season for Seattle.
“When you coach good players, you like to see them succeed,’’ Muschamp said. “Those are all good guys that you enjoyed coaching and being a part of their development.”