GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A reporter from Ohio asked Gators defensive tackle Omar Hunter after practice Wednesday afternoon about former Gators strength-and-conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, who recently left for Ohio State, Florida’s opponent in Monday’s Gator Bowl.
Hunter complimented Marotti and thanked him for helping him develop as a college football player. He shared a couple of stories about last summer’s grueling workout program installed by Marotti and how it helped him get in better shape. Hunter said he has remained in contact with Marotti through texting.
However, Hunter then began to talk about the future as he discussed some of the recent changes the program has undergone.
While the past has been a constant backdrop leading up to the Gators Bowl, the Gators are looking at this game as a potential doorway to a new future. On the same day the 2012 schedule was announced, 2008 – Florida’s last national title – seemed a little further away.
Hunter was a freshman that season but saw limited time on the field and was redshirted. Still, he got to observe and learn from former Gators such as Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Percy Harvin and Jermaine Cunningham.
He saw what winning looks like. He experienced what it feels like. And he has experienced the other side of the coin the past two seasons, a combined 14-11 record and 6-6 mark heading into the Gator Bowl.
Through it all, Hunter remains optimistic that his career can end on an upswing. A Gator Bowl win over Ohio State would be a nice push in the right direction.
“Florida is going to be back. We’re going to be back. Coach Muschamp is a great coach. It’s the best hire they made,’’ Hunter said. “This team is not where it was last year. It’s better. Believe that or not, it’s better than it was last year.’’
While avoiding the program’s first non-losing season since 1979 is certainly one motivational tool Muschamp and the players are using, there is also the promise of next season.
The Gators’ roster featured only nine scholarship seniors at the start of the season, the fewest since 1981. The majority of the team is freshmen and sophomores.
If they can beat the Buckeyes and close 2011 on a positive note, a win can only help over the summer as they work to make Muschamp’s second season as Florida’s head coach more successful than his first.
“I’m very excited about the future because 75 percent of our roster or so is freshmen and sophomores,’’ Muschamp said. “Those have basically been our playmakers throughout the season. A lot of those guys are all back. That part is exciting. The frustrating part is the inconsistency.’’
The Gators will need to pass the ball more consistently. They will need to tackle more consistently and force turnovers more consistently. They will need to move the ball and sustain drives more consistently.
The list might seem like a long one, but according to those closest to the situation, the hurdles the Gators need to clear aren’t as big as some they have already overcome.
Interim offensive coordinator Brian White, also the team’s running backs coach, expects improvement next season from what he has seen in bowl practices.
“I would say there is always a learning curve your first year at any program,’’ White said. “Once you flatten that learning curve, you see exponential jumps, and certainly that’s what we’re hoping for.
“I’ve seen a lot of progress with a lot of our young players. There are a lot of players that have improved dramatically. Hopefully they can put the performance on the field and really use it as a springboard into 2012.’’
White pointed out that freshman fullback Hunter Joyer, offensive lineman Chaz Green, receiver Andre Debose and running back Mike Gillislee are young players who continue to improve.
Defensively, Muschamp’s list of players the Gators can build around included defensive linemen Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, and defensive backs Matt Elam and Marcus Roberson.
There are others that Muschamp knows can produce more – leading to more wins – if things go right next season.
“There is a key to every kid and it’s our job to find the key,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s our job to get it out of them. That’s why they call you coach.’’
Hunter called the Gators a “divided” team when Muschamp first took over. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said he noticed that as well. Time has a way of uniting or destroying a team.
Hunter has seen the former happen. He now wants to see where it leads.
“I don’t think [some of our young players] really understood SEC ball at first,’’ Hunter said. “As the year went on, I think a lot of guys got better. We’ve got to continue to build on that. We want to gain momentum going into the offseason so we can have a great offseason.
“We really want to get this win.’’