GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GatorZone.com Senior Writer Scott Carter recently spent two days in the meeting rooms with the Gator football coaches as they prepare for spring practice to start Wednesday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In a couple of days the University of Florida campus will be jarringly quiet compared to the normal hustle and bustle. Spring break is about to start and thousands of UF students will scatter across the state and elsewhere for a week of relaxation.
That includes the Gators football team. In the two months since the Gators capped Will Muschamp’s first season with a win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, the mood around the UF football offices has been upbeat following an often-turbulent 7-6 season.
Florida’s win over the Buckeyes secured the program’s 32nd consecutive non-losing season and provided a dose of momentum. A few weeks later the Gators signed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, another boost to a program that is only 15-11 over the past two seasons. The Gators also have a new offensive coordinator in Brent Pease, who played an integral role in Boise State’s emergence as a national program the past few years, and Tim Davis, a veteran offensive line coach who worked a season with Muschamp in the NFL.
As players and coaches prepare for a few days away from the game, Muschamp and the defensive staff stuff their eyes full of game film in a small meeting room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In a room next door, Pease and the offensive coaches talk shop.
While spring break looms, the coaches are in midseason mode, determined to be ready when the players return to campus.
“Speaking Greek” is how Muschamp describes what it was like a year ago entering spring camp when he took over the program and began implementing new pro-style systems on offense and defense.
A year later, the expectations are the same but the tone is another language. The introductions are out of the way. Mastering those systems – and climbing back toward the top of the SEC – is the primary focus as spring practice approaches.
“They understand what’s going to be expected. They understand the defense. They understand the calls,’’ Muschamp said. “Our players will be our best coaches this spring because they’ve been through it and they know it. And we do more than most. There is no secret to that.
“But at the end of the day, when we get on the same page in what we’re trying to do, we can do some special things.”
At 8 a.m. defensive coordinator Dan Quinn takes his seat at the head of the table behind a computer loaded with NFL game film. The large screen at the front of the room is showing clips from various seasons of the Baltimore Ravens defense, considered one of the NFL’s best for more than a decade.
Quinn shows play after play as the room watches with a kind of symphonic gaze.
“Here’s a Bart Scott sack,’’ Quinn says of the former Ravens linebacker. “Can’t wait.”
There’s Ray Lewis making a play. In another clip All-Pro defensive back Ed Reed is doing his thing in a game against the Steelers. They watch plays over and over searching for ideas that can help a young defense that finished in the top 10 nationally improve in Year 2.
Soon, clips from Muschamp and Quinn’s time together in Miami on Nick Saban’s staff appear on the screen. On one play former Gators linebacker Channing Crowder makes a big tackle for the Dolphins.
“One more time,’’ linebackers coach D.J. Durkin asks Quinn. “This is good. It has some good teaching clips for the mikes [middle linebackers].”
The football terminology bouncing around the room can make your head spin if you are unfamiliar with the daily lingo.
They discuss formations named Cleveland, Frankfurt, Blue Jay, Canada, Saratoga, Montana and Strong Apache. They discuss how the hash marks are different in college and how that may affect a particular formation on NFL film.
“The buck likes to cut two-weak on three-strong,’’ Quinn blurts out on one clip. “They get some nice mileage out of that.”
The coaches are immersed in the film but mix in doses of humor to break up the periodic silence.
On this particular day former player Lance Schulters has stopped by. Schulters spent 10 seasons in the NFL with the 49ers, Titans, Dolphins and Falcons.
Schulters first met Quinn when he played at Hofstra and Quinn was an assistant coach there. The Dolphins signed him in 2005 when Muschamp and Quinn were in Miami together and he started every game as a hard-hitting free safety.
As they watch film of the Dolphins playing the Falcons when Michael Vick was Atlanta’s quarterback, Muschamp can’t help but remind Schulters of a 15-yard penalty he cost the Dolphins in the game.
“There’s your boy, Lance,’’ Muschamp said. “Lance put a head shot on him five yards out of bounds.”
“Stop it,’’ Schulters shoots back. “He still had a foot in bounds.”
The purpose of this particular film session is to search for different ways to improve pressure on the quarterback. The Gators finished with 28 sacks in 13 games last season and nearly a quarter of those came in the Gator Bowl win.
Muschamp, a defensive-oriented coach known for his aggressive play-calling and a strong emphasis on teaching sound fundamentals, wants to see more pressure up front.
“Most of our pressure was with three-down [linemen],’’ he said. “We’ve got to get something out of four-down. It’s really about matchups, so as we see pressures we’ve used maybe before, it’s trying to get our guys in the best situation. So it may be something that resembles what we’ve done before, but it gets a different guy in a one-on-one. Those are the different things we are trying to create.”
With Quinn flipping through the film on the computer and Muschamp at the front of the room, the two obviously share good chemistry. Muschamp says that even while Quinn remained an NFL assistant and he went back to college as a defensive coordinator, the two would meet each offseason to talk defense.
They often review NFL film for the advanced concepts and new formations to teach players.
“More than anything it’s our connection to the National Football League,’’ Muschamp said. “We know a lot of people there and we have access to all the film. You go back to the things you are comfortable with and the things that we did before and the things we did at Miami.”
Near the end of their film session, the coaches have decided on a new defensive alignment to install during the spring that they believe can help the Gators “affect the quarterback” as they like to say.
Muschamp rolls his chair over to one of the grease-board walls lining the room and starts sketching a play for the grad assistants to create in the playbook the players will receive during spring practice.
“Let’s draw it up and see what it looks like,’’ Muschamp said as the meeting closes.
The coaches, trainers and support personnel meet later that afternoon for a staff meeting.
Muschamp’s mission is to get an update on each player’s health and how they are progressing in the offseason conditioning programs.
He reads down a list and goes over numbers on each player provided by new strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman. The figures of most interest are for LBM (lean-body mass) and FM (fat mass).
Some of the reports are good. Others are not, prompting Muschamp to bark orders for the training staff to get certain players up to speed. The fiery Muschamp who fans are familiar with on the sidelines comes out at times during the meeting.
Muschamp recently told The Sporting News that the hardest thing he has ever said as a coach was publicly stating that the Gators were a soft team following a home loss to Florida State in last season’s regular-season finale at The Swamp.
He stresses to the staff how important it is during spring practice that the team builds toughness and leadership, qualities he thought were lacking in his first season. A few days later Muschamp reads a notebook listing his top priorities entering spring camp.
“Number one is mental toughness,’’ he said. “We led the SEC in penalties with 100, and we improved from the year before, but we still led the SEC. You look at 23 false starts and 18 off-sides. You look at 41 of what I call discipline issues.
“Number two is turnovers. We only gained 14 and we lost 26 for minus-12, which is 113th in the country and last in the SEC. How we won seven games and finishing 113th in the country in turnover ratio is a minor miracle. You just can’t turn the ball over and not get turnovers. Really, the alarming stat was not the 26 on offense; it was the 14 on defense.
“Number three, physical toughness -- a team that can run the ball when it wants to and stop the run. In SEC games last year, we were eighth on offense and sixth on defense in our league.’’
To help in those areas, Dillman installed an Olympic style weightlifting program that is built around developing a strong core and lower-body strength that can help players at the point of attack on the lines of scrimmage.
By the time the intense staff meeting ends, Muschamp’s message is delivered loud and clear.
At 8 a.m. the next morning the coaches reconvene for another round of planning sessions. In the offensive meeting room Pease focuses this particular day on reviewing film of receivers.
He watches Gators receivers run routes. Pease watches closely as receiver coach Aubrey Hill jumps out of his chair and starts critiquing some of the routes.
“If you have to move to move you’re inefficient,’’ Pease said after watching the receivers during their releases. “You can’t have wasted movement off the line.”
The addition of Pease is Muschamp’s biggest move since the end of last season. Former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis left after one season to become head coach at Kansas.
While Weis’ hiring launched great expectations a year ago, the Gators struggled to find a consistent rhythm – in part due to a midseason injury to quarterback John Brantley, personnel shortcomings and the penalty issues Muschamp wants to eliminate – and finished averaging 328.7 yards per game.
Meanwhile, after five seasons as Boise State’s quarterbacks coach, he took over as offensive coordinator in 2011 and directed a unit that averaged more than 480 yards per game behind quarterback Kellen Moore.
In his first season at UF, Pease must first find Brantley’s replacement, a battle that is expected to come down to returning sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel.
Pease will watch both closely during spring practice as he implements his version of a pro-style offense that is heavy on tempo, play-action and creating mismatches in space like Boise State has been so good at in recent years.
After reviewing film of receivers, Pease spends much of the film session showing the offensive staff clips of play-action passes and protections he ran at Boise.
“We want to set the protection for at least a full count,’’ Pease said, showing a play when the center shifted too early. “The center is giving away the screen on this play. The defensive tackle made the play because we didn’t sell the screen.”
On a play-action pass that Pease describes as a mesh route, Moore finds a receiver across the middle wide open for a big gain.
“There are 100 different ways to do it,’’ Pease said. “It beats Tampa 2 easily. You’ve got answers for a lot of things.”
Each coach chimes in at different times, asking questions or adding their own ideas on how some of Pease’s plays at Boise might translate into things they have done in their careers.
An eye opener for the rest of the coaches was when Bush Hamdan, a former Boise State back-up quarterback who came with Pease to UF, hands out a laminated chart of 50 plays the team will work on this spring.
“This is top shelf,’’ said tight ends coach Derek Lewis.
“Good work here,’’ running backs coach Brian White offered. “This might be worth a steak dinner.”
Soon after the offensive coaching staff’s meeting breaks up, Muschamp meets privately with Pease and Quinn to go over a day-by-day schedule for spring practice.
The trio discusses a myriad of topics, everything from personnel groups and practice temp to water breaks and days off.
With Pease new to the staff, Muschamp reviews each item on his list and makes sure everyone is on the same page before moving to the next topic.
One addition to spring practice will be a last-play competition near the end of each practice to spike intensity. The offense will have the ball inside the 20-yard line and run a play that can win the game.
“I do think that is good,’’ Quinn said. “It’s on.”
While they are working toward the same goal, it’s obvious the defensive-minded Muschamp and Quinn are looking forward to the challenges of playing chess against Pease’s new system.
“Really, looking from our transition from Year 1 to Year 2, you tweak things every year, but as you tweak you want to stay within the same concepts of what you have already installed,’’ Muschamp said. “We do our installation together. There will be no surprises on Day 1 through 15 of spring. Obviously from my spot, there might be a surprise or two on each side of the ball, but we’ve got to be able to make adjustments in practice.
“The reason we install together is that there is nothing worse than going onto the field and not being prepared for something that you’re not ready to see. That’s why we install together and I get together with Brent and Dan and sit down and go through everything A to Z and what we’re going to see, whether it’s a formation, whether it’s a motion adjustment, it’s a play, a pass, a front on defense, a pressure on defense. We do everything together so when we go on the field our kids are prepared to handle.”
In other words, no one will be speaking Greek.