GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They heard about it after the season ended.
In the spring, too.
And when they hit the practice field for the first time on Aug. 4, Florida’s defensive players will hear the same message: Turnovers. They have to force more turnovers, especially if they want to become an elite defense.
"Whenever you can take the ball from the offense, that’s like the hawk taking the worm out of the [bird’s] nest," linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "You have to practice it. We have to practice good habits, practice getting the ball out, stripping the ball."
Florida forced only 14 turnovers last season -- the fewest in a single season since the school began keeping fumble stats in 1950 -- and that was the main reason the Gators finished 113th nationally in turnover margin (minus-12). UF dropped multiple interceptions -- in the spring coach Will Muschamp said 15, a number that included six by linebacker Jelani Jenkins.
What was particularly disturbing was how little the Gators took the ball away against good teams. UF forced just eight turnovers in Southeastern Conference play, four of which came against Kentucky. The Gators had a three-game stretch against Alabama, LSU and Auburn in which they didn’t force a turnover.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn spent part of the offseason calling coaches he knows on NFL teams that had success forcing turnovers. He spoke with the San Francisco 49ers, who led the NFL with a plus-28 turnover margin in the regular season. He also spent hours getting video clips to show during meetings.
He also started a points system, with certain amounts assigned for forced fumbles, interceptions and recoveries.
And, like in the spring, there will be an increased emphasis on creating turnovers in practice. Every time there’s a chance to hit a ball-carrier or play pass-coverage -- whether it’s in a drill or live action -- the players will be swiping at the ball. If it becomes second nature in practice, then it’ll carry over into games, McCray said.
"Any time you see a running back not carrying the ball high and tight, take a shot at it," McCray said. "It’s not always going to be the first guy that’s going to get the ball out. It may be the second guy, so all 11 guys have got to get to the ball."
The coaches aren’t going to let up, either. There’s a pretty good chance the players will be tired of hearing about turnovers long before the Sept. 1 season opener against Bowling Green.
"We’ve got to do a better job coaching them and making our kids more cognizant of getting the ball out," Muschamp said. "We’ve just got to make some of those plays but do a better job as a staff emphasizing turnovers."
But no matter how much the coaches talk and how much the players try to pry the ball loose, sometimes it’s just dumb luck that results in a turnover. A running back fumbles and the ball hits the ground as an offensive lineman and a linebacker converge. If it bounces left the lineman gets it. If it goes right, the linebacker recovers.
"I think a lot of it is kind of luck," linebacker Jonathan Bostic said. "But there’s a lot of things you can control. (One of) the things that we can control is basically the defense swiping at the ball, trying to strip the ball."