- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
The Florida Gators' coaching staff would have engaged in a period of offseason self-examination even if the 2012 season had not ended with the Sugar Bowl thud against Louisville. But the 33-23 loss to the Cardinals, one that felt more disparate, left Will Muschamp and his assistants with more to reflect upon in what the coach calls the program's quality control sessions.
In those sessions, Muschamp has the offensive coaches break down game film of the defense and vice versa. The counterparts share thoughts on what worked well and what did not. Muschamp says, in a way, it works the same way as opponents' scouting reports; it's the way other teams evaluate the Gators on both sides of the ball.
The coaches did it some during bowl prep, Muschamp said, and really dug in after signing day, taking two weeks in February to chew on the material. They'll use those evaluations during spring practice, which begins today, as well as in the summer and fall.
If you watched Florida play at all last season, you know the staff spent a large chunk of time "controlling" the "quality" of the offense.
Muschamp talked often in 2012 about the Gators' narrow margin of error; the underwhelming offense, uncharacteristically outmanned for a premier program, was the biggest reason for the thin line between wins and losses.
"I think we'll see a considerable improvement in Year 2," Muschamp told me Friday.
Let's assess how the Gators intend to do that -- straight from the head coach's mouth.
Muschamp: "We've got to create more explosive plays."
We begin here because it was one of the first things Muschamp mentioned. It's probably the biggest residual concern for the UF offense.
In 2012, Florida had 14 passes that went for 25-plus yards and 40 passes of 15 or more yards. In 2011, the Gators had 20 25-plus-yard passing plays and 54 of 15 or more yards. It wasn't exactly a team strength in Muschamp's first season (under then-coordinator Charlie Weis), and it eroded in Brent Pease's first season as offensive coordinator.
As a point of reference, Georgia, the East Division champs in 2012, had 42 passes of 25-plus yards and 103 passes of 15 or more yards. That's with a relatively deft quarterback, Aaron Murray, but it isn't as if UGA still had A.J. Green or any elite threat on the outside.
Gaining yards is supposed to be easier through the air, yet Florida in 2012 had 24 rushes of 25 or more yards and 90 runs of 10 or more yards. (More soon on the UF run game.)
One of the great mysteries for coaches I've spoken with is why Florida's skill-player talent fell off, dramatically, late in Urban Meyer's stay. Muschamp and Pease had little to work with upon their respective arrivals. The Gators still signed highly touted athletes, but they were at best late bloomers and at worst flat-out busts. The new staff is slowly trying to change that, something that shouldn't be too difficult given the state's deep recruiting base at the skill spots.
As for the remaining group, Muschamp mentioned seniors Andre Debose and Solomon Patton and sophomores Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman as players who must produce more. Route running was particularly suspect, the coach said.
"All those guys need to step forward," Muschamp said of a quartet that combined for eight receptions despite some level of expectation. "All those guys need to mature. It's just about producing, winning more one-on-ones."
He was higher on Quinton Dunbar, who led wideouts with 36 catches and 383 yards, particularly the way Dunbar closed the season. He had 23 receptions from Oct. 20 on.
Muschamp: "Jeff [Driskel] led us to 11 wins. He's a guy I'm excited about. The game's going to slow down for him this year."
A couple of things would figure to help Driskel, and Muschamp agreed when I asked about both.
The first is that it's his second season working with Pease. It's like a lot of things -- jobs, in particular. The first time you do them is tougher, because you're learning the system and your boss' tendencies. The second time around is smoother, more familiar.
That's a big reason why Muschamp thought the game would slow for Driskel this season. I recall him saying the same thing the only time I saw Florida in person last year, when the Gators put together a second-half rally at Tennessee. That didn't turn out to be as big of a win as we thought at the time, but Driskel played efficiently in the third quarter. All Muschamp and Pease can hope for is more of those performances.
The second thing is the fact that Jacoby Brissett is now at NC State. There is no quarterback battle this spring. There will not be one this summer. Remember that Driskel and Brissett were to split snaps in the season opener against Bowling Green. It wasn't really Driskel's job until mid-September, which meant he split reps in practice.
Competition is often championed in college football, but a quarterback's confidence can blossom when he knows that it's his job and isn't looking over his shoulder or feeling like each game, or practice, is an audition.
The coaches I have talked with about Driskel are sort of split on him. They see him as a raw-but-capable player, but they're quick to say he isn't going to morph overnight into Jeffy Football. Still, at least one thought he could have a season to vault him into the first round of the 2014 draft.
"It isn't like he's had a lot to work with," the coach said. "He's big, strong and plays his [tail] off. That plays well in the NFL. Scouts like those guys. That, and look who they're making into stars in this draft class."
Muschamp: "I feel we're in very good hands [at running back]. ... I think we've recruited well at that position."
Back to the run game. The 2012 offense leaned hard on Mike Gillislee -- a senior back who had been injured off and on throughout his career. Gillislee came through with 1,152 yards, but his 4.7 yards per carry indicates he was more workhorse than game-breaker. The tape backs up that assessment.
But a workhorse was what the team needed to limit possessions -- for both the Gators and the opposition. Gillislee slowed the game when it needed to be slowed. If playmaker development is slow in 2013 -- or doesn't happen at all -- does UF have a back or backs to shoulder the burden in the same way?
That's debatable, though Muschamp was upbeat about returning runners Matt Jones and Mack Brown. Another name to keep an eye on is early enrollee Kelvin Taylor, former UF back Fred Taylor's kid. Jones looked down the stretch like a potential starter. He averaged 7 yards a carry in November and the bowl game, including an eight-carry, 81-yard, one-TD performance in the physical victory at Florida State.
We buzz this time of year about newcomers, and Taylor appears to be among the most ready freshmen in the country. Our recruiting scouts have raved about Taylor's well-roundedness for such a young prospect. He looks the part too.
"For a freshman to go through the offseason program like he has," Muschamp said, "it's pretty remarkable."
There's no guarantee that the three of them, in some combination, can equal what Gillislee provided. However, there are reasons to believe that isn't altogether unreasonable. And they could be better, especially as Taylor gets his bearings.
An offensive line that figures to be improved cannot hurt. Some in the league think sophomore D.J. Humphries could develop this season into an All-SEC tackle. Plus, transfers Max Garcia (a guard from Maryland) and Tyler Moore (a tackle from Nebraska) are now eligible, and Muschamp expects both to play.
"We're getting bigger up front, from what I can see," Muschamp said. "This is a line-of-scrimmage league. I like the direction we're headed."
Muschamp: "Our point of emphasis is self-inflicted wounds."
A converse of the explosive plays, the Gators also set themselves back with negative-yardage plays.
Florida surrendered 39 sacks (283 yards lost), which was 113th of 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Gators gave up an additional 40 tackles for a loss, losing about 100 more yards.
Muschamp said blame could be spread for the negative plays, the sacks in particular. Some were a matter of Driskel holding the ball too long. Some were poor routes run by receivers. Some were line breakdowns. Some were missed blitz pickups by backs.
That's the nature of sacks; they're collaborations of the unfortunate. Regardless, they made movement problematic for Florida.
"We were too far behind the chains," Muschamp said. "We weren't explosive enough as a team to overcome what we did to ourselves early in downs."
As a result, the Gators were just 87th in the country in third-down conversions (36.5 percent). Gillislee converted just seven of 24 third-down runs, and Driskel was 11 of 37 on third-down rushes. He twice lost fumbles on third down.
It's a good thing punter Kyle Christy had a breakout season, averaging 45.8 yards a punt on 66 kicks. (He had only 30 as a freshman.)
This season, Muschamp would like to see less of Christy.
Muschamp: "We've got to be better in the red zone."
Florida scored touchdowns on 24 of its 46 red zone drives. That 52.2 percent touchdown conversion rate ranked 96th among FBS teams.
Muschamp said he wanted to be closer to 70 percent, which would have put Florida in the top 20 in the country and fourth in the SEC (Georgia was third, Alabama ninth and Texas A&M 10th).
Oregon was tops in the country, scoring 59 touchdowns in 73 red zone trips (80.8 percent).
The lack of red zone production comes back to a lack of point production. True to that, Florida was 10th in the SEC in scoring (26.5 points a game), the lowest of any bowl-eligible team in the league.
I didn't have the audacity to say this to Muschamp, but reviewing all this, it was kind of a miracle that Florida won 11 games.
The challenge in 2013 will be proving whether that FSU victory, or the Louisville loss, was the real Florida. Or whether the Gators are something altogether different on offense -- improved -- with a more mature Driskel and new pieces like Taylor and Robinson.
Perhaps less quality-control attention will be given a year from now to the Florida offense.