Friday, September 6, 2013
Florida's physicality providing an edge
By Travis Haney
It isn't always pretty, but Florida's physicality can overwhelm opponents.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As the word "tempo" becomes part of college football vocabularies as much as tailgating does, Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp reminds us there is more than one way to lift a program -- or return it, in Florida’s case -- to the SEC’s elite class.
In an era of offensive innovation, Muschamp has reconstructed the Gators to win by running the ball and playing defense. That formula might not be the sexiest in the land, but it has worked, and worked rather well, in SEC burgs such as Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. In fact, those types of programs have showed they have staying power, at least compared to spread or air raid-centered systems.
What's interesting is that in the age of fast-paced, spread-it-out offenses in games and a reduced amount of contact in practice, Florida's physicality becomes difficult to prepare for in the same way a tempo offense is. And while style points and explosive plays have been hard to come by for QB Jeff Driskel and the Gators' offense, that physical edge and mentality on both sides of the ball gives Florida a built-in advantage over many of the opponents it faces, including the Miami Hurricanes(Florida at Miami, Saturday at noon ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).
That is by the head coach's design. Muschamp had a big-time résumé for an assistant; that’s why he got the Florida job, even though he had no previous head-coaching experience. The former Georgia safety spent time as the defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas before landing in Gainesville. That stop at LSU, with Nick Saban, might have been the most important in terms of developing what he would one day want as his own program’s identity.
“It’s all about physicality,” Muschamp told me last week, when we were talking about how he has built his program. He added that the Gators go more “good-on-good” -- the first-team offense versus the first-team defense -- in practice than most teams in the country. A lot of coaches are scaling back on hitting in practice; Muschamp says it’s part of building the culture of toughness at UF.
“You can’t talk about being physical,” he said. “What is that? Physical isn’t talking. It’s a belief in who you are based on what you do, how you play.”
The previous Florida regime was centered on a system that flourished with highly skilled, uniquely talented players such as QB Tim Tebow and RB/WR Percy Harvin. When those players were gone, Urban Meyer wasn’t far behind.
The new Florida staff, though, makes it possible for interchangeable parts that provide the earmarks of sustainability, from year to year. Will the offense regularly run 90 plays in a game? Nope. But it could certainly prevent an opponent from doing so.
Last year the offense, without consistent, reliable outside targets, leaned heavily on senior RB Mike Gillislee (244 carries of 827 total plays; 30 percent).
I wondered how they would replace Gillislee’s reliability as much as his productivity. I had heard good things about new starter Matt Jones from those close to the team, but then he contracted some sort of viral infection that knocked him for a loop during camp.
Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. adds high-end talent and physicality to Florida's defense.
So Mack Brown, last year’s No. 3 back, started against Toledo and went for 112 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries (of 70 total plays). Highly regarded freshman Kelvin Taylor, whom I had heard was a little behind where the staff had hoped, chipped in 43 yards on five carries in a solid debut.
The Gators, who should get Jones back this week, again appear to play the same way they did in 2012 when they won 11 games, overachieving even by internal standards. (Never mind the Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville.)
I tweeted last weekend how impressed I was that Florida had held Toledo, with a group of impressive weapons on offense, to a pair of field goals. That was met with “it’s only the MAC” skepticism. But listen, not only did the defense corral the aptly named Rockets to 1-of-13 on third down, but the offense’s control helped the Gators to a 20-minute advantage in time of possession, a strong start for what made UF successful last year.
Muschamp has made no secret that he wants to see the team’s receivers and Driskel make strides this year. But really, that’s icing. This team can win as is, with running and defense; it has proved that.
On Monday, out of nowhere, I got a text from ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl, who had been watching film of the Florida defense and was so impressed that he had to tell someone. He loves sophomore defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (I do, too), and he noticed that LB Ronald Powell and DL Dominique Easley, both veterans, are putting forth performances that you'd expect out experienced defenders with NFL talent.
I asked Weidl what he had seen from Miami, and he said he still saw some holes in terms of defensive positioning and scheme. The Hurricanes have a ton of returning players, more than any team in the country, but there’s a reason you still see Florida favored on the road.
Just like usual, the Gators will try to out-tough their opponent. That’s the way Muschamp likes it.