GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Will Muschamp was hired to replace Urban Meyer and started assembling his inaugural Gators coaching staff, he heard a lot of promising reports on a young assistant in his first season on Meyer’s staff.
Seemed whomever Muschamp called to ask about D.J. Durkin, the response remained the same.
“Everyone I talked to said he is one of the bright young coaches in college football,” Muschamp said.
Muschamp also recalled losing a recruit from Atlanta to Durkin — Muschamp was defensive coordinator at Auburn and Durkin was on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford at the time — a loss that the up-and-coming Muschamp stored away in his memory.
Ultimately, the decision to keep Durkin around was an easy one for Muschamp, much the same way it was in January when Muschamp promoted Durkin from linebackers/special teams coach to defensive coordinator when Dan Quinn left to return to the NFL.
Durkin faced an ambiguous period when Muschamp assumed control of the program in January 2011, but in his new job, Durkin is firmly entrenched in the master plan.
He might be a first-time defensive coordinator, but Durkin hasn’t needed a refresher course this spring. Instead, he is teaching one.
“You’ve seen the identity of our defense, what we as a staff have wanted to build here,” Durkin said. “We want to be a tough, blue-collar team and play with unbelievable effort and enthusiasm. That’s the way I coach, that’s my personality. That’s what I hope I’ve carried over to our special teams here.”
Durkin is the Gators’ third defensive coordinator in four seasons and is busy this spring placing his own stamp on a Florida defense that lost seven starters from last season.
While Durkin’s job is now to run the defense, if the results are similar to what his special-teams units did, the Gators shouldn’t miss a beat. Florida blocked three field goals and blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown to defeat Louisiana in 2012.
Durkin also played an instrumental role in the development of linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins the past three seasons. Both players should be selected in next month’s NFL Draft.
Muschamp, like he did during Quinn’s two seasons, will remain heavily involved in coaching the defense. He expects a seamless transition with Durkin in charge a Florida defense that finished ranked fifth nationally in 2012.
“He understands how we need to implement out system,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a vast knowledge of defense football and adds some good things we’ve tweaked in our system.”
Under Muschamp, the Gators have played a versatile pro-style system that includes various 4-3 sets, 3-4 formations and a lot of nickel and dime packages.
While the offense continues to establish an identity under second-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease, the defense — other than for some new faces — won’t look much different.
“We’ve got a great system in place,” Durkin said. “We’re not changing. Coach Muschamp, it’s his system and he’s a great defensive mind. It’s been great for all of us to learn that system.
“We play 20-some guys on defense. We want to continue that. We lost some very good players, but at the same time we have a lot of guys coming back that contributed quite a bit. We’re all in it for the same thing. We have the same goals, the same expectations. To me, it’s just a matter of facilitating things and organizing the way we’re going to do it and get after it.”
Muschamp and Durkin didn’t know each other when Muschamp arrived at UF. They quickly discovered they share several similar traits. Durkin is fiery and animated on the sideline like Muschamp. And as Muschamp was at Georgia, Durkin was a defensive player in college, starring at linebacker at Bowling Green University.
After earning a business degree, Durkin decided he wanted to stay close to the game and entered coaching, taking his first job as a graduate assistant on Meyer’s Bowling Green staff in 2001.
Durkin also has a blue-collar background richly steeped in football, growing up in Youngstown, Ohio. Muschamp split his formative years in football-crazy Gainesville and Rome, Ga.
Two years after not knowing if Muschamp would keep him on staff, Durkin is now the up-and-comer. They are working toward the same goal: winning a championship with a team built around a hard-nosed, aggressive defense.
“I’ve always just tried to keep your head down and work as hard as you can,” Durkin said. “Deal with your players honestly, deal with your coaches honestly and just be who you are. It really is good timing.
“It’s exciting for me to have a new challenge and some different things to work on.”