GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators held their 12th practice of camp Tuesday and have two more scheduled this week before Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut gives fans a final glimpse of the team this spring.
Four months after the end of the program’s first losing season in 34 years, the anticipation is high among fans and media to see what the new-look Gators look like.
Fourth-year head coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday the Gators have made significant strides this spring with the addition of three new coaches — offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, offensive line coach Mike Summers and special-teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler — and a group of young and hungry players ready to put the recent past to bed.
”We’re going to have a good team next year,” Muschamp said Tuesday. ”We just need to continue to progress. The summer months are going to be critical for us to continue to take advantage of those opportunities to take the next step offensively and then defensively as well.”
The Gators scrimmaged Saturday and Muschamp saw signs of a much-improved unit than the one that finished last in the SEC (316.7 yards per game) a season ago.
Roper’s up-tempo offense and the return of quarterback Jeff Driskel from a broken leg have provided a boost, as has the improvement of a young receiving corps.
However, the Gators are far from a finished product. They have nine early enrollees in spring camp and will add the rest of the 2014 signing class over the summer.
The defense is young and features several position battles that won’t be resolved until fall camp and the offensive line remains an area that could include more tinkering come fall.
The biggest improvement Muschamp mentioned Tuesday is the team’s attitude. By the end of a 4-8 season in 2013, the Gators were a team in need of a recharge, finishing the season on a seven-game losing streak.
Players have embraced the opportunity to look ahead instead of backward.
”I think our attitude is much better and much more positive, as far as the offensive side of the ball,” Muschamp said. ”I think our guys have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing. I think we lost that late in the year and that’s changed automatically without having to do anything.”
The locker-room dynamic has also changed in Muschamp’s view. While that happens annually as players are lost to graduation and attrition, a new group of leaders has emerged with eyes on a quick return to prominence.
”I think that you know when your best players are good guys, you know and they understand how to compete,” Muschamp said.
”You look at Vernon Hargreaves, that’s a guy that goes out and competes every day. Dante Fowler is playing at a different level. Chaz Green, competing extremely hard. Max Garcia, Jeff Driskel, Quinton Dunbar, guys that I see that are maybe older guys in the program but are going through spring ball hungry.
”They’re competing, they’re playing fast, playing physical. When that makes those other guys, those younger guys, those fringe guys to come and compete like they do, when your best players are competitive guys that go out there and compete all the time, that’s a good thing.”
UPDATE ON KICKERS
There are several ways to break down Florida’s kicking game in 2013.
Start with the cold, hard facts.
The Gators scored 30 points fewer than their opponents on field goals. Florida made just 12 of 22 attempts (54.5 percent) while opponents made 22 of 23. Only Mississippi State (9 of 20, 45 percent) fared worse in the SEC.
Florida kickers Austin Hardin, Frankie Velez and Brad Phillips were fine on chip shots — the trio hit 8 of 8 from 20 to 29 yards — but on longer attempts no one knew where the ball was headed. The Gators made only 4 of 14 attempts from beyond 30 yards.
To say the Gators missed kicker Caleb Sturgis — he made 24 of 28 in 2012, including 8 of 9 from beyond 40 yards — was perhaps the understatement of the season.
With the close of spring camp on tap Saturday for the annual Orange & Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gators coach Will Muschamp is ready to find his permanent replacement.
Muschamp saw signs of hope during the Gators’ scrimmage Saturday.
”Austin was 7 of 9 field goal-wise. He missed from 47 and 41. Frankie was 7 of 8 and missed from 46,” Muschamp said Tuesday. ”So I thought we’ve made some improvement as far as being more accurate in kicking the football and some red-zone things and converting and getting points there. I was pleased with that.”
Hardin was 4-for-12 a season ago but 0-for-6 from 40 or more yards. Velez, a walk-on who got a look with Hardin struggling, made 6 of 8 last season, including a 44-yarder at LSU that was Florida’s longest field goal of the season. Phillips was a senior last year.
Hardin and Velez are the only experienced kickers on the roster. Walk-on Danny Krysalka, a redshirt freshman from Ocala Forest High, has not seen game action.
Meanwhile, the outlook for punter Kyle Christy has improved. Christy had an outstanding sophomore season in 2012, averaging a school-record 45.8 yards per kick including 27 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Christy averaged only 39.6 yards on 21 punts last season and lost his job at midseason to freshman Johnny Townsend.
With Townsend sidelined following wrist surgery, Christy appears to have regained his form.
”Kyle Christy punted the ball extremely well, really hit the ball well,” Muschamp said of Saturday’s scrimmage. ”He’s really punted well. I think he’s had a good spring, I really do. His confidence is up and he’s done some nice things.”
A sophomore that started as a freshman, Hargreaves is locked in as a starter at one of the cornerback positions. The other cornerback job remains open.
Freshmen Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson are two of the nine early enrollees getting a look, as is redshirt freshman Nick Washington.
Muschamp’s philosophy is that the best players will start and if that is a true freshman, so be it.
”Those guys are definitely in the mix,” Muschamp said. ”They are good players. Eye control is a major issue. When you get into scrimmage situations and the first time you are on your own and Coach (Travaris) Robinson is not standing right behind you telling you what exactly to do, that’s what happens.
”You lose your eyes, you start watching the quarterback, you become a spectator in a lot of situations. Jalen made a really nice play on a double move, knocked the ball away. It was an outstanding play. Duke continues to play well, he is playing nickel and corner. I’m very pleased with those guys.”
— Junior running back Mark Herndon suffered a high-ankle sprain during Saturday’s scrimmage and is out. ”No surgery needed, but he will probably miss the end of spring. He got rolled up on pretty good,” Muschamp said.
— Sophomore linebacker Daniel McMillian is day-to-day with an ankle injury.
— Defensive back Marcus Maye (hamstring) is questionable for Saturday.
— Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Rod Johnson (head) remains out.
QUOTE OF NOTE
”I think offensively we’re further ahead than where I thought we would be at this point as far as from an execution standpoint. There’s still some things that we’ve got to get better and clean up, but I’m pleased with where we are.” — Muschamp