GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This is the time of year Gators coach Will Muschamp has one eye focused on the present and one on the future.
It was that way a year ago as Florida prepared to face Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Beating the Buckeyes was important — Florida won 24-17 — but so was determining which young players were most ready to contribute in the future.
Cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy opened the most eyes during those Gator Bowl practices, and not only did he receive significant playing time against Ohio State, he also entered his sophomore season as one of the underclassmen Florida’s coaches trusted.
Purifoy started 11 games this season and delivered the goods by finishing fourth on the team with 51 tackles with a team-high three forced fumbles and two blocked kicks.
Muschamp reminded the team about Purifoy’s rise during last year’s bowl practice prior to the Gators starting to prepare for their Jan. 2 matchup against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
“We’ve really challenged our younger players to step forward and understand this is another spring practice for them,” Muschamp said. “It’s another 15 days of practice. They have a great opportunity to springboard themselves into the offseason program and really put a mark on our mind as a staff where they are as a player.”
Freshmen running back Matt Jones, offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard are first-year players expected to have expanded roles next season. It’s also a chance for players redshirted this season to climb the depth chart heading into spring practice such as offensive lineman Jessamen Dunker, defensive back Brian Poole and linebacker Bryan Cox Jr.
Back at work
The Gators practiced for the fourth consecutive day Monday and have four more days of practice before breaking for the holidays.
They will turn their focus to preparing for Louisville on Tuesday, according to Muschamp. Still, they won’t dive deep into the game plan for the Sugar Bowl until they open practice in New Orleans on Dec. 27.
“[Practice] was more like training camp practices, kind of like spring ball, just getting back to the fundamentals and basics and not worry about our opponent as much,’’ Muschamp said of the past four days. “I don’t like focusing too early on a bowl game because I think the players get very stale with the preparation.
“They get tired of watching the same film over and over and over. You’ve got to be able to work some good-on-good work. We will continue to sharpen our skills by working on each other as opposed to scout teams.”
Once in New Orleans, the Gators will practice at the Superdome other than for Dec. 30. The Saints host Carolina that day and the Gators will move to New Orleans’ practice facility.
Freshman cornerback Willie Bailey plans to transfer to another school.
“He and I met last week and he felt like he wanted to move on,’’ Muschamp said Monday. “We’ll support him in that.”
Bailey was redshirted this season after enrolling at UF in January 2012 from Hallandale High in south Florida. At 6-foot, 172 pounds, Bailey was not projected to crack the starting lineup next season with Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson, Purifoy and injured Cody Riggs all set to return.
Muschamp said the Gators are healthy other than for redshirt junior linebacker Jelani Jenkins (foot) and redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Ian Silberman (shoulder). Both players recently had successful surgery and will not play in the Sugar Bowl.
Meanwhile, offensive lineman Matt Patchan (pectoral muscle) has returned to practice but his status for the Sugar Bowl remains uncertain. He missed the entire season.
Another player back on the field is long-snapper Drew Ferris, who suffered a broken clavicle in the season opener against Bowling Green. A redshirt sophomore, Ferris was the long-snapper for field goals and punts in all 13 games last season.
Muschamp’s staff is considered one of the strongest in the country. That often means calls from other coaches looking to add to their staff.
Muschamp is glad to take the calls.
“It happens all the time,’’ he said. “We’ve got a good staff and a lot of people want them to coach at their place. We’re very content here, and I certainly feel like we’ll have our full staff intact as we move forward.”
Hamdan to coach in bowl
Muschamp said Bush Hamdan will coach receivers in the Sugar Bowl. Hamdan was named interim receivers coach prior to camp when former receivers coach Aubrey Hill departed.
While Muschamp recently hired former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips as recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, Phillips is focused on evaluating personnel and recruiting and will not coach the bowl game.
“I just felt like from a knowledge standpoint and he deserves it,’’ Muschamp said when asked about Hamdan. “He’s a guy who has been here and done an outstanding job. Him not getting hired didn’t have anything to do with what he has or has not done. He has done a good job for us, and he is a real good football coach.”
Muschamp said the hiring of Phillips happened smoothly. He called to let Phillips know he was thinking of him after Kentucky let him go and the conversation turned to the Gators.
“He just wants to be a football coach and affect young people’s lives in a very positive way,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s exactly what he told me, and I’ve seen nothing but that since I’ve got here. I told the receivers you’ve got a month to go audition. You’ve got 15 practices to go play real well and to get a great first impression on your future position coach.”
Quotes of note
“I don’t even like to think about it to be honest.” — Muschamp on prospect of life after senior kicker Caleb Sturgis, who in Muschamp’s two seasons has hit 45 of 53 field goals
“I’m just really proud of his effort. Matt had surgery on his groin last January and it really slowed his offseason development. He answered every call. In talking to opposing offensive coaches, they’ve got to account for him. Generally, you don’t hear that much from an offensive coach talking about a secondary player.” — Muschamp on junior safety Matt Elam, Florida’s first first-team All-American on defense since 2009
Muschamp recognized the eight players who graduated over the weekend: Jon Bostic, Frankie Hammond Jr., Omarius Hines, Omar Hunter, Lerentee McCray, Sam Robey, Patchan and Sturgis. “I’m really proud of these guys,’’ he said. … Muschamp does not plan to address the status of any players that might be contemplating leaving school early to enter the NFL Draft until after the Sugar Bowl. … Muschamp said freshman K Austin Hardin is healthy after straining a hamstring in midseason; Hardin and walk-on Brad Phillips are the leading candidates to replace Sturgis next season. … Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who suffered a late-season ankle injury, is 100 percent according to Muschamp. … With 34 players on its roster from the state of Florida, Muschamp considers Louisville and head coach Charlie Strong as good competition on the recruiting trail. … Miami native Teddy Bridgewater is the Cardinals’ starting quarterback and Florida’s defense has to be good in the secondary to contain him. “He really makes their football team go,’’ Muschamp said. “Very accurate with the ball. A lot of those passes are vertical throws. They are not intermediate or short throws”