Florida starts over under amid low expectations

Florida has a new coach, a new offense, a new defense and plenty

of new starters.

The Gators also have some new motivation. It stems from

relatively low expectations.

For the first time in eight years, maybe even longer, Florida

has little preseason hype. No Heisman Trophy hopefuls. No players

on the All-Southeastern Conference first team. And the Gators are

widely picked to finish third in the Eastern Division.

First-year head coach Will Muschamp, the former coach-in-waiting

at Texas, believes the lack of attention might be a good thing. His

players, though, insist they will use it as fuel while preparing

for the Sept. 3 season opener against Florida Atlantic.

”It is motivating when these guys are saying we’re not good

enough, we don’t have enough star power, we don’t have enough this

and that,” guard Ian Silberman said. ”Maybe we don’t. But there

have been some great teams win without star power, without a great

quarterback, without a great receiver. As long as we come together

as a team and play to our ability, I don’t think there’s anyone who

can touch us.”

The Gators open fall practice Saturday – amid all sorts of

questions.

Muschamp kicked his best defender, cornerback Janoris Jenkins,

off the team in April following his third arrest in less than two

years. Florida also lost a linebacker, a punter, both safeties, two

defensive linemen and three offensive linemen. Throw in a new

coaching staff and about 70 players on scholarship, and there’s

legitimate reason for doubt.

”We did lose a lot of key players, but we have great talent

here,” safety Josh Shaw said. ”We know what people are saying

about us. We talk about it, but we don’t let it get the best of us.

At the end, it’s about what you’re doing, how you’re progressing

and what you show on the field.”

Muschamp does have one thing in his favor: The element of

surprise.

Muschamp closed spring practice for the first time in school

history, so outside the two-hour glimpse into Florida’s revamped

offense and defense provided by the spring game, media, fans, and

most importantly, fans don’t know what to expect.

”No one knows what we’re doing, what we’re going through, so I

think we can surprise a lot of people,” Shaw said.

Florida hasn’t been in this position very often, at least not in

recent years.

The Gators have been a perennial favorite in the SEC and have

landed numerous players on the preseason All-SEC team. But most

believe this will be a rebuilding year for the Gators.

Urban Meyer stepped down after six years and two national

championships.

Florida took a chance by hiring Muschamp, who had no previous

head coaching experiencing. He responded by filling his staff with

experienced coaches, many of whom have years of NFL experience.

But how quickly can they turn things around.

The Gators finished 8-5 last season, with most of the problems

coming because quarterback John Brantley was misfit in the spread

offense. It didn’t help that running back Jeff Demps missed several

games because of a foot injury and running back Chris Rainey was

suspended five games.

But Brantley got the brunt of the blame. He completed 61 percent

of his passes for 2,061 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10

interceptions. He became the first player to lead the team in

passing and throw more INTs than TDs since Kyle Morris in 1988.

Brantley considered transferring following the coaching change,

but decided to stick around when Muschamp hired former Notre Dame

head coach Charlie Weis to run the offense.

”My confidence is a lot higher now since the new coaches

arrived,” Brantley said. ”When the new coaching staff got here,

it was all new to me. Now that I have spring football under my belt

and have had all summer to study the playbook, I think as a team

we’re ready to go.”

That remains to be seen.

The one spot that seems ready to carry the Gators is the

defensive line. With Sharrif Floyd, Ronald Powell, Dominique

Easley, Omar Hunter, Jaye Howard and William Green, the Gators have

the talent and the numbers to dominate the line of scrimmage. That

certainly raises expectations on the defensive side of the

ball.

But it does little to change Florida’s overall perception.

”Everybody’s doubting us,” Silberman said. ”We don’t have

enough experience, we’re too small. As long as we can put it

together on the field, we’ll be all right.”