Muschamp has good reasons for offseason optimism


Published: Sunday, December 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 11:23 p.m.

Will Muschamp has been doing what coaches do this time of the year — recruiting. But there has also been time for reflection and self-evaluation.

He is moving forward with his search for a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach and isn't letting the negativity or noise in the system factor into his unbridled optimism for next season. Why wait for Hoover and SEC Media Days?

“People ask me, 'How can you be so encouraged?' ” he said. “I look at the players we have coming back. We're going to have 72 scholarship players practicing in the spring. And they are good players.”

Muschamp has put the 2013 season behind him, but he also knows — as George Santayana once said — that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Had Santayana been a 2013 Florida football player, he would have uttered those poignant words and then suffered a torn meniscus.

It was so bad this season, that Muschamp even received a call from Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, whose team suffered numerous injuries in 2012 and went 5-7.

“He said he couldn't imagine what we were going through,” Muschamp said. “I got a lot of calls like that. Everyone has injuries, but I had guys in this league who called and said, 'I don't know how I would have handled it.'

“It got to a point that when our trainer told me about Trey Burton (who suffered a shoulder injury in the first quarter against FSU), I just laughed.”

After one of the worst seasons in the history of Florida football, one that included UF's first loss to an FBS school, its first loss to Vanderbilt at home since 1945 and a third straight loss to Georgia, there are reasons to believe it will be better in 2014.

I mean, it has to be, right?

1. Bad news, good news

Every time a Florida starter went down, it meant that someone had to step into his place. In some cases, that meant a disruption of continuity. In others, it created a leadership void.

While the numerous injuries wrecked a promising season, they gave several players playing time they wouldn't have normally received. At the quarterback position alone, Florida knows now it can count on Tyler Murphy as an adequate backup to Jeff Driskel and Skyler Mornhinweg at least has three games of snaps under his belt.

“The obvious guy who benefited was Kelvin Taylor,” Muschamp said. “And (left tackle) Trenton Brown is a guy who would have played a little, but he ended up playing a lot.”

Muschamp also pointed to linebacker Jarrad Davis and defensive tackle Darious Cummings.

You add those players into a mix that returns most of the players who were injured last year and the freshmen who were redshirted, and Florida will be working with a pretty salty roster.

The only players who are not expected to be able to practice in the spring are running back Matt Jones, whose serious knee injury could hamper him into the 2014 season, and linebackers Matt Rolin and Alex Anzalone.

Muschamp told me he plans to bump the start of spring practice to later in the year to make sure Driskel is completely rehabilitated after his leg injury three games into the season.

2. New blood

There are certainly negatives when a team changes offensive coordinators because there is new terminology and a feeling-out process.

But once Muschamp makes what is likely the most important hire of his career, you have to think there will be an excitement level in a program that has spent the last four seasons running in mud.

There is nothing anyone can say about this year's wet garbage of an offense that can be construed as positive. Wait, here's one — the 2013 Gators averaged 6.7 yards and 9.2 points per game more than ... the 0-10-1 team from 1979.

I don't know if I'd go as far as to call the previous offensive staff dysfunctional, but there are too many reports about friction between offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis out there to believe it was warm and fuzzy.

Muschamp said there were arguments, but they happen all the time within coaching staffs.

“It's the easy thing to say when you're not winning,” Muschamp said. “When you're losing, everybody disagrees. I mean, did we have some arguments in the defensive staff room? Sure. Did we have arguments when we won 11 games in 2012? Sure. It happens.”

Pease and Davis were kind of a blind date. Muschamp thought they would work well together because he was friends with both of them. But several sources said the two didn't see eye-to-eye on much.

Whoever Muschamp hires as offensive coordinator will have major input into who the next offensive line coach is.

3. They're ticked off

One of the biggest things the Florida coaches will have to deal with is a football team that was mentally fragile at times this season. These Gators showed up in Columbia, S.C., but not in Columbia, Mo. They showed up for a quarter against FSU and a half against Georgia.

Once Driskel and Dominique Easley went down three games into the season, this team seemed to lose its edge and fire. The 2014 Gators should enter this season with a shoulder full of chips.

They have been laughed at and ridiculed nationally and shunned by their own fans. They had a historic season and not in a good way.

“These kids are pissed off,” Muschamp said. “They're going to pull together. We've got some hard-edged kids coming back.”

Nobody returns with a harder edge than the head coach. He may have tried to finish this season with blinders on, but he knows how noisy it has been in the Gator Nation.

Muschamp had a verbal confrontation with a fan in Jacksonville and told his fan base to “get a grip” after the South Carolina loss. He knows that the lunatic fringe — the kind of fans who complained during Florida's 13-1 season in 2009 — don't represent the core of the Gator Nation. But he also knows the empty seats mean a heck of a lot more than the blogs and fan forums.

That much negativity can get to a man, and it got to Muschamp.

“If there is anything I regret, I got too loose with the players,” Muschamp said. “There was so much negativity around, these kids were going through a lot. I tried to make it fun for them and they were used to me being a (bleep) for two years.”

4. It's not as bad as it looks

The 2013 schedule was set up for failure. Muschamp wasn't the first coach who had to battle a gauntlet, but for a team with a small margin for error and punch cards at the MRI store, this Gator team had to deal with something rare — playing as many regular-season games away from The Swamp as in it.

It was a schedule similar to the one Ron Zook faced in 2003 with a game at Miami in the second week of the season. But where this one got really ridiculous — thanks to the SEC office — came when Florida's beat-up team played one home game during a stretch of 48 days.

In 2014, the league has decided the Gators get to drop Arkansas, which went winless in the conference, and add Alabama, which has won a few games over the last five years.

(Cue Maggie O'Hooligan in “Caddyshack” — “Tanks for nuttin'. ”)

But even with games in Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee, the schedule is more manageable because there are seven home games, an open date after Alabama and no Miami on the schedule.

More than that, the SEC is about to lose a lot of great quarterbacks and leaders, including AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw.

5. It can't be this bad again

Every program has down years, and in the SEC where they eat their own young the feeding frenzy can be vicious when a team is struggling.

It's not as if Florida is the first SEC team to have a losing record. As Scott Carter of Gatorzone.com pointed out, there have been 173 losing seasons by teams currently in the SEC since Florida had its last in 1979.

Among the teams who have won national titles since '79 there have been 35 losing seasons, which goes to show you how it can come and go.

Muschamp and his team doesn't have to look far for great examples of turning it around quickly. Auburn and Missouri went from 2-14 in the league in 2012 to 14-2 in 2013.

They did it differently. Auburn changed coaches, but Missouri represents more of what Florida hopes it can do next year. In 2012, Mizzou was riddled by injuries. This year, Pinkel's team stayed reasonably healthy, especially up front.

Pinkel said in the days leading up to Saturday's SEC Championship Game that one of the keys for his team was not only having a healthy offensive line for games but for practices. Instead of worrying about their assignments, Missouri's linemen were trying to get better with each practice.

“We were healthy, could get better at communication, all those things,” Pinkel said. “That's been real, real important to our success this year.”

Meanwhile, Florida played the same starting offensive line in consecutive games only twice. And, of course, that was only part of the injury problem.

There have been those of you who have suggested that the blame lies with the strength and conditioning staff, but that's the same staff that received the credit for Florida's ability to win the fourth quarter the season before.

Sometimes, bad breaks just happen. Driskel's broken leg came on a scramble play when he was tackled from behind. Burton was injured at the end of a 50-yard run. Easley planted during a practice drill. I guess we should blame Jeff Dillman because Tyler Moore busted up his elbow in a scooter accident.

The truth is that 2013 was an imperfect storm. If anything bad could happen, it pretty much did for this team. Still, there are no excuses for losing at home to Georgia Southern. Zero-point-zero excuses. And no Florida team should ever be handled at home by Vanderbilt.

The 4-8 record was unacceptable, but there is nothing that can be done about it. The only thing Muschamp and his staff, both old and new, can do about last year is to not let it happen again.

“People didn't understand the magnitude of what these players were going through, but the kids did,” Muschamp said.

I have three words for them — shake it off.

It's over. Next season started on Dec. 1. The 2014 team can be the subject of segments on ESPN's 43 college football shows and USA Today and the college football blogosphere for the right reasons instead of the embarrassing ones.

And while coaching and luck and schedules and all of that matter, it's still up to these young men to take to heart the catchphrase of the great prophet Howard Beale in “Network”.

You all have iPads. Look it up.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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