- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Somehow, Florida coach Will Muschamp has done a good job blocking out the Gator Nation seemingly tumbling down around him.
Only a couple months removed from an embarrassing 4-8 campaign that delivered the Gators' first losing season since 1979 and no bowl appearance for the first time in more than 20 years, Muschamp has stayed steady. He's a prideful man who breathes football and removed himself from last year's tumult almost immediately.
His job is very much on the line in 2014, but as Muschamp walks through Florida's football offices toward his own lavish hideaway, Muschamp's stride is steady, his head up. He greets an assistant with a massive smile before delivering a brawny handshake to a reporter. He's calm, yet still possesses an edge about him -- a certain endearing intensity. His office remains as tidy as any coach would allow, but there's no unnecessary clutter.
That's just the way he wants his coaching life as he enters a critical fourth season and spring in Gainesville. A year ago, he eyed a national championship after an 11-win season and a BCS bowl berth. Now, he's stitching together a squad mangled by injuries and self-doubt.
"You are what your record is," said Muschamp, whose team lost 15 players to season-ending injuries, including 10 starters, last season and had 25 players miss a combined 126 games due to injury. "The worst you can do is have the Band-Aid approach of, 'Well, we had a bunch of guys get hurt.' That's absolutely the worst thing you can do because that creates release syndrome for how miserable the year was."
The hard-nosed, robustly built Muschamp, who was born in Georgia but grew up in Gainesville, insists that isn't occurring. Players are going through the process of improving, shutting out last season to get faster, stronger and turn their attention to 2014.
He knows that outside his program, negativity is pounding at the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, demanding change. Some wanted him fired and everyone wants this storied program fixed. Muschamp, who has gone 22-16 during his three seasons at Florida, knows he must prevent that toxicity from touching his players.
"They understand what's out there," he said. "The biggest thing is to stay process-oriented in what we do and our approach.
"To me, more than anything, is focus in the now, not in the what if. We can't get into the what-ifs of life. Let's just get into the now, and that's going to help us as we move forward."
That's why workout intensity has surged and offensive players and coaches are learning a new scheme under a new coordinator. That's why the mentality is about getting better, not winning anything. Victories won't come without vast improvement, both physically and mentally.
"I think we're coming around as a team," said starting quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of the 2013 season with a broken leg. "I don't think we're coming around an individual or a new coach. I see a lot of guys who are embarrassed about last year and are ready to get back on track and win some games because we all know that the Florida Gators aren't supposed to be a 4-8 program."
Muschamp can see leaders forming. Adversity, including a historically humiliating home loss to FCS Georgia Southern and a seven-game losing streak to end 2013, pummeled this program last year. Through any sort of adversity this team has faced during his tenure, Muschamp said he's found guys he could really depend on. Last season might muddle the vision, but Muschamp sees the right pieces for a turnaround.
"It's kind of like when there's water in a boat," he said. "When the water starts leaking in the bottom of the boat, those rats float to the top and you start to see those rats. And those rats are not here anymore, so we need to move forward.
"When you start questioning their effort, that's when you start questioning the buy in. I never saw that [last season]. I see a lot of guys who have lot of pride about playing at the University of Florida and understand about competing and moving forward. We have a bunch of guys committed to this program."
That commitment stretches beyond players. Coaches are held accountable, too. For all the injuries Florida suffered, the absolute necessity for the Gators in 2014 is enhancing every aspect of the offense. That's why Brent Pease was replaced by Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator. The former Duke coach is installing more of a spread approach with more shotgun, tempo and zone-read in hopes of rectifying an offense that has ranked in the 100s nationally in each of Muschamp's three seasons.
Roper's scheme won't get away from Florida's rugged rushing approach, but it should help Driskel, who will be 100 percent for spring practice, be more comfortable, see the field better and be an actual throwing threat. It'll also help him use his legs more, an element that has always made Florida's offense more potent.
"Moving forward, we're in a better situation for them," Muschamp said of his offense.
Really, Muschamp feels that way about his entire team. The Monday following Florida's season-ending 37-7 loss to Florida State, Muschamp called a team meeting to discuss Florida's present and future and said he immediately felt his team's resolve and sensed the woe-is-me attitude disintegrating after delivering a "very to-the-point and matter-of-fact" message about the state of the program.
There's still too much to fix in Gainesville for one meeting and one offseason training regimen to handle, but the chemistry is evolving. Players are responding and appear to be quietly rallying inside the Swamp.
"We're going to bounce back from it," defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Sometimes you need things like that just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody's humble, everybody's ready, everybody's a team guy. I'm really looking forward to it. It should be fun."
23hEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf