Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Six issues Muschamp must fix in 2014
By Jeff Barlis
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It will be no surprise to see Will Muschamp's name on every offseason list of coaches on the hot seat. Heck, his might even be one of the hottest in all of college football.
That's what happens when you go 4-8 and make the kind of history no one wants to talk about -- the program's first loss to an FCS team, the first loss at home to Vanderbilt since 1945, the first losing season since 1979 and the end of a 22-year bowl streak.
If Muschamp is going to keep his job, he'll need to engineer a big turnaround. Just making a bowl game with six wins would represent improvement, but it won't be acceptable with a frustrated Gator Nation. Visible signs of improvement will matter more than any specific win total, but eight or nine victories should do the trick. And the Gators could always cool Muschamp's seat significantly by beating Georgia and/or winning the SEC East.
With all that said, here are six things Muschamp has to fix if Florida is to rebound in 2014.
2013 was full of headaches for Florida coach Will Muschamp, and there are several things that need to be addressed to prevent a repeat in 2014.
Rekindle the flame: This one should be the easiest, as Gator players were angry and sometimes humiliated during the seven-game losing streak that ended the 2013 season. But the slate is now cleaned. There's nothing Florida can do about those bad memories ... except extract some revenge. Muschamp needs to plant a chip firmly on every Gator's shoulder and give them a mission to make a statement in 2014. Team unity should be at an all-time high, and anyone not on board should be thrown overboard.
Woe-is-me mentality: This issue is all about players' leadership, and during the losing streak Florida could not pull out of, it was obvious the Gators were severely lacking it. Muschamp decried a "woe-is-me mentality" that would snowball as soon as adversity struck. It happened in games, and eventually it engulfed the season. The Gators were mentally fragile, and by the end of 2013 many questioned the effort level and accused players of mailing in the season. To prevent such a disaster from ever striking again, Muschamp has to identify players with leadership abilities on and off the field and cultivate them as vocal motivators. The mantle of leadership cannot simply be passed down from one senior class to another, and neither can the coaching staff allow an entire class to be devoid of respected leaders.
The offensive line: No unit at UF is more important than the O-line. The fate of the quarterback -- of the entire offense -- rests upon this group improving significantly. Florida averaged 146.3 yards passing per game in 2012 and 170.9 YPG in 2013 under OC Brent Pease. Underneath those anemic numbers was an offensive line that rarely gave its quarterback a chance to throw, much less find a rhythm. Whoever Muschamp hires as his next OL coach has two herculean tasks -- find a blocking scheme that can keep quarterbacks clean, and develop redshirt freshmen and true freshmen to contribute as reserves immediately. Florida only has five linemen with starting experience among only nine scholarship linemen on the roster. More bodies will arrive in time for spring and fall practice, and they can expect to be thrown into the deep end with orders to swim.
Bring back the big play: Florida has the talent. It has the prospects. It's time for results. It's time for an offense to rediscover the forward pass. It's time for play-action fakes to actually open passing lanes. And it's time for a capable fleet of running backs to break off larger chunks of yardage. These are among the primary tasks of new coordinator Kurt Roper, who is sure to employ a balanced approach at UF. The Gators have more proven talent at tailback, but the last three years have shown that it's not enough to grind out games with such a small margin of error, and it's not a good strategy to run when every opponent knows a handoff is coming. Roper's play-calling will be the key to making the Gators dangerous (and, dare we say, fun) again. Taking shots in the passing game is nice, but what Florida needs even more than bravado is a reliable intermediate passing game.
Cut down on bad penalties: Florida has been among the nation's most-penalized teams under Muschamp. The Gators led the SEC this season with 89 penalties and lost an average of 59.2 yards a game. This is nothing new in the last 24 years, a point Muschamp made after this year's loss to Georgia when the Gators saw their comeback hopes end late with a personal foul. Offsides, delays, false starts, illegal procedures, and yes, personal fouls have seemed to crush momentum on a regular basis. Going back to leadership, this issue is a matter of discipline that must be addressed by coaches and team leaders. Muschamp has tried a myriad of approaches. He's brought officials to spring and fall camps. He and his coaches have texted players and created T-shirts to raise awareness, even tried to single out the guilty in front of the whole team. Nothing has worked, but Muschamp and Co. say they will continue to educate and emphasize the issue.
Find a place-kicker: Nothing was more soul-crushing throughout the 2013 season than Florida's inability to convert even short field goals. After four golden years of record-setting kicker Caleb Sturgis, a bumpy ride was expected, but not that bumpy. Florida used three kickers to no avail -- redshirt freshman Austin Hardin, ESPN's No. 1 kicking prospect in the Class of 2012; junior walk-on Francisco Velez and senior walk-on Brad Phillips. The Gators are certainly hoping to straighten out Hardin, who made just four of 12 field goals, and he'll work with new special teams coach Coleman Hutzler. This offseason the competition will start anew, but a new face could emerge. Former Virginia Tech kicker Brooks Abbott, a sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., who transferred and sat out this past season, said on Twitter he will enroll at Florida this summer. But before anyone's hopes get too high, Abbott never attempted a field goal for the Hokies, spending his freshman year as the team's kickoff specialist.
It's a long list. But if Muschamp can check off all of these items, Florida will be a lot more likely to return to respectability while he stabilizes his tenure. And, perhaps just as important, win back a lot of the fans he lost in 2013.