Randy Shannon’s mission one day into his limited tenure as Florida’s head coach is clear: Forget what happened to Jim McElwain and get the team to forget, too.
Shannon emphasized what’s ahead in his first address to his players: the four remaining games that will determine Florida’s bowl eligibility, starting with this weekend’s contest halfway across the country against Missouri.
“Nothing matters but this game coming up against Missouri,” he told them. “You have a chance to play in another SEC stadium, another chance on the road, another chance to improve what we’re trying to get done.”
It was also clear Shannon, despite coaching the Gators on an interim basis, is making changes right away. Monday’s practice, for example, was held at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium rather than at the team’s practice facility like usual. Senior receiver Brandon Powell couldn’t remember the last time that happened. He also changed open-viewing periods of practice for reporters, changed schedules and changed duties.
He promoted defensive line coach Chris Rumph to his old spot as defensive coordinator. He promoted former Idaho head coach Robb Akey from defensive quality control to Rumph’s old job. And he said despite his focus on defense so far at Florida, he plans to get involved in the offense. This is his team, even if only for about a month.
“He’s definitely respected by all the players, and he brings a little swagger to the team,” punter Johnny Townsend said, “so it’s a good replacement for now.”
Another change is renewed competition, which players parroted after practice.
“How you practice is how you’re going to play,” cornerback Duke Dawson said. “So if you take any reps off, that’s reps that you are not going to get in the game. If you practice harder in a rep, regardless of whether you’re making mistakes or not, if you show you want to play and you’re putting that effort on film, then you’re going to play.”
That competition extends to quarterback, where Feleipe Franks has started all but one game this season. His backup, graduate transfer Malik Zaire, has started none. But Shannon said depending on how practice goes this week, that might change.
“We’ve got some competition at quarterback,” he said. “A lot of guys want to know what we’re doing at quarterback. My theory and my thoughts are you compete every day at practice.”
Players didn’t seem to feel like this is a new season or a new era despite the differences. They were blindsided by their coach leaving, sure, but they still know each other. They all still have the same skills. They all still share the same lockers.
And all of them said no when asked if this year suddenly feels like a second season with McElwain gone and Shannon making the calls.
“Same season. Same Gators, 2017,” running back Mark Thompson said. “We have a season to finish out, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
MAKE FLORIDA FUN
There’s rampant speculation about who Florida’s next coach will be, but on Sunday, athletics director Scott Stricklin emphasized four things about the search.
First, it will start immediately. Second, it will be national. Third, an announcement won’t be made while the new coach’s team is still competing in the regular season. And fourth, he wants whoever comes in to, above all, make Florida Gators football fun again.
“Being in this league for 25 years,” he said, “when Florida has been really good, from a distance it has looked really fun. And I want it to be really fun. Our fans, they deserve it to be really fun. I want our players and student-athletes to have a lot of fun.”
Some names being thrown around include Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, UCF’s Scott Frost and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. All are offensive-minded, which should theoretically lead to what Stricklin is looking for.
Townsend wasn’t completely in agreement with it being all about fun, though he understood Stricklin’s point.
“I think there’s definitely a fun part to it,” he said, “but I think it’s all focus during the season.”