A little more than four months removed from Florida’s worst season in over three decades, Will Muschamp promised Gators fans they would be pleased with the product on the field in 2014.
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, an announced attendance of 35,834 Florida faithful walked away intrigued.
While the Gators couldn’t win their own spring game — the annual Orange & Blue Debut comically ended in a tie with Blue team and the Orange team knotted at 23-23 — Florida’s offense may no longer be a complete joke.
“Extremely pleased with the day offensively,” Muschamp said of UF’s revamped attack. “After 15 practices with how far we’ve come, I attribute a lot of that to [offensive coordinator] Kurt Roper and an offensive staff and the job they’ve done.
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“Our kids have been very receptive. They have confidence in what we’re doing, and I think it’s a good fit. I really do.”
Under Roper — UF’s new play caller from Duke and David Cutcliffe protégé — Florida debuted its up-tempo, shotgun spread offense with encouraging results.
The Gators ran a 111 plays and their stable of tailbacks — Kelvin Taylor, Mack Brown and Adam Lane — looked shiftier and much more comfortable working with newfound space.
The trio combined for 156 yards and two touchdowns, which came in a high-scoring first half.
Florida’s first-team offensive line, much-maligned after surrendering 27 sacks last season, appeared sleeker and stouter, while a trio of sophomore wideouts — Demarcus Robinson (31-yard catch-and-run touchdown), Ahmad Fulwood (game-high four receptions) and Chris Thompson (12-yard touchdown) — emerged as potential playmakers.
In all, it looked like a real offense — something absent the past four falls in Gainesville.
“We did have a great spring. We’re reenergized,” said Jeff Driskel, Florida’s redshirt junior quarterback who returned to the field for the first time since breaking his leg against Tennessee last season.
“We felt like it’s a new start and there’s something about it where you can get rolling. It’s been a lot of fun and I think our guys had fun making big plays.”
It was only a spring scrimmage, yet the Gators avoided turnovers (just one interception by true freshman Will Grier), penalties and kicker Austin Hardin was a perfect 4-for-4 kicking field goals.
“If felt like we were really efficient,” said Driskel, confidently.
“We moved the ball really well. We only turned it over one time and we only had one penalty on offense. … We believe in [Roper’s] scheme. When you turn on the film of Duke for the last few years, they spread the ball around, they give it to a bunch of guys and a bunch of guys were making big plays. So when you see that from another team, it’s exciting when you look at our skill players on offense.”
The offense’s performance might deserve an asterisk, however, as Driskel & Co. were aided by the fact tackling appeared optional and four of Florida’s top defensive players — cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, end Dante Fowler Jr. and tackles Leon Orr and Darious Cummings — didn’t dress out for the game.
Driskel, who displayed no ill effects from his injury, completed 18-of-32 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown, while chipping in 34 yards on the ground. He wasn’t particularly sharp early (three-and-out in the opening series including a near pick-six), but the veteran signal caller eventually found a groove and flashed his duel-threat talents in Roper’s tailored scheme.
The Gators exited the scrimmage comfortable, confident and optimistic for the fall, and while Muschamp refused to temper expectations he did acknowledge unknowns remain.
“We’ve still got a way to go, 112 days until we report [for fall camp],” he said. Our older players understand the importance of this time of year. Understanding in all three phases taking the next step schematically, being in shape, being ready to go, and understanding what it’s going to take to be successful and win in [the Southeastern Conference].”