GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida receiver Andre Debose strolled into the team’s annual media day, realized he was on the wrong side of a table and simply jumped across.
It was a fitting entrance considering the Gators are counting on a huge leap this season.
Coming off the program’s worst showing since 1979 — a 4-8 record that included seven consecutive losses and a humbling setback to Georgia Southern — Florida is banking on a quick turnaround in 2014.
“All of the components are there,” coach Will Muschamp said Sundday, a day before the team opens fall practice.
Health could be the key element.
The Gators dealt with a rash of injuries in 2013, none more troubling than quarterback Jeff Driskel’s broken right leg. Driskel missed the final nine games, and Florida was unprepared to play without him. Adding to the team’s offensive woes were injuries to running back Matt Jones and offensive tackles Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries. DeBose missed all of the season with a knee injury, the latest in a string of physical problems with the former blue-chip recruit who was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
Without them, a pedestrian offense became downright pitiful. The line was pushed around. Backs found few, if any, holes. Receivers struggled to get open, and even when they did, there was no one to effectively deliver the football.
The Gators averaged a little more than 17 points a game without Driskel and ended up with an offense that ranked 113th in the nation.
“To stick your head in the sand and pretend it was all injuries, that was not right,” Muschamp said. “You’ll fool yourself if you believe that.”
Muschamp responded by overhauling his offense. He fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis, replacing them with former Duke coordinator Kurt Roper and former USC line coach Mike Summers, and installed an up-tempo, spread scheme designed to better utilize Driskel’s talents.
“It’s a chance to really get into a groove as a quarterback,” Driskel said. “We’ve got a lot of good players. I think we need to have a good camp, stay healthy and grow as an offense and a team. We just have to put it all together.”
Moving past last season might seem like the thing to do for Florida.
But Muschamp and his players aren’t quite ready to punt it away.
“People say ‘forget it,’ but we’re going to use it as our alliance, make it our strength and keep it in our side pocket,” defensive back Keanu Neal said. “We’ve got some revenge to seek. A lot of people are doubting us, a lot of people don’t believe in us after 4-8. We’re going to prove everyone wrong.”
If so, they might also save Muschamp’s job.
Muschamp is 22-16 in three seasons in Gainesville and squarely on the proverbial hot seat heading into the season.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley won’t put a number of wins on what it would take for Muschamp to stick around, but the AD made it clear that things have to look considerably better or change will be inevitable.
Muschamp welcomed the challenge, even calling this his most complete team and, by far, the best offensive unit he’s had in four years.
“If we stay healthy at the quarterback position, we’re going to win a bunch of games,” he said.
The Gators open Aug. 30 against Idaho. The schedule gets tougher from there, with games against Alabama (Sept. 20), LSU (Oct. 11), Georgia (Nov. 1), South Carolina (Nov. 15) and defending national champion Florida State (Nov. 29). It’s a daunting slate for sure, but one Florida will have to handle to take a huge step forward and get back to its winning ways.
“This is a really hungry team,” defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. “Guys aren’t used to losing. We weren’t brought here to lose like that. This team is really determined to win. We’re going to be good. We’re not going to talk a lot.
“We’re just going to take it a game at a time and do our job. And good things are going to happen if everyone does their job.”