Will Muschamp is a tell-it-like-it-is guy. Always has been and always will be.
So when he says he feels “leaps and bounds” better about the Florida football program than he did this time a year ago in the immediate aftermath of his first signing day as Head Gator, you know he means it.
“The number one thing is that I have a better feel for our football team,” Muschamp said. “We were a disconnected group this time last year. We were not on the same page. We were pulling in a lot of different directions. We lacked trust in the program. We lacked discipline in the program, and we were careful to make decisions for the long term.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’re building a program and not a team. We’re building this for the long haul. We’re building this into something that’s going to withstand, and that’s what I’m excited about. We’re doing it the right way, and with this recruiting class, we certainly helped ourselves.”
Even with the Gators’ ho-hum 7-6 finish last year in Muschamp’s first season, a sturdy foundation was laid.
In fact, one of Muschamp’s best decisions might have come off the field, and it’s a decision that sent a very pointed message to his players.
The Florida Way isn’t just another catchy phrase.
Muschamp kicked his best player, All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins, off the team prior to the season following Jenkins’ second marijuana-related arrest.
Everybody sat up and took notice -- the Gators’ current players, prospective recruits and certainly the parents of those prospective recruits.
“We’re going to do it the right way, and we’re going to get the right kids in our program,” Muschamp said. “I always tell the staff, 'Don’t fall in love with the film. Let’s find out about his character. Let’s find out what kind of person he is. Let’s see if he’s going to fit in our program.'
“We’re going to coach them hard here. So if they can’t handle hard coaching, they don’t need to come.”
One of the reasons Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley pulled the trigger on Muschamp, who had no previous head coaching experience, was Muschamp’s passion for recruiting and the way he relates to players.
This was Muschamp’s first full class at Florida after he had just a couple of months to assemble a class last year, and it checks in at No. 4 nationally, according to the ESPN recruiting team.
Now, there’s not a coach alive who gives any credence to recruiting rankings if his class is nowhere to be found in the top 25. By the same token, if a class is ranked out the roof by the experts on signing day, that always seems to find its way into the coach’s signing day news conference comments.
In Florida’s case, can anybody remember the last time the Gators weren’t ranked in the top 10 nationally on signing day?
Muschamp understands how the recruiting game works, and he’s the first to dismiss the rankings, even with his first full class brimming with stars.
“I’m not into rankings, because we’ve all seen the eight-star player who comes in and has a hard time adjusting from being a big fish in a little pond, and all of a sudden he’s in a pond where there’s a lot of fish the same size as him, and, psychologically, he has a hard time adjusting,” Muschamp said.
“There’s also the other end, where you sign guys you think may develop into decent players, and all of a sudden, they walk in there as freshmen and they’re playing and starting for you.”
Muschamp said two prime examples of the latter were defensive back Jerraud Powers and defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks at Auburn when Muschamp was the Tigers’ defensive coordinator.
“I don’t know that we beat anybody for those guys, but they were really good football players and dedicated to working hard,” Muschamp said. “They had their heads on straight and are still playing on Sunday afternoon.”
What Muschamp does take away from Florida’s lofty ranking this year is that there’s an air of excitement surrounding the program.
“If you go out there and you don’t recruit well from a perception standpoint, that means people aren’t excited about you,” Muschamp said. “People have some doubts. You’ve created some concerns.
“I think this class shows the amount of excitement around Florida football.”
The priority this year was to beef up in both lines of scrimmage, and Muschamp includes tight ends on offense and linebackers on defense in that group.
Having D.J. Humphries of Charlotte, N.C., and Jessamen Dunker of Boynton Beach, Fla., already on campus and available for spring practice is huge. Humphries was rated by ESPN as the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, while Dunker was rated as the No. 4 offensive guard.
Dante Phillips of Venice, Fla., is an ESPNU 150 lineman who could wind up playing on either side of the ball, while Jonathan Bullard of Shelby, N.C., and Dante Fowler of St. Petersburg, Fla., are a pair of ESPNU 150 defensive ends the Gators think will fit perfectly into their defense.
Muschamp said the Gators were so thin up front both offensively and defensively last season that they had to back off pretty much all contact during the middle of the season and practice more like NFL teams.
“We just didn’t have enough linemen,” Muschamp explained. “When you have to practice like that, you look at the number of reps that you miss with the young players. Football is a developmental game, and we missed a lot of development with our young players, because most of our young players were playing.
“At the end of the day, I think we improved our team where we needed to the most, and that’s on both lines of scrimmage with 14 big or mid-skilled type of players.”
Never completely satisfied, Muschamp said he would have liked to have had two more offensive linemen.
“We’re probably going to lose four to five offensive linemen next year,” Muschamp said. “I wish we could have added more numbers there. Obviously, we could have used a playmaker outside, and I’m really excited about the next year’s running back class in the state of Florida. I feel comfortable with Matt Jones being the only back that we took.
“You’ve always got to develop and look for line of scrimmage guys, guys that can rush the quarterback and cover guys. You never have enough of them.”
The same goes for the next step of the recruiting process. As important as it is to sign great players, what’s most important is what you do with those players once they get on campus.
“Until we get them on the grass and we coach them and start developing that player-coach relationship, it’s really hard to put your finger on something and say this is a successful class,” Muschamp said. “We’ll know about this class in two or three years by the number of championships we’ve won at the University of Florida.
“That’s how we’re judged.”