No longer fragmented, Gators back for more

Since taking over as head coach, Will Muschamp has brought the Gators closer together. Kim Klement/US Presswire

There’s no getting around the divide that emerged in the Florida football program last season.

The Gators brought in a signing class that some of the analysts hailed as the most talented in college football history.

There was enough hype to fill the Swamp, not to mention a sense of entitlement that nearly drained the Swamp.

The mix of some of the new guys and some of the veterans had that oil-and-water feel, dealing a serious blow to the Gators’ chemistry.

What ensued was an utterly forgettable 2010 season by Florida standards, one that saw the Gators go belly-up offensively and lose five football games, including an unheard of three at home.

“I know I never want to go through anything like that again,” Florida sophomore linebacker Jelani Jenkins said.

When the smoke had cleared, Urban Meyer was no longer the Gators’ coach, stepping aside for good this time to address his health concerns.

And after a pair of national championships and three BCS bowl appearances in a dizzying four-year span, Florida’s program all of sudden looked mortal.

“I think we kind of relaxed, thinking teams were just going to give us the game because we were Florida,” senior running back Jeff Demps said.

The Gators weren’t necessarily in need of a talent makeover.

But an attitude makeover? The more you hear the players talk, the more it sounds like that was Will Muschamp’s most pressing order of business in taking over for Meyer.

“Last year, you could definitely tell that there was an older guy and younger guy thing going on in this football team,” sophomore guard Jon Halapio said. “This year, you don’t see that separation in classes anymore. We’re becoming one.”

The “older guys” agree, and they say Muschamp’s in-your-face approach and the way he pushes everybody has had a galvanizing effect on the team.

“The young guys had their issues, and the old guys had theirs,” Demps said. “That’s behind us now. We need everybody. It’s not a one-man show. In order for us to win, we’ve got to have everybody.

“That’s the only way with Coach Muschamp.”

As much as anything, some of the immaturity issues that plagued the freshmen a year ago have dissipated.

Muschamp also saw to it that the players spent more time with each other off the field this offseason. An old locker room at the stadium was turned into a state-of-the-art players lounge with a pool table, flat-screen television sets, Xbox game systems, computer access and comfy couches.

“You can see the outcome now,” Demps said. “It’s turned around like night and day. Everybody’s so much closer now, and guys are playing for each other.”

Sophomore defensive end/outside linebacker Ronald Powell, the top prize in that freshman class a year ago, concedes that he’s made more of an effort to get to know all of his teammates.

“A lot of times, to be honest, I was the type of guy who stayed to myself,” Powell said. “If a guy didn’t talk to me, I wouldn’t talk to him. Now, it’s like, “I’ve got to step in and be a leader and still be me.’ I’ve tried harder to get to know guys and what they go through, stuff like that.”

Muschamp has been around enough championship teams to know what they look like from a chemistry standpoint.

He said the true test is yet to come.

“I think we’ve made some tremendous strides, but I think we’ll truly test that in practice 17, 18 and 19 of training camp and when we face some adversity during the season,” Muschamp said. “I’ve had a lot of players come to me and say, ‘We’re a lot closer football team that we were at this time a year ago.’ I think that’s great, but actions are louder than words.”

Senior defensive tackle Jay Howard said several players have cashed in on the clean slate provided by Muschamp and the new staff, and it’s made the competition on the practice field that much more intense.

“You’re going out and having to prove yourself every day,” Howard said. “The coaches are going to play the best players. There aren’t going to be any politics involved, and I can tell you that there’s not anybody out here anymore feeling like they deserve to be with the 1’s.

“That’s got to be earned. These coaches have pretty much humbled all of us. You don’t take anything for granted and better work hard every day.”

It’s what Muschamp calls being a “blue-collar football team,” which has been his calling card everywhere he’s been.

“That’s what I am, and I think players are a reflection of their coach,” Muschamp said. “We’ve recruited good enough talent. We’re going to continue to recruit good players, and if we’ll get them to buy into that work ethic and lunch-pale attitude, then we’ll achieve some special things.”