Gators have buried the past ... literally

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The end of one of the longest offseasons in Florida football history was in sight.

The Gators suffered eight long months of pain and frustration following a 4-8 record in 2013. Eight months of being the butt of jokes from every rival fan base. Eight months that burned every UF player, coach and staff member. It finally ended as head coach Will Muschamp stepped to the podium to address the media hours before Florida opened its preseason camp last week.

After an offseason spent dissecting everything that went wrong, Muschamp and his players had had enough.

They were tired of talking about it. Every explanation for last season sounded like an excuse. Every promise that this season would be different sounded like hollow words.

This was a team dying to get on the field, prove itself and start truly forgetting about 4-8.

"That's something we sort of buried to start the summer," Muschamp said.

His players took to that task literally.

"We physically buried it," safety Keanu Neal said. "We went out to the practice field and dug a hole. We talked about it prior to it, dug a hole, buried it. Coaches and players. We wrote it on a piece of paper and buried it."

It started with a players-only meeting.

"It was a symbolic ceremony," defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. said. "Everybody was able to vent and got what they wanted off their chest and were able to talk to each other."

Their thoughts were written down and tossed into the hole in the practice field.

"Things that affected us last year that we didn't want to bleed into this year," Neal said. "Mental toughness, like a woe-is-me attitude, selfishness, things like that."

Although the wounds began to heal and players reforged their bonds, the offseason of their discontent continued. Those two numbers, four and eight, refused to go away. The historic loss to Georgia Southern kept coming up.

"Then Florida State goes and wins the national title," Fowler recalled. "It couldn't get any worse."

Now the Gators say they've turned all of that misery into fuel for the 2014 season. They buried 2013, but it won't be forgotten.

"It was great motivation through spring and the offseason workouts," Muschamp said, "but something we've still got to deal with. I mean, it's there.

"I addressed our team about our preparation, about our attitude, about our embracing adversity, having a competitive edge every day. To stick your head in the sand and pretend it was all injuries, that's not right. You will fool yourself if you believe that."

To a man, the players swear team chemistry is better, that they're closer than ever after playing paintball, fishing, going to the beach and to movies.

"Your typical team-building chemistry things," Fowler said, "but it really brings you together."

Senior fullback Hunter Joyer, who had originally committed to play for Urban Meyer in 2010, says the team chemistry is finally right.

"It’s the best it’s ever been since I’ve been here," he said. "A bunch of guys are close. There’s really no gap or separations between people.

"It actually feels like what I thought it would feel like when I got to college.”

Much of that, the player say, goes back to the day they dug a hole and buried the 2013 season.

"We want to be more of a team this year," Neal said. "We want to play as one this year. I think we will.

"With the 4-8 season we didn't completely forget about it. I think it's going to help us a lot and give us that want-to. I think it's going to help us a lot to prove people wrong and have a successful season this year."