Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest Column: From One Gator Fan's Perspective...

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By David Wisener

The Florida Gators have a head coach who is passionate about winning but seems lost when it comes to addressing major problems.  The team is incredibly talented, with a string of Top-10 recruiting classes.  The competence of many of the assistant coaches is in question.

While this description accurately reflects the current state of Florida football in 2010, it also applies to the state of Florida football in 2004, Ron Zook’s last year.  Granted, Urban Meyer is no Ron Zook as he has proven that he can actually win championships as a head coach, but there are many disturbing parallels between where Florida fans found themselves at the end of Zook’s tenure and where we find ourselves now.

My desire is to actually understand what is happening to an incredibly talented team that is two years removed from a national championship.  I am not interested in venting frustration, and I believe Urban Meyer is capable of fixing the problems with the program, if he is willing.  As much as Gator-haters want to pile on Meyer as being gimmicky and overrated, you simply can’t have the track-record of success Meyer has had everywhere he has coached and not be a blasted good football coach.  Some perspective is called for here.

We should first attempt to understand the sources of Meyer’s past success.  Up until this year, as an assistant coach and a head coach, Meyer simply out-worked the vast majority of his peers.  His work ethic, determination and desire to win are rare.  As most Gator fans know, for health reasons, Meyer has had to step back from his normal work routine and is very much in a mid-life crisis, trying to find a way to be healthy and successful at the same time.  He is not settled in his own skin, which can’t help but translate in some ways to his team.

Meyer’s high level of involvement and intensity most likely helped compensate for any short-comings that were present in his assistant coaches in the past.  Meyer preaches fundamentals of blocking, tackling, and knowing your assignments, which ideally is mainly taught by assistant and position coaches.  If the quality of your assistants is lacking, however, it is hard to say what your players are really being taught if you aren’t on top of them all the time as a head coach.  Meyer has had largely high-quality assistant coaches in the past, but the jury is out on his current crop.  This is his first UF staff:

2005 UF Coaching Staff

•    Steve Addazio – Offensive Tackles / Tight Ends (current Offensive Coordinator / Offensive Line coach, UF)
•    Stan Drayton – Running Backs (current Running Backs coach, UF, after leaving for same position with Tennessee)
•    Billy Gonzales – Wide Receivers (current LSU wide receiver coach, who left UF after a falling-out with Meyer, allegedly over Meyer’s promotion of Addazio to Offensive Coordinator in 2009…hmmm…)
•    Chuck Heater – Recruiting Coordinator / Cornerbacks (current Co-Defensive Coordinator, UF)
•    John Hevesy – Centers / Guards (current Offensive Line / Running Game Coordinator, Mississippi State)
•    Doc Holliday – Associate Head Coach / Safeties (current Head Coach, Marshall)
•    Greg Mattison – Co-Defensive Coordinator / Defensive Line (current Defensive Coordinator, Baltimore Ravens)
•    Dan Mullen – Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks (current Head Coach, Mississippi State)
•    Charlie Strong – Assistant Head Coach / Co-Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers (current Head Coach, Louisville)

Three coaches remain on the staff (not really sure why Meyer allowed Drayton to leave then come back, but he did).  Three are now college head coaches and one a defensive coordinator in the NFL.  The coaches Meyer has hired or promoted to replace those who departed have not exactly been known as up-and-comers, nor have they necessarily any experience coaching their particular positions.  The list of current coaches, followed by some critiques:

2010 UF Coaching Staff

•    Steve Addazio – Offensive Coordinator / Offensive Line
•    Zach Azzanni – Wide Receivers
•    Stan Drayton – Running Backs
•    D.J. Durkin – Outside Linebackers / Special Teams
•    Teryl Austin – Defensive Coordinator
•    Chuck Heater – Co-Defensive Coordinator / Defensive Backs
•    Scot Loeffler – Quarterbacks
•    Dan McCarney – Assistant Head Coach / Defensive Line
•    Brian White – Tight Ends

Addazio is obviously the most-maligned of the group.  He served as a pretty solid offensive line coach when that was his lone responsibility, but he has not shown any acumen for being an offensive coordinator.  He does have experience, though, as he served as offensive coordinator at the football powerhouse of Indiana from 2002 – 2004 before joining Meyer’s staff (note that he was fired at Indiana along with Head Coach Gerry DiNardo – not necessarily the best of omens when you can’t hack it at a bottom-tier Big Ten school).

Meyer’s choices to fill the defensive coordinator position after Charlie Strong left were peculiar, to say the least.  His first choice was George Edwards, who at the time was Inside Linebackers Coach for the Miami Dolphins.  Edwards had previously been a defensive coordinator in the NFL for one season and is a veteran coach, but most likely accepted the job at UF as he was most likely about to be fired by the Dolphins, whose inside linebackers had been performing poorly.  Edwards was on the job for less than a month before accepting the position of Defensive Coordinator with the Buffalo Bills, who currently have arguably the worst defense in the NFL. 

Meyer’s choice to replace Edwards was Teryl Austin, a young defensive backs coach who has no experience as a coordinator at any coaching level.  Austin was the Defensive Backs coach with the Arizona Cardinals and has coached in two Super Bowls, one with the Seattle Seahawks and the other with the Cardinals. 

The position coaches are a hodge-podge of question marks and solid coaches.  Azzanni was a grad assistant with Meyer at Bowling Green, but the apex of his career before coming to Florida was as Wide Receivers Coach at Central Michigan.

Loeffler has a decent resume, as he was quarterback coach to Tom Brady and Chad Henne at Michigan, but he was also Quarterback Coach of the Detroit Lions during their 0-16 campaign a couple years ago.  Meyer hired Loeffler on the advice of Tim Tebow, who really liked Loeffler during his recruiting experience with Michigan – whether Tebow’s love translates into solid coaching is a question mark, especially in light of what we have seen from John Brantley this season. 

Durkin is another former Meyer grad assistant at Bowling Green, who was recently Defensive Ends and Special Teams Coach at Stanford. 

White is immensely experienced, having served as Offensive Coordinator and Running Backs Coach at Wisconsin for six seasons, which included coaching Heisman Trophy Winner Ron Dayne.  He was named 2004 Assistant Coach of the Year (maybe Meyer should promote this guy – just a thought). 

McCarney and Heater have proven to be great coaches over the last few seasons.

Most of the question marks on the coaching staff appear to be at the top of the chain: Meyer, who is reinventing himself; Addazio, who is in over his head; and Austin, who has no experience.  It seems to me Addazio ought to return to coaching the offensive line only, and perhaps White should be given a chance as offensive coordinator.  This is unlikely, though, as the offenses he ran at Wisconsin were the opposite of the Spread-Option.  It’s still too soon to tell whether Austin has what it takes to be a defensive coordinator, but this is an unfortunate time to be figuring that out along with the other coaching issues.  Whether Meyer is able to successfully reinvent himself has yet to be seen.  The answer for this year is, “No.” 

Meyer has also been blessed with inheriting and recruiting incredible talent.  His Utah teams had Alex Smith at quarterback, who went on to be a number one overall NFL Draft Pick.  His first Florida team had a two-year starting quarterback in Chris Leak and quite a few talented players from Zook’s high-profile recruiting classes.  Depth was lacking, but the cream of the crop was pretty good.  Obviously, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin are two of the most talented college football players of all time.  The current Florida team does not lack for talent, but it does not have a Tebow or Harvin, which don’t come around every recruiting class.

Many fans and pundits point to the losses Florida has had to the NFL Draft as reason for a down-turn.  In part, I disagree: in the past, programs such as Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, and USC were able to reload instead of rebuild, even when losing massive amounts of players to the Draft.  What Florida has suffered from more than a loss of talent is a loss of leadership.  The talent is there, but I see no leadership from any players on the field.  There are big-time players like Ahmad Black, Jeff Demps, Janoris Jenkins, and Will Hill, but no leadership. 

This is the unseen side of recruiting classes: you can recruit all the physically gifted and talented four- and five-star players in the world, but if you don’t have any leaders among them, they aren’t going to rise to the occasion when it’s needed and play up to and above their potential.  No one has replaced Tebow or Brandon Spikes, and from a distance, I can’t see anyone stepping into these roles in the near future, either.  The best recruiting classes aren’t the ones with the best athletes, but the ones with the best mixture of athletes and leaders – the unheralded guys are really important, too.

Lastly, one does need to question Meyer’s offensive philosophy.  The Spread-Option worked marvelously when Tebow and Harvin were running the show.  On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine any offense that wouldn’t work marvelously with those two in it.  The body of work we have seen minus Tebow and Harvin has not been compelling.  Even with top-flight athletes like Demps, Chris Rainey, and Andre Debose, the Spread-Option does not appear to consistently work against SEC defenses.  Demps is one of the fastest college football players to ever play the game, yet he can not consistently out-run SEC defenses to the edges. 

It appears evident that elements of the Spread-Option can work, but the offense as a whole requires many special parts to operate at a high level.  Meyer’s philosophy of matching his offense according to the personnel he has appears to be baloney, as he has been insistent on running variations of the Spread-Option with pro-style quarterbacks Leak and Brantley.  It would seem to be wiser to focus on recruiting the players to match the system, yet even this is suspect, as the long-term viability of this particular system is in question.

It should be comforting to Gator fans that the problems facing the program are surmountable, and Meyer is the right coach to address the problems, if he is physically able and willing.  Hopefully, recent occurrences will serve as a huge dose of humility to a successful coach who may have been tempted to start thinking he had everything figured out.  The changes needed to return to championship-level success should not be drastic.

First, a consistent offensive philosophy is needed, not one that is “dictated by the personnel.”  The personnel-dictated philosophy has only provided train wrecks on offense when a pro-style quarterback is taking the snaps (the possible exception being the 2006 national champions, but if we recall, the offense was suspect all year until the Ohio State game).

I personally think keeping elements of the Spread-Option would be a good idea (which would also require that the Gators not recruit pro-style quarterbacks), but that an emphasis on implementing much more base, under-center, I-formation and Pro-Set formations would be ideal.  Meyer has talked of this in the past, but it hasn’t happened.  Without Tebow, the Gators have lacked the ability to pound the football, which is a necessity in the SEC – it’s great to be faster than everyone else, but I think we all should have learned by now that when a fast object hits a wall, the wall wins.  Power and physicality are still the foundations of football.

Addazio can’t continue as offensive coordinator.  I’m not advocating firing him, but let him go back to focusing on the offensive line.  He did well there when that’s all he had to worry about. 

Recruit and develop leadership.  Don’t just focus on the athletic freaks, but the quality kids who could lead people through a brick wall.   Instilling a work-ethic should also be paramount, as the Gators have had quite a few players who relied on raw skill alone (I’m looking right at you, Carlos Dunlap).  It would also probably be a good idea to recruit players interested in finishing their degrees, as opposed to looking for the first opportunity to jump to the NFL.  I would think it’s pretty obvious that, on average, kids with a commitment to school are likely to play harder and be more invested in team pride than those looking out for making a dollar.  The best teams are usually not the most talented, but the most committed.

Finally, and most importantly, Meyer has to determine who he’s going to be.  He needs really special assistants if he’s going to continue with a “hands-off” approach, and he doesn’t have enough of those right now for that to work.  The risk then becomes losing those assistants, which inevitably happens if they’re any good. 

Meyer can focus on developing quality assistants, which could arguably be what he is now attempting to do, but during these times he will need to play a more active role with the team.  It is only when he has adequately developed or hired the right coaches that he can become more removed in certain areas, which makes coaching more of an art than a science.  The problem may be, however, that Meyer doesn’t have enough artist in him and only knows one way to be successful.

Here’s hoping that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

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