Becoming tough

NEW ORLEANS — After Florida head coach Will Muschamp stood at the media room podium in the south end zone of The Swamp and gave questioned his teams toughness at the end of last November, he met with the coaching staff to address how to fix it. The coaches immediately changed the layout of practice. The risk of injury was outweighed by the need to be more physical on both sides of the ball.

The Gators didn't have much depth in the trenches during the 2011 season. That's why practices didn't feature much contact or challenge the physicality of the team. As much as it pained Florida head coach Will Muschamp to go draw practices up like that, he knew it was the best route to keep his team healthy.

After an embarrassing 21-7 loss to Florida State last season, Muschamp didn't care anymore.

Practices had to change if his team was going to change. With only the Gator Bowl against Ohio State left to play, there wasn't as much of a risk. Practices involved as much physical contact as could fit into the time period. If the Gators were going to become the tough team Muschamp wanted, it would come from their time on the practice field.

"When we went into bowl practice last year for the Gator Bowl, ‘I said heck with it,'" Muschamp said on Tuesday morning. "This is what we're going to do. If we have an injury, we have an injury, but we're going to have to practice physical.?You can't talk about being physical. You can't convince yourself you're physical. You've got to practice that way. You've got to do it."?

The Gators still practiced hard during the 2011 season, but it's the contact that was limited. They would run through drills and walk through the game plan for that week's game. However, there wasn't as much man-on-man contact. They'd run through a play as if it was a game, but when it came time for players to hit, they were instructed to hold the ball carrier up.

Contact in the trenches wasn't encouraged either. And as a consequence of that, the Gators were whipped in the trenches while struggling to a 6-6 record in 2011 regular season.

"When we had more time to focus on it, I saw tremendous improvement," Muschamp said. "You look at the game last year (against Ohio State), we took seven minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter when they knew we were going to run it. I saw us making strides.?Our offseason program, I thought it was outstanding. Then going into spring ball, we had another physical, very physical, spring. So it carried over from the Bowl prep."

What started on the Jacksonville University football fields during bowl prep last season has carried the Gators to a berth in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. And it was obvious as early as the second week of the season, when the Gators went into a hostile environment for the first Southeastern Conference game ever for Texas A&M and did what they wanted on offense to run out the clock in the fourth quarter and secure a win.

That win made a statement of what the Gators would be — tough, road grading and tenacious near the line of scrimmage.

"I think the most pleasing results from this year other than winning games for me has been winning the fourth quarter," Muschamp said. "That's a huge emphasis on the football team as we entered the season — to be successful in the fourth quarter.

"There's a lot of factors that go into that. Number one, we're a year older, year more mature, year more experienced. We're stronger as a football team than we were a year ago. And that's also that's bred a little bit of a confidence factor with our players. And I think that the weight room certainly for us has been a good change."

It instilled toughness and the ability to prosper in tough situations on and off the football field under first-year strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman. The Gators were tougher, and without it, Wednesday night wouldn't be happening.

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