By the time midseason rolled around in 2013, trying to follow the football season of the Florida Gators was almost more than one could bear. By the time it was over, the Gators had a seven game losing streak and offensively were mired in the worst exhibition in moving and scoring than we had seen in decades. After lots of changes in the offseason, Quinton Dunbar thinks things will be fun again.
Seven losses in a row was unfathomable after winning 11 of 13 games a year earlier. It was a 30 year low in terms of losses for the program. The players felt it more than anyone.
"When you're losing it's never fun,” Dunbar said in an interview session last week. “We felt bad. Who would like to lose?"
As bad as it was, changes needed to be made. Staff changes were implemented, the team was made to try and understand the importance of playing for the University of Florida. Most of all, they knew they had to get over it, to put it past them and at the same time, it makes them mad enough that they know they won’t let it happen again.
"We buried it in the summer, but we know we're going to have to face it at some point, so we just use it as motivation, really,” Dunbar said. “Nobody wants to be 4-8. We think about it. We bring it up at times because we still got that sour taste in our mouths from last year. We feel like we're going to get revenge."
It got to the point on offense a year ago that the Gators couldn’t get out of their own way on offense. Finishing 113th in the country offensively of 123 programs, by the end of the season, one that was filled with tons of injuries as well, the Gators couldn’t pass the ball or run the ball with any kind of consistency.
A new offensive coordinator, a healthy roster, and a more wide open offense later, the Gators are feeling better about themselves, even if they haven’t played a game yet. A lot of that comes from new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper who has taken a lighter approach to introduce an offense that spreads the ball around and looks to make a huge improvement over a year ago.
“I feel like everybody is buying into Coach Roper,” Dunbar said. “I feel like everyone believes in his plan. Everybody believes in him and everybody wants to go out and play for Coach Roper because he's a fun coach.
"He's a very exciting coach. You're going to get the same thing from him every day, which is a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, so we look forward to going out there to play for him?
Energy is a big part of the new offense. A year ago, the Gators were content in running as much clock as possible, rely on the defense, and win close games. After four years of subpar offense, things have changed and head coach Will Muschamp says he understands that the Gators need to score points and put pressure on the other team from both sides of the ball.
In the offseason, Roper and company have worked a long time on installing an offense that will put pressure on defenses by running at them really fast. Snapping the ball regularly under 18 seconds after the previous play has ended. Dunbar believes that will add to the advantages this offense will have in 2014.
“We want to play fast,” he said. “The faster we get, we feel like the more we have the edge on the defense. Coach Roper preaches that every day, continue to tempo up, and continue to be fast.”
Roper was the coordinator at Duke before coming here and his team scored a ton of points often times not having the caliber of athletes that the teams they played had. The speed of which they attacked was a big part and Dunbar believes the gators in on one offseason in the new offense, can run the offense just as fast as the Blue Devils.
“I think we can,” he said. “We just gotta continue to get reps and continue to practice on it.”
In the spring we definitely saw a different offense on the practice field at Florida. It’s an offense designed around short passes instead of a hardnosed running game, but the offense also has a good deal of long passes in the framework that should make Gator fans excited again to watch that side of the ball.
And the receivers have not only started liking what they are doing, they are showing their like for it with production on the practice field and play making ability we haven’t seen in years in Gainesville.“I feel like we’re playing at a high level right now,” Dunbar said. “I feel like everybody’s making plays, everybody’s competing, everybody wants to go out there and make that play.”
Two guys that they needed to break out seem to be doing it now. Will Muschamp said on Friday that sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson were pressed into duty a year early in 2013 and now the two receivers are coming into their own. Dunbar agrees.
“Those guys are very good players, they’re playmakers and they’re going to be a very big part of the offense,” Dunbar said of Fulwood and Robinson. “They can do things that other guys can’t do.
“He’s a freak athlete,” he said of Robinson. “I mean, he can do things that other guys can’t do as far as like jumping for the ball and adjusting his body in the air.
"Ahmad Fulwood is a very mature kid. He came in and he was like one of the older guys. He did what he had to do, go to classes things like that. I feel like he can do nothing but go up."
Fulwood has been starting opposite Dunbar during fall drills. He is a guy that can really stretch the field with his long strides and surprising speed when he gets things going. He also has a legitimate 6-foot-4 frame that makes for a big target for quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Dunbar will be in his third year as a starter and has passed on some tips along the way to young Fulwood.
“Just to continue to push yourself,” he keeps telling the young guy. “You’re going to have bad days and you don’t want to dwell on them. Just continue to look forward and continue to make the next play if you didn’t make the pervious play.”
After the dismal season a year ago it is sometimes easy to forget about all of the injuries. The Gators faced completely debilitating injuries and none more than that of starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel spent so much of the preparation time with the offense that anyone but him throwing the ball in practice and games made things awkward.
“It was very tough,” Dunbar said of Driskel going down in game three against Tennessee. “Last year you get all this work with this particular guy, you think this guy is gonna be there the whole season and then when he goes down and you didn’t get that many reps with the second string guy, it’s kind of hard to have a connection with that guy because you haven’t built that bond over the whole summer. It was very hard.”
And Driskel has been working on his relationship with the guys he throws the ball to, often turning to a friendly game of Texas Hold ‘em during down time.
"We have a bond on the field, but also off the field,” Dunbar said. “We play poker from time to time at his house and things like that."
We have seen Driskel make just about every throw in the book. He has a big time arm and can throw a laser for 30+ yards. The one pass that has needed work has been the deep ball, one that will allow his receivers to run under it. Dunbar says Driskel worked hard on this flaw in his game.
“It comes from the offseason; we threw a lot of deep balls,” Dunbar said. “Probably 10-15 a day after weights, something like that. You can tell that it’s paying off. The timing is down with the receivers and the quarterbacks.”
“You can see we’re going to take a lot of shots this year. It’s very key to this offense to open up everything else.”
All of the work leads to a season that can’t get here fast enough for Dunbar. It is a season he hopes can lead to some goals he has had since arriving at Florida in 2010.
"I'm just looking forward to the season, going out there to have fun for my last year,” he said. “And hopefully we can get an SEC championship. That's my main goal to get an SEC championship.
"I feel like it's been a long time coming. But I feel like we have the players, we have the coaches to get there. So we'll see."