Durkin impressed with player focus

When the Gators closed practice on Wednesday in Birmingham, interim head coach D.J. Durkin wanted his team to know how much he appreciated what they were doing.

Bowl season could have gone in the tank for Florida. The coaching change brought plenty of uncertainty to the program, and a lot of it is still there. Assistant coaches are searching to find out where they’ll be coaching next season. Most players -- outside of the quarterbacks and linebackers -- don’t know who their position coaches will be.

Playing in the Birmingham Bowl is better than the situation for Florida last year, winning only four games and missing any bowl, but motivation can still be a question in the lesser bowl games. However, D.J. Durkin doesn’t see a problem in any of Florida’s bowl practices.

“Our kids have done a phenomenal job,” he said. “I’m very thankful to them for that. You can easily see it going in a couple directions, but they haven’t. They’ve responded and practiced, played and met just like we were going to play for a championship. That says a lot about our kids and our staff as well because those guys have handled this really well. We’ve got a great group of people to work with.”

There are plenty of reasons teams don’t have focus as they prepare for bowl games. The coaching transition only complicates things. It can be even easier for seniors or players bound for the NFL Draft to fall into the trap and let their mind wander to their future.

But Durkin hasn’t seen that happen. Players are playing and working hard for their teammates, wanting to end a dismal season on a positive note.

“It’s your teammates,” Durkin said when asked why players haven’t lost focus. “They’re the guys you play with, go to battle with. That’s why you play this game and do what you do. Those guys feel that accountability to your teammates. They won’t let outside circumstances change that for them.”

No one will know for sure until the Gators take the field on Saturday at 12 p.m. EST against East Carolina. The Pirates bring a dynamic passing game led by senior stars quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy, both playing in the final game of their heralded careers. If the Florida focus isn’t there, the Pirates are potent enough to run the Gators off the field.

Durkin has made sure his team heard about that in the weeks of preparation. In his first chance to serve as a head coach, he’s handling it as well as possible. Florida defensive end Dante Fowler even said on Wednesday that he believes Durkin is fully capable of being a head coach. After joking that he hopes Fowler becomes an athletic director one day and hires him, Durkin acknowledged how beneficial this time has been for his career.

“When you go through it, it forces you to think of things differently as a head coach that you haven’t had to do before,” Durkin said. “It’s the day-to-day decisions that you never would’ve thought of before. It’s been a great experience that I’m very thankful for.”

Despite the positive experience, it has become almost impossible for Durkin to return to the Florida staff next season. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has a background with linebackers, and the Gators reportedly hired Randy Shannon on Wednesday to coach the team’s linebackers. That would seem to eliminate any chance Durkin stays on Jim McElwain’s staff, and rumors of him rejoining Jim Harbaugh at Michigan started long before the official announcement of the new head coach was made.

Durkin said that Kurt Roper would run the offense fully on Saturday. His role as head coach will simply be to manage the time and know when to use timeouts.

To help preparing for the role, Durkin got some help from an unlikely source. East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill served as the interim head coach in Texas Tech’s bowl game, leading them to a 41-31 win over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.

“We’ve talked at length about it,” Durkin said. “He’s one of the great guys in our profession. His record speaks for itself. He has been great for me.”

Quotes courtesy of GatorVision.

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