ORLANDO, Fla. — Bowl games often don’t carry much incentive or significance for coaches, but Friday’s matchup with Michigan is meaningful for Florida coordinators Doug Nussmeier and Geoff Collins.
UF’s previous opponent and its next one happen to be Nussmeier’s last two employers. For Collins, it’s an opportunity for his unit to stake its ‘B.D.N’ claim against the Wolverines’ No. 4-ranked defense.
Nussmeier and Gators coach Jim McElwain faced a familiar foe in the SEC Championship against Alabama, where both served as offensive coordinator prior to their last job. Nussmeier, who was at Michigan in 2014, gets a double dose of it in the Citrus Bowl.
“We were actually talking about that,” McElwain said. “I don’t know how many times that has happened, but I would guess that it hadn’t been very often.
“I know he really enjoyed his experience there. I know that he’s looking forward to seeing some of the guys who were there when he was there, too. But it is a little different.”
Different as it may be, the game will be business as usual for Nussmeier. Coaching against Michigan won’t feel odd to him.
“Not really. That’s football, you know,” Nussmeier said. “I’ve got a lot of respect, obviously, for their program and their players. I love those kids in that locker room. But I want Florida to win this game.
“I’m on Florida’s team and I love our players. I’m excited about the opportunity. Looking forward to competing against that defense we competed against every day in practice last year.”
That Michigan defense was taken over this season by former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, now the head coach at Maryland. Durkin spent five years with the Gators, but he joined the Wolverines after McElwain made his first hire in Collins — whom he worked with briefly at Alabama — and charged him with running the UF defense.
“I think the great thing is his energy and what he brought,” McElwain said of Collins. “Working in a similar system that we were both involved in … obviously, there was some carryover, which I think was good. And his flexibility to say, ‘Oh, this is how you call it, let’s keep it that way. I’ll learn it.’
“I think sometimes coaches might be the most inflexible people there are. Everybody’s nomenclature is all over the board, right. So you learn one thing and rather than you learning something (new), you force 60 other people to learn what you know. You can mesh a lot of those things together, and I think that’s the flexibility that he brought to these guys.”
Collins said he and his defensive staff adopted the verbiage and terminology Florida’s defenders used under Durkin. That allowed the players to focus more on their game instead of learning a completely new system.
“We inherited a great group of defensive players,” Collin said. “In our first unit meeting we told them we can’t change everything, nor do we want to.
“How can we improve those little things that can take us to the championship level? And, to these guys’ credit, they bought in. … You saw that improvement across the board and that kept us as an elite defense.”
Offensively, however, was a different situation for Nussmeier. He inherited players that didn’t need to maintain their level of play — they needed to improve it drastically.
Despite some late-season struggles, Nussmeier was able to produce only Florida’s second 1,000-yard running back (Kelvin Taylor) since 2004 and its best true freshman wide receiver (Antonio Callaway) since 1994.
“He’s done an outstanding job,” McElwain said of Nussmeier. “Obviously, everybody knows kind of where we were at going into it. We’ve done some really good things. There’s things we’re going to get a lot better at. And yet, those parts are coming.”
The Gators had it rolling through the first half of the season with quarterback Will Grier, who threw for 283 and 271 yards and six total touchdowns in his last two home games. His suspension proved to be a big blow to the offense, which regressed with Treon Harris under center behind an inexperienced offensive line.
“We’re very young,” Nussmeier said. “The thing that we found over the last half of the season, we’ve got a lot of growth to do. We need to grow. A lot of young guys are playing … and it’s a learning curve. Every day is new.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to improve every day and days we have, days we haven’t. And that’s the thing, to find consistency in performance. … The great thing about us is we get to practice against our defense, so that helps.”
Collins has taken a group that ranked 15th nationally in total defense last season and improved it to No. 6, Florida’s second highest ranking in that category over the past six years. The Gators will look to outperform Michigan’s defense Friday and prove they have the best unit in the country, which has been a season-long goal.
“I think (ESPN analyst) Kirk Herbstreit gives out an award each week,” Collins said. “He gave an award, an individual award, to Florida’s defense. I thought that was the biggest compliment you can have because our guys play as one.
“They set a standard, this is how you’re going to play defense at the University of Florida. … I think that’s probably one of the reasons why our group has played so well.”