GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The atmosphere at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday afternoon was much different than nine years ago in Tiger Stadium.
Still, the message from Gators coach Will Muschamp was the same.
Muschamp was defensive coordinator at LSU when the Tigers opened the 2003 season against Louisiana-Monroe in front of nearly 90,000 fans at Tiger Stadium. Shortly after LSU’s defense took the field for the first time, a lightning bolt struck outside the stadium, sending fans scurrying for cover.
Officials immediately halted the game for more than two hours. Muschamp recalls that by the time LSU’s 49-7 win was finished, it was around 1:30 in the morning. The delay didn’t seem to bother the Tigers, who went on to win the 2003 national title despite their stormy start.
“Our players came out of the locker room and played very well,’’ Muschamp said. “They responded very well and I think you take every moment you can as a teaching standpoint to explain to them the situation and that’s what I tried to do.”
Fast forward to Florida’s first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday afternoon inside an empty Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and Muschamp pushed the rewind button when a weather delay pushed back the start of the scrimmage 30 minutes as lightning hung in the vicinity of The Swamp.
Rather than have the charged-up Gators sit around biting their nails or kicking the walls, during a team meeting Muschamp told the team the story about how LSU’s 2003 started.
More than anything, the impromptu meeting was a chance to make the most out of what could have been wasted time for players amped for their first game-day simulation of camp.
“Everybody is going to deal with adversity in a game,’’ said first-year strength-and-conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman, also at LSU in 2003. “When you are dealing with adversity, how are you going to overcome it? That’s what Coach was talking about. This could happen in a game this year.
“We’re already warmed up and boom, boom, boom – we’ve got the adrenaline flowing, you have to come in and you’ve got to settle down and reset your mind again. We’re trying to hit them from every angle and eliminate all the gray areas so they are prepared for anything. Coach is all about not only the ‘how’ but the ‘why’ in what we do. It’s about making everything a learning experience for these guys.”
Once the weather delay ended, the Gators took the field and scrimmaged for around two hours inside a sweltering Swamp.
Muschamp was impressed by the way the team responded to the delay after being ready to take the field and then having to turn the volume down for half an hour.
“I thought they came out with high energy,’’ Muschamp said. “It was hot and humid after the rain. It was the first time we’ve really been in the afternoon. We were still in school this past week so we practiced at night. This is the first time we were in the heat and I thought we responded very well.”
Junior running back/tight end Trey Burton, sweat still pouring off his face, didn’t view the delay as a distraction. Instead, a chance to adapt to a situation they might encounter during the season.
“We know every game isn’t going to be perfect weather-wise,’’ Burton said. “The leaders and the older guys knew we had to scrimmage. We needed this game-situation type stuff and I feel like it went really well. It should be a good test for the season if something does happen like this.”
While Muschamp prefers to watch film after a scrimmage before providing too much analysis, his initial reaction after Saturday’s scrimmage was positive.
“I want crispness in and out of the huddle offensively [in a first scrimmage]; I want a good run game, which I thought we had,’’ he said.
While Muschamp watched the scrimmage from the field, running backs coach Brian White, offensive coordinator Brent Pease and defensive line coach Bryant Young coached from the press box. The game-day simulation seemed to help.
“We had good timing with our substitutions, we had good communication defensively. We didn’t blow anything. There weren’t a lot of blown assignments from what I could see,’’ Muschamp said. “We had good crisp tackling for a first scrimmage, which is always a concern. So overall I thought it was very positive.”
WHAT ABOUT THE QUARTEBACKS?
The quarterback battle between sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett didn’t change after the first scrimmage. Both Driskel and Brissett took plenty of snaps on Saturday and remain in the hunt to start the season opener Sept. 1.
“You see some really good things and I think you see a closely contested battle,’’ Muschamp said. “We’ve got a tough decision. We can win with both guys. They are both very capable of moving and winning with this football team.”
Muschamp said earlier in the week not to expect a decision until after at least three scrimmages. He wants to have a full evaluation of both players.
“I always defer to the tape,’’ he said. “I tell the players, ‘the tape is your résumé. When I want to look at your résumé, I look at the tape. I don’t listen to what you tell me. I don’t listen to what any of your fans or your parents tell me. I watch the tape.’ ”
The Gators moved in together at a local hotel following Saturday’s scrimmage. They will spend the next week anchored at the hotel leading up to their next scrimmage on Friday.
The time together in camp is an important one in Muschamp’s view.
“It’s training camp,’’ he said. ‘That’s what you do. You bond with your teammates, you find out a lot about guys on the team you’ve never known and their backgrounds. You spend a lot of time together. I think it’s a very important part of the growing experience that you have as a player here at the University of Florida. We really enjoy this week as we move forward.”
Once they break camp at the hotel, the Gators will meet the public on Saturday at Verizon Fan Day following a practice at the Swamp from 9-11 a.m. that is open to the public.
“We’ll all be excited to have all the Gator Nation watching us practice,’’ Muschamp said. “I can’t wait.”