Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The second practice of the day was over and it was getting late as players trotted past Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Two buses hummed nearby waiting for everyone to board for the trip back to the team’s hotel.
Quinn walked slowly with redshirt senior defensive end Earl Okine, sharing as much knowledge as he could before they boarded one of the waiting buses. Finally, Quinn stopped. He needed to show Okine something that couldn’t wait.
On this night Quinn stressed to Okine the importance of lining up right against certain formations. On another night the topic might be hand placement, pad level or any number of Quinn’s favorite subjects that relate to being a good defensive lineman.
“This has been big week for me to evaluate players,’’ Quinn said. “We’ve put stuff in, so can they do it? Who is going to help us moving forward and who has kind of taken a step back?
“I’m having a lot of fun with the guys. You still have to know which buttons to push on different guys. You have to first be a teacher. That was one of the first things I really learned in pro ball. The players gain respect for you if you can really help them in their career. As a coach in the NFL, that’s how you gain respect.”
After 10 seasons in the NFL, Quinn returned to college last year to rejoin Will Muschamp as Florida’s defensive coordinator. Quinn and Muschamp worked together in 2005 in Miami and quickly realized their shared affection for all-things-defense.
In their first season together with the Gators, Florida’s defense was the team’s shining star. The Gators finished in the top 10 nationally in overall defense and with 10 starters returning, the unit often gets top billing when the subject is the 2012 Gators.
For Quinn, the decision to leave Seattle after the 2010 season and reunite with Muschamp to become a defensive coordinator for the first time has been a rewarding cross-country move.
In a meeting with the defensive ends prior to Tuesday night’s second practice, Quinn held class in a small meeting room adjacent to the Gators’ locker room inside The Swamp. Class was in session and Quinn was Professor of D, spending the meeting on pass-rush techniques.
A few minutes earlier Quinn shared the stage with Muschamp in the team’s new defensive meeting room, reviewing Tuesday morning’s practice and urging the players to come out strong in the evening session.
The two work off each other well – Muschamp the fiery authoritative voice and Quinn the professional teacher.
“It doesn’t matter what we call, if we’re all on the same page, we’ll be right,’’ Muschamp told the group as Quinn highlighted plays on the two large screens at the front of the room.
Soon, Quinn broke away with the defensive ends/bucks.
As Gators Ronald Powell, Okine, Dominique Easley and Lerentee McCray listened to Quinn talk about schemes termed “Ollie” and “Dagger” from their front-row seats, Quinn quizzed them fast and furious.
Later, Quinn was asked if he would have used a different approach if the room had been filled with NFL veterans like Jason Taylor and Kevin Carter.
“I really haven’t changed my approach in dealing with the players,’’ Quinn said. “Sometimes in the NFL the retention is easier. You can get to the upper level things faster.”
Despite the loss of pass-rush specialist Powell to a knee injury at the start of the season, Quinn is optimistic the young Gators defense is way ahead of where it was a season ago.
Quinn installed a pro-style defense that is more complex than anything the Gators had seen when Quinn began installing it in the spring of 2011.
“I thought learning defense was harder than learning offense,’’ said sophomore tight end Clay Burton, who started his career at UF as a defensive end but has moved to offense to provide more depth.
“It’s pretty difficult at times [to learn],’’ senior safety Josh Evans said. “It’s a different defense. It was tough adjusting but now I like it. It’s a pro-style defense and it gets you ready for the next level.”
Quinn and Muschamp use the “next level” as constant motivation for the players. The Gators’ coaching staff is loaded with NFL coaching and playing experience, including former 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle Bryant Young as defensive tackles coach.
“I feel like my job is to take their career as far as it can go,’’ Quinn said. “If it’s just being a really good job player or being a really good role player or being a starter, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Some of it is hard on them.”
That was the case Tuesday morning when Quinn spent much of the Gators’ morning practice working with the defensive front on playing the run strong. It was the kind of practice that required grit and effort in the trenches. The players looked ready for a break when it was over.
“It was physical,’’ Quinn said. “It was hard on the guys. I’ve always liked that practice.”
Quinn was in his element. The former defensive lineman at Salisbury (Md.) State may have gone back to school, but the game remains the same. The goal is that Year 2 is more productive than Year 1.
And Year 1 was pretty good considering the circumstances.
“It’s nice to have some depth to train and push. I thought the guys had a really good summer,’’ Quinn said. “You can tell they worked hard, worked on their skills. Coming into training camp, I really felt people were ready to go.
“It was nice for me as a coach. I felt like there was a lot of teaching going on. I guess my expectations are a little different now that we’ve had the guys and trained with them a year in this system. That fires you up right there.”
Quinn’s overtime session with Okine proved how fired up he is.