Florida Gators' Most Important New Piece: Zach Azzanni
You may have heard something about Florida's incoming recruiting class. Weren't they dubbed the best recruiting class of all time, or something like that?
You also may have heard that the Gators have a new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin. Isn't he taking over for defensive guru Charlie Strong, who was a big reason the Gators have two recent national titles?
Of course, the answer to both of those questions is “yes.” And you obviously want to know how they pan out. Believe me, so do I.
But as a college football fan, and more importantly, a Gator fan, you want to know one thing, “What can you do for me now?”
And I'm here to tell you that more than any other move this offseason, the one that is most important to Florida's 2010 success is the hiring of new wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
You may think I'm crazy, but just think about it for a minute.
The recruiting class will be great. There is no doubt about that. Some players will undoubtedly flounder, as is always the case with freshmen. Most likely, the majority of those players will take some time before they make their impact.
The defense will be as good as it has always been. No one can replace Strong, but Austin will be good in his own way. He will bring his own talents to the table, and the talent on the field is still there. So I wouldn’t worry about that too much.
What everyone is talking about for the Gators this season is their offense, and that means the receivers need to take the next step, which I believe they will under Azzanni’s guidance.
If you had to pinpoint one weakness that last year's squad had, you would probably point to the wide receiving corps (as you may have noticed, I've harped on this issue a few times lately, see my in-depth look at Florida's receivers).
Azzanni took over on December 11, so he wasn't technically an offseason acquisition, but with the number of changes that occur after conference championships, we will consider him one.
Azzanni had a few weeks to work with Florida's receivers before the Sugar Bowl against Cincinnati.
The result? The best offensive showing Florida had all season.
Sure, you can't give all the credit to Azzanni. It was Tebow's last game in a Florida uniform. The seniors wanted to go out on a positive note after getting crushed by Alabama. Cincinnati didn't deserve to be on the same field. Florida had eons to prepare for the game, and so on.
But you can't ignore the vast difference you saw in Florida's receivers in that game compared to the ones you saw under Billy Gonzales, the former Florida receivers coach.
Sure, the usual suspects took over the show. Aaron Hernandez had nine catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Riley Cooper had seven catches for 181 yards and a touchdown. But that was each of their best performances of the season.
Also, Azzanni found a way to get Deonte Thompson, who was MIA for much of the season, into the game in a big way. Thompson also had his best game of the year, catching five balls for 63 yards and a touchdown.
Chris Rainey also got his chance to play the slot, and responded with four catches for 71 yards (for a look at how dangerous Rainey could be next season, go here).
The bottom line was Tim Tebow having by far his best passing performance of the year, going 31-for-35 for 482 yards and three touchdowns.
Sure, you can point to any of the above reasons for these stellar performances, but you also have to look hard in the direction of Azzanni, the one major ingredient that changed before that bowl game.
Just think of what Azzanni can do next year with a stable of talent at the wide receiver position. He may make his biggest impact in teaching these receivers and helping them grow. As the work of Ron Zook shows, you can recruit all the talent in the world, but you still have to coach them up.
He will also have a pass-first quarterback in John Brantley to help him speed the growth of these receivers.
Sure, it may not be fair to Gonzales, who did not work with a passing quarterback or an abundance of wide receiver talent last season. But he worked with the same group that lit up New Orleans on January 1 without him.
If you still aren't a believer, Azzanni has the history to convince you. Just look at what he did with his receivers the past few seasons at Central Michigan. Sure, Central Michigan isn't the SEC, but he also didn't have the kind of talent he will be working with at Florida.
If that's not enough, he was hand-picked by Urban Meyer. Azzanni coached on Meyer's staff at Bowling Green.
Most of you already know how special this Gators offense can be this season.
Now you have a face to put to a big piece of that puzzle in Zach Azzanni.
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