Florida DC Austin Armstrong reflects on lessons learned from first season

by | Mar 24, 2024 | 0 comments

Austin Armstrong

Austin Armstrong, the defensive coordinator for the Florida Gators, recently met with the media to share his thoughts on spring practice so far and to reflect on lesson learned a season ago. Armstrong also expressed his enthusiasm about returning to work with the team and his gratitude for the staff. He underscored the importance of focusing on fundamentals and fostering team chemistry. Armstrong also conveyed his admiration for Coach Ron Roberts and the new team members, their dedication to building a better defense, and the significance of experience within the team.


Opening statement:

“I’m happy to get back to work with our team officially. You go through the offseason on the road recruiting in January, we’re able to do minor stuff with them in February and then you get going here with a couple of practices in camp right now. They’ve got really month to work on our craft, create as much value as each individual player in their unit and create value doing all they can to help our team. I love spring practice because you get to focus on the fundamentals, the techniques, you get to create as much value for each individual player on the team going to the next phase. I’ve been pleased with the urgency of this group, the work they’ve put in. You know, it’s different now in college football, you hurry good players in, you hurry good players out. I’ve been very impressed at the chemistry and the dynamic of this team, the job everybody associated with our team has done, from the support staff, the strength staff, recruiting staff.

First thing, grateful for our staff. Obviously, a lot of change, and I think anytime there is change, it’s an opportunity to bring people to add value to the organization, and I think we did that. We hired great staff. First, Coach [Ron] Roberts. I think Coach Roberts is one of the best football coaches in America. That was not an option to add him to our team in the initial cycle. The opportunity to add somebody who is one of the best football coaches in America to our staff and collaborate with is a blessing to say the least. Our agenda here is to create the best defense in college football, and you do that by hiring smart, capable, competent people and we couldn’t have gotten anybody better than him. It’s a unique thing for me because I was the guy’s [graduate assistant] five years ago. It’s kind of good for me to have a guy in the trenches with you again that you have a close, personal relationship for five years. He’s made me better throughout my career and the guy doesn’t get enough credit. A lot of modern defenses he’s gotten over the years. A big part of our system that we managed directly from him. He’s one of the fathers of modern defensive football and to have him in this building and to have him at my right arm at all times helping us, I couldn’t be luckier. You know, Gerald Chatman coaching defensive line brought a tremendous amount of urgency. I think you guys see that during the media period. It takes a lot of toughness, physicality, technique to play that position and the urgency that he’s brought, he’s already made us better. And Will Harris, in our first conversation with Will in December, I knew this guy had something special about him. He’s hungry, he’s humble, he’s smart … he’s had a unique experience as a player and this guy has worked with some of the best coaches in football: Pete Carroll, Chris Petersen, and adding him to our team has made us better. And then you’ve got in the return, you have Mike Peterson. Coach Peterson has done a good job. They’ve got a talented group and coaches them really, really good, a unique respect and passion for this place. And tremendous support staff. We’ve got a great support staff here. It takes so many people to make this place run and the job they do, and the contributions they have, we’re certainly grateful. We’re excited to get to work.”

Florida’s transfer portal additions:

“The thing that was unique is that we played seven freshmen on defense. We had the most all-conference players and stuff like them, but it wasn’t just that. A lot of our guys contributed to our team and were able to play every team that we played. You just sit there, and there’s just certain things, experience does matter. I think the experience that we added, especially in the third level with Asa [Turner], Trikweze [Bridges], DJ [Douglas], older players in the tactical positions: safety, linebacker, guys that have to articulate and speak to people, get people lined up, I can’t say enough about that group of guys and contribute to a young group who has played a bunch of football. Bryce Thornton and Jordan Castell, those guys have been in the fire, now. And they have been out in third-and-five in the Swamp against Tennessee. Everybody thinks they know how to do it and it’s time to do it. So, the balance of those players who played in those games and adding guys that have done it somewhere else, I think you can’t put a price tag on it. It’s the confidence, it’s the vulnerability that they’ve failed before, too. So, like they don’t rattled as much, you know what I mean? They’ve done a great job. The same thing at inside linebacker. We added some players there, added [Grayson] ‘Pup‘ Howard. Has experience but not an older player. On the defensive line and edge, we’ve added George GumbsJoey Slackman and some players in there that have played. Joey was obviously a revered player in the Ivy League. It’s not just the football experience, it’s the life experience we get and adding that to our team I think is going to be really good.”

Regarding what Armstrong learned from his first year as an SEC defensive coordinator:

“I don’t think we have enough time to say what we learned. You know, one the respect of the league and the quality of the coaches and players in this league. There’s a lot of great football, and I’m not here to have any comparisons for any other league like that, but  I have a deep appreciation of our league. I have a deep appreciation for the week-in and week-out grind, from a schematic standpoint and from a physical standpoint. It just means more in this league, right? Yeah, you go out there and play on Saturdays and you find out pretty fast that it’s true. You learn every day. We have a unique perspective. I have been in a leadership role probably longer than I have been a coach, so we had experience going into this league, the routine, the yearly calendar, like I said, I think I got here 10 days before spring practice started last year. So we’re going on spring break last week, kind of the first vacation that we’ve kind of had. I just came back so refreshed and so grateful. I think the biggest thing is the perspective that we have is the in-season routine, offseason routine, everything that comes with that, from the recruiting calendar to the football piece, it’s a highly competitive deal and we’re looking forward to taking the next step.”

The speaker expresses deep appreciation for the competitive nature of their football league, emphasizing the quality of the coaches and players, and the physical and schematic challenges that come with each game. They highlight the importance of routines and schedules in both the in-season and off-season, including the recruiting calendar. The speaker also mentions the refreshing impact of a recent vacation and looks forward to taking the next step in the league.

Whether Armstrong can identify what led to Florida’s defensive regression in 2023, following a strong start to the season:

“Yeah, at the end of the day we had to coach them better – that’s my responsibility – and put them in position to be successful. At the end of the day, we can make all the excuses about having a young team and such, and that’s true. At the end of the day, it’s a results-driven business and we had an opportunity in all those games to be successful. I’m sitting here thinking about, like, Arkansas. They’re showing best games of the college football season the other day I saw on Instagram, and they score a touchdown with three minutes left in the fourth quarter and it’s 23 to 20, we’d given up 13 points at that point. Missouri, 13-7 at halftime; even LSU, obviously one of the most dynamic offenses in the history of college football, it’s 21-17; Florida State … you can just name them off. It kind of makes you sick a little bit. The inability to finish those games. At the end of the day, that’s my responsibility. And it’s our responsibility collectively as a staff. I’m excited for the work that we’ve put in to help to get that right.”

Armstrong’s experience of such highs and lows:

“Yeah, I think you can’t really succeed until you fail. We’re in a unique position. God’s been really to us, we’re really fortunate, kind of in uncharted waters for a lot of us professionally. When you’re young and you’re successful, you’re boy wonder. When you’re not you’re boy blunder. That’s just part of it. The same people that praise you are the same people that clown you. I don’t get on social media, stuff like that, it made me want to work harder for our players. That’s what stands out for me is we had an opportunity to really do something significant, and we did a lot of good things last year, and it makes me sick that we couldn’t finish for these players. I think about it a lot.”

The coaching dynamic between Armstrong and Ron Roberts:

“It’s been really fun. Coach Roberts is a football savant. The ability to talk ball, work through issues, not just him our whole staff. We had a unique relationship, he was kind of like a football dad a little bit. We weren’t together after the first year, but we’d talk on the phone two or three times a week and we threw ideas against the wall with each other or had like opponents or issues. The kind of guys that played defense like us, we talked a bunch. To have him here and to help you and guide you. To be honest, the guy’s been doing, I joke 100 years, but he’s been doing it for 30 years at a really high rate – and a lot of different levels. That’s the respect I have for him. The guy was a good defensive coach in high school, in junior college, at Division II, FCS, and then Division I in the Big 12 and then the SEC. There’s mistakes that he’s made that he’s able to guide me on to not make. And to have the humility to work together, ‘Hey, let’s do something special.’ That guidance you can’t put a price tag on. I can’t thank him enough. The thing that’s unique about it is there really wasn’t an option. You couldn’t imagine this is where we’d be sitting this time of the year, sitting with us and collaborating with us. At the end of the day, this is our defense, this is the University of Florida’s defense. He’s going to be a big part of putting together a product we all can be proud of.”

A comparison of Auburn’s defense under Roberts, which allowed one fewer touchdown and four fewer first downs than the previous year, and how a similar improvement could benefit Florida’s defense:

“It’d be good. Yeah, right now we’re taking it day by day. Those are all result-driven. Right now we’re focused on maximizing each player’s ability so they can contribute to the team and we can go out there and put the best unit possible. I think we saw a lot of results in the past, but having him here, heck he’s probably worth some of those things with first downs and stuff a game because he’s that good of a football coach.”

On defensive back Aaron Gates at STAR:

“Excited about him. Aaron, when I got here last year Aaron was coming off a knee injury, was playing corner. The thing I respect about Aaron, anybody who’s played sports who’s been injured, this guy’s a high achiever, he gets a chance to play at the University of Florida and he tears his ACL like one of his first high school games of his senior year. So that’s a pretty challenging thing. To be able to come back from that, and then the thing that gets unspoken about him we moved the guy to safety last year. He plays safety in practice, getting long, we were going to redshirt him due to his circumstance and the guy’s not asked one time, why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? I just want to play Coach. The guy has a lot of physical ability, he’s really excited, he had a great mom and daddy, I’m really excited about him. We have a great battle at that position right now. We want as many guys in the can-do category as possible and playing winning football. Him and Sharif [Denson], Josiah [Davis], and we have some other guys that can move there, I’m excited. I have kind of been working with them. I think the guy can be a really special player. I’ll tell you this, he’s a special human being.”

On EDGE/defensive lineman Kelby Collins:

“Yeah, Kelby, you know I was talking to a recruit on the field. You know, the way we practice, right? We two-spot, we have multiple drills going on at a time. And the best way to get better, to be a better football player is playing football. And, you know, Kelby is a great example of that. Kelby gets here in January, he’s got a unique, physical skill set, right? He’s big, he’s long. You know, is he an inside player, is he an edge player? In our defense, he can really do both, and that’s what really makes him special. The thing I respect about Kelby is he stayed with it. We were able to create a role for him in our subpackage last year, started on third down really the whole season and was a really productive player. Obviously, he was a Freshman All-Conference player. I think Kelby can be as good as anybody in this conference. His position flex is really impressive. He’s tough. I think he’s brought a tremendous amount of urgency to that room. Kelby wants to win, and you talk to his family, they want to win, and they’re serious. And I respect him so much for the work he puts in. I’m excited to see, I don’t want to put any expectations on the guy. But I really think the guy can do something special.”

The importance of cornerback Jason Marshall’s return:

“Yeah, I think the first thing talking about Jason is, you know, Jason was probably as good of a Christmas gift that I got, you know what I mean? You know, working to that process of the climate in college football, the opportunity to play in the National Football League. And Jason is a first-class person, he’s got a great family. I think the things that the University of Florida is about, I think the things that coach Napier is about, that he and his family are about, the degree, the human experience here, the value this place adds to your life. And it just so happens Jason’s really good football player, too. I can’t put words to describe the job that Will has done with Jason, the urgency that he’s brought out of him. You know, the last practice before we got on spring break, he made a huge play and punched the ball out. I think Jason can be as good as he wants to be. I sat by him in the team meetings and we were talking about a Bill Walsh quote today. I was reading The Winning Edge during the break, and talking about how, you know, being a successful player or successful life is the manifestation of doing something at a high level over a period of time. And if Jason continues to practice the way he practices with the ability that he has, I think he can have a really good year for us.”

Armstrong’s early impressions of freshman EDGE LJ McCray:

“LJ, you know, what a great addition to the University of Florida, First class person, great family. I enjoyed recruiting LJ as much as anybody I have ever recruited. He’s just a great person. And I think we lose a little bit of perspective right now with the recruiting of young players. These guys have got a lot of pressure on them. And, you know, LJ was a player, he didn’t have any bad options, you know what I mean? That’s a lot of a young person, and the people around him who were able to help him and guide him. I’m definitely glad he’s gonna be wearing orange and blue out there. You know, you go through that process, and you can finally get to see him out there, it’s a cool experience. A lot of people worked really, really hard in this building to get him.”

On McCray’s skill set:

“I mean, I think obviously, you know, he walks in, he’s 6-foot-6, he weighs 270-something pounds. He can run, he can bend. He’s really smart. He loves football, he’s highly motivated. He wants to be really good, he’s humble. He’s really everything you want. And I think coach Peterson has done a really good job coaching him. He plays our field defensive end, you know, he’s a hybrid guy that can play 4i [technique], that can play 5 [technique], can drop, can rush. I mean, I think the sky’s the limit for the guy.”

Florida’s struggles with tackling and turnovers in 2023:

“Yeah, absolutely. At the end of the day, we didn’t get enough. And down the stretch we didn’t tackle good enough. And, you know, turnovers are kind of a unique thing. That’s been a huge emphasis of ours in the offseason, study people. You know, you add Joe Houston, you add some guys from the National Football League where they get to spend more time doing football in the offseason, some of the things they brought, Chris Couch. You know, they do a lot of that stuff for us from a football research standpoint. It’s that conscious effort all the time to attack the football. And every play, someone should be doing it, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, that ball is our job, and the urgency that it takes, and not just that, but the deliberate work to get the ball out. And look, you know, our last year at Southern Miss we had, like, 25 or 28 turnovers, and we really didn’t do anything different. You know, and end of the day when you don’t have a good result, you’ve got to soul search and you’ve got to figure out how to do it. And I think we’ve done a really good job with that. I think so far in practice, you’ve seen that.

“And relative to tackling, you know, inconsistency. We didn’t tackle very good in the third level of defense last year. There were some things that I could have done better to keep the ball off of them a little bit, but in this league, they’re gonna make you tackle in the secondary. We’ve got to get better, and we’ve got to approach the football. I think that’s some of the value Will has brought to our team, coach Roberts. And it’s a mindset, too, you know what I mean? Like, everybody tackles, you know what I mean? You’re gonna play at Florida? You’re going to tackle. It wasn’t good enough and I think what we’ve done so far has been good. We’ve gotta get headed in the right direction a little more and we’ve been working really hard at it.”

On EDGE TJ Searcy:

“Yeah, I love TJ. TJ, he’s my kind of guy, South Georgia guy. He’s tough. He loves football. You know, like, when he’s out there, he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. It’s important to him. He’s really smart. Even though he’s a quiet guy, he’s a conscious note-taker. He wants to be the best he can be. And, you know, the guy played a bunch of good football for us last year as an 18-year-old, as a freshman. And I think he’s not just for him, but everybody. You know, I think that he can take some steps relative to playing the run and doing some stuff for us. He played a lot in subpackage for us last year. But TJ is tough, he’s smart, he’s hungry, he loves football. And you want to get as many guys like that on the team as possible. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

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