3 biggest issues for Jim McElwain to overcome in Year 2 at Florida
The finish was a complete fade. There was zero offense, and barely enough defense to stumble past Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic — at home. It was hard to watch.
And that was before the 2015 Florida Gators finished off Jim McElwain’s first season as coach with losses to Florida State, Alabama and Michigan by an embarrassing combined score of 97-24.
But amid the rubble there was an awakening. The Gators weren’t quite back, not by a long shot, but they had shown glimpses they were getting there, and it only took McElwain one season to get the message out. They did, after all, win the SEC East, however messy it looked at times.
“Despite the ugly finish, McElwain brought a new vibe to the program, selling out The Swamp four times and overseeing facility upgrades,” wrote Athlon Sports in May in its lookahead to the 2016 season.
But after Athlon’s applause came the cold reality: “But to take the next step on the field, McElwain must develop a long-term answer at quarterback.”
Which leads us perfectly into the top three issues McElwain faces as he tries to translate a 10-4 revival of a season into even more success in Year 2. And it’s hard to argue that solving the quarterback position in 2016 isn’t the place to start.
Del Rio or Appleby?
Last season was a disaster at quarterback, and disaster might be a kind word. Will Grier started out looking like a godsend, revitalizing the offense and leading Florida to huge victories over Tennessee and Ole Miss. But after Grier’s suspension for PED use, UF’s offense went nowhere under Treon Harris.
Yes, the Gators almost won at LSU with Harris under center and, yes, they throttled Georgia in the next game. But the offense fell apart from there, and while there were issues at other offensive positions, it was the feeble quarterback play that was infecting the rest of the unit.
So what will McElwain do in 2016? With Harris moving to wide receiver, the answer seems to begin with Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio, a former walk-on at Alabama.
The redshirt sophomore Del Rio appears to have the lead in the quarterback competition heading into fall camp, which is exactly the point: The Gators aren’t used to such uncertainty at a position that’s been filled by such names as Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Del Rio might yet join those names, but right now he’s just trying to become McElwain’s most crucial answer in the present.
Del Rio is familiar with the scheme run by offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. But he’s being pressed by Purdue transfer Austin Appleby. Of course, McElwain is staying optimistic.
“We really have good arm talent,” said McElwain, according to onlineathens.com. “I’m excited about being able to stretch the field vertically. It should be a lot of fun.”
Still, quarterback is the Gators’ biggest question heading into 2016. Del Rio carries a great deal of potential. But right now, what he also carries is a giant label of the unknown. For McElwain to take those good Year 1 vibes and turn the Gators into a true contender, he needs his quarterback to be a lot better than a mystery.
Callaway (maybe) and who else?
Another mystery for McElwain? That would be the group of weapons the quarterback will be throwing to this fall. Clearly, the Gators were lacking in that department last year, in addition to their problems at quarterback.
Antonio Callaway burst onto the scene with a vengeance as a freshman, catching 35 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns, and adding 435 yards and two touchdowns on punt returns. But Callaway (below) and new fellow wide receiver Harris were suspended indefinitely in January for violating the university’s code of conduct policy. They missed spring practice.
Callaway and Harris are back on campus now, but their status for the fall is still up in the air, and that sort of mystery isn’t good for a program looking to get its offense to catch up to its defense.
“Nothing’s been resolved yet, and there’s really not a time frame on it,” McElwain told reporters at SEC Media Days.
Getting Callaway back on the field would be huge for the Gators if there was an experienced quarterback waiting to throw passes to them. But there isn’t. And that makes his return even more important, though there will be an adjustment period to get in sync with the new quarterback.
Meanwhile, like dependable tight end Jake McGee, receiver Demarcus Robinson has departed for the NFL, depleting a skill-position group that is young, raw and full of question marks. Robinson was the Gators’ No. 1 receiver last year by default with a team-high 47 catches.
This will mean extra attention on Callaway, as well as junior Brandon Powell (29 catches last year), who is coming off surgery for a chronic foot issue.
Yes, junior college transfer Dre Massey will help the depth, as will a 2016 recruiting class chock-full of receiver star potential highlighted by Tyrie Cleveland (the nation’s No. 2-ranked wide receiver), Freddie Swain and Joshua Hammond. But these Gators can’t depend on freshmen in their current state, especially not after Cleveland’s recent arrest.
McElwain has overhauled the offense since he took over in December 2014. And it’ll probably end up all coming together nicely. Just probably not this year, so the Gators will likely have to depend on their talented running backs and another stellar defense.
Can Gators handle 2015’s surprising success?
Because of those running backs and that defense alone, the Gators figure to win plenty of games again this fall. They were picked to finish second in the SEC East behind Tennessee at Media Days. Which brings us to the third obstacle McElwain’s team must tackle in 2016, a mental one: dealing with success the right way.
The Gators’ jump back to prominence was noble last fall. It brought fans back from the dark days of the Will Muschamp era. But while the jump to 10 wins last year was a big one, going from being a 10-win team to a national title contender is a whole different leap.
Expectations will be sky-high now that the Gators got a strong whiff of success in 2015. That only means this season should be about consistency on offense, continued overall growth and one vital thing in short supply in today’s society: patience.
Because rebuilding a culture of winning takes more than one year to do.