Florida is taking an awfully big chance.
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
Kentucky and Vanderbilt are different animals, but Mark Richt, Butch Jones and Steve Spurrier have all won multiple conference titles, and Gary Pinkel has a MAC championship to go along with a slew of Big 12 and SEC division titles.
Nick Saban, Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn, Les Miles and Hugh Freeze have also earned more than one conference championship, and Kevin Sumlin came really close with some terrific Houston squads.
Jim McElwain didn’t win the Mountain West title at Colorado State. He didn’t even win the Mountain division.
McElwain is a bit of a guess. Ron Zook was a quirky chance that didn’t work out, and Will Muschamp was an unproven head coaching prospect who should’ve worked out, and eventually will somewhere else, but Spurrier came into Gainesville as a star, and Urban Meyer was a superstar of superstar candidates after rocking at Bowling Green and Utah.
Does McElwain bring the star power Florida needs? Does he have the IT factor that an elite SEC program has to have out of its head coach?
Gene Chizik proved that a top-shelf head coaching resume doesn’t really matter, but McElwain was just good, not great, at Colorado State even though he won the 2014 Mountain West Coach of the Year honor.
He didn’t go 22-2 with two Mountain West titles like Urban did at Utah.
Of course, that’s not to say that McElwain isn’t going to turn into a phenomenal SEC head ball coach, but if Florida isn’t in the mix for national titles in the very near future, the hire didn’t work out.
For right now, there’s little to no honeymoon period considering Florida really wasn’t that far away from being terrific under Muschamp – remember, the team went 11-2 in 2012 and would’ve been in the mix for a four-team playoff – but it needed some semblance of an offense.
Muschamp never seemed to have any luck when it came to injuries, but even with all the problems the defenses always rocked. Scoring points, though, was like pulling teeth at times – that’s where McElwain, an offensive coordinator by nature, comes in.
Colorado State’s offense was terrific last season with an efficient and effective passing game that had no problems pushing the ball down the field. The defense was another story, but the talent is there for the Gators to still be more than fine. There might be some key losses to the NFL, but the secondary is phenomenal, the linebacking corps should be excellent, and the line will be sneaky good. It’s time, now, to start scoring again.
The O line is undergoing an overhaul, and the receiving corps needs more playmakers, and the quarterback situation has to be settled, but this coaching staff is built to start making something happen with the players in place.
The program has all the advantages. The recruiting grounds are as fertile as they get, the facilities are strong, and the overall commitment is there – the Gators are bound by nothing. So can McElwain become the next great Florida head coach?
He’d better be.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: Can the Gators find their offense again right away? Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is coming off a miserable year at Michigan, but he’s expected to join in with Jim McElwain and give Florida some semblance of production. The passing attack that was non-existent at times needs to get efficiency and effectiveness out of either Treon Harris or Will Grier, and the receivers are there to make that happen. Demarcus Robinson leads a corps that should be ready to blossom – and that includes the tight ends now. Can the O line do its part? It’s a rebuilt group, but it’s talented. The rushing punch of Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett should be solid.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: There should be a bit of a drop after finishing 15th in the nation in total D, but not by much – the parts are back to be terrific once again. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will bring the pressure from a dangerous front four that has athleticism and skill from inside and out, starting with the versatile Jon Bullard and needing Alex McCalister to shine from the end. The secondary has the talent to be among the SEC’s best, and the linebacking corps has playmakers starting with Antonio Morrison once he’s healthy again.
What to watch for on offense: Is the passing game in place? This isn’t going to be the fun ‘n’ gun passing world again any time soon, but he Gators can’t – and won’t – finish 104th in the nation in passing and be so inefficient and ineffective again. There’s upside in the receiving corps with Demarcus Robinson way overdue to bust out on a bigger scale, C.J. Worton a potentially good safety valve, and Brandon Powell can fly. Treon Harris and Will Greer each has to show some semblance of consistency under center, but no matter who the parts are, the struggles of the last few years should be over.
What to watch for on defense: The pass rush is going to continue, and it could be even better. The secondary already has the talent, and it’s going to get plenty of help from the front seven – expect even more production from an already great pass defense. The Gator D might have lost Dante Fowler Jr. to Jacksonville – and a knee injury – but there pressure behind the line should be outstanding with Alex McCalister back on one end, Bryan Cox Jr. likely used more as a specialist, and Jonathan Bullard strong inside or out. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins did a great job generating pressure with the Mississippi State D last year, and now he’ll bring the heat from the linebacking corps and the interior of the line, too.
The team will be far better if … the offense just keeps things moving. The 2008 national champion Gators came up with 306 first downs, and the 2009 version generated 314. Colorado State came up with 299 last season, while Florida came up with a mere 210 with 55 of them coming in the first two games against Eastern Michigan and Kentucky. The offense stalled over and over again, and while the defense was able to come through more often than not, there were times when just a first down here or there would’ve made all the difference. A more efficient and effective passing game should help change that.
The schedule: It’s a bit easier than past seasons. Going to LSU and facing Ole Miss from the West is hardly easy, but there’s no Alabama or Auburn.
– East Carolina is more than a layup non-conference game, and the Florida State showdown is in Gainesville.
– The Gators are away from home from early October until November, going to Missouri and LSU before an off-week, and then comes the Georgia game in Jacksonville.
– The South Carolina game is on the road, but three of the four November games are at home.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The road game at Kentucky to open up the SEC season. It’s a dangerous date that could make for a messy first half of the season for Jim McElwain if the Gators lose to a team it’s beaten like a drum for decades.
Best offensive player: Junior WR Demarcus Robinson. He showed off glimpses of greatness early on in his career, the offense and the quarterback issues kept him from blowing up on a consistent basis. He’s a tough, strong target with special athletic skills and quickness, and now the hope is that he’s about to bust out at a whole other level. Jim McElwain’s offense helped make a Mountain West superstar out of Rashard Higgins, and now it’s up to coordinator Doug Nussmeier to properly utilize his best weapon.
Best defensive player: Junior CB Vernon Hargreaves III. He’s getting to the point now where scouts are starting to look at the holes in his game. As is, there are too many obvious good things with the NFL speed, quickness and attitude to operate on an island. There were some rough moments here and there – Amari Cooper had a good time in Alabama’s win – but he attacks the ball and can’t be thrown at anymore. There’s a big pro payday ahead in his future, but first there could be a Thorpe Award.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Treon Harris and/or redshirt freshman QB Will Grier. No matter who the starting quarterback is, the Gators have to get better play out of the position. Jeff Driskel never lived up to his hype, and now he’s off to Louisiana Tech with the new coaching staff coming in. Harris missed more than half of his throws last season, and Grier has no experience – but there won’t be anyone giving Florida a break. The production has to be there no matter what.
The season will be a success if … the Gators win the SEC East. The bar is always set higher for Florida, and while winning the conference title might be out of reach, the division isn’t a crazy goal. Yes, the games against Missouri and South Carolina are on the road, and the Georgia date is always a neutral site fight, but there’s enough talent returning on both sides of the ball to hope for at least two wins out of those three. More realistic would be an eight-win season to build to what should be a stronger 2016, but, again, it’s Florida.
Key game: Oct. 10 at Missouri. It’s not going to be an easy path through the first part of the SEC season to get to the date in Columbia – going to Kentucky and playing Tennessee and Ole Miss – but after the weird 42-13 loss last year to the Tigers, and with losses over the last two years to the eventual SEC East champs, stopping the slide this year is a must. After this, the Gators have to go to LSU, and then deal with Georgia, and then after a home break against Vanderbilt, they have to go to South Carolina. Lose to Mizzou, and there are problems.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Fourth Down Conversions: Florida 8-of-15 (53%) – Opponents 6-of-18 (33%)
– Punt Return Average: Florida 12 yards – Opponents 8.8 yards
– Sacks: Florida 30 for 232 yards – Opponents 17 for 92 yards
Players You Need To Know
1. CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr.
A star right off the bat, he came up with a big true freshman season and has kept on rolling. The 5-11, 198-pound junior is smart, tough, and a fantastic hitter in the open field with big tackling ability and the instincts to always sniff out the play a half step before it happens coming up with three interceptions, 13 broken up passes – 24 for his young career – and 50 tackles. The stats are staying strong even though everyone is staying away from him, and he’ll still come through as a lockdown defender on everyone’s No. 1 target. He’ll still get challenged by the better receivers – Amari Cooper did whatever he wanted in Alabama’s win – but he’ll be among the best cover-corners in America and a top draft pick whenever he comes out.
2. LB Antonio Morrison, Sr.
The team’s leading tackler last season followed up a 56-tackle season – shortened by injury – with 101 stops with 16 tackles against South Carolina, 15 against Georgia and 14 against LSU. A double-digit tackling machine, he came up with ten or more in six games working both inside or out. The 6-1, 225-pound veteran can play just about anywhere in the linebacking corps, but he’s going to likely be in the middle now where he’s able to use his tremendous range and big-hitting ability when he gets room to move. For the second year in a row he has to come back from a knee injury. He didn’t do anything against the pass outside of one interception, but he’s outstanding against the run with a tireless, aggressive attitude that makes him one of the statistical leaders of the front seven.
3. WR Demarcus Robinson, Jr.
The tools are all there to be special. The 6-2, 197-pounder can fly with tremendous athleticism and NFL quickness. Once he gets a quarterback who can consistently throw the statistics should be off the charts, but at the very least he’ll be a regular playmaker who has to be worked as a No. 1 target. He busted out with a brilliant performance against Kentucky, making 15 catches for 216 yards and two scores, and he hit LSU for 104 yards and a 73-yard score. The 53 catches for 810 yards and seven scores on the years – averaging 15.3 yards per grab – just scratch the surface on what he could eventually become.
4. SS Marcus Maye, Jr.
Able to play either safety spot, he has the pop and the 6-0, 205-pound size to be a factor against the run, but he has the range and athleticism to be a dangerous free safety if needed, too. Last year he worked in a variety of situations finishing with 62 tackles with an interception and five broken up passes as a very steady, very consistent playmaker for a good Gator secondary. There’s next-level ability to his game and he could quickly move up the draft charts with a few more picks and another big season overall.
5. DT/DE Jon Bullard, Sr.
Is he a quick athletic tackle of a big powerful end? He’ll be moved around where needed, but he’s been productive no matter where he has worked. A superstar prospect with all the skills and tools, he’s 6-3, 277 pounds and quick off the ball. An ideal 3-4 end, he worked mostly inside last year but will get a chance to be more of a pure pass rusher at times on the outside this season. He hasn’t been too flashy so far, but he’s been extremely tough making 52 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Consider it a shock if he doesn’t generate at least five sacks.
6. DE Alex McCalister, Jr.
Possibly the team’s best young pass rusher, the 6-6, 238-pound McCalister started to show off his upside last season with 23 tackles with six sacks. Now he gets to try to be the new Dante Fowler, even if he doesn’t have quite the same talent. He’s an athletic defender with a great first step along with the power to push his way into the backfield from time to time, but now he’ll have to be used to being the man. Can he become a dominant force who teams have to gameplan for? That’s the idea.
7. OT Martez Ivey, Fr.
One of the lone bright spots in a rocky first recruiting class, the 6-6, 271-pound Ivey is the nation’s top offensive tackle prospect, and he might get to show why right away. While he needs to get functionally stronger at an SEC level, and he needs to add at least 20 pounds of good wright, he looks the part with the frame, the tight end-like quickness, and the ability to turn into a franchise left tackle with excellent pass protection skills. He’ll likely be tried out right away on the right side, but don’t be stunned if he takes over for D.J. Humphries on the left side. He’s that good.
8. QB Will Grier, RFr.
Is he ready to take over and start? The 6-2, 197-pound North Carolina native has been just good enough this offseason to have a slight edge for the job, and he has the talent to develop into the main man for the attack for the next few years. The North Carolina native was the 2015 Parade Player of the Year after throwing for close to 5,000 yards and 77 touchdown passes in his senior year to finish his career with 14,565 yards and 195 scores, highlighted by an 837-yard passing day as a sophomore on his resume. He doesn’t quite look the part, but he’s a smart, athletic playmaker with a live arm and the ability to be what the new coaching staff needs. He’ll get his shot.
9. QB Treon Harris, Soph.
An extremely quick dual-threat option, he stepped in as a true freshman and started the second half of the season showing good poise and decent upside. At 5-11 and 193 pounds he’s not all that big, and he didn’t run too much with 338 yards and three scores – taking off for 111 yards against South Carolina – but he can move. The passing has to be more consistent after completing just 49.5% of his throws for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns with four picks, but he had his moments with a 215-yard day against Vanderbilt with two rushing scores. At the very least, he has the experience to step in and produce if he doesn’t get the starting gig.
10. RB Kelvin Taylor, Jr.
For the moment, it’s his running game. The 6-10, 209-pound son of Fred Taylor has the honor of owning just about all the key Florida high school records with 12,121 yards and 191 scores – with 83 rushing touchdowns in his final two years. He started out his career as a key part of the rushing game over the second half of his freshman season rushing for 508 yards and four scores, but last year he was part of the rotation with 565 yards on the year with six touchdowns. He ripped up Georgia for 197 yards and two scores, and he showed flashes at times, but now he has to carry most of the offense early on with Matt Jones done.