To say the Florida Gators’ offense ended the 2015 campaign in lackluster fashion would be, well, generous. Florida was held to a pair of touchdowns or less during regulation in five of its last six games, scoring just two points against Florida State and only managing to score once in the 2016 Citrus Bowl against Michigan.
So while the Gators’ defense was actually hit hardest by departures, it’s the offense that is the understandable focal point during these 15 spring practices.
“We didn’t play as well as we’re capable of playing. At the same point in time, we played some pretty good defensive football teams down the stretch there,” said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier while referring to FSU, Alabama and UM. “They’re top-10 defenses in college football. Now, we got to play better, we got to find more consistency, but hopefully with these young guys playing together again [there will be improvement].”
Head coach Jim McElwain put it more succinctly. “Obviously that’s something that doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we gotta get better at,” he quipped, “but I’m excited about the parts that are here and the way they’ve been going about their business has been really good. I think we’ll be all right.”
Florida, of course, will not return its starting quarterback in Will Grier, who helped it to a 6-0 start including a come-from-behind victory against Tennessee followed by a 38-10 blowout upset of then-No. 3 Ole Miss. Its much-maligned backup, junior Treon Harris, is suspended from spring practice, which he was reportedly going to begin with a position change to wide receiver.
What UF is bringing back, however, are a number of young players on the offensive line, in the backfield and at pass-catching positions that got more playing time than normal as inexperienced athletes. Of course, two of the best freshman standouts – wide receiver Antonio Callaway (suspension) and offensive lineman Martez Ivey (shoulder) – are missing spring practice.
“We had some young players that went into some big games and played against some grown men,” Nussmeier noted.”
To this point, Nussmeier said his offense has shown some bright spots – “we flash” – though the unit as a whole and particularly the young players are in dire need of experience. “What we continue to [be] challenged by is the consistency,” he explained. “It takes 11 every day. If you’re going to win in this league, week in and week out, you got to have 11 guys doing the right thing at a high level.”
With that in mind, Nussmeier noted that the Gators are “in competition mode right now.” But while most positions appear to be up for grabs, it is becoming apparent that the lead redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio has in the quarterback competition will be pretty tough to overcome for the other three players vying for the job.
“He’s got a lot of football savvy. Guy’s been around football, grew up around it. I think he’s got a great demeanor, great confidence in his abilities,” said Nussmeier of Del Rio. “He’s really good in the locker room. The guys believe in his preparation, his effort, and they know every day he goes out there, they’re going to get his best.”
McElwain recalled when Del Rio camped at Alabama as an eighth grader. “You could tell at that point he was going to be a real good quarterback,” he said. McElwain continued paying attention to Del Rio through high school where he “did a heck of a job” and “was awfully fun to watch,” so while coaching Colorado State, his staff “did everything we could to recruit him.”
Alas, Del Rio did not choose to commit to CSU, but things just seem to work out. A quarterback-needy McElwain now has the quarterback he wanted at his previous stop on his roster in Florida. And it certainly sounds like he has as much an inside track of the job as one would expect given the familiarity.
“There’s something special about him, but he needs to continue to get better,” McElwain noted. “There’s some things he needs to continue to work on to play the position, but I just like the way he goes about his business.”
Outside of the quarterback position, McElwain said late last week that he believes the receivers are understanding concepts better, noting that a couple of the early enrollees are learning to play college football when generally they should be getting ready for prom season. “I don’t know that they could have got dates. Maybe that’s why they came here. They might get shot down,” the coach joked.”
At running back, a committee approach is expected, though a source told OnlyGators.com on Sunday that the Gators are getting more impressed with junior transfer Mark Thompson with each passing day.
Offensive line continues to be a competition with Florida rotating its units and trying players out at different positions in order to find the best five to put out on the field. Ivey will be a sure-fire starter when he gets back healthy, while both sophomore Fred Johnson and redshirt junior Antonio Riles are expected to find spots, too.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the Gators as a whole is not who is going to start on what positions on offense but rather just practicing well as an entire team. At least, that’s what McElwain conveyed when he began his media availability.
“The overall attitude to come and attack each day the way that you need to I don’t think was there [on Wednesday], and the responsibility as players to understand that they’re playing at the University of Florida … part of that responsibility is to come to work and work your tail off in practice. I’m not sure we did,” he began. “Hopefully, [we’ll] see a little bit more energy as we attack each drill. That’s kind of what we’re looking for, because we do need to get a little bit better each day, there’s no doubt about it.”
OK but what about other than Del Rio? While Del Rio is the front-runner for the quarterback gig, McElwain and Nussmeier each played Florida’s freshmen signal callers. McElwain noted that four-star Feleipe Franks and three-star Kyle Trask have been “really diving into the playbook,” while Nussmeier noted that the duo are a pair of “big, physical guys that can flat rip it – they’re impressive.”
“Some of the kids that we’re seeing [in high school], they’ve never been under center. They’ve never even been talked to about stance or hand placement, those kinds of things,” Nussmeier added.
Both coaches noted that Del Rio and graduate transfer Austin Appleby have done a good job as role models, setting an example for how Franks and Trask need to prepare and then put in work on the field. “I hear the guys, when one of them is taking a rep or whatever, the other is coaching them all the time. That’s good. That’s good to see,” McElwain explained.
As far as the health of the position, which includes two walk-ons (neither of which have played a snap for UF) and a couple of freshmen (same), the primary positive McElwain pointed two was math … two plus two equals four. Whereas the Gators really only had two quarterbacks last year, there are now four guys competing at the position, all of which are better fits for the type of offense McElwain and Nussmeier want to run.
The next step will be team scrimmage, seeing how the four quarterbacks act in the huddle and move the team down the field when opportunity allows. “That’s kind of the important next phase of it,” McElwain noted.
Notes and bits:
» McElwain on senior WR Ahmad Fulwood: “Ahmad is a guy that we are counting on stepping up, not only as a player but in a leadership role. I think he’s taken that and kind of running with it a little bit. I’ve been really impressed with how consistently he’s been catching the football. I’ve seen him actually go up and fight for a couple that are 50-50 balls. … [He’s] just playing with that aggressive nature. I hope to see that continue because he can be a big factor for us.”
» McElwain on junior WR C.J. Worton: “He’s a talent young guy that’s got some really good ball skills. He’s got great timing; he can go up and get it. Consistency, attention to detail, understanding the importance of it’s not just walk out on the field but you’ve got to put some time into it to get better. He seems to have been doing that this offseason. He’s done some pretty good things this spring.”
» McElwain on Johnson’s development: “He’s one of those guys that gets better every day. He’s relatively new to football. He didn’t play all the way through going up, so there’s a lot of discovery that still goes on with him. And yet, I love his competitive nature. That’s something that he really brings to that position. He wants to be good, and he’s got a real toughness to him. I’m excited to see how far he can go.”
» McElwain on redshirt sophomore Thomas Holley, who shed weight to move from defensive tackle to defensive end due to a chronic hip injury: “He’s got a hip that’s like mine. He’s got something that only has so many more movements to it. For him to be able to take the weight off is huge for him just long range. He’s not out of the woodwork yet by any stretch of the imagination, but he wants to play so badly. This was the one opportunity that he kind of had was to slim down and see if he could sustain a little bit with that hip. I’m excited for him. … To see him out there, he’s a guy who can really help this football team. … His evolution, it’s like he’s a new guy. I’m sure he had to go adjust some of his clothes, there’s no doubt about it.”
» Nussmeier on being up for the Southern Miss head coaching job in the offseason: “This is a special place. My family and I feel very blessed and fortunate to be here. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t feel fortunate to be a part of such a great program with great tradition. It’s an honor to walk out here every day and be the offensive coordinator. Obviously, Southern Miss was an opportunity that presented itself. Just felt so good about what we were starting to develop here. I know we’re still a ways away, but felt really good about our situation here and the things we’re going to be able to accomplish over time.”