Will Muschamp was humble when he departed the Florida Gators, but he did not leave without making one definitive statement about what he was leaving behind and how well the team would be positioned entering 2015.
“They’ve got a deep and talented roster, so don’t let that new guy tell you they don’t have any players,” Muschamp warned with a smile last November.
Well, let’s just say that now over three months into his tenure with the Gators, new head coach Jim McElwain does not necessarily agree with Muschamp’s parting statement.
“You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt and right now, quite honestly, the hand we were dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas,” he said Friday.
McElwain was responding to a question about Florida’s offensive line, which returns just eight scholarship offensive linemen (seven healthy this spring), most of which were relatively inexperienced and had not seen much game action.
But his comments were about other parts of the roster, too, as offensive line is not the only position where depth is a major concern for the Gators. UF entered the spring with three scholarship running backs (one of whom has been moved to wide receiver) and six scholarship linebackers, neither position deep enough for McElwain to be worry-free entering the season.
“It’s hard. It hurts the whole team. Just like the short numbers of our linebackers as well. We’re awful short there as well. And yet, it’s something we know, it’s something there’s nothing we can do about,” he explained. “I did try to get free agency put in and we weren’t able to get that handled. At the same time, we’ll do what we have to do, find out what those guys can do and let’s do it best.”
Though running back and linebacker are both important positions, the offensive line finding some stability is integral if Florida is truly going to turn around its dismal offense from the last handful of seasons.
To that end, McElwain is pleased with what offensive line coach Mike Summers – the only returning coach from Muschamp’s staff – has been able to accomplish thus far.
“To have known Mike a long time, he’s obviously a heck of a football coach,” McElwain said. “I think the familiarity has helped, and yet for him just coming in only a year ago, he’s adapting to what we expect to do offensively. He’s been in very similar systems throughout his career and there’s a lot of carryover from that standpoint. Obviously, it’s a natural fit.”
Summers on Friday spoke with the media for the first time this spring and said his thin position group is still learning, growing and developing toughness.
“Every time there’s a pile, I turn and look the other way and then look for the huddle. The thing about this group of guys is they care about each other and care about the team. They fight their way through tough times and that’s how you build a foundation of a football team,” he said. “That’s really what we’re doing right now at all positions and it’s really exciting to watch because, at some point in the season, this toughness foundation is going to be what carries us. We’re learning about that right now.”
He believes the offensive line is doing well overall, as the low numbers are resulting in each player “getting plenty of reps and plenty of turns.” In the same regard, Summers is “getting plenty of opportunities to coach.” Always jovial when speaking, Summers said he is having a great time coaching his players, in large part due to their us-against-the-world mindset.
“The guys have really locked arms and realized that every man out there has to be a part of what we’re doing. They’re fighting their way through it and doing a really good job,” he said.
The greatest struggle facing Summers and Florida’s offensive line at this point is the lack of time in the spring session. The coach is trying to improve the Gators’ fundamental techniques while simultaneously ensure they are learning their assignments. That is one of the reasons why UF has only been able to install a tenth of its offense to this point, as McElwain noted Friday.
Summers also evaluated some of Florida’s returning players …
» On redshirt sophomore left tackle Roderick Johnson: “He got so many valuable reps out there [last season]. Rod is versatile enough that if we had to make a move and put him in there [at guard], I think he could adjust to that pretty good. That tackle spot is kind of dicey when you’re out there in all that space and he’s learned how to handle that pretty good under fire. I kind of like him out there, it’s a pretty good comfort zone to have him sitting out there protecting our quarterback.”
» On sophomore right tackle David Sharpe: “You talk about comfort. To look out there and see a guy with his kind of size, at some point a shadow kind of comes over the practice field and I think it’s getting ready to rain and it’s him walking past me. He has really starting to develop a personality that is expressive. I think he spent most of last year just figuring out what to do; he was very reserved in his ability to communicate at the line of scrimmage. So, he’s learning to communicate. He’s a very gifted athlete at tackle. We just have to refine his skills so that the things he’s really good at, we continue to grow at, but the things that he needs help with we need to continue to put him in the right position. I’m excited about what he can be. He’s everything that you would want to have in a young offensive lineman.”
» On redshirt sophomore Antonio Riles, who moved over from the defensive line last season: “It’s been like putting flower seeds in a pot and you put some water on it and you watch it grow. At first you just kind of see little leaves sticking above the dirt; now I’m actually seeing a little bud of a flower coming. He’s really done a good job. It was awkward at first for him to come over and learn the basic fundamentals of really the mindset of being an offensive lineman. We got that accomplished through most of last year so he was able to start this spring kind of with a clean slate of knowing what to expect. When he first came over, everything that hit him was brand new. I see him do new and better things every day. That’s a pretty cool thing to watch happen, too. He has things happen to him that he hasn’t had experience at, so as he gains the experience, he knows how to handle those situations.”
» On redshirt freshman Travaris Dorsey: “I think a pleasant surprise. He continues to gain knowledge of the offense. … Really, Dorsey at the start was struggling with some of the offense. This second week into it, it’s starting to make sense to him and I’m starting to see more of his athletic ability and more of his strength. I’m encouraged with what he’s been able to do.”
» On redshirt freshman Andrew Mike: “He’s a young guy that has a lot of football in front of him, certainly has got the size that we’re looking for. Right now we need him to just grow and develop in his experience. … He’s in the process right now of ‘what foot do I step with, where do my eyes go, where do my hands go, and, oh yeah, I’m supposed to see that linebacker right here.’ There’s a lot of things that happen in three or four seconds that you have to process. We’re in the process right now of learning it, and I’m excited for what his future can be.”
» On redshirt sophomore Cameron Dillard and how he has stepped up with redshirt senior Trip Thurman sidelined by injury: “Cam Dillard has stepped in there and really has taken charge of that position. That’s a leadership position. … He’s really done a good job of delivering the football and taking charge of the offensive line in a leadership role. That center position is so critical to us because he controls the ID of the front. He sets the blocking scheme for the front. That guy has to understand football, and he has to understand me and what I’m expecting from him. [Redshirt sophomore walk-on] Nick Davis has worked in there; Antonio Riles has worked in there. At some point probably, I’ll have everybody in there plus my graduate assistant; we’ll all be taking snaps.”