Six things we learned about the Florida Gators at 2017 SEC Media Days

By Adam Silverstein
July 13, 2017
Six things we learned about the Florida Gators at 2017 SEC Media Days
Football

Image Credit: @GatorsFB/Twitter

Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain likes to keep things close to the vest, particularly before a season begins. So when Florida descended on Hoover, Alabama, for the 2017 SEC Media Days, an in-depth discovery of Gators-related information was not expected.

Nevertheless, Florida’s appearance at talking season had its moments. Here are seven things we learned about the Gators by the time they returned home. (OnlyGators.com was not in attendance at SEC Media Days but tracked the entire event and spoke to a number of media members on the scene.)

1. There’s a favorite to start at quarterback: Whether it actually happens is another story, but the consensus in Hoover is that McElwain is almost certainly planning to have graduate transfer Malik Zaire start under center during Florida’s opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Though McElwain offered plenty of praise for his redshirt freshmen quarterbacks, primarily Feleipe Franks, and claimed that the competition was open and far from decided, that was in contrast to a comment he supposedly made earlier in the day that he knew who would be starting the opener.

McElwain shared that Zaire received a letter of recommendation from the president of Notre Dame, and OnlyGators.com was told that his limited experience in live game action is not a fair representation of his abilities, leadership and locker room presence. Zaire has been dealt a bad hand to this point in his collegiate career (injuries, competition, etc.), and as McElwain even mentioned, he did not transfer to UF to hold a clipboard on the sideline.

“I’m excited about having him in there. We’re now up to finally our number in the scholarship count that we want to be in the quarterback room. We’ve got some real options there and that’s a good thing,” McElwain explained. “He’s a guy that can light up the room with his smile. He’s excited to be there and excited to compete, and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens this fall.”

2. Offensive line moves from weakness to strength: Though he has not exactly used it as an excuse, McElwain is quick to point out that many of Florida’s offensive issues from his first two seasons stemmed in large part from a lacking offensive front. When he took over the Gators, they had just four scholarship offensive linemen due to insufficient roster planning by McElwain’s predecessor. But a couple strong recruiting cycles and a new position coach in Brad Davis now have McElwain believing a problem for Florida over the last few years will suddenly be a solution to its offensive woes.

“I’m really excited about this group. … This is the best we’ve been since I’ve been here at that position,” McElwain said. “Obviously, there was some numbers issues as far as just what was there, and that’s nothing against anybody. It just kind of is what it is. You had some guys leave early; you had some guys due to injury that weren’t able to finish out their careers. And yet, that group has consistently gotten a little better. I’ve got to tell you, this spring, I think it’s a group that is actually going to now be a true strength for the Gators.”

3. Star playmaker appears on track for the opener: Post-spring practice transgressions by junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway put the standout in the headlines yet again, but the character hit may be the only major penalty he ultimately suffers. Callaway, who was found by police in a vehicle with marijuana while riding with an older man with a checkered past, has been serving internal punishment since the incident. He is “handling it well” and presumably on track to meet the commitments outlined for him by McElwain and Florida. Considering the amount of time between his citation and the Sept. 2 opener (five months), it sounds quite unlikely that he will miss action despite this issue piling on top of previous problems he’s had since joining the Gators.

“He’s a guy that is fun to watch practice,” McElwain said. “I’ve been around some really good players, and I don’t want to put him in these categories, but these guys that have been successful, like a guy that I coached at Louisville, Deion Branch, who practiced every day like it was a game. Julio Jones when he was at Alabama. I mean, practice. I’m talking about as soon as you walked through the gate, man, it was on. Antonio is one of those guys. He just loves to play the game.”

4. No fun and games for sharks or Tigers: Asked again, for some reason, about the photo of a nude man laying atop a shark resembling him, McElwain understandably put a quick end to the conversation topic. “You know what? What it did, that actually not only attacked the university but attacked my family. … I bust chops with the best of them now, and yet, when it got personal … [tilts head]” Junior left tackle Martez Ivey had no doubt that the man was someone other than McElwain. “We knew that it wasn’t him. He’s not that fat. That dude was super fat,” Ivey said per Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman.

McElwain also chose not to have any fun with the fact that Florida has now scheduled LSU as its 2017 homecoming game. In fact, every time he was asked about it, McElwain made it clear that he did not even know the Gators were going to play the Tigers for homecoming until he got off the plane from his lake house in Montana and was informed of it by someone. He did make a small joke about it, however. “Coach [Nick] Saban decides when homecoming is, right? The head coach of Florida just finds out.” He opened up a bit more when questioned in the major ballroom about the growing UF-LSU rivalry. “Rivalries are what make college football as awesome as it is. For us at the University of Florida, here’s the great thing, we’ve got a bunch of rivalries. … That’s why you come to Florida: to play in big ball games and great rivalries.” But why exactly do so many teams want to be rivals with UF? “We the Gators, not you,” said redshirt senior defensive back Marcell Harris.

5. The Gators will be underdogs, again: Whether it’s ESPN‘s absurd “FPI” ratings or the fact that the gathered media will surely vote Georgia ahead of Florida in its annual preseason poll on Thursday, McElwain is preparing the two-time defending SEC East champions to not even be considered the best team in their own division. “Will somebody at least say we exist?” he joked on Tuesday. “That would be nice.”

Perhaps this year, more than others, that lack of respect is understandable. The Gators have made their money on defense over the last few seasons, and that side of the ball is undoubtedly a question mark with so many departures, some questionable depth and a new coordinator. The offense, however, should be much improved, which may mitigate the defense not being as dominant as it has been in the past. Florida will never get the respect it deserves until the offensive thrives and the program proves it can beat opponents like Florida State and Alabama. If UF is able to take down Michigan in the opener, you might see some tunes changed entering Week 2.

6. Michigan is on Florida’s mind: Aside from being a fun nonconference opener against a Power Five opponent and one of the most storied programs in college football, the Gators have motivation for wanting to run through the Wolverines when the season opens. Michigan kicked Florida’s ass in a bowl game two years ago. “A butt whoopin’ for us, man,” senior DB Duke Dawson told SEC Network on Tuesday. “Two years ago, they beat the brakes off us in the bowl game, so a lot of our guys have a chip on our shoulders. We have to come in with the right mindset and know we have to be focused and dialed into what we have to do to beat a great Michigan team.” To that end, Harris explained that UF “watch[es] Michigan film every day.”

Asked whether he is glad the Gators are being tested against such a difficult opponent in the Wolverines to open the season, McElwain clarified that he did not schedule the contest (it happened in 2013 before he was hired) but he is all for such games being added to future slates. “We’re the University for Florida. And college football fans, I think Gator fans in general, they deserve us to go out and play whoever we can to the best of our ability no matter where they’re from,” McElwain said. He later added: “I think it’s really good for college football that two different conferences are playing each other on opening day. … I just think it’s the way it should be.”

3 Comments

  1. 1974Gator says:

    Adam, This article got my juices going about the challenges and reasonable expectations the Gators have ahead of them this season. Thank you for the nice summary of the Gator Media Day highlights.

  2. WJP II says:

    Nice read. If the injuries don’t pile up like last year and the O plays like the D the Gators won’t have to worry about respected. Go Gators

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