Image Credit: UAA
Offensive success was rekindled for the Florida Gators in 2015 … for six games. It was at that point that the loss of a quarterback and the youth of Florida’s offensive line left the Gators exposed to a bevy of tough competition including the eventual national champion.
With both of the Gators’ 2015 quarterbacks off the roster, the offensive line a year older and more playmakers in Gainesville, Florida, than in recent years, there is an expectation for serious improvement.
Here’s what the Gators coaches say to that: We agree.
“This group has worked extremely hard. To see the growth they have made over the last year, really, really excited about where they are as we go into camp,” said offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on Wednesday. “Obviously, we have to get better at a lot of things. [I’m excited] to watch how much growth we’re going to have, not only where we came from the end of last year through spring but where we’ll be from the start of camp to the end of camp.”
Added head coach Jim McElwain: “I would challenge us to be dramatically better. … I think the experience we developed up front is going to be very helpful. And I’m going to challenge those guys to help us get a little better. And yet, the parts around it [are important, too], I think to see which one of these receivers kind of grows up early. There’s a lot of talent and a lot to choose from. But you know, I see it drastically much better in operations and getting it to the open guys and hopefully controlling, or at least winning, half a battle up front, right?”
So with that, let’s take a look at how McElwain and Nussmeier discussed each position on the offense from back to front.
It’s been obvious since the spring that the coaches are not going to give up a competition leader at the position. McElwain on Wednesday continued his offseason practice of discussing redshirt senior Austin Appleby whenever asked about redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio. That said, for months now it has been Del Rio who has been the overwhelming favorite to win the job.
“I like how [the quarterbacks] go about their daily business. It’s interesting when you ask them to do something and they just go do it; or when you ask them to do something, and they research it and come back with the right way to do it — and then work on top of that [to perfect it],” McElwain said. “They are willing to do it on their own, and in turn, willing to work with other guys on the team at different positions to help them as well. I think that’s one of the things that both of them bring to our team that’s really helping.”
Since that was McElwain’s most detailed answer on the quarterbacks, let’s check in with his coordinator.
“I think they are both very close. I think they can both be extremely effective,” said Nussmeier of Del Rio and Appleby. “Very excited about the competition that’s going to be created and not just at quarterback, across the board.”
OK, nevermind. Oh, McElwain also said Florida has no plans for what it’s going to do with freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, who are expected to be redshirted barring injuries or collapses by Del Rio and Appleby.
Out is Kelvin Taylor. Returning are a pair of sophomores who saw spot action in 2015. Incoming are a junior transfer and true freshman. So how are the Gators going to sort it all out? You guessed it, most likely by using an extended committee approach rather than relying on one full-load ball-carrier.
“Ideally in this league, you’d like to have a couple guys that you can count on and interchangeable parts, so to say,” explained Nussmeier. “Really excited about that group and the depth.”
OK so, specifically, what are the expectations for sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett?
“The one thing about Jordan Cronkrite that stood out to me was his ability to do things in the formation and the passing game. … He’s a really good athlete and has really good feel when you start doing some of the receiving things, as well as being a good tailback,” said Nussmeier. “And then Jordan Scarlett, his physicality, his ability to run the football downhill. … Obviously the curve was really steep for them. So the curve has slowed down from a learning standpoint. Really curious now to watch their natural skill level start to take over and really implement some of the things we asked them to work on in the offseason.”
McElwain explained that potentially having five running backs suit up each game would allow Florida to use more “pony personnel” with two running backs and three wide receivers on the field. Junior Mark Thompson, a highly-coveted JUCO transfer with the body of an SEC back, would lead a trio consisting of redshirt senior Mark Henrdon and freshman Lamichal Perine as the other backs who could get carries.
First thing’s first: McElwain confirmed Wednesday that sophomore Antonio Callaway will practice all fall with the Gators despite his university issue remaining unresolved. Similarly, freshmen wideouts Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells will also participate in practice despite both facing a pair of felonies for shooting a BB gun outside a dormitory and breaking a few windows.
In terms of who else will step up, the first name off everyone’s lips was junior Brandon Powell, who was hampered in a major way by a foot injury last season but is back to 100 percent health and has even been outfitted with a special shoe by Nike.
“A healthy Brandon Powell at receiver, that’s something [good]. Those first four games, he lit it up pretty good now and got a little nicked up. He’s a guy that’s got to carry the load for us until some of those young guys come from the passing game standpoint,” explained McElwain, who later expanded on the player. “I know how eager he’s been to get back. We’ve had to kind of put on the reigns a little bit far as his development with that foot. … But all indications, he’s cutting. He’s doing everything now.”
Nussmeier is equally pleased with Powell’s return and offseason success. “To watch him progress back, to watch how hard he’s worked, really excited to get him back out there,” he said. “He brings a totally different element to the offense, and a guy that has played running back, but you put him in the slot and he can create matchups. And his ability, when he gets the ball in space, he’s very difficult to put your hands on.”
There was also a bit of a love fest for junior C.J. Worton, who impressed during the 2015 SEC Championship Game but was quiet the rest of the season. By all accounts, he could be a surprise breakout playmaker for the Gators.
“He is another guy that has come a long, long ways moving forward,” said McElwain. “He’s a guy that, even when you see his body, you’ll see the importance of the nutrition piece, the importance of finishing everything you do and your attention to your daily detail. It will be interesting to see where it carries over but he’s had an outstanding summer; a guy that has really been a go-to guy for our guys.”
Nussmeier concurred: “As much as anything, he has really started to get it. He’s really maturing as a young man, understanding how to take the things that he learns in the classroom when it comes to the game and apply it to the field. … He’s a phenomenal athlete, and I think he’s just starting to scratch the surface. He’s got a big, big upside and really excited to see what kind of camp he’ll have.”
Both McElwain and Nussmeier agreed that senior Ahmad Fulwood can make an impact for Florida in 2016 … if he uses his size to his advantage and actually plays aggressively on a consistent basis. Past him, junior transfer Dre Massey will compete with Powell both in the slot and in the return game, and the Gators’ early enrollee wideouts certainly have a leg up on Cleveland and Wells.
It looked at one point in 2015 like Florida might have three tight ends terrorizing defenses throughout the season. That was eventually pared down to about one-and-a-half with Jake McGee being the primary producer. Junior DeAndre Goolsby and redshirt sophomore C’yontai Lewis take over for good in 2016, and McElwain made it a point to single them out Wednesday as players that can have a massive impact on the offense this season.
As you’ll see below, Nussmeier gave his most glowing comments of the afternoon about one of the two players, but he is certainly confident that both will be able to make a difference for the Gators.
“I think both those guys run extremely well. They are very athletes. They may not be the 260-pound hammerhead tight ends, but they have really good length and they run really good routes and they understand how to set up routes,” he said. “DeAndre, I think he’s going to take his game to a whole ‘nother level than where he finished the season last year.”
Though the freshmen that started and played so much in 2016 now have plenty of experience under their belts, there still remains plenty of questions about the unit, such as who will start where on the line.
One thing that is not a question to McElwain is the unit’s leader both on and off the field — junior tackle David Sharpe. “To me, the big key is the development and maturity of David Sharpe on a day-to-day, play-to-play basis. And what I’ve seen out of him from a leadership standpoint is something that I think is really good,” he said. “Just looking at them [all], they have grown up a little bit. And how they hang together, how they communicate together, I think those are all things that help you be successful.”
McElwain also confirmed that sophomore Martez Ivey will remain inside and start the camp at guard, though he does recognize that he will “eventually” move to the outside and play his more natural position of tackle. When exactly that will happen remains to be seen, particularly because Florida is still trying to develop depth along the line. Also factoring in is that the Gators will be cautious with Ivey, who is recovering from offseason surgery. Though he is cleared to practice in full, UF will not take chances considering how badly the unit needs him to be healthy this season.
What is Nussmeier most excited about regarding the offense as a whole? “The ability that we can now actually practice in two different squads because we have depth and we have numbers at some positions.”
Does an offensive coordinator have to be a creative “genius” or “mastermind” to be successful? “Well, I don’t know. I was pretty bad in art class, so when you talk about being creative … Ultimately, it’s about putting the players in the best chance to have success. The players play the game. Coaches coach. So how do you put the players in the best position they can to be successful.”
Is the offense going to progress in more ways than just calling new plays? “We are going to change and do some things differently that we haven’t done. Obviously if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better. So we are going to do some things a little bit differently. I think our quarterback room, their grasping of the things we are trying to accomplish and their knowledge is going to allow us to do maybe some different things with them that maybe we didn’t do a year ago. But really excited about the different types of players we have at different positions allow you to do some of those things and hopefully that allows to you do some different things to keep people off-balance defensively.”