While the focus to this point has been on who will line up under center (or in the shotgun) for the Florida Gators, head coach Jim McElwain has been harping on another position’s need for improvement in order to get his passing attack to resemble something that would help the Gators win football games.
Up until this week, McElwain has been highly critical of Florida’s wide receivers, noting that they were struggling with running crisp routes, being consistent (not just between practices but between plays) and completing the action that is most critical at their position – hauling in the football.
McElwain changed his tune a bit on Tuesday.
“For the most part, we caught the ball better today,” he said early in his post-practice media availability. McElwain later added: “We’re asking a lot of those wideouts, and yet to play that position in our offense, you have to understand that not only is it something you really got to work at but it’s something you cannot just be satisfied with just being OK. You’ve got to step up and go work at it. That’s a spot that the guys are still getting a grasp of. … I thought they did a really good job [Saturday and Tuesday night].”
If one has been following the Gators’ offseason to this point, the name that has come out of McElwain’s mouth most often from the offensive side of the ball has not been redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier or sophomore signal caller Treon Harris but rather sophomore running back-turned-wide receiver Brandon Powell.
McElwain singled out Powell out early on, seemingly during Florida’s preparations for the 2015 Birmingham Bowl when he observed practice, as someone who can be a true difference-maker for the offense if used properly – one of his ‘it’ guys. Powell has been front and center for the Gators at media opportunities, and while he does not have a ton to say at this juncture, McElwain has not tired of talking about the second-year standout.
“We’re putting a lot on his plate, and yet, he’s handling it well,” McElwain said. “I think his versatility, having been taking hand-offs in the backfield is not new to him as we shift and motion him around and put him in different spots. I think the thing that he’s done – I’m really proud of what he’s done – is learn to be a route-runner. He continues to get better, and the guy’s going to be a big part of what we do.”
But McElwain made sure to single out two others pass-catchers on Tuesday, just not those one might expect like juniors Demarcus Robinson or Ahmad Fulwood.
“You might’ve saw Josh Grady out there catching some passes,” said McElwain, referring to the redshirt senior transfer from Vanderbilt who had been spending most of his time at quarterback. “We’re trying to find some guys that are consistently going to make catches. He’s a guy who obviously has played that, so we put him out there and maybe have a package with him in there as well.”
He also discussed the pressure he is putting on redshirt sophomore Alvin Bailey, who has only played in six games over two seasons with the Gators and not recorded a single statistic to date.
“We’re asking Alvin to really step up. He’s a guy that has to make some plays for us,” McElwain noted. “He’s got to be able to spell Brandon in the slot and still be able to play some Z as well, move him around in spots. We’re looking for him to show up, be consistent in everything that he’s doing.”
Bailey, who was jailed in July after failing to appear in court on charges of unknowingly driving without a license and missing a prior court date, has not been assessed a game suspension, as of press time.
Junior safety Keanu Neal, who hurt an undisclosed part of an undisclosed leg, is still getting it worked on; his status is “to be determined. What I try to do is keep those guys inside and get as much treatment as possible,” McElwain said. McElwain provided the same update for two wideouts with injuries, redshirt senior Valdez Showers (completely undisclosed) and redshirt junior Raphael Andrades (somewhere on the leg).
The injury portion of McElwain’s media address was more good news than questionable news. Freshman defensive back Kylan Johnson, who McElwain previously praised for stepping up in practice and making a case for playing time, is “doing really well” and will not undergo surgery for his injury to some part of his leg. “He’ll be back sooner than later, and that’s great news for this football team,” he noted.
Similarly, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Travaris Dorsey’s undisclosed leg injury is all healed, and he returned to practice over the weekend.
* Please excuse the sarcasm of “updates,” but when a coach won’t provide a timetable for a player, much less explain a player’s exact injury, it’s hard to call it an update and there is no better word to use.
Bits and notes
» Florida has been holding some additional practices at night in order to prepare for playing three straight night games to open the 2015 season. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re on that time clock more than anything,” McElwain said.
» Redshirt sophomore walk-on QB Luke Del Rio made a couple nice passes when practice was open to the media, according to reporters on site, leading them to ask McElwain if he had any update on Del Rio’s unlikely NCAA waiver request that he addressed just days earlier. There is no update. (Del Rio is unlikely to receive a second waiver from the NCAA after already getting handed one for his first transfer. He is also an unlikely candidate to start over Grier or Harris, even if he were to get it.)
» McElwain on awarding scholarships to six walk-ons over the weekend: “Isn’t that awesome? Well, you know what? You wish all of them had it because they put a lot of time in to help the Gators.”
» McElwain on the Gators’ pass rush: “A good one, really. I think those guys up front, you know, they come with a lot of experience and worked against a heck of an offensive line even in practice last year. What, four of those guys are in the NFL, right? So I think them perfecting their craft every single day is something that you see.”
» McElwain believes Florida’s younger linebackers have benefited from the extra snaps provided by the absences of senior Antonio Morrison and junior Jarrad Davis, each of whom missed spring practice and have not been full-contact in fall. “I think those guys have gotten a lot better,” McElwain said of the younger players, “so now we’ve got really true depth there where I don’t think a guy is going to have to play 85 plays. We’re going to be able to rotate some in those spots.”
» There was a mini freak-out from gathered media at practice when only Harris was seen taking snaps with the first team during its speedball drill. McElwain reassured those gathered during his availability that “it’s a total rotation there” at the quarterback position and nothing was out of the ordinary.
» Though he “totally love[s]” college football rivalry games, McElwain said he’s “not a believer in putting a countdown clock for some certain game;” However, “when that time comes, that’s the most important game there is” and he’s “well aware of historical battles that are between schools.” He sounds more like Will Muschamp than Urban Meyer in that regard. That said, McElwain is not completely forthcoming with what exactly goes on behind the scenes.
» McElwain on whether being forced to move out of the team hotel affected preseason prep: “Yeah, the unity. There’s definitely something to be said when everybody is together like that. I don’t think you can replace that. One of the things we do is we actually house the older guys with the younger guys just to create relationships and guys meeting. We missed out on some of that. But I will say this, I’m proud of how our guys accepted responsibility when we moved. Everybody was on time and early. There was a lot of good I thought came out of that. Part of being a Gator is understanding the responsibility that you have not only for yourself but through your actions for the people around you. I was really proud of the way they handled it.”