Image Credit: ESPNI
Head coach Jim McElwain‘s lack of specificity has made it difficult at times to get a handle on the Florida Gators as they enter the 2016 season, his second at the helm in Gainesville, Florida.
Considering the offseason had its fair share of negative headlines and the Gators are facing significant adversity at the start of the campaign, there’s a lot to digest before game week even gets underway. So with that, let’s put a bow on the summer and first month of the fall.
Availability of wideouts still a question: Sophomore Antonio Callaway may have been cleared by a sham of a student conduct hearing but there has been no indication as to whether he’ll play on Saturday, Sept. 3 against UMass. Callaway’s accuser had 10 business days to file an appeal with the 10th day being last Friday. Was it filed? We don’t know, but either way, we’ve maintained all offseason that Callaway needs to be held out at least one week, particularly after he admitted on record to being “faded as fuck” the night in question, indicating that he had smoked a lot of marijuana. That’s not a positive test, but it’s an admission on the record.
Then there’s freshmen Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells, who remain in the doghouse after getting in a BB gun fight at their dorm and being charged with felonies for breaking a window. Those charges have not been reduced yet, and the players are seemingly away from the team. McElwain claimed that both players were dealing with hamstring injuries, which may have been the truth though it’s a strange coincidence. This past week, he opened up a tad more about their status. “Those two guys are obviously going through some things and dealing with some things, but they’ll be back,” he said. In other words, don’t expect to see them on Saturday.
There’s other wideouts, too, really good ones: While Callaway, Cleveland and Wells may be issues, Florida’s wide receiver position is the strongest it’s been as a whole maybe since 2009. Junior Brandon Powell is healthy and junior transfer Dre Massey is turning heads. Though both “undersized” by conventional standards, this one-two punch of speed and agility may pay incredible dividends for the Gators in 2016. “The art of deception in having those guys being able to do so many different things, I think anytime you can do that, it really helps. To get both those guys on the field at the same time is going to be important for us,” explained McElwain. Regarding Massey, McElwain has noted that he has the “versatility to do a lot of different things, everything from punt to throw to handle it carrying it out of the backfield.” That puts halfback and wide receiver passes, pooch punts and more into play any time Massey is on the field, well, if McElwain is being completely truthful.
Senior Ahmad Fulwood should also have an impact as a massive target at 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, while early entry freshmen Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain earned rave reviews during the spring. Junior C.J. Worton, who was expected to play a role on offense this season, will at least be a slow starter as he’s been dealing with a high-ankle sprain.
Key linebackers are healthy and ready to lead: Considering how depleted Florida is at linebacker, it’s been of the utmost importance for redshirt junior Alex Anzalone to get healthy and senior Jarrad Davis to stay healthy during practice leading up to the season. According to McElwain, Anzalone’s shoulder is not only 100 percent healthy per trainers, “his strength level and stability is better than it’s ever been.” Right now, Anzalone has no limitations and has been doing more than the team anticipated in practice.
Davis has been unaffected by past injuries during camp, which has allowed him to spend time out of the training room and on the field becoming an even better leader. “I can’t say enough about him as far as what he brings to the Gators, how proud he is to be a Gator, what he’s taken on leadership-wise and through his actions, how he goes about his daily work,” said McElwain. “He’s a guy that obviously is having a great camp. I’m looking forward to his season and his continued leadership moving forward. He’s a guy everybody looks to and listens when he talks.”
Hey look, there’s a starting quarterback: It took McElwain a couple extra weeks to make the call Steve Spurrier recognized in early August and the media that watched spring practice did in March. Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio will start at quarterback for the Gators in 2016. A transfer and former walk-on, Del Rio “had a little bounce” in the first practice held after he won the job. Expectations are that redshirt senior graduate transfer Austin Appleby will serve as back-up, though unlike recent seasons, Florida hopes going past first string it something it won’t have to do at quarterback.
Improved offensive line play? Speaking of keeping a quarterback healthy, an incredibly young and inexperienced offensive line from a year ago is now just young and sort-of experienced. Early departures and unexpected injuries really hurt the Gators up front, and losing redshirt junior Antonio Riles for the season during fall practice certainly did not help Florida’s depth. Still, McElwain feels good about the group. “I think we are markedly better at all the spots and that has as much to do with guys that gained experience, gained a year of strength and knowledge as to what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “Footwork wise, at times we’re going sideways. We need to make sure that we’re trying to control the line of scrimmage, not let the line of scrimmage control us. But those are things we’re working on. I actually like our depth there, too. I think we’ve got some answers, even with Riles being down.”
Too many running backs? Rare is it for the Gators to be wealthy in the offensive backfield but that appears to be the case this season. While there is not a single player who appears to have blown away the competition to be a primary ball carrier, sophomores Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett showed promise a year ago, redshirt junior Mark Thompson brings true SEC size and power, and freshman Lamical Perine is drawing rave reviews. (There’s also redshirt senior Mark Herndon, who has been praised every offseason of his career at UF.) It may sound like there are too many backs and Perine is bound for a redshirt, but McElwain said there is “no doubt about it” that the true freshman will play. “None of those things will be determined until after the fourth game anyway, so moving forward, I tell you what, he’s a guy that runs with great pad level. He’s slippery in there. Guys bounce off him, and he’s really strong. He’s got a great stiff arm, and he’s done some really good things.”
Not everyone is healthy: In addition to Worton’s high-ankle sprain, Cronkrite was “a little banged up” last week, as was redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Andrew Mike, but both made it back to action. Sophomore OL Martez Ivey, coming off a shoulder issue of his own, appears to be in good health with no lingering issues. Still though, redshirt freshman WR Kalif Jackson remains out while building up his leg. There have been no updates on freshmen defensive backs Quincy Lenton (foot) and C.J. McWilliams (reported ACL) though both are expected to be out multiple months.
Kicking things into gear: Redshirt sophomore kicker Eddy Pineiro still remains a question mark. While every single thing written about him has been exceptionally positive this offseason, his inexperience in the thick of things remains something that must prove to be a non-issue. The most successful kickers have strong minds in addition to strong legs and that’s exactly what remains unknown about Pineiro. He has confidence and talent, but can he put it all together during a real game despite having absolutely no experience doing so?
McElwain said this week that Pineiro’s “pre-kick ritual” has been sped up and operation times on special teams have been improved across the board. He also indicated that Florida will use two kickers this season with redshirt sophomore Jorge Powell handling “all our onside kick stuff and some things like that.” That’s certainly interesting. Powell made 2-of-3 field goals attempted in 2015 and has certainly given Pineiro some competition, but inserting him only for special situations in games would appear to show UF’s cards a bit.
Finding a pass rush: Losing Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister means the Gators need to ensure they have enough guys able to get to the quarterback up front on defense. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley has been a no-brainer starter on the interior, though the placement of sophomore CeCe Jefferson has remained a question. McElwain has insisted that Jefferson will, like Bullard and Dominique Easley before him, see a lot of time inside despite most believing they can be more effective as an outside pass rusher. Asked about it last week, McElwain said he thinks Jefferson might actually be more effective in there,” though he will play both roles. “He’s a guy [we will use inside against] certain offenses … where [against other] offenses, he may be more effective on the outside based on what we’re seeing that given week.”
As for replacing some of McCalister’s production, redshirt senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. has earned even more snaps than he got a year ago. McElwain believes he’ll make the most of them. “He just plays the game and practices with such a sense of urgency. He doesn’t take plays off. It’s really important to him, and he’s somebody our young guys have been able to look at and say this is how you go about your practice habits. He plays the game hard,” McElwain said.