By Shannon Snell – OnlyGators.com Featured Columnist
Eight months. It’s been eight long months since Ohio State hoisted the first College Football Playoff trophy, becoming the first team to go through multiple opponents to win the title. But put aside Urban Meyer’s success outside Gainesville, both last year and in his dominant win over Virginia Tech.
Now, on the heels of Florida’s big Week 1 win over New Mexico State (big in point total, not prominence), this should be a time when Gators fans rejoice. You may think I’m crazy for suggesting that or even roll your eyes and laugh at the assumption that Florida can be something better than mediocre this year, especially after being beat down as one of the worst teams in college football as of late.
Look, I’ve been in and around this Gators program for many, many years, and seen and experienced plenty – from playing and interacting with legendary coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, to dwindling in obscurity under Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Florida football over the course of the last 10 years has been a rollercoaster of tremendous highs and ultimate lows. Now, in its present state, I can honestly tell you that as a former player, I am genuinely excited about what is happening with this program.
Make no mistake about it; Jim McElwain has started a revolution – a revolution to prove that the Gators belong in football’s top echelon, not stuck in mediocrity where they’ve been the last four years. There is a sense of confidence in the halls of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. I’ve felt it. It’s a confidence that hasn’t been there since a man named Tim Tebow donned the Orange and Blue. I’m not talking confidence about winning games or even a championship, just confidence about the direction of the program.
For me, actions speak louder than words, and McElwain has been making splashes since he stepped on campus. Talking to people that work around him and play for him, he is quite unanimously respected, and that says a lot. He has the players eating right, acting right and saying all the right things. For all it’s worth, he does have things on the right track.
What is important to remember here, though is that this is an ongoing process. As good as this team looked against New Mexico, building a powerhouse program doesn’t happen overnight. Fixing the mistakes of Muschamp, and even Meyer to some extent, is not something that happens in a couple of months. For all Muschamp’s failings, he did help rid the Gators of the self-entitlement and selfishness that plagued Florida under Meyer. McElwain has continued on that path in his own way. This “revolution” is only beginning.
From a talent standpoint, the team is in better shape than most believe. You don’t need me to tell you that cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is an absolute beast. While I’m not a huge fan of him returning punts, I do think he’s a special talent with the ball in his hands. It only makes sense that this coaching staff does everything in its power to do exactly that. Brandon Powell looks like a force to be reckoned with, and I am giddy to see what Kelvin Taylor, Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite can do to SEC defenses as long as the offensive line holds up.
My favorite player on the team right now is someone who has yet to play a down, freshman offensive tackle Martez Ivey. Obviously I am partial to offensive linemen – you know that if you’ve ever read one of these before. Tez is huge, and coming from me, that’s no small compliment. He’s got giant hands, incredibly long arms, and a well put together frame that easily could add 30 more pounds.
That’s not the coolest thing about him, though. I’ve gotten the chance to speak with him a bit, and I can tell you he is one of the most humble guys you will ever meet. He’s very soft spoken and very enjoyable to be around. But make no mistake about it, when those pads go on and his hand goes into the dirt, you do not want to be in front of him. Get the hell out the way. There’s no doubt in my mind that, at some point early in the season, he’ll be starting somewhere on the offensive line. Yes, he’s that good.
The line also needs him, though like the rest of the unit he is also young and inexperienced. Saturday against New Mexico State, there were a few missed assignments and a couple of mental lapses. But make no mistake about it, this offensive line can end up being a very talented group, especially with Mike Summers leading the charge.
Mistakes are correctable, lack of talent is not. And speaking of talent, keep an eye on Antonio Riles, an ultra-physical guard who shows a real nasty streak. I’m really high on him, too.
Look, there will be ups and downs to the 2015 season. If you’re not ready for that, turn off your television and turn in your tickets now. The key is that there are brighter days ahead for the Gators, and I’m pleased that Jeremy Foley put this program in the hands of someone as accomplished as McElwain. For a man who has been criticized so much for his recent decision-making, Foley may be able to puff out his chest in a couple years and laud McElwain as one of his best hires to date.
A three-year starter for the Florida Gators who played under Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, former guard Shannon Snell joined OnlyGators.com in 2012 as a football columnist to provide his unique perspective on the team. He is now in his fourth year sharing his musings and will do so through the 2015 season. Snell, who played in 46 games over four seasons and started 36 of those contests, was named a First Team All-American by Sporting News in 2003 and spent two seasons in the NFL.