Image Credit: ESPNI
The 2016 season is only two weeks old and the Florida Gators have already been through a bunch. Some of their top players have been suspended, others have dealt with injuries and the outcomes of Florida’s first two games have been surprising for different reasons.
One of the biggest issues facing the Gators over the past few years has been a tendency to play to the level of their opponents rather than attacking each game the same way. It’s one reason why Florida has been so wildly inconsistent from week to week. It’s even happened in 2016 as the Gators started flat against UMass, one of the worst teams in the nation in 2015, only to rebound and annihilate SEC East rival Kentucky last Saturday.
Head coach Jim McElwain has recognized this as a long-term issue for Florida but maintains that he does not understand how a team can claim to be bought in and on the same page yet still perform in that manner.
“I don’t know how you can ever do anything and not go out and do it your best. And yet, that doesn’t mean you’re ever going to be perfect. No one’s ever perfect,” he said this week. “But the energy and the way you prepare to go out against anybody, it doesn’t matter [who they are]. It shouldn’t matter if it’s football or if it’s Tiddlywinks or if it’s going to the ice cream truck really fast. You want to go the best way you can.”
Also slipping for the Gators the last few seasons has been their ability to defend their home field. Since the about-face of Urban Meyer in 2009, Florida is 30-12 (.714) in The Swamp despite a 7-0 season in 2012. The Gators were 22-11 (.667) prior to McElwain’s arrival (including that 7-0 season) and have gone 8-1 since he took over the program ahead of the 2015 campaign.
“Take back The Swamp” has been a mantra of McElwain’s since he took over in Gainesville, and Florida — to this point — appears to have bought in.
“This is such an unbelievable place for a football game, and it’s a place that — it doesn’t matter where you’re at in the country, people know about The Swamp,” McElwain said. “I look at it more so as not a right but more so a privilege to be able to play in The Swamp and be able to be part of that history of what a great place it is. Our guys [need to] understand the importance of taking care of this place like so many teams before them. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
It’s easy to say that, though. It’s another thing to do it. Considering their schedule, should everything fall as expected for the Gators, six wins at home in 2016 are expected with a perfect 7-0 slate possible if Florida can get past LSU on Oct. 8.
There are plenty of things standing in the way of that, though, like injuries.
UF is far from as healthy as it could be entering its showdown with North Texas on Saturday.
Sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway is “highly questionable to doubtful” — mark it inactive — with a quadriceps injury. Sophomore starting right guard Tyler Jordan (originally listed as questionable) will miss a couple weeks with an eye issue stemming from a broken orbital bone he suffered in 2015. Redshirt freshman Richerd Desir-Jones, playing in his third game, will start in Jordan’s place.
Redshirt junior starting center Cam Dillard (elbow) and junior transfer cornerback Joseph Putu (lower leg) should both play but are dealing with ailments. Not as lucky are freshmen WR Tyrie Cleveland (hamstring) and linebacker Jeremiah Moon (thumb surgery), who are both out, the latter effecting a position that severely lacks depth.
While confidence seems to be growing around the Gators, the team must ensure it does not get too high on itself. North Texas may not prove to be much of an issue for Florida, but a lacking early slate and roster with injury concerns could loom large next week at Tennessee.
» Asked whether Alabama coach Nick Saban ever gave McElwain an “ass chewing” like Saban did his current offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, last Saturday, McElwain laughed. “From Coach Saban? Yeah, all the time. It was awesome,” he said. “Maybe he just knew I was so wacked out anyway it really didn’t matter. … I thought that was normal.”
» Freshman offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor stepped up in a major way against Kentucky, filling in for sophomore Fred Johnson and actually grading out as Florida’s best lineman in the game. Position coach Mike Summers spoke with the media this week and did not hold back his extensive praise for Taylor, who did everything he could to play for UF and see action this season.
“Absolutely amazing [transition]. He’s a guy that we were really familiar with because he had been at camp for two years and was extremely overweight. … We basically told him it was going to be hard to us to recruit him because of his size and his movement skills. There needed to be a commitment towards what he was going to do to put himself in position to be a Division I college football player. Absolutely amazingly, the kid goes out and loses up to 40 pounds through the summer and fall, has a really great fall campaign and does a great job on video and is knocking guys on the ground and puts himself in position to be recruited. That got him here. … And then since he’s been here, he’s been an absolute joy to coach. He’s a sponge for information and knowledge, has worked really hard on his technique and has physical gifts and strengths that allow him to go out and execute and do a good job. I can’t tell you how elated I was at how he played on Saturday. He got in there early, played most of the game and really handled himself like a veteran. I was so excited about what he did and what he brings to our offensive line in terms of strength and toughness and a real focused effort.”
» Summers was not overly concerned about his line’s performance in Week 1, calling it’s improvement in Week 2 “part of the natural transition of what happens as you start a season.” He attributed the Gators’ struggles to figuring out game speed and tempo, learning how to work together and pass protect in live situations. “I did think that they really came together well this past week, and I was encouraged with how well all five of them played as a unit. It really got me excited to see that they understood the things that needed to improve from Week 1 to Week 2 and looked that dead in the face, took on that challenge and played a more complete game against Kentucky and really showed what we were able to do in terms of production,” he said.
» Summers also shared some thoughts on junior tackle David Sharpe, who is holding down the left side and solidified himself as Florida’s most reliable lineman. “Something I’ve seen him do from last year to this year is I see him finish plays better. … The end of plays are a lot more complete; the play doesn’t melt away, there’s a finish to a lot of plays he has,” Summers said. “The other thing he’s bringing to us is leadership. That’s an area that was really lacking last year. Just his experience and the things he’s been able to do on the field give him a strong voice in the meeting room, strong voice with our offense.”