We’re back with Florida Football Friday Final, where OnlyGators.com takes a last look at the Florida Gators as they prepare for their first road contest under new head coach Jim McElwain.
The Gators will take on the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. The game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. and air live on SEC Network.
This week on OnlyGators.com
Starting quarterback: Redshirt freshman Will Grier to start against Kentucky
Practice update: New Gators injured, McElwain could go with hot hand at QB
Practice update: Secondary holds players-only meeting
Depth chart: Plenty of changes for Week 3
Tight ends making a major impact
For the first time since 2012, through two games, the Gators’ leading receiver is a tight end. Those tight ends, through two games, have combined for 200 receiving yards, which is 37 short of the position group’s total in 2014 and 158 more than the same group finished with in 2013.
In other words, McElwain has lived up to his preseason guarantee that the tight end would have a prominent role in Florida’s offense. (It also helps that he was more pleased with the development of players at that position than most others on the offense.)
While having five scholarship tight ends does not necessarily make the Gators deep there, the fact that those players are actual pass catchers and not players converted from other positions is a recruiting achievement the prior coaching staff definitely made. Now it is up to the new staff to ensure they not only contribute but help lead Florida back to an offense that can go out and win football games.
“Well, they’re still young, really to be honest,” said tight ends coach Greg Nord on Wednesday. “Jake [McGee] is an older guy that’s the only guy that had any true game experience. He has been a little bit of a settling influence on the other guys.
“They’re young in the offense. C’yontai [Lewis] and [DeAndre] Goolsby, both of those guys are really playing for the first time in a major capacity where they have to prepare all week knowing that they’re going to be in the first series or second series and playing throughout the course of the game.”
Goolsby is the Gators’ leading receiver, totaling 132 yards over two games and averaging 22.0 yards per reception with one touchdown. Lewis has contributed with 50 yards on three catches, two of which have gone for scores. McGee, Virginia’s leading receiver two years ago, has been noticeably absent as a pass-catching contributor, but Nord believes he will be plenty effective in time.
“Jake actually ran a couple of those same exact routes [that were successful for the other tight ends], but he didn’t catch the coverage which brought him the ball on those particular routes,” he explained. “If you’re a selfish guy, you say, ‘Dang, I’m not getting the ball;’ if you’re not a selfish guy, which he’s not, you realize you run the offense and when the defense dictates the ball comes to you then you catch it and go.”
Nord believes Florida’s tight ends run well and “compare favorably with some of the good ones” he’s had throughout his 36-year coaching career. That’s quite a compliment, even if Nord does not have many big-name tight end pupils to boast about.
Because of their impressive talent, the Gators have been playing with multiple tight ends on the field in nearly half of their offensive snaps. Nord does not expect that to change now that Southeastern Conference play has begun.
“Those guys and the ability that they have, as far as being able to play detached, has allowed us to be in two tight end sets and still be in five wides, which we were in a few times last week,” he said. “We were able to shift and motion them and just create some extra chalk burning, as we call it in our room, for the defensive staffs on the other side.”
Nord began his career at Kentucky (1979-89) and returned to Lexington this decade, spending 2011-12 as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator for the Wildcats. As such, he’ll be playing in his second straight reunion game (Nord was also running backs coach at East Carolina from 1990-91).
Do not be mistaken though, Nord knows the game and made it clear that football is a business; your current allegiance is only as good as the paychecks that you deposit in your bank account. As such, he, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are going to pull out all the stops on the road this Saturday.
“There’s something in the game plan this week that’s going to be – when we get it called and catch the coverage we’re expecting – y’all will be talking about [McGee] next week,” he promised.
The Gators talking next week on the back of a victory, perhaps led by an improved and productive group of tight ends, is all that will matter in the end.
Nord took some time Wednesday to break down his thoughts on Florida’s young tight ends, which he pointed out are a very inexperienced group that has “come light years from when I first got here with them as far as learning how to play.” Here’s what he had to say.
» Nord on the progress of Goolsby, a sophomore: “He continues to get better every day as well, maybe expand his role and be able to utilize him in some different capacities as well.”
» Nord on the steady improvement of Lewis, a redshirt freshman: “I’m not going to put a ceiling on that kid. I think that guy’s got a great chance of being a great player before he leaves here. … C’yontai gets better every day. He’s a tough, hard-nosed competitor that loves football, which allows him to just be like a sponge. Every day he learns something different and improves on the things that he already knew.”
» Nord on freshman TE Camrin Knight, who may see the field with Lewis (hand) likely out of action: “Very glad he’s with us. He’s got great upside. He’s just a guy that got here in the middle of the summer and he’s had, what, a month of preparation in order to go play in a multiple offense. You see the things we’re trying to do with the offense. So he’s had a lot of things he’s had to learn, yet he’s done well doing it. He’s just had a hard time pushing some of other those guys out of there for some playing time. We look to continue working him and getting him involved and eventually [he will] be part of the rotation.”
Special teams bits
Also the Gators’ special teams coordinator, Nord addressed some of Florida’s issues through the first two weeks in that facet of the game.
» Nord on the risks inherent with playing junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III as a returner: “I told him in camp. I said, ‘I’ve been around one other returner, actually two returners like you.’ I said, ‘One of them was Deion Branch, who went on and became the MVP in the Super Bowl, and the other was Randall Cobb, who is making headlines still in the NFL.’ He’s an elite athlete, a great player and certainly him being nicked up and not being able to contribute as much, you saw on offense we stole him for a couple packages. … If he’s well and ready to go and play, then we’re going to use him all over the field to help us win. He’s a great player.”
» Nord on two missed field goals by redshirt junior Austin Hardin against ECU: “What you’ve got to do is forget the kick that you just missed and do what you do right every time, rather than try to fix just went wrong the last time. Because what happens to you is you start overcompensating. ‘I hit one left, now I’ve got to hit it right.’ He’s just got to do what he’s done all camp, which ever since I’ve been around him, is be a good, reliable kicker. Obviously, he had a tough night the other night and would have made things a lot easier for us. He’s our kicker; he’s got to go out there just like everybody on our team and improve on the things that we didn’t do well and continue doing the things that he does do well. Kickoff is pretty impressive. We had two kickoffs that we had to go kickoff from the 20 after the penalties; we banged them down there deep and we were able to maintain relatively decent field position.”
» Nord on the play of redshirt sophomore punter Johnny Townsend: “He had a shank, but we still had well over a 40-yard average, so good job that way. What we gotta do, just continue working on where he’s placing the ball on his punts, make sure he’s not letting them get outside of the coverage. … We want every one of them to be perfect, but this is football, and not every play is going to be. Just gotta eliminate the ones that don’t work out as well as you want and not give up anything horrific.”
» Nord on the return game: “Well, we’ve just got to clean it up. You know, there’s been a missed block here and a missed block there. Punt wise, to be honest, we really haven’t really gotten many guys to punt it to us. … Obviously, we want that to be explosive. … Obviously we want to keep improving on that every week and one of these days we’ll hit that and it’ll look just like we all want it to and expect it to.”
» Nord on how much UF emphasizes blocking kicks and punts: “We emphasize it. It’s a lot of times what we see in the scheme. We’re always going to be sound versus the fake. We have a return set up that is sound versus a fake, and we always carry a block that maybe is a little more risky versus a fake but has a better chance to land a block. We have several schemes. We were actually close on one in the first game, actually two of them in the first game; you just got to land it, reach up there and get it. This last game they actually did a decent job of protecting it.”