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Leaving many things open ended and unsaid, Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain provides plenty of room for speculation. So when he unexpectedly announced Monday that Florida football practice would be closed to the media this week, it was met with some curiosity.
While not much is gained from the limited periods of practice the media are actually allowed to watch, McElwain’s decision here makes it quite obvious that the Gators feel their backs are against the wall — in one way or another — with the loss of redshirt sophomore starting quarterback Luke Del Rio and potential absence of sophomore wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
So why exactly is McElwain closing practice and ensuring the Gators are extra secretive this week? Here are the likely reasons.
1. Quarterback position is uncertain: There is every indication that graduate transfer Austin Appleby will start for Florida on Saturday at Tennessee. He’s even listed on his own at the top of the Gators’ latest depth chart with freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask below him sporting the OR designation. But there’s a reason Del Rio was the clear leader to start all offseason: He’s much better and more reliable. So with Del Rio sidelined for the biggest game of the season to this point, McElwain has to wonder whether Appleby is up to the task. Remember, Appleby’s stats during his two seasons of extensive play at Purdue looked like this: 52.3 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, 19 interceptions. He also scored nine touchdowns on the ground but averaged 2.5 yards per carry (after sacks).
McElwain may very well give Franks or Trask the opportunity to split reps with Appleby on Saturday. Even if he doesn’t, the last thing he needs is onlookers discussing how one of the latter looked better than Appleby in practice, stoking flames about his decision making. Most who have watched the Gators practice believe Trask is ahead of Franks to this point and throws the best ball of any Florida quarterback. No matter how this plays out, it’s certainly something McElwain would like to keep under wraps before the big rivalry game.
2. New packages: The Gators have done this before. Florida already has some direct snap and single-wing play calls as part of its playbook, but it may need to empty that section — and perhaps add a page — this weekend. With four running backs that have proven to be effective with the ball in their hands, the Gators can run and run and run on the Vols, which to this point have the 71st ranked rushing defense in the nation, giving up 152.7 yards per game.
You’ll remember that Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor carried the ball 50 times for 389 yards in a 38-20 upset win against Georgia in 2014. Granted, Florida’s offensive line was much better then compared to now, but UF has proven it can successfully tote the rock this season.
3. “Trick” plays: There hasn’t been much trickeration under McElwain, but again, the Gators may have no choice but to pull something out. With Del Rio out and Callaway either limited or inactive, there may well be production holes to fill.
4. Defensive scheming: Florida has yet to play against someone like Joshua Dobbs this season, and Tennessee’s quarterback just so happened to be the leading passer, rusher and receiver in last year’s game. A scout teamer or reserve will surely be simulating Dobbs all week in practice, and the Gators’ defense will likely need to assign a spy to the dual-threat signal caller, most likely senior safety Marcus Maye.
5. Blocking out the distractions: I’ve argued before that the way McElwain handles his injury reports only increases speculation and distraction. With there being so many questions surrounding Florida this week, including Callaway’s status, anything that would happen in an open portion of practice could become a story that might help Tennessee more than McElwain would want. Plus, there’s always the risk of something else happening during team periods that could force the Gators to change their game plan on the fly. That’s a possibility every week, of course, but with so much already going down ahead of Florida-Tennessee, it’s a smart precaution to take.