Florida Football Friday Final: Gators focused on improving tackling, receivers blossoming

By Adam Silverstein
October 2, 2015

We’re back with Florida Football Friday Final, where OnlyGators.com takes a last look at the No. 25 Florida Gators as they prepare for their first ranked game in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2012 against the No. 3 Ole Miss Rebels.

The Gators (4-0) will host the Rebels on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Gainesville, Florida, with the contest airing live nationally on ESPN.

This week on OnlyGators.com

Missing in action? Quarterback Will Grier (illness) may not play Saturday.
Practice update: Jim McElwain uneasy about effort in practice.

Tackle, dummy: The highly-regarded Gators defense has had its share of ups and downs this season. Against Tennessee, Florida’s inability to properly tackle allowed the Vols to pick up major chunk yardage when players otherwise should have been wrapped up.

The Gators’ defense will be nearly at full health entering Saturday’s game, save for junior linebacker Alex Anzalone, so the biggest thing Florida had to worry about this week was keeping their head in the game in regards to tackling.

“We did a poor job of tackling. We were so into the game plan we forgot the little things, the basics, tackling and stuff,” admitted senior LB Antonio Morrison. “I know [Ole Miss] saw all them missed tackles on film. They’re licking their lips.”

Junior safety Keanu Neal had no problem confirming that the players were run through the mud by the coaching staff about their tackling issues in the last game. He said it was a big point of emphasis throughout the week, especially in Wednesday’s practice.

“Last game we didn’t tackle very well. Today, we really focused on that. We had a whole period filled with tackling, just tackling, tackling, tackling. [Head coach Jim McElwain] really emphasized just studding up, wrapping up and running your feet.”

Morrison believes the Gators “can play ball with anybody.” Neal thinks the key to the Gators being able to hang with the Rebels is communication. “We’re big on eye control, just focusing on our assignments, stopping them, because if your eyes are bad then they’ll hit you for a big one. Just focusing on what we need to do as an individual player and then building up to the team aspect,” he said.

Rush linebacker Alex McCalister believes Florida is in a great place mentally entering Saturday’s game, especially coming off its performance against Tennessee.

“That was super big for our confidence. That’s what I’ve said from the beginning. Because I know we got the talent, we got the coaches. If we do the right thing as far as practice and preparation, we just needed to prove to ourselves that we can do it,” he said.

Consistency is the key: Seven wide receivers coaches in seven seasons sounds like a joke, but it has been a reality for Gators football. With Florida’s wideouts finally performing well for the first time since the Urban Meyer era, position coach Kerry Dixon II met with the media Wednesday to explain why.

“I had to hear that a lot – the lack of talent at the position. When I look at it, it’s not a lack of talent, it’s a lack of consistency. Any time you have that much turnover at one spot, those guys are hearing so much different stuff and they’re being taught totally different things all the time. I don’t’ think it’s a lack of talent; I think it’s a lack of consistency,” he explained. “Once you get consistency in your life in anything you do the better it is, then you can reach your full potential. With lack of consistency comes lack of everything. They’re looking at it as the receivers are bad, but I don’t think that’s the case.”

Dixon believes that caring and empathy are just as important as finding consistency, noting that he had to win over the players before they would really buy into his teachings. “They want to know how much you care before they listen to you – at all. They don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care,” he said.

But now that the Gators are buying in, the proof is in the pudding on the field. Junior wide receiver Demarcus Robinson is not having the breakout season many expected, but Dixon sees him as a “really explosive” player and potentially “one of the best receivers in this league” if he can continue to grow and develop. The way Robinson can do that is to listen to Dixon, who meets with him individually each week

“We bring Demarcus in every week and really sit down with him one on one, show him some NFL film and things he’s done well as well as some things he’s done bad to try to help him in all aspects of the game. Sometimes he loafs off the ball, but we bring him in and show him how fast he can really run and how he can get better and how that scares defenders,” he explained. “The more we work with him, the more we sit him down, I think he’s going to continue to grow and get better.”

Dixon is also pleased with the play of freshman Antonio Callaway, who as a new member of the program did not have to worry about the consistency issues but still needed to learn how to play wideout on the collegiate level. Dixon and Callaway go back. As a coach at Florida International, Dixon offered Callaway a scholarship but was turned down.

“Everyone was surprised initially with his athletic ability and how he plays the game – I can remember it even from his recruiting process – but that’s something I saw on his junior film,” Dixon recalled. “Now that he’s starting to understand the game and starting to understand the importance of route running and how to get separation, it’s helping him to really grow and be what I saw from him as a junior.”

By instituting a plan of action – showing players their successes and mistakes and doing so in a public forum where they get to compete and hold each other accountable – Dixon believes the receiving corps is turned around.

He called sophomore Brandon Powell’s block the “most important” part of Callaway’s fourth-quarter touchdown last week, noting that Powell received a lot of credit for the move from the coaches. Powell threw the compliments right back on Dixon.

“Coach Dixon, he’s always preaching about finishing, running to the ball. When we run to the ball, we got receivers that are going to make plays. If you run to the ball, they might make a cut and you might get to set up the game-winning block, like they always talk about. And that’s what happened,” the player said.

With a coach expected to remain in the job for a while and, yes, more talented players at the position, the resurgence of Florida’s receivers may only be beginning.

Notes and bits

» Redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee on redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier: “He’s a guy that loves the game, loves his teammates, rises to the occasion. You like seeing him succeed.”

» Junior running back Kelvin Taylor on his recent success: “It was just trusting my holes, trusting my hits. The offensive line did a really great job, so I give all credit to those guys. There were some holes in there, so we were just looking forward to keep that pace on and stay in the 100 club from now on.”

» Powell on the Gators being ranked: “We’re the Florida Gators. That’s what we’re supposed to be.”

» Powell on Grier in the fourth quarter: “We were down by 17. He was still in it, motivating everybody. That’s what motivated us to keep fighting, come out with a W.”

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