Amid the numerous distractions, No. 8 Florida Gators football must still prepare for its toughest test of the season, a road game against the No. 6 LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Head coach Jim McElwain and a handful of players met with the media this week to discuss the Gators moving on with a new signal caller. Florida will also get a few players back that, while not mitigating the loss of redshirt freshmen quarterback Will Grier and cornerback Deiondre Porter, should help fill some holes.
Making a change: Progressing each week, Grier appeared to be on his way to being not only Florida’s quarterback of the future but a difference maker in the present, too. Instead it will be sophomore Treon Harris, who has not seen significant time since the second week of the season, taking over behind center during Grier’s extended absence.
As a true freshman in 2014, Harris started UF’s final six games, completing just 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,019 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions (plus three more scores on the ground). He has not yet been tested against a Power Five opponent this season, but all indications are that McElwain has been pleased with his development.
“He’s been doing a great job in practice. As you know going into this [season], I felt that we’ve had two really good quarterbacks. Now it’s Treon’s opportunity to take the reins and run with it, and he’ll do a great job,” McElwain said.
He added Wednesday: “This football team is important to him. He did a really good job of, when he was in [a backup] role, of preparing like a starter. That’s what we try to get across. I wish every guy on our team did that because you just never know. You’re one play away. In that case, I haven’t seen anything different in his preparation because it had been pretty good.”
While the move from Grier to Harris will not be used by McElwain as an excuse, he did note that Harris has a different skill set and the offense will be adjusted to suit his skills. Still, “he’s been practicing the same stuff” and the “expectation is to be better every week” offensively, regardless of who lines up behind center.
Harris’s teammates have certainly bought in to the change.
“He’s really ready,” said redshirt senior tight end Jake McGee. “He’s a heck of a quarterback, been in a lot of big games, a heck of a player. I think he did alright last year. He’s been preparing every week to play. He’s a guy [with whom] I don’t think there will be much of a drop-off. He’s a big-time player.”
Added redshirt senior offensive lineman Trip Thurman: “He’s tremendous. Last year, he played and did well. We expect the same from him this year when he comes in. … He’s stayed with it and I applaud him from that because some guys will just kind of take a back seat. … Even with Grier being the starter the first six games, he’s done well and I’m pretty proud of him.”
On-field performance against a defense like LSU’s is a question for Harris, but it is not the only one. In two seasons, he has faced as many team suspensions. He has also had run-ins with law enforcement on more than one occasion, leading to questions about Harris’s maturity and ability to be a long-term leader for the Gators.
McElwain worked his way around that question on Wednesday, instead pointing to the fact that he enjoys spending time with Harris off the field while noting that they talk about a variety of topics that have nothing to do with football itself.
“The other day, we had a great conversation about Jesse Owens and the thing he did in the Berlin Olympics and kind of what it meant. We also talked about Daryl Hall and John Oates and the Philadelphia sound that they brought,” McElwain explained. “I just enjoy the conversations, and I enjoy when he comes up before the meetings, sticks his head in the staff room and gives me a break, and we just visit about stuff.
“The thing that I think gets lost in the business that we’re in is understanding how much you enjoy the relationships. Whether he plays good, plays bad, whatever, he’s going to go out and do everything he can to help us win, and we’ll find a new subject to talk about next week.”
Creating chaos: McElwain has often discussed this season how, in order to keep his team on edge, he and the coaching staff will “create chaos” during the week. This could come in the form of changing a schedule at the last minute to blaring loud noises in the practice facility, among other things. This week, with so many distractions, McElwain wanted Florida to focus on eliminating the clutter. “Take care of yourself, do your job and let’s go focus and have a good time doing it,” he said.
“What we try to do in our program, in general, is try to create as much unknown, as much chaos so you understand the key is that you have to focus on the detail of the task at hand and don’t let any of the periphery get to you.
“Those are the lessons that we’ve tried to teach in all the things that we do: improvise, adjust, adapt, overcome – all that kind of stuff. And these guys have been pretty resilient so far, so now we get an opportunity to see how much we’ve learned.”
Injury updates: Redshirt freshman TE C’yontai Lewis (hand) has been upgraded to probable ahead of Saturday’s game, which would be his first action since the second week of the season. In Florida’s opener, Lewis caught two passes for 44 yards, each of which resulted in a touchdown. His return will allow UF to open up its offensive packages a bit more.
Also expected to be back for the Gators is redshirt junior linebacker Jeremi Powell (ankle), adding necessary depth to that position. However, while Powell is back, junior LB Alex Anzalone remains shelved with a shoulder injury that is supposedly getting better each week.
As far as the rest of the team: Junior running back Kelvin Taylor was dealing with an ankle sprain but not held of out practice; redshirt sophomore defensive back Marcell Harris was listed as questionable after re-aggravating an ankle injury of his own; freshman wide receiver Antonio Callaway is fine despite bruising his leg; junior defensive lineman Joey Ivie “did something to his stomach muscles” and missed practice with his status up in the air; and senior LB Antonio Morrison is “fine” after cramping up against Missouri.
Kicking the tires: With redshirt junior kicker Austin Hardin still sidelined by an undisclosed injury that has been described as everything from a leg ailment to a hip flexor, McElwain once again bristled Wednesday when the subject of the player returning to the field was brought up.
Instead, redshirt freshman walk-on Jorge Powell will continue in his role as the Gators’ kicker. Powell is 2-of-3 on field goal attempts with a long of 31 this season and 9-of-10 on extra points, but in a game that could very well come down to a field goal or two, he may need to play a larger role than he has in prior contests.
“I’ve got full confidence in everything he does. He hit them really good this week in practice. … He was nails,” McElwain explained. “I’ll send him out there and say, ‘Go kick it.’”
Notes and bits
» McElwain on whether the goal is to limit the hits Harris will take due to quarterback depth: “None of our guys are built like Larry Csonka to go just butting in there. And yet I think being smart and kind of knowing when to hold them and when to fold them, that’s something we talk to all our guys about – doesn’t matter who the quarterback is.”
» McElwain on the appeal process for Grier: “We’re doing everything we can, administratively and legally, to help him.”
» McElwain on how the team reacted to Grier’s speech Monday: “They hugged him. They care about him. And they appreciated his honesty.”
» Co-coordinator Randy Shannon on which of his former players is the best comparison for junior LB Jarrad Davis: “A lot of Jon Vilma. Same body frame. Same mindset – smart, very aggressive, very powerful young man in the hips. Very smart, challenging. He don’t think anybody can … Vilma was a guy that likes to challenge. That’s the same with Jarrad. He’s a challenge guy; he thinks that he can beat anybody at anything at any time, which is good because you need that as a linebacker.”
» Shannon Morrison’s recovery: “It’s been awesome. It’s unbelievable that he’s made the recovery coming back. … Some days he was upset at me [for not playing him much] and agitated because he wanted to get into it, but you have to bring a young man back coming off those injuries the right way.”
» McElwain on a memory from the last time he played at LSU with Alabama: “[John Parker Wilson] is going to get mad at me for saying this but it’s the one where he did the cell phone thing after he scored because they had his cell phone number and were blowing him up all week. Great fan base. I mean, I love that, man, that’s creativity right there. Poor guy had to cancel his phone and get a whole new one, you know how that is. That was a lot of fun. and so I look at the environment, yeah, and it should be a win for them from an environment standpoint because of how hostile it is, crazy it is.”