No. 11 Florida Gators football is in the process of preparing for a pivotal rivalry contest Saturday when it meets the Georgia Bulldogs at 3:30 p.m. in Jacksonville, Florida, for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.
Head coach Jim McElwain met with the media Wednesday to provide some updates on his team through the week’s midway point. Though he was not pleased with Florida’s preparation on Wednesday, a day in which the Gators also suffered an injury scare, he appeared to remain confident in what the team was doing heading into a game that could result in UF all but locking up the SEC East division crown and a spot in the league’s championship game.
Much ado about nothing: The fervor created after McElwain indicated Wednesday that freshman standout wide receiver Antonio Callaway suffered a foot injury in practice and was suddenly questionable for Saturday’s rivalry game against Georgia appears to be all for naught. Callaway himself tweeted early Thursday morning, noting that he is fine – “I’m good for those who were wondering” – just hours after some reports surfaced that X-rays on the player’s foot were negative.
The concern about Callaway and how it would affect the Gators was understandable, of course. Though the freshman wideout has only compiled 16 receptions for 308 yards and two touchdowns through seven games, he has proven to be the type of clutch, game-breaking receiver that Florida has been missing for years. His uncanny ability to extend drives and come up with big plays has helped the Gators win at least two contests this year, and Callaway only continues to get better week to week.
“He’s playing really good. He’s learning every day. He’s a guy that loves football. He’s fun to be around,” McElwain said.
“I am going to teach him eventually how to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crust on, not have to cut it off. But I do pamper him a little bit, so that’s the way it is. But he’s getting a little bit better every week. We kind of knew what we were getting when we recruited him. Obviously, he’s living up to that. …
“Given the opportunity, he’s a guy that will obviously go up and do everything he can to catch the ball and finish. He’s getting to be a better blocker as we go, needs to understand the importance of that as well in the outside run game. That being said, he’s definitely a top-notch SEC receiver.”
But while Callaway appears to be fine, and the Gators are set to get a number of previously injured players – including redshirt freshman tight end C’yontai Lewis – back for Saturday’s game, Florida did have one injury that may affect the contest. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Khairi Clark was listed as questionable by McElwain after suffering an undisclosed injury while taking a hit in practice.
No Nick Chubb, no problem? Georgia may not have star running back Nick Chubb suited up for Saturday’s game, but that does not mean the Bulldogs will be unable to run the ball. Sophomore Sony Michel looked dominant for UGA against Tennessee, taking 22 carries for 145 yards, and he even efforted his way to 87 yards in a 26-carry performance against Missouri two weeks ago. With Michel leading the way and other talented runners also contributing, Georgia’s running game will remain a focus of Florida’s defensive preparations, even with Chubb sidelined.
“That guy’s got juice now,” McElwain said of Michel. “Don’t let them think they don’t have running backs there. A couple of the guys are as highly recruited guys as there were in the United States of America. These guys are difference-makers. We got our work cut out for us. What makes all offenses go, theirs included, is still the ability to run the football, and they can still do that.”
McElwain also credited the Bulldogs’ strong offensive line – players and staff – for being the backbone of a running game that the Gators will have to prepare for on Saturday. “What do they have – over 100 starts?” McElwain half-joked. “I know the O-line coach personally. He’s a guy that obviously I hope to work with some day. And I did work with him. He is one heck of a coach in Rob Sale, and he understands and learned from one of the best in Joe Pendry. They do a great job.”
Quarterbacking update: While McElwain did not say much about how sophomore quarterback Treon Harris is performing in practice, he did agree with a reporter’s assertion that Harris not throwing interceptions and generally being able to take care of the football is one benefit that comes with him being on the field each week.
“Your opportunity to win comes in the turnover category. We stress pretty well every day what color jersey we’re in, and he does a pretty good job of throwing it to that color jersey,” McElwain said.
“The importance of playing that position and taking care of the football I think sometimes is lost. I think he does an outstanding job of that. I don’t want to jinx him. [Knocks on wood podium.] He gets it. He gets playing the position.”
Of course, as McElwain noted, it’s hard to throw interceptions in games where you toss the ball around just six times – “He didn’t get a chance to throw interceptions” – but obviously there will be no six-pass games under McElwain’s tenure at Florida.
While on the topic of quarterbacks, McElwain addressed redshirt freshman Will Grier, who remains sidelined after being suspended for a full calendar year by the NCAA for using a drug on its banned substance list. McElwain confirmed that Grier is still away from the team at this time as he’s “taking care of a lot of things. There’s a pretty traumatic little deal he’s going through here, right? He’ll be there. He’s still part of the team.”
The coach also noted that Grier’s NCAA appeal has not been submitted yet. “Right now, they’re collecting all the letters of appeals that have to go in together. I don’t know exactly when that happens. Shortly. And it’s a process from there,” he said. “We’re working very closely, obviously, with his family and him to put everything that we can into the NCAA.”
Notes and bits
» McElwain was not pleased with Florida’s effort in practice Wednesday. “Not great today by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We had a pretty good Monday and Tuesday, I thought were good. I thought they were dragging a bit today. We’ll see.”
» On whether Georgia’s history of pre-game or in-game antics will affect Florida: “If that’s what it takes to float your boat, go ahead and do it. I’m not one of those guys. We just go out there and play the ballgame and see who comes out on top. If that’s something they want to do, that’s great. More power to you.”
» On whether the Bulldogs playing two or more quarterbacks would affect the Gators’ preparation: “It’s about winning each play, and for us, it’s as big a deal as to make sure we’ve got our gap control and we’re not allowing big plays that sneak up and bite us. We’ve got to make them earn it, and they can earn it. They’ve got a lot of talent. They recruit the top players in the country every year and do an outstanding job.”
» On the impact Florida can have helping those in the community, including young cancer-stricken fan Jay Ryan: “They’re really understanding what a privilege it is to be a Gator and the impact you can have on people that are not going through such good times. They’re learning to give up themselves for the benefit of others, which is something we teach in our organization. We have a lot of cases like [Jay Ryan], and a lot of things that go unnoticed. I’m glad that did [get noticed]. It kind of warmed your heart a little bit and let our guys know how fortunate they have it. … If you ever have a chance just to make someone smile, that’s powerful, and I wish more people did [that].”