No. 10 Florida Gators football (7-1, 5-1 SEC) is not taking the SEC East rival Vanderbilt Commodores (3-5, 1-3 SEC) lightly while preparing for a pivotal showdown at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday at 12 p.m. With a victory over Vanderbilt, Florida would clinch the division title for the first time since 2009 and advance to the SEC Championship Game, where it would hope to win a league crown for the first time since 2008.
Head coach Jim McElwain met with the media Wednesday to provide some updates on his team through the week’s midway point. Unlike last week (you know, when UF wound up routing Georgia 27-3), he was pleased with the Gators’ preparation for the Commodores and provided some positive injury updates ahead of the division showdown.
Injury updates: While sophomore left tackle David Sharpe is doubtful for Saturday’s game with a foot injury, freshman left guard Martez Ivey is listed as probable with knee swelling. Florida only having to replace one of the two offensive linemen will certainly be helpful, and Ivey could certainly shift out to tackle, his more natural position. Freshman Fred Johnson will be the reserve getting the most additional playing time with Sharpe likely out for the contest, but redshirt freshman Travaris Dorsey will also factor in.
So far, so good: Unlike last week, when McElwain criticized his team for not having great focus in practice, he called the Gators “pretty darn good” on that front early in the week. “I think a lot of guys are really excited about playing this game, knowing what’s at stake, being back home for the first time – it’s like the opening game for us. It seems like forever since we’ve been home, and I know we’re excited to get in The Swamp and feel the electricity of our people,” he said.
McElwain doubled down on his ask from Monday when he urged fans to show up juiced and energized for the 12 p.m. kick, the first time this season Florida will begin a game before 3:30 p.m. The coach understands how The Swamp crowd helps the Gators win and wants every ounce of energy and decibel of noise to help Florida take down Vanderbilt. “You’re used to those night games. You got a chance to get oiled up, ready to go,” he said, indicating he understands why late contests automatically bring out a rowdier crowd.
but while the team being up for the game and fans hopefully helping out makes things look great for the Gators, McElwain is certainly not looking past the Commodores, a team he has praised more than any other through nine games this season. Not only is the coach a fan of his counterpart Derek Mason, McElwain believes that Vanderbilt has one of the top defenses in the nation – he’s right, Vandy is top 25 in total and scoring defense – and thinks the team could definitely give Florida fits on Saturday.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for these guys because not only are their guys playing hard and believing, but they’re doing it the right way – and they play the right way. I’ve got nothing but respect for everything that they do,” McElwain said. “Look, we ain’t good enough to roll the ball out against anybody. We’ve got our hands full as they will any week.”
Helping the quarterback: Though sophomore quarterback Treon Harris has filled in well for suspended redshirt freshman Will Grier, the difference between the two is obvious. While Harris is a better scrambler and has shown a propensity to find open receivers while on the run, Grier’s accuracy (despite his interceptions) and ability to fit the ball into tight windows gave him a great advantage and likely helped him win the job.
Harris’s ability to scramble did help Florida on Saturday against Georgia, as three of the Gators’ biggest passing plays – well, there were only six completions total – came with Harris rolling out of the pocket and finding an open receiver. McElwain was not taken aback by that being the case. “Was I surprised by the reaction and guys getting in the right spots and filling the lanes on the boundary once Treon scrambled? Absolutely not. That’s what’s expected because we practiced it,” he said. “That shows me that — you know what? — we’re starting to get it.”
But McElwain on Monday did admit that Harris’s completion percentage (.524) is an issue, saying “it’s not good” before joking that “Shaquille O’Neal might have liked it for his free-throw percentage.” Of course, O’Neal’s career mark at the line was a bit higher (.527), but the fact that it’s close is still worrisome. Asked about Harris’s play in practice on Wednesday, McElwain instead noted that those around him are doing a better job, which should help Harris get better looks on Saturday.
“The one thing we really had to emphasize this week was we got a little bit loose at the receiver spot – not being in the proper [spot] from a timing and spacing standpoint. I think they upped their game to help Treon a little bit this week, and our timing has been pretty darn good,” he said.
Freshman wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who got carted off the practice field last Wednesday with a foot injury only to return for Saturday’s game and play exceedingly well (again), may be the paradigm for how McElwain wants his receivers to operate. “Here’s what I like: He goes about his business the way it’s supposed to be done. He’s consistent. He wants to be good. It’s important to him. This team is important to him – as a lot of guys on our team. Does it amaze me? No,” he said.
As far as junior WR Demarcus Robinson, who had 20 receptions in a three-game span only to have two over the Gators’ last two games, McElwain is not yet completely sold, mostly due to the player’s lack of consistency. “He’s come a long way; he’s doing a little bit better,” the coach explained. “Some of the things we’ve put on maybe the quarterback all the time, maybe guys need to be at the right spots where they’re supposed to be and be accountable for it.”
Perhaps nothing has helped Florida’s offense more this year than it’s use of the tight end, to which redshirt senior Jake McGee coming back for a sixth season (second with UF) was a Godsend. Though McElwain would never want a player to get injured or feel pain, he does believe McGee’s injury in 2015 was a blessing in disguise to both the team and the player.
“You hate to see anybody ever get injured, but obviously in the case and the way we use tight ends – it’s important to use to have guys and now having a veteran that’s been in the system – for us it was a natural fit,” he explained. “He’s more than just a good tight end; this guy has become a true team leader, a guy both sides of the ball really respect. To do that in such a short time really speaks volumes for him and what kind of guy he is.”
Restoring the order: One of the Gators’ primary mottos all season has been “Restore the Order,” referring to getting Florida back to the mountain top as one of the best teams in the SEC East, SEC and college football as a whole. As such, unlike previous coaches who have told the Gators to completely ignore where voters and pollsters have them ranked, McElwain embraced that UF was listed at No. 10 in the first College Football Playoff Rankings on Tuesday. “I kind of look at it is as they actually mentioned us. I think that’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I do believe that Florida should be in that conversation every single year.”
McElwain also said he has no plans to tell Florida’s players to ignore the rankings because it is simply not a legitimate ask and not something that he can expect them to overlook each week.
“I’d like to be in the top four because you’re still working every week. Here’s the beauty of that: I think first and foremost, you got to put yourself in position to be in the picture. All that means is, come the final one, you got to get in one of those spots to play for the show. I think it’s all right that they’re talking about the University of Florida. I think that’s a good thing,” he began.
“You can say, ‘Don’t look at it,’ and all that kind of stuff … well, think about this: Remember when your mom told you not to take the cookie out of the jar even though it was really good. What did you do the whole time? You’re gonna, cause it’s human nature. I just believe in embracing any of that because it’s human nature, and yet understand it means really nothing. But go ahead and be excited about it because you’ve put the work in so far to be in that discussion and that’s all right.”
Special Treat Wednesday: McElwain has unique names for Florida’s practice days, such as “Perfect Thursday,” but he unveiled a new one last week when he referred to Humpday as “Special Treat Wednesday.” Though it just kind of passed by the wayside last week, he was asked about the meaning ahead of the Vanderbilt game, and his explanation made a lot of sense.
“Third down and red area, from a practice standpoint. Our wives and families bake cookies during the first part of the week and they’re there at the end of practice, so guys get special treats. They look forward to it,” he began.
“It’s a little slice of home, and it’s an opportunity for our families to interact with players. It’s something we’ve done; we did it at the last place I was at. It was good; it was good for the families to get out and be able to see their dads and the wives to see their husbands ‘cause pretty much they don’t see them. It’s just that one little opportunity again to show some family and get the family around.”
Notes and bits
» Redshirt freshman walk-on kicker Jorge Powell had successful knee surgery on Wednesday.
» On whether there will be a change at kick returner with sophomore Brandon Powell not doing much in the return game: “We’ll still be aggressive with it, and we’re close. Last week we come up inside with our lead guy and we probably got another home run. We just got to keep working it. It’s not something I’m real excited about it.”
» On the targeting rule, which has freshman running back Jordan Cronkrite out for the first half of Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt (from Sunday): “The guy was playing hard. It wasn’t a cheap shot by any stretch of the imagination. … That’s the farthest thing from his mind. What he was doing was playing hard and playing fast and sometimes on those bang-bang calls, that’s what happens.”
» On the targeting rule (from Monday): “It’s a great rule. It’s helped, I think, the game in a positive way. You can see less and less of them. That first year, it was like it was an epidemic. Guys are learning how to teach the rules and fundamentals of the game. In that case, defenseless player, our guy was hustling, their guy was hustling, he hit him a little high. It wasn’t malicious, but it’s the rule. I look at it as a teachable moment, OK? Myself, I think the rules are great. Guys are learning how to tackle properly.”
» On freshman RB Jordan Scarlett stepping up and playing well Saturday: “It was good to see Jordan get in there and take care of the football. When we recruited him, I thought he was fast; son of a gun got tracked down. I gave him a little bit of a nudge on that, but I thought he did a heck of a job.”
» On tackling (McElwain went off the handle out of nowhere when asked about it, referring to UF’s issues against Tennessee): “You see what we do out there in our tackling – not that we tackled anybody against Tennessee. We still haven’t tackled them, and it drives me nuts. We still haven’t. … You had to bring up tackling, didn’t you?”
» On Harris not meeting with the media: “I leave it up to him. That’s not my policy, it’s his. I’m glad he’s our quarterback, and he’s a lot of fun to be around. I enjoy our talks everyday when he comes up early for meetings. I’m glad he’s a Gator, and you know what, our team’s glad he’s a Gator, too.”
» On the outcome of the Georgia game: “I thought our guys, after watching it, really played hard, and they played with a purpose, they didn’t get distracted with some of the things that go on. I thought they played the game the way it should be played. To hold them defensively the way we did, man, that was impressive.”
» On how special teams played against the Bulldogs: “I think our special teams showed up – other than the kicking part of it. Our coverage units did an outstanding job. And let’s not kind of forget field position and how you win football games; I think our field position – in what we did as far as making them earn most of the yards that they needed to get from long distance – I think that’s huge.”