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Where you see purgatory, Jim McElwain sees progress.
The Florida Gators may not be world beaters this season, and the team has definitely painted itself into a corner with uneven play, but the usually jovial McElwain believes the Gators are headed down the right path, whether you see it or not.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I just know that what we’re doing with this football team is the right thing,” he said.
McElwain recognizes that Will Muschamp, whose South Carolina team Florida vanquished 20-7 on Saturday, did him a massive favor by recruiting top-tier defensive talent that led the Gators to an SEC East title in 2015 and may well have them repeat in 2016 if all goes right next Saturday.
He also understands that Florida’s offense, which Muschamp left without any depth along the line and a serious lack of playmakers (and confidence), is slowly but surely coming along even if you don’t recognize that its three-points-per-game improvement from 2015 is one of the top marks in the nation.
“Am I happy with [the offense]? I’ve answered that before: absolutely not. But I also know the parts and what’s there and the direction we’re headed. And I’m excited about it,” McElwain said. “I think we had a little bit of a look into that [Saturday], and that’s a good thing.”
But most of all, McElwain does not have his head in the sand when it comes to some early talk about the job he’s doing and whether the Gators are indeed moving in the right direction — so-called “noise in the system.” He hears it. He understands it. And he doesn’t care.
“You come to the University of Florida, there’s noise in the system no matter what. That’s the beauty of a place like this. You have a bunch of people that care, and a bunch that know football,” he said after improving to 11-1 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. “The noise piece, you can see it didn’t bother our guys. … These guys are working their tail off.”
McElwain has spoke often about his upbringing, noting that his dad was tough but fair and that he’s had obstacles to overcome at every level of football whether player or coach. He harkened back to that again Saturday.
“I’ve been criticized my whole life. Shoot, you grow up in Montana, if you don’t have thick skin, you’re in trouble,” he said.
But McElwain doesn’t see a Florida program in trouble. He sees that the Gators have dropped the “sky is falling” mentality they had a year ago when something would go wrong during a game. He sees a defense that stepped up to dominate an opponent Saturday with four of its six best players sidelined due to injury. He sees an offense that has not only made that scoring improvement but is still coming along behind a line that is still under construction and playmakers that are in the midst of developing.
He sees a team that is calm, confident and poised during games, whether it has the lead or is fighting to come back. He sees players that truly care for each other and are on the cusp of being selfless the way they seemingly are at Alabama and look to be at Clemson and Ohio State.
“It is outside noise. We’re inside, most all the day. Very rarely see it outside. It’s dark, there’s film on, most of the time. When we’re in that locker room, you don’t feel that at all,” he said, half-joking.
“These guys, look, they’re starting to really understand what it is to give up yourself for the benefit of others. We still got some selfish guys, it’s gonna happen, but they’ll find out there might be better places for them to go. We’re going to have guys that care about each other, and that’s what I love, and that’s what I see.
“When you do that, you don’t get the dissension piece, you don’t get the panic. It’s not how it works. In building a program, that’s one of the base principles, foundations and fundamentals of being successful. I love it.”
What McElwain would love even more is to see all that come together Saturday when Florida faces its toughest test of the season, a LSU team zeroed in on ruining the Gators’ chance to return to the SEC Championship Game.