We’re back with Florida Football Friday Final, where OnlyGators.com takes a last look at the No. 8 Florida Gators as they prepare a tune-up against the Florida Atlantic Owls at 12 p.m. on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida.
The Gators (9-1) and Owls (2-8) will do battle as Florida looks to retain its standing in the College Football Playoff Rankings going into its regular season-ending showdown with Florida State next week.
This week on OnlyGators.com
Injuires: Florida down up to four linemen for FAU game
Rankings: Gators up to No. 8 in College Football Playoff
Primer: What you need to know about Will Grier’s NCAA appeal
Story: Florida meeting goals but still fighting lack of national respect
Gators got their swagger back: Much of the talk in the week leading up to the FAU game has been not on the Owls but rather what the Gators have accomplished to this point in the season. Much of that credit deservingly goes to head coach Jim McElwain, who has not only instilled confidence in the Florida locker room but brought swagger back to the program.
“I love Coach Mac’s swag. I guess you can say he’s my type of guy,” sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor said Monday. I think he’s just really confident and that’s the way he should be – that’s the way we should be. We love it.”
Junior running back Kelvin Taylor believes McElwain’s personality has a lot to do with the Gators’ surge of success this season. Not only is McElwain confident, he’s also personable and authentic. “He’s motivated every guy on the team differently,” Taylor explained. “When you’re talking to him as a coach, he’s going to understand how you’re feeling and do whatever it takes for you to feel better. He’s going to do whatever it takes for him to get into your head and talk to you and make everything better.”
McElwain claims his confidence and authenticity comes from lessons learned from his family growing up. “You should be confident – if you’re prepared – going into whatever you go into,” he said. “Once you know that you put the work in and you’ve known that, you should have confidence that you can go perform whatever it is that the task you have to perform.” He also stresses that the team should not be afraid to fail because ultimately the game of football is fun and players have an opportunity each week to put themselves on the line.
“Once you think you arrive and you just sit there and don’t continually strive to get better and discover, that’s when things kind of start to fall apart,” he continued. “We’ve got to do that not only as a football team, we’ve got to continue to do that as an organization and continually evaluate and understand we don’t have all the answers and you can’t just sit where you’re at. You’ve got to constantly move forward.”
Co-coordinator Randy Shannon believes McElwain’s attitude, confidence and swagger has rubbed off “big-time” on the team, noting that the coach’s insistence on holding players accountable has made all the difference.
“He didn’t come here to win 5-6-7-8 games. His mindset is to win 15, and that’s our mindset to win 15,” Shannon explained. “If guys know that you’re going to hold them accountable and care about them and be disciplined with them, they’re going to be fine. I think that’s the one thing that he gives the guys on this football team – some structure and understanding the reason why. … If you can give a person why you’re doing something, a reason why this happened, they’ll respect you and they’ll do anything they can for you.”
That’s one reason why McElwain tries his best to spend as much one-on-one time with players as possible. One method of getting the Gators to come up to his office? Food. It has been well-established that McElwain loves to make players peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Though one player said he had some grilled cheese and tomato soup in McELwain’s office, the coach says he hasn’t “gotten to that level” just yet.)
So, why the sandwiches?
“Here’s one of the things you got to realize: Where a lot of these guys are from, they don’t eat. I mean, I’m not kidding you. The opportunity that I have to be able to impart a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on their life, that’s a good deal. Part of it is creating a habit, because of the nutrition part, but then there’s some things that you really get to know about a guy when you’re spreading the peanut butter on a slab of bread and squeezing that jelly on there,” McElwain explained.
“Believe it or not, there’s a lot of great conversation that goes on there, and it’s a chance to spend some one-on-one time, some quality one-on-one time, and also hopefully, see that no matter what you do doing it to your best ability and not cutting corners – there’s a little symbolism in that as well. Be the best you can be; it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If you’re making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, get it to the edges. How hard is that? Why cut the corners? Those are all lessons, again, that I think all of us can learn from.”
The only thing left to wonder about McElwain is how far this will go. Will there be mac and cheese, pizza, hamburgers? How else can the coach nourish he’s players like he is Gator Nation with victories? “We gotta get a better kitchen,” he said. “I’ve got a refrigerator that I can keep stuff cold. We’ve been fortunate enough to get a loaf of bread up there when we need it. We’re out of plastic knives right now. I actually had to do the last one with a plastic spoon. We gotta do a better job of checking supplies.”
Sky’s the limit: Florida’s defense is good. No, it’s really good. The Gators are currently ranked No. 4 nationally in scoring defense (14.4 points), No. 5 in total defense (278.1 yards), No. 9 in passing defense (103.9) and No. 10 in rushing defense (105.1). Shannon is not ready to crown the Gators just yet though, noting that they still have a long way to go with as many as five games remaining on their schedule. “These young men that we have on the defense are playing at a tremendous pace. They understand the importance of playing as a team and not as an individual,” he said.
Shannon also gave credit to Florida’s offense, which has been more effective in 2015 and allowed the defense to actually breathe during games, staying on the field for fewer snaps and getting the ability to truly recover between possessions. “One of the key factors of the way we’re playing on defense is because of our offense,” he noted. “The time of possession has really helped us out on defense from the standpoint of 32 minutes, 38 minutes, that means we have a long time on the bench. That means we’re getting rest, we’re being fresh as opposed to being out on the field 48 minutes as a defense and it’s fast-paced – that means we’re going to get worn down.”
The offense has no issue throwing the praise right back on the other side of the ball. “This is the best defense in the nation we have right now, man,” Taylor said. “These guys are going to get better. The sky’s the limit. We just got to keep working hard.”
Leading the defense, of course, is senior linebacker Antonio Morrison, who along with junior Jarrad Davis have been the backbone of not only the unit but possibly the entire team this season.
Shannon believes the duo has been “very impressive” and done a great job not only complementing each other but also getting the younger players ready to see the field in reserve roles. McElwain points out that Morrison in particular is a straw that stirs the drink that is Florida football this year.
“We’re all wired differently and that’s what makes America great, right? Everybody’s different and that’s fun. Everybody’s fingerprint is different and yet the one thing that isn’t different about people who are leaders is they have an ability to affect the people around them and motivate and get people to follow what [they’re] doing. He’s got that. Whatever ‘it’’ is, he has ‘it’ in that category and that’s what makes him so special,” the coach said.
Shannon believes it all starts with Morrison’s unabashed honesty, both with his teammates and the coaching staff. “He’s an honest person. You may not like what he say, but he’s upfront and honest. A lot of people don’t want to hear the truth. Tone is that type of guy but he holds himself accountable, too,” Shannon said. “That’s the greatest thing about Tone: He’s the pulse of the team because he’s honest.”
So what does Mr. Honesty have to say about the Gators as a whole? Why has Florida taken such a major step forward under McElwain this season? “That grind we went through in the summer really brought people together. Those tough summer workouts, those 5 a.m. runs, guys didn’t want to disappoint big brother. They didn’t want to disappoint their teammates,” he said. “That got our bond stronger and that carried over to the field. It’s still getting stronger and stronger.”
J.C. Jackson acquitted: When former Gators cornerback J.C. Jackson was acquitted this week on three charges of felony armed robbery, the first thing he did was turn to his lawyers and ask them to confirm the jury’s verdict. Once he learned he was going to continue his life as a free man, he asked another question: “Can I play for the Gators now?”
That’s a question many are asking about Jackson, though a return to Florida is viewed as exceedingly unlikely. Though the school allowed him to finish out his last semester, the football team did not renew his scholarship. Jackson faces other hurdles in returning to the team as well, such as getting approval to simply be enrolled at the school itself.
Jackson’s lawyers contend that the extremely quick “not guilty” verdict – rendered in just a few hours – should give the Gators confidence that Jackson was indeed innocent of all charges. A source close to the situation confirmed to OnlyGators.com that while Florida has been silent on the Jackson front, other Power Five programs – including some in the SEC – have already reached out to the player.
There were maturity issues for Jackson to overcome during his first one-plus years with the program, but the belief from those close to him is that this situation has been a shock to his system. As many believed when he first committed to the Gators, perhaps him leaving the state of Florida and joining another program will be best for his long-term success. But as far as what Jackson himself wants? He would like to wear orange and blue again.