The 2015 season began with promises of the Florida Gators being fixed … eventually. It was 2016 when Florida was supposed to be whole again with quarterback Will Grier entering his third year, then-new head coach Jim McElwain in his second and the coach’s first full recruiting class set to join the program.
My how things can change over four months.
Grier’s emergence came to fruition … only for the player to get suspended for a full year by the NCAA and then decide to transfer from the program. McElwain had the Gators’ offense humming under Grier as Florida rolled to a 9-1 start … only to be manhandled in back-to-back games as the offense appeared as inept as it was under Will Muschamp.
Still, the Gators exceeded expectations in 2015, which means they will only be greater for Florida and its now-veteran coach in 2016. And before UF even settled in to practice for Michigan ahead of the 2016 Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, the team was focused on what it will look like next season.
McElwain split up the first week of bowl practices, allowing all returning players to practice together while seniors and those leaving early for the NFL stayed back to train with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kent. Looking back on the decision, he seemed pleased with how the younger players performed when given the stage all to themselves.
“It’s been a good time for us to establish some leadership going into the offseason. And just playing some football – it was good,” he said. “It’s fun to see a look into the future with the guys that are taking reps.”
McElwain believes the split squad practices gave the Gators’ youngsters a sense of urgency. “We had a guys that made a lot of strides,” he noted.
“We’re going to have a real competitive spring,” McElwain added, with a wry smile. “It’s going to be fun.”
One player who could certainly have an impact for Florida in 2016 is walk-on quarterback Luke Del Rio, a transfer from Oregon State who sat out the 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Del Rio will be a redshirt junior in the spring, but his history with McElwain (recruited him to Colorado State) and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (earned his commitment as a walk-on at Alabama over a scholarship offer at CSU) may very well make him the favorite to start for the Gators next year.
For the first time, McElwain actually spoke about Del Rio and what he’s seen from him on the practice field while working with the scout team. “I think Luke’s been having some really good practices out there,” the coach said. “In the summer when he came here, he was a little bit of a spark plug out there, a guy who kind of knows how to go about it. So he’s a guy obviously heavily in the mix as we move forward. We’re sure excited he’s here.”
But while Del Rio stands to the side and awaits what’s potentially in front of him in 2016, the rest of the team spend the second week of practice – when the veterans rejoined the team – gearing up for the bowl game.
McElwain on Monday brushed off concerns that those returning veterans might hold back and not give it their all, noting that NFL teams play close attention to how incoming players perform in bowl games, whether for the national title or otherwise.
“Here’s your opportunity to play your tail off. It says a lot about who you are and how you’re going to be as a teammate moving forward. There again, I’m expecting those guys to play all out,” he explained.
To that end, McElwain expects to see junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, a consensus All-America first team selection and future first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, lining up as a returner on special teams. One can expect junior running back Kelvin Taylor to continue playing his heart out in the backfield, and there is certainly no one questioning how hard seniors like defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard and defensive back Brian Poole will play.
So what does Florida have ahead of it in the Citrus Bowl? Just a Michigan team that experienced a near-identical resurgence under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines (9-3) did not win the Big Ten East like their Friday opponent did the SEC, but they similarly beat up on teams they recently struggled against only to fall to two of their biggest rivals.
McElwain is excited for UF and UM to square off, calling the game “a heck of a prelim” for the teams’ neutral-site contest in Dallas to open the 2017 season. He also believes the Gators need to make the most of their experience in Orlando, noting that opportunities like this have much to do with how a team performs in the regular season.
“This is a reward for a great season – an SEC East championship that I don’t think anyone saw coming down the pike, played their tails off in Atlanta, have overcome a lot of adversity throughout it. This is a fun group of guys, and they deserve this,” he said.
The players are already thinking about how a victory over Michigan could set Florida on the right course for the type of 2016 season everyone has been expecting.
“[A win] would be big. We got to go out with a bang just because we don’t want to go out with an L going into next season,” said sophomore CB Jalen Tabor. “Going into next season on a positive note would be very good for us.”