Now that the annual spring dog and pony show is over, the really hard work begins for Jim McElwain and his staff. Saturday, McElwain’s first spring game offered some hope for the future while at the same time splashing the faces of Gator nation with a bucket of very cold ice water.
Chief among the reasons for hope is a defense that should be able to keep the Gators in games once they start counting for real in the fall. The Gators might struggle to put points on the board in the fall, but this is not the kind of defense that is going to give up many so McElwain’s offense might only need a couple of touchdowns a game to have a shot at winning.
In his farewell address, former coach Will Muschamp said he left a locker room full of good players. Obviously, he was talking about the defensive side of the ball where there are athletic and talented players who will respond well to the coaching. Over on the offensive side of the ball, it’s a totally different story. There are far too many holes to fill because of recruiting classes that fell woefully short of keeping the cupboards replenished.
It is particularly sobering to see the deficiencies in talent, depth and speed on offense left behind by Muschamp, particularly on the line. Even against a defensive front that was told to gear it down several notches, the six able bodied offensive linemen couldn’t come close to holding their own Saturday. If this had been in real time under game conditions, Will Grier and Treon Harris would have been lucky to escape without broken bones and torn ligaments. There will be more depth in the fall because Trip Thurman will be back from injury and six freshmen will arrive during the summer, but barring a miracle of feeding the 5,000 proportions, this is going to be a position of extreme weakness.
After seeing his offensive line in action Saturday, McElwain has to be thankful he has two dual-threat quarterbacks in Grier and Harris. Mac likes a quarterback who can stand tall in the pocket, but standing tall might not be conducive to good health in the fall and could certainly bring about a lot of second and an overnight hike situations. Translation: Grier and Harris to become quite familiar with the old Flip Wilson line, “Feets don’t fail me now!”
Additionally, there isn’t nearly enough speed, a major embarrassment when you consider the abundance of speed is why every Division I team in the country comes to recruit in Florida. There isn’t anyone with Andre Debose type speed on the offensive side of the ball, not that Debose was ever properly utilized except on special teams. The Gators don’t have that one guy whose mere presence will back the safeties up 10 extra yards which means McElwain and Doug Nussmeier are going to have to come up with creative ways to back the safeties off and create separation for their receivers.
There is good reason to believe that McElwain has what it takes to not only reverse the downhill slide the Gators are in, but win at the highest levels consistently. Spring has sprung with fewer than usual injuries but now that practice is over, it’s time for Mac and his staff to evaluate personnel and figure out how they’re going to make it work in the fall. Getting through spring was the easy part. Figuring out how to put a product on the field capable of winning in the SEC is the hard part and that’s just begun.
For all the things he accomplished as a football coach and athletic director, what made Ray Graves the proudest was to see the number of his former players who went on to have great success in life. Graves had a near perfect graduation rate for his ten years as Florida’s head coach (1960-69) and almost two-thirds of them went on to get an advanced degree.
Like his mentor, Bobby Dodd (Graves was his defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech from 1950-59), Graves was adamant that his players worked hard in the classroom and earned their diploma at the University of Florida. If a player used up his eligibility without graduating, then Graves took it upon himself to make sure a degree was earned. There were times he paid tuition out of his own pocket but most of the time, he made calls or paid impromptu visits to local businessmen to urge them to hire the former player so he could earn tuition money. Instead of the adversarial relationship so many coaches have with the faculty, Graves cultivated those relationships and it paid off when one of his former players wanted to go to grad school. It’s amazing how many players got scholarship money or teaching or research assistantships all because Coach Graves had simply taken the time to get to know the professors and deans on campus.
As a football coach, Graves brought Florida out of the dark ages and put the Gators on the map. He deserved a better ending to his Florida career than the one handed to him by Dr. Stephen C. O’Connell, who arranged to hire Doug Dickey in August prior to the 1969 season. Graves was a goner even before that magical 9-1-1 year made famous by Reaves to Alvarez, Touchdown Tommy Durrance and the rest of the Super Sophs.
The week of Florida’s Gator Bowl matchup with SEC champ Tennessee and Dickey, the news broke that Graves would not be back and that Dickey would be his successor. As bitter a pill as it was to swallow for the Gators, who went out and upset the Vols to send Graves out a winner, it was even tougher for Graves. Prior to Dr. O’Connell becoming UF’s president, an agreement had been made that Graves’ defensive coordinator, Gene Ellenson, would be the successor whenever Graves decided to hang up his whistle. Not only was Graves forced out unceremoniously, but his promise was broken to Ellenson, who turned down the head coaching job at Georgia (Vince Dooley was hired when Gene said no) in order to remain on the Florida staff.
Had Graves pushed the issue in public, Dr. O’Connell would have been job hunting and Graves would have stayed on as Florida’s football coach (he remained as athletic director). Instead, Graves showed no public bitterness and accepted what turned out to be a disastrous decision.
Ray Graves remained a friend and father figure to all his former players until he died Friday morning at the ripe old age of 96. Although he played for General Neyland at Tennessee and got the shaft from Dr. O’Connell, Coach Graves was a loyal Gator until the end.
He will be missed.
Billy Donovan’s coaching tree expanded by one Sunday when assistant Matt McCall agreed to become the next head coach at Chattanooga of the Southern Conference, a position that came open when former Shaka Smart assistant Will Wade accepted the head job at VCU. McCall is a bright young coach who has a strong future ahead of him. He’s a shrewd evaluator of talent and an aggressive recruiter. When he was on Mike Jarvis’ staff at Florida Atlantic, the Owls won and were considered a program on the rise. When Matt came back to UF, Jarvis had no one to bring in the talent and within a couple of years he was looking for work.
So, who will replace McCall? The likely candidate is former UF assistant and Alabama head coach Anthony Grant. Grant and John Pelphrey part of Donovan’s staff at Marshall and they, along with Donnie Jones (UCF head coach) came to Florida when Donovan hired back in 1996.
Perhaps we just witnessed the future of American golf in not yet 22-year-old Jordan Speith, who should be in the final month of his final semester at the University of Texas but instead is a bell-to-bell Masters Champ. As astounding as it is that Speith has won a major, it goes beyond belief how he did it. He not only won in record-tying fashion in only his second Masters (he tied for second last year as a 20-year-old rookie), but he weathered numerous challenges and pulled away from golf’s best players. Phil Mickelson went on birdie runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tiger Woods looked like the Tiger of old for 15 holes on Saturday. World #1 Rory McIlroy had an eagle and four birdies on Saturday and six birdies on his final 12 holes Sunday. Dustin Johnson scored a record three eagles Friday. Justin Rose birdied five of his final six holes Saturday and birdied the first two Sunday.
Most kids Speith’s age would give the tournament away under that kind of pressure. Speith showed he’s human Saturday with a double bogey on 17 and on Sunday when he had an uncharacteristic four bogeys, but even when he slipped he was able to rally his composure and come back with birdies (six for the final day). It was a performance to remember by a kid who came into the event with a win and two second place finishes in his last three events.
Unlike most of the young guys on the tour, Speith isn’t a particularly long hitter. He makes up for the lack of distance by his ability to work the course, accuracy with his irons and an unorthodox but highly effective putting style. Throw in extraordinary concentration levels and a very short memory that allows him to forget the last shot good or bad and focus only on the next shot and you have the making of the young superstar American golf has lacked since Tiger broke into the game back in 1996.
With what we’ve seen in recent Ryder Cups with Rory McIlroy leading Europe’s best to wins over the US, Speith’s arrival comes at a very critical time for the PGA, which can ill-afford to go the route of the LPGA, whose popularity continues to shrink to new lows in the US due to a preponderance of winners from Asia. When Tiger was good, the PGA had its superstar, but with Woods pushing 40 and Phil Mickelson closing in on 45, the American game needs someone young who can win consistently to carry the torch.
It looks like it has its man in Jordan Speith.
Having seen the Gators on display Saturday, are you optimistic about the 2015 season or do you think it’s going to take awhile for McElwain to turn things around?
Stephen Stills wrote the song “Love the One You’re With,” inspired after hearing the line used by Preston in conversation. Recorded in 1970 on his 1970 solo album entitled “Stephen Stills,” the song made it all the way to #14 as a single on the Billboard charts. A year later, when Stills had added Neil Young to Crosby, Stills and Nash, the band released the live album “4-Way Street” which made it to #1 on the album charts and went platinum four times.