Notebook: All eyes on Gators’ QB battle

When Florida hits the field on Thursday afternoon to open fall practice, they’ll be in search of an answer at quarterback.

Will Grier and Treon Harris have been leading the team through player-run practices this summer, trying to make sure the offense is caught up on the scheme when fall practice starts. That carryover from the spring is important, but it’s only part of what Jim McElwain and his staff will be looking at when the Gators open practice.

The Florida staff wants to see which player can impact the entire offense in a positive way. It isn’t about the best arm or the best athlete of the two. They want the quarterback that can elevate the play of those around him.

“My biggest thing is I'm really excited to see when we get into team type drills, to see how the people around those two guys at the quarterback spot, how they respond, and how their play elevates because of whoever's in the huddle,” McElwain said. “Really what that is is producing first downs, moving the football, making sure that you understand the possession of the ball is number one.

“I'm excited to see how they've done. I've had great reports from the guys on the team about how things have been going and player run practices, so it will be fun to watch when we get out there.”

McElwain said late in the spring that Will Grier had the lead in the battle, but he also admitted it was only because he had practiced more since Harris missed about a week of practice due to a death in his family. They’ll be on an even playing field when practices open on Thursday. Harris was the athleticism that could be necessary behind an inexperienced offensive line, but his arm will need to be more accurate after struggles down the stretch in 2014.

McElwain praised Grier’s ability to get the ball out of his hand and run the offense. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier called him a prototypical drop back passer, and he was accurate with the ball during the spring.

“Will did an outstanding job of developing how to get the ball to the play makers,” McElwain said.

There’s no timetable for when the decision will be made. After only 15 practices during the spring, the coaches still need a close look at what each player can do with the offense.

“Somebody's going to take a snap the first play,” McElwain said. “I don't know who it is yet. As soon as we know, we'll let you know.”

INJURY REPORT: The most notable injury is linebacker Antonio Morrison. After suffering a serious knee injury in the Birmingham Bowl, Morrison has been secretive about exactly what happened with the injury. On Wednesday, he said his parents made that decision and decided making the injury public didn’t benefit him.

McElwain raved about how far Morrison has come in the rehab but didn’t offer any timetable for a potential return.

“I can't tell you what a great job he's done to put himself in position to have an opportunity to play this season,” McElwain said. “He's well ahead of where we anticipated. He will be out of any contact drills, but he will be able to do some non-contact stuff moving forward. He has had a huge impact as guys have seen how hard he has worked, what he has invested and what he was willing to do to define who he is and what he's all about. I just can't say enough good things about that.”

McElwain said it’s just “short of a miracle” that they’re even having conversations about a possible return this season.

Tight end Jake McGee, who was limited in the spring after breaking his leg last fall, is full go and will have no restrictions to open camp. McGee said on Wednesday that he has zero pain and feels fully healthy.

Defensive tackle Thomas Holley was forced to redshirt last year after needing surgery to repair the labrum in his hip. McElwain called it “still a wait and see” before he’s cleared.

Quarterback Luke Del Rio had an appendectomy on Monday and will miss “a couple days” to start camp.

MCELWAIN’S FOCUS: Some head coaches prefer to spend most of their time with one side of the ball. When Will Muschamp was at Florida, he was mostly with the defense and worked specifically with the safeties. It’s not uncommon for other coaches across the country to do the same thing.

McElwain won’t be like that on the practice field.

“I just feel like it's very important that the head coach is involved in all aspects -- special teams, offense and defense -- so that the players know that I'm there for them at all times,” McElwain said.

He’ll bounce around from one meeting room to another during that time to make sure everything is under control. There are natural tendencies, he admitted, to stick his head into the quarterback room more often than others, and McElwain joked that he likes to “go in there and screw them up every now and then.”

But most of his time in the meeting room or on the practice field is spent with his eyes on the big picture, trusting his assistants to make it come together.

PIECING TOGETHER THE OFFENSIVE LINE: The goal for fall camp is for the Gators to find eight offensive linemen they can trust to open the season. They’ll aim to build more depth than that throughout the season, but if they can start the year with eight trusted linemen, the staff will feel good about it.

With only one returning player that has ever started a game at Florida, the Gators don’t have much experience up front. That number of eight will likely include multiple newcomers to the team.

“I think what we need to do is develop eight solid guys, originally, a little bit like an NFL mentality where some guys have to be able to swing in some positions,” McElwain said. “Obviously, by saying that sheer number, you're looking at at least three of the new guys, maybe four, being part of that eight. It's really about how they adapt and how they learn.”

The key will be to make sure which freshmen are ready to play. McElwain said he won’t put a newcomer on the field if they aren’t mentally ready for it, noting that they can become “shell shocked and it takes a while to recover from that.” But if a freshman is talented enough and shows that he’s ready to handle playing immediately, the staff won’t hesitate to use them.

“We'll put them out there when they're ready,” McElwain said. “The key there is put your five best out there, just whoever those five best are. That gives you the best opportunity to win the game and that's what we'll do.

Senior Trip Thurman will begin fall camp playing guard, but McElwain noted that he also needs to be ready to take reps at center and could be forced to play tackle in an emergency.

“I think he's got to be able to, in theory, function at all five spots based on whatever happens,” McElwain said. “We're going to start him inside at guard, but he's going to take reps throughout practice both at center and possibly as an emergency tackle. He's got to be able to do that.”

Fordham transfer Mason Halter, who was an All-American at the FCS level, will play tackle. It’s the position he has played in the previous three years at Fordham and the coaches don’t want to overload him with information because they need him to play this year.

Martez Ivey will also start fall camp at tackle. McElwain noted that’s what they recruited him for, but if they find out that he’s better at a spot inside and have the need, he could make that move.

Cam Dillard will open Thursday’s practice as the first-team center, as McElwain noted that he’s the one that took the most reps at the position during the spring.

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