If the Gators were going to change their struggles, they had to be more disciplined. Over the last four seasons, Florida ranked 98th, 112th, 119th and 112th in penalties per game. The most frustrating part for McElwain is that a majority of them were avoidable penalties, whether it was a procedural issue or a personal foul for a late hit.
Discipline had to get better, and the Florida staff focused in practice to make sure that was emphasized every day.
“We played the game first and physical, but we played it clean,” Jim McElwain said. “We had one penalty and it came with three minutes left in the game. That showed me a lot. It showed me our guys are listening, our guys are understanding the investment they make in themselves and to not to things to hurt their teammates. I was really proud of that.”
Florida linebacker Daniel McMillian was called for a personal foul in the fourth game, but it was offsetting because of a personal foul also called on a New Mexico State defender, it didn’t count as a penalty. McMillian was later called for a block in the back on a Florida punt return that went as the team’s only penalty of the game.
In the offense’s first game under McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, there were no procedural issues. Florida rotated through its Rolodex of players on both sides of the ball to get experience for its young roster. No one committed a false start, no one lined up wrong. It was a different look for a Florida offense that has struggled over the last five years.
“It’s the attention to detail and them understanding the importance of why we do things in practice the way we do them,” McElwain said. “There’s a lot of things we’re going to be able to point to on video and say ‘this is the why. This is why we harp on little things every single day.’ For the most part, I really felt we played a good, clean game. There was some hard hits, guys were flying around and playing fast.”
TIGHT ENDS STAND OUT: The tight end position disappeared from the Florida offense recently. Over the last two seasons, Florida tight ends made 30 catches for 279 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday night, the tight ends had seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
“We believe in using tight ends and multiple formations and shifts,” McElwain said. “The more they can handle, the more effective we’re going to be offensively. I think we can piece together some pretty good things out of those guys. I’ve mentioned going into camp that I felt like that was a strong spot for us. They didn’t disappoint today.”
Jake McGee returned from a broken leg in last year’s opener to make two catches for 18 yards, but it was the second-year tight ends that stood out the most. DeAndre Goolsby (three catches for 38 yards) and C’yontai Lewis (two catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns) both had big games while making their first career catch.
Lewis showed off his versatile skillset on the two touchdown catches. The first one came in traffic, boxing a defender out with his body and catching the ball in the end zone. The second touchdown came while running up the seam and he outran the defense for the score.
“He’s been one of those guys in practice,” McElwain said about Lewis. “It’s amazing how it works. When you execute in practice, you’ve got a chance at making a pretty decent ball play on Saturday. The quarterbacks, therefore, become comfortable with him. He proved it today.”
MIXING THE RUNNING BACKS: Kelvin Taylor had eight carries for 54 yards to lead the Gators, but the offensive staff wanted to mix in the two freshmen running backs. Jordan Cronkrite had five carries for 24 yards and one touchdown while Jordan Scarlett had eight carries for 34 yards and one touchdown.
The two quarterbacks also combined for nine rushes, even using Antonio Callaway and Demarcus Robinson and end arounds.
All eyes will continue to be on the running back position as the Gators build their depth, but Taylor proved on Saturday that he is the unquestioned leader of the group.
“We have some guys there,” McElwain said. “I was happy with the way (Taylor) hit it up inside. He didn’t try to bounce things, which he had a tendency to do. For the most part, he was sticking in it what he saw it instead of trying to beat somebody outside. He stuck his foot in and got up field. That was really good. He ran behind his pads extremely well.”
DEFENSIVE INCONSISTENCY: The first half wasn’t great for the Florida defense. They allowed 201 yards and gave up some big plays in the run and pass game. However, the second half was different. New Mexico State totaled -1 yard in the second half of the game and couldn’t get anything going on offense.
McElwain credited an improvement of communication. The Gators were without three starters on the defensive side of the ball, but their communication needs to improve this week in practice, especially with an up-tempo opponent in East Carolina coming to town next weekend.
“We had a couple busts in communication, which is what we’ve talked about since we got here and the importance of it,” McElwain said. “(New Mexico State) slings it around the yard pretty good. They got the ball out on time. They’re going to hit some throws, just the nature of what they do. The key is, what’d we do after one of those?