Notebook: The Florida Gators are focusing on ball security

For a struggling offense, taking care of the football becomes even more important.

The Tennessee defense has forced six turnovers through the first three games. Ball security is always an important topic of conversation during practice at Florida, but that’s especially the case this week.

It started on Monday. McElwain calls it “wet ball Monday” when the coaches dunk footballs in buckets of water and force the offense to play with them. It prepares them for potential bad weather games in the future, but it also makes them focus on taking care of the football.

“All you can do is work the fundamentals of it and keep reinforcing the positives,” McElwain said.

The Florida coach was clear to point out that the mistakes aren’t intentional. Players aren’t trying to turn the ball over, but the corrections happen in monitoring how a player is carrying the ball and how well he protects it at impact. They go through some drills during every practice to work at it and make sure the correct measures are being taken for the Florida players to take care of the football in games.

They’re preparing for a Tennessee defense that focuses on creating turnovers.

“They do a great job of getting the ball back,” McElwain said. “That’s something they emphasize, like our guys do. I think it’s proven successful teams have a pretty good turnover ratio in the positive part, and good teams take care of the football and good teams take the ball away.”

POOLE’S VERSATILITY IMPORTANT

With Jalen Tabor suspended, Florida will start Vernon Hargreaves III and Quincy Wilson at cornerback with Brian Poole playing the nickel. He’s versatile enough to slide outside and play cornerback, but he has excelled at the nickel in recent years. Poole is especially an important part of the Florida secondary this weekend with a starter being down.

“He’s versatile,” McElwain said of Poole. “I think he does a great job at nickel. He’s physical but he does a good job on the outside too. Having that versatility, that’s stuff’s valuable.”

LIMITING THE TENNESSEE RETURN GAME

The Volunteers are third nationally in kick returns, averaging 39.9 yards per attempt. Tennessee has also scored one touchdown in the return game. Kick returner Evan Berry, the younger brother of Eric Berry, has been dynamic and leads the country in kickoff returns, averaging 45.8 yards by himself.

The Gators could counteract it with Austin Hardin, who has put 15 of his 20 kickoffs through the end zone for a touchback. The goal is for Hardin to do that every time, but it might not always happen.

"You’re playing an SEC opponent,” McElwain said. “They’ve got erasers. Guys, there’s a reason why they’re playing in the SEC. They can finish. We’ve got to do a great job of corralling them."

PUNT RETURN JOB

When Vernon Hargreaves III missed the East Carolina game with a leg injury, Antonio Callaway took over punt return duties. The freshmen receiver had a 37-yard punt return at Kentucky, and McElwain mentioned wanting to get him more involved. One way to do that is punt return, where he can have the ball in his hands in the open field.

Even with Hargreaves back, the suspension of Tabor might play a role in who returns punts. It could force Hargreaves to play more snaps on defense, meaning the Gators could stick with Callaway on punt return to get Hargreaves more of a break.

“Everybody’s got to pitch in to help,” McElwain said. 


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