When they have a large national profile like former Florida running back Emmitt Smith, it’s even more helpful. A three-time All-American for the Gators, Smith went on to the NFL where he became a star, winning a Super Bowl and being inducted to the Hall of Fame.
He returned to Gainesville to experience his first Florida game of the McElwain era, and the former Florida running back was very visible on the sideline. ESPN’s cameras stayed locked no him, even catching Smith getting frustrated with an official for throwing a flag on Florida gunner Chris Thompson for kick catch interference.
Former Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley returned to Gainesville as Mr. Two Bits against Ole Miss. The New England Patriots were on a bye, allowing Easley to make the trip.
“Anytime you can reach back to these guys that have done so much for the University of Florida and its brand -- just think of some of the great players here and a lot of Gators out there that played,” McElwain said. “Here’s a Hall of Famer, here’s a Super Bowl champion, here’s a guy who stands for the right things. Here’s a guy that has given back. He isn’t selfish about his accomplishments. I think anytime you can point to that.
“I love the Gators coming back. Our guys have got to understand they’re carrying on a legacy that’s bigger than them. You think about – not only Emmitt, but a lot of those players. Every time people see them, they say the University of Florida. That’s top-of-mind awareness. From a business standpoint, think of what he’s done to generate what he’s generated for the University of Florida. I’m not sure you can put a number on it. Shoot, I was a little giddy. I had a chance to meet one of the best ever at his position. Never would have thought that would happen.”
MORRISON LEADING THE DEFENSE
Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after recording 16 tackles with 3.5 tackles for a loss in the win over Ole Miss. The game happened nine months to the day from his devastating knee injury in the Birmingham Bowl that could have kept him out for the season.
He’s not the most vocal member of the Florida defense, but for a unit with many veterans, it’s Morrison that sets the tone after the younger players watched him work his way back on the field.
“There’s the story of this football team,” McElwain said. “I’m telling you guys with what he has overcome, the work he has put in. I can’t say enough good stuff about this guy.”
Morrison already gained the respect of the coaches from his rehab. What happened after the Tennessee game only increased it. In a game where the Florida defense struggled to tackle, Morrison took responsibility and didn’t like the way his film looked against the Volunteers.
To correct it, Morrison spent extra time in the film room to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“He was very disappointed in how he played the week before,” McElwain said. “He took it personally. He put on the film on how he practiced and studied going into this game. The guy cares. He’s complete.”
The scariest part for Florida opponents? McElwain said there are still things that Morrison can improve on as he gets more comfortable back on the field.
“I know he wishes he could (do some more things), which is going to come,” McElwain said. “Man, my hats off to that guy for what he did giving up himself for this team to be good.”
RELUCTANT TO PRAISE GRIER
Florida quarterback Will Grier has been dominant over the team’s last five quarters, completing 72.3 percent (34-47) of his passes for 406 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He led the Florida comeback win over Tennessee and sparked the blowout of Ole Miss.
Despite that, McElwain has been careful with his praise for the redshirt freshman. The Florida coach said it’s nothing abnormal. He just has high expectations for the quarterback position.
“(That’s what) you’re supposed to do that,” McElwain said. “You have the plan. Now go execute it. Why are you satisfied with not throwing every completion? How can you be satisfied when you’ve been given the answer and you don’t go execute it? That’s what frustrates me.
“Like I said, he’s taking care of the football. I thought he was great in the red area. We’ll just see how he keeps advancing. Not to downplay it, he had a good execution of the plan. We’ll see how he does this week.”
MOVING AROUND UP FRONT
The Gators used some new grouping on the offensive line against Ole Miss, most notably sliding left guard Trip Thurman over to center and playing freshman Martez Ivey at left guard. It only lasted for a few drives before Thurman moved back to guard and starting center Cam Dillard reentered the game.
After downplaying that grouping when McElwain was asked about it last week, his tune changed on Monday. The Florida coach said the goal was to make sure the offensive linemen were fresh, and it was something they would continue to look at in the future.
“What we’re trying to do is keep those guys as fresh as possible,” McElwain said. “What we found out is through some of those rotations, they actually play better when they’re in that 40-48 play pitch count. They’re fresher. As we talk about trying to find some combinations that give us the best chance to be successful, it’s something we’ll continue to do.”