But this year was going to be something totally different… or so it seemed.
With spring football the Gators had just six healthy scholarship offensive linemen. A simple injury or two there and it would be hard to even accomplish anything in practice with the entire offense.
The dire need for linemen was immediately known by McElwain and staff before spring even started. With that in mind and on a hurried pace, they managed to land six offensive linemen in the 2015 recruiting class that was signed about two months after McElwain signed on to be Florida’s head coach.
After spring ball was concluded two more linemen were eventually added to the roster. T.J McCoy was a true freshman that transferred in from NC State and Florida got a big announcement when Mason Halter decided he would take his graduate year at Fordham and spend it at Florida as a senior.
These were all big parts of what needed to be done to get things going in the right direction and early on. Freshmen Martez Ivey, Fredrick Johnson, Tyler Jordan, and senior Halter have all contributed as new members of the Gator program. Having senior guard Trip Thurman back healthy, he missed the entire spring, has been another important positive thing.
The line has come a long way since spring where McElwain was asked if it was a ‘dark time’ with that unit.
"Obviously, the influx of the new guys has been fantastic,” McElwain said on Monday reflecting back. “Let's not downplay the fact Mason Halter's been doing a great job at a lot of different spots. That's been kind of an older guy that's been there and has brought some leadership. We're still nowhere where we're going to be, I'll say that.
“Getting Trip back has been great. Obviously, the young guys have been doing a pretty darn good job in there. I would say the biggest thing I see there is they're starting to understand the value of communication. We've got to get better on some of the points, and yet, that's on the quarterback as well. It isn't just on Cam or the centers. But I know this, that dark place you were talking about, it was really dark."
But there was always that light at the end of the tunnel and it came in the form of offensive line coach Mike Summers. Hos work a year ago certainly gave the fans hope, but McElwain has known about the job Summers can do for quite some time.
“From the get go I have obviously known Mike… although we’ve never worked together, we’ve been in similar systems and been around the same people,” McElwain said Wednesday on the SEC Coaches’ Teleconference call. “What he’s done to get these guys to work together and the influx of all the new faces from a spring that was honestly quite hard to get through, and yet we managed it. He’s done a great job of really molding those guys and really working the communications. I think any coach will tell you (the importance of) the experience on an offensive line, having guys that work together and guys that talk to each other every day and understand the points and all the things you do and how he has made that happen and in quite a hurry. It’s something that really is a credit to his ability to get across what we’re trying to get taught. It has been fun to see those guys grow and yet every day there is something new. It’s like you are still teaching them to walk.”
The great thing is that this unit in particular will only get exponentially better as the season progresses and in the future.
McElwain continues to thrive on expectations…
There is little doubt when you come to the University of Florida the bar is set extremely high. Expectations are something that come with the head coaching job. However, this is one of those seasons where not many expected a whole lot. To this point, the Gators have exceeded expectations and now that bar is climbing even higher and quicker than anyone could have anticipated.
McElwain isn’t scared an invites the positive vibes associated with everyone anticipating winning again.
“The interesting thing is the expectations are what you sign up for,” he stated starting in on his philosophical view of the mental attitude. “If you don’t have expectations for success, it’s never going to happen. More so, (it’s about) what did you do and how did you do it to have the success. Continually looking back to the historical precedence of your actions that have helped you maybe have a little success is what it is all about.”
That has been a big preaching point of Florida’s new coach and one that his team seems to have bought into quite a bit. Stay focused in the moment when it comes to getting ready for the next opponent. How will they respond now having just jumped to number 11/12 in the polls and having all the accolades poured down upon them.
“You never know, each day, each game, each play, is an individual event and an opportunity to be proud of what you put on film,” he said. “That is something our guys are starting to see a little bit and yet at the same time we will find out this Saturday.”
As the offensive line goes, so does the quarterback. Both seem to be on the same track at this point. As the season began we would hear from McElwain that redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier was ‘doing his job’ when he made a play here and there. Now, he is opening up more and starting to say that the young man is doing some nice things.
Coming off of a 24-29 for 271 yards and four touchdown performance on Saturday against the number three Ole Miss Rebels, McElwain says he is starting to see the young man really understanding the things he is supposed to do.
“He’s done a pretty decent job, especially in situational football,” McElwain said of Grier. “Obviously we would love to have the interception throw back he threw a couple of weeks ago. I thought he learned from that and handled some of the red area things pretty darn well this week which was good to see.
“His two-minute before the half and two-minute before the end of the game has shown up. They were pretty good and situations we work on every week. Yet, there were a lot of things we can continue to get better and continue to grow from.”
As usually McElwain also makes sure to point out that the players around Grier have to be doing the right things for him to do that.
“I would say more than Will I would say that the play of the guys up front and really the attention to detail we have had with the tight end and receiver positions as far as being in the right spot and spacing the field the way you are supposed to be… I think they have helped his play more than anything,” McElwain said.
The unselfish guy that will knock your head off…
One more of the surprising things from this fall is the relentless and phenomenal play of defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard. Sure we have seen glimpses of Bullard knocking over linemen on his way to the ball carrier… of him using a terrific swim move to suddenly show up in the backfield for a play. But, we haven’t seen the consistency from him that has allowed him 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks (2 more than in 12 games a year ago), 9.5 tackles for loss (1 more than all of last year), 3 quarterback hurries, and a pass breakup.
“You talk about not only a positive effect based on the way he practices and really how he plays, but his leadership within that group and on that defense… he’s a guy that obviously has a quick first step and a disruptive force,” McElwain started in on Bullard.
“He’s very unselfish. He’s a guy that says ‘can I play three-technique?’ I mean how many defensive linemen ask if they can play on the interior? He knows what he has around him to help him be successful. To me, that single thing right there speaks volumes to how he understands how to help this football team be successful, and I sure am glad he’s on our team.”