Before I get into what I really want to discuss here, I want folks to understand where I’m coming from. Yes, I write for Fightin’ Gators and we are all things Gator and I have been basically doing this job since 2004. Yes, our audience lives in The Swamp and dies in The Swamp every Saturday in the fall. Yes, I went to school at Florida three decades ago and actually worked for the football program between 1994 and 2004. All of this gives me not only credentials to talk about this stuff to you, but could paint me to be a homer for the Gators more than most. But honestly, being around it so much kind of makes you keep a distance, especially when doing my job.
That said, because of the nature of the job and my homogeneous background with the Gators there seems to be a little tunnel vision here. I am not denying that and want you to understand that I get that before I actually continue.
Now to my point…
The Gators are headed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana this weekend to take on LSU in a game against likely the highest rated opponent they will face the rest of the season and an atmosphere that will be more hostile than any they will see the entire season. They also have had a myriad of distractions this season and none more so that this week.
But, I can take solace as someone that follows the team as closely as anyone. Because, at the end of the day, I have seen enough in six games, and for that matter over the last 11 months, to believe that this team is in the right hands. That given circumstances that can happen to a roster of 100 college aged men, Jim McElwain and the staff that he has assembled will make the best of the situation in front of them and have his team ready to fight.
With Kentucky’s loss on Thursday night, the Gators now stand two losses ahead of every other team in the Eastern Division. The likelihood of them winning the East goes up dramatically if they can win one of the next two games. That is this weekend against LSU and in three weeks (after a bye) against Georgia in Jacksonville. It’s no easy task mind you, but again I take solace in the fact that the Gators have a leader really unlike any they have had in a while.
Remember, I am trying to take off my O&B glasses here, but in a very short time and without even a full season to really comprehend what he has done, Jim McElwain has proven to me to be as good a leader of a football program as we have had here and I am talking on and off the field.
I think a comparison to a year ago is okay because there was a lot more going for the roster a year ago than this one, a returning junior quarterback, four NFL drafted linemen, a running back that is playing significant time in the NFL this year, and more. That offense with all of that talent scored 40 touchdowns in 12 games.
This current offense, with the complete makeover on the offensive line and the issues we know they still have, with a redshirt quarterback leading the offense, with a junior running back that isn’t getting a lot of help from the guys behind him, and with three of the top four receivers that were on the roster a year ago, is currently at 24 touchdowns midway through the season and on pace to score 48. That is a 20% increase in scoring from last year when we all knew going in this had the makings of the worst offensive roster, especially in terms of inexperience, in recent memory.
The fact is they have had to work around the issues of the offensive line that really has issues with providing any push up front. They have had to work around issues of experienced depth at running back where the young guys just aren’t prepared in the pass protection game and have a propensity to cough up the ball too much. They have had to work around the issues of a receiver corps that is deep in numbers and has quality in the first four, but really nothing to show behind those four guys.
This offense with all of those things going on is averaging almost 20 yards more per game than a year ago. Not a huge number, but again, look at everything they have had to overcome to even get there. Count me as impressed.
With Will Grier out, this presents another hurdle for the staff. Yet, they have jumped bigger hurdles than this for ten months now and certainly throughout the season.
Think about it this way. The Gator offense has two players in the starting 11 that weren’t on last year’s roster and couldn’t have contributed. Those would be true freshman receiver Antonio Callaway and senior transfer offensive tackle Mason Halter. In Halter’s case we need to remember that the Gators lost four offensive linemen to the NFL, including first round pick D.J. Humphries, he replaced one of those.
Moves like Brandon Powell to receiver have allowed him to already produce 266 yards of offense this season where he had a total of 219 in 12 games a year ago. Jake McGee was injured a year ago, but Cyontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby were on the roster and healthy. The three have combined for 411 yards and 4 touchdowns in half a season. The three did not have a single stat a year ago and the former defensive linemen that were used at tight ends amassed 237 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games.
What is the point here? The staff is able to identify talent and ways to use that talent. In the matter of Callaway, he’s a true freshman that has become maybe the top target (when healthy) and that never happened with some of the previous staffs.
Don’t think that Jim McElwain is going to shy away from the expectation of winning this game, despite the issues. Sure, he usually builds up the opponent a bit and will talk up the fact that his defense was porous against the last big running back they faced in Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd.
As for the quarterback position, I think we also need to consider that while Treon Harris was working within the framework of what McElwain wants to do on offense early in the season, which would best give the coach a chance to pick between the two guys going for the job. McElwain will likely change things up a good bit to really accent Harris’ better attributes. To me this is where McElwain excels as a coach. Finding what his players do best and allowing them to go out on the field and be successful.
Harris is 19 for 27 for 269 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His pass efficiency rating this year is a bit higher than Grier’s albeit he has really only been a major part in what amounts to one and a half games to start the season and against mostly non-SEC opponents.
When adding career totals, the two are actually pretty similar in a sense. Harris is 74 for 138 and1,288 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Grier is 106 for 161 for 1,204 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Harris has rushed for 395 yards in his career. Grier has amassed 116 so far this year.
Call it naivety if you want, and I know what I saw out of Harris last year, but I have seen enough out of McElwain and his staff and their ability to use the abilities of his players to what seems their highest potential to believe that they can make Harris play very effectively.
Florida is 3-0 in the last three weeks while being the underdog in two of the games and playing on the road against the best defense in the SEC in the other. They have won every way imaginable already this season and at times have had to rely on their defense to push them through.
But it is working because Florida now has a coach that is willing to press on despite the issues his team may face. He won’t go into a shell and rely on his tremendous defense for every little issue, although it wouldn’t be hard to see why he would.
Instead, McElwain is going to adjust the rest of the tools he has. The Gators haven’t shown to be deep at running back yet, but getting the true freshmen future stars on the same page in pass protection hasn’t been easy. With Harris at the helm, the running game becomes that more important. Look for Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett to step it up now and they will need to produce.
One thing you will notice with Harris stats compared to Grier’s, Harris averages 9.2 yards per attempt to Grier’s 7.2 yards. His overall efficiency is higher because he hits for more yards on each pass. Play action will be his friend and we have seen a lot of what McElwain can do with play action.
Make no mistake about it, LSU and maybe everyone else following will plan on stacking the box more than if Grier was in there, but in all honesty, I believe McElwain is licking his chops at that notion. Compared to the several years previous, we have a schemer on offense and a guy that looks forward to the chess match. I am looking forward to the chess match as well.
That comfort level is there I believe for this team to get things done. That comfort has bled over to this writer. Maybe they don’t win on Saturday, but Gators. Who else would you want to try and get you through this?