End of 2015 will pay dividends for Gator offense

It was a painful offensive finish for the 2015 Gators. Yes they lost the last three games of the year, but in the last five plus games the offense was painful to watch and got to a point where they just couldn’t move forward. With all of that pain comes the notion that the players involved learned a great deal. Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier agrees with that notion.

It was a young offense. As many as five true freshmen started on the field during the last part of the season. The fact that everyone was in the first year of a new offense only made it harder. Quarterback troubles, injuries, you name it and this group went through it last year.

Nussmeier believes that they will be stronger for it and saw signs of that during the struggle.

“We struggled a lot, when you look at it, let's be honest about it,” Nussmeier said. “But you also looked out there, and what you saw was at times, you saw five true freshmen and you saw guys competing, maybe in situations that weren't ideal. They never backed down. They fought, they competed and that's how you develop a championship-caliber team.

“You watch guys, certain players in situations, where maybe it's not advantageous situations. How do they react? Do they back down or do they turn and make it about somebody else and not be accountable for their actions. I’m really excited; this group has worked extremely hard. To see the growth they have made over the last year, really, really excited about where they are as we go into camp.

“Obviously we have to get better at a lot of things. That's maybe a lot of the excitement is to watch how much growth we're going to have, not only where we came from the end of last year through spring but where we'll be from the start of camp to the end of camp.”

At times in 2015 they were hard pressed to field viable practice options to prepare for the next opponent, simply because of roster limitations. With a new class and a big influx of skill talent there is a new attitude on offense.

“You add five new wide receivers to our depth, obviously at a position we didn't have great depth last year.

“The line situation, where you look out there, I don't know how many teams started a Bowl game with three true freshmen, starting on the offensive front, you see those guys, the growth they have made in a year.

“The ability that we can now actually practice in two different squads because we have depth and we have numbers at some positions; I’m really excited about that. And really excited to see the individual growth of these players and we have some new players that we haven't had a chance to work with yet, really excited to see what recruiting did for us.”

Things got really limited with lack of play makers, a quarterback that couldn’t run the style of offense that they wanted, and an offensive line that was still learning the ropes.

Most of those issues look to be resolved, at least to some level and that means a change I the way they attack different areas of the field.

“We want to be a situationally good offense,” he said. “We want to be able to win the special situations, things that we preach on a day-to-day basis.

“You look at things that really hurt us last year: Lost yardage plays. Obviously the sacks are an alarming stat that stands out to you now. When you have sacks, everybody points at the offensive line right off the bat. Well, it's not necessarily that. The receiver has to be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. Quarterback has to get the ball out of his hands. There are a lot of things that play into it.

“We have to become a better red zone team. Obviously we had challenges there. (We’ve) got to become a better third down team. Those special situations are the areas we've really got to grow in as a group.”

An effective offense starts with the quarterback position, but isn’t limited there. One thing that this offense provides every day in practice is competition in the ranks. And that may be the most important thing according to Nussmeier.

At quarterback, sophomore Luke Del Rio and senior Austin Appleby are in somewhat of a battle, again that is a good thing.

“I think they are both very close,” Nussmeier said. “I think they can both be extremely effective. I’m very excited about the competition that's going to be created and not just at quarterback, across the board.

“We finally got some depth at some positions where we can really kind of roll the ball out and watch some people compete where -- I don't think you ever get better when you've got players that know really the player behind them can't challenge them for their spot.”

In a year that started strong but tested the will of the team, Nussmeier says he knows that his players won’t give up and will be ready to fight this year.

“(I have) confidence in the character of our kids and the leadership of Coach Mac,” he said. “Believing what we're doing. Believing how our kids have approached it. We've got the right makeup. We've got the right attitude. We've got to go out and do it now.”

Still no naming of a leader at quarterback…

Despite most everyone believing that Luke Del Rio will be the starter when the season starts, the staff has yet to really say it. Nussmeier insists that the competition is healthy.

“Well, we'll make the decision when we're ready to make the decision, and when we think the timing's right,” he said. “I don't think you can sit here today and say it's this day or that day.

“Like I said, I really like the depth that we are developing in that room and I think it's close competition across the board. Really excited to see all four guys play, not just Luke and Austin. Obviously as we came out of spring, we talked about Luke had a slight edge, and we're going to let them compete and see where we end up.”

Receiver position will have some real weapons…

When Brandon Powell lost some of his edge because of injury, it took a little sting out of the receiver unit. Antonio Callaway did his thing and Demarcus Robinson had his moments, but there just weren’t any others they could turn to.

Powell has worked his way back in good shape. Junior C.J. Worton is building off of his big play in the SEC Championship game, and senior Ahmad Fulwood has showed progress that has them believing he can make a difference. When you throw in the rookies with accolades, it should be a totally new look receiver group.

“It's like this when you look at Brandon: A guy that started the season phenomenally; and then to have the injury really slowed him towards the end of the season,” Nussmeier said. “So to watch him progress back, to watch how hard he's worked, (I’m) really excited to get him back out there.”

“He brings a totally different element to the offense, and a guy that has played running back, but you put him in the slot and he can create matchups. And his ability, when he gets the ball in space, he's very difficult to put your hands on.”

With Worton, it has been a change in his whole demeanor.

“Really, really good off-season, and C.J., I think as much as anything, has really started to get it,” he said. “He's really maturing as a young man. Understanding how to take the things that he learns in the classroom when it comes to the game and apply it to the field, and how to physically put himself in the best shape by what he does in the weight room and conditioning and those types of things.

“He's a phenomenal athlete and I think he's just starting to scratch the surface. He's got a big, big upside and really excited to see what kind of camp he'll have.”

For Fulwood It has always been about expectation and upside. They are looking for him to have a big season.

“Ahmad works extremely hard,” Nussmeier said. “Ahmad has great size. You talk about physicality and that's one of the areas of his game. When he plays physical and he plays aggressive, you see him do some really, really good things and we're trying to find that on a down to down basis.

“But he's a guy that does everything exactly the way we ask him and really hope that he'll take that next step and we'll have that big breakout season that we've been looking for.”

Different mindset in using tight ends…

Jake McGee was an important part of the offense a year ago. He was a dependable receiver but also a valuable leader on an offense that needed his maturity. McGee is off to the NFL, but the staff feels good about junior DeAndre Goolsby and redshirt sophomore Cyontai Lewis.

“I think both those guys run extremely well,” Nussmeier said when comparing to McGee. “They are very good athletes. They may not be the 260-pound hammerhead tight ends, but they have really good length and they run really good routes and they understand how to set up routes. (I’m) excited about both those guys.

“Cyontai obviously got injured, so he missed time last year. DeAndre, I think he's going to take his game to a whole (new) level than where he finished the season last year.”

Sharing the load at running back…

Last year Florida leaned on Kelvin Taylor a great deal to run the ball. He amassed over 1,000 yards by grinding the ball game after game.

Taylor is also off to the NFL and the Gators now will rely on a quintet of backs to share the load. Something that is more desirable, especially in the rough and tumble SEC.

“Ideally in this league, you'd like to have a couple guys that you can count on and interchangeable parts, so to say,” Nussmeier said. “Obviously Kelvin did a great job for us last season.

(I’m) really excited about that group and the depth. I think Mark Herndon was a guy last year really trying to find his way back to health and not really able to contribute at the level he's able to this season. Really excited about -- he did a great job on special teams. But the offensive element that he developed through spring and the things that he was capable of doing.

“Obviously adding Mark from the JuCo ranks and the two Jordans and Lamical Perine coming in. Like I said, we're developing some depth there to have competition.”

Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite are the main returners with experience in the offense from last year. Nussmeier said both showed really nice things as freshmen.

“I think the one thing about Jordan Cronkrite that stood out to me was his ability to do things in the formation and the passing game,” he said. “You saw the phenomenal play he made at South Carolina. He's a really good athlete and has a really good feel when you start doing some of the receiving things, as well as being a good tailback.

“And then Jordan Scarlett, his physicality, his ability to run the football downhill. I think you saw a little glimpse of that in that big run against Vanderbilt, against Georgia; you got to see some things like that from him.”

“I’m really excited, those guys here, obviously the curve was really steep for them. So the curve has slowed down from a learning standpoint. Really curious now to watch their natural skill level start to take over and really implement some of the things we asked them to work on in the off-season.”

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