During the era ushered in by newly-returned former Head Coach Steve Spurrier in the 1990’s, names like Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, and Jacquez Green electrified friend and foe alike. Everyone conscious of college football knew the Florida Gators and knew what they were good at. Scoring touchdowns (and lots of them) with the superior athletes that are awash in this state became something of a calling card. Florida was going to beat you (and badly) and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. ‘Swagger’ became a buzz word during this period and the Gators, both on the field and in the stands, had it in abundance. Having said that, there is no amount of time that can adequately transition a fan of this period into the sub-200 yard offensive outputs that recently have become all-to-familiar in these parts. Florida Football was worse than bad; it was unrecognizable. Fans were less mad than they were hopeless. While once games were something you fantasized about, now they were a source of dread.
The first six games under Florida Head Coach Jim McElwain measured anywhere from a pleasant reprieve from these intolerable conditions (Kentucky) to being back on the mountain top (Ole Miss). While there were certainly shaky moments that you would expect from a first-year SEC head coach, there were also clear signs that the ineptitude that plagued the Gators was a thing of the past, starting with the new man in charge. Fans knew that their head coach understood offensive football better than they did, which was a welcome notion considering what came before. The suspension of Will Grier following the Missouri game represents a return to largely poor form from an offensive standpoint, but the trepidation regarding the direction of the program was significantly reduced at worst. Despite losing Grier midway through the season, the Gators won their first division championship since Tim Tebow was quarterback. In a season where most pundits predicted Florida to finish no better than third and as low as sixth in the East, earning a trip to Atlanta as the sacrificial lamb for eventual national champions Alabama was seen as an accomplishment, but tempered. Most fans looked at it as a stepping stone to next season, when a functional quarterback would return to the mix and the talent on the edges would be improved yet again.
‘Next year’ is five days away. With praise being heaped on starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, among others, step one of the equation seems to have been solved. You are unlikely to find a more dramatic transformation of the quarterback position at a major college football program than what transpired at Florida over the course of the previous offseason. Going from Treon Harris being the clear-cut starter at the end of last year to having four talented options for the season opener is something that McElwain simply has not received enough credit for. Del Rio looks to have command of the offense, which is something that should not be brushed aside. During his term at Alabama, McElwain won championships with Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron behind center, both of which succeeded more through their game-management and strong running game than from their talent, which was anything but prototypical. They also both played on teams where the defense was the clear centerpiece. If Del Rio can follow suit, the Gators will be in position to win a lot of football games.
The skill positions, often the most disheartening aspect of the immediately pre-McElwain era, like the quarterback position, saw immediate improvement in 2015. Then-true-freshman Antonio Callaway led the way with 678 yard and prior to Grier’s suspension, while certainly not a finished product, it certainly appeared as though a remarkable improvement was underway. The play calling was better, but then again, didn’t it have to be? Once Harris was behind center, it is hard to find a lot of fault with the players on the other end of some of the worst balls that I have ever seen thrown.
The team was well aware of the drop off that they experienced during the second half of last season and they sought to fix the issue, starting with Del Rio. “Since the summer, Luke’s been taking charge,” explained junior receiver Brandon Powell. “Trying to get everybody on the right track. We ended off bad last year, so his whole mindset this summer was to go better. He was in all of our extra work sessions in the summer. This whole camp, he’s just been taking charge and everybody has been rallying around him trying to get better and get ready for the season.”
With the aforementioned improvement at quarterback, the talent of this year’s unit can be the most successful Florida offense of the past half-decade without being very good at all. With Callaway’s availability for the opener confirmed today, Del Rio will have the best group of weapons since Urban Meyer’s reign. Powell was pleased that everyone would be available.
“It’s great to have all of the team with us. We need all of our weapons, we want all of our weapons. It’s just great to have all of our weapons back on the field.”
When asked how to get the best talent on the field from a formational perspective, Powell did not find that to be terribly important. He believes that this team is flush with talent and they are ready to show what they can do. The Gators have no shortage of players with unique skillsets to take advantage of and that is exactly what they plan to do.
“No matter who you line up on the field, we have a whole bunch of playmakers on offense. I mean, it’s just going to be scary for teams to try to stop us with the lineup that we do have. That’s just something that we’re going to put on display this weekend.”
While the converted running back has contributed on special teams since his arrival on campus, he is keen to show that he has a full grasp on the position that he will start at against UMASS (7:30pm SECN). The Ole Miss game provided Powell with the highlight last season and it is something that he looks to expand upon this year.
“Really, this summer,” was Powell’s response to when he gained comfort there. “Last year, it was a big shock to me. That was my first year playing wide receiver. I’ve been working on it this whole summer with Luke and Appleby, so this year I’m comfortable playing receiver.”
The 1990’s were a period that most look back fondly on. So fondly, in fact, that it seems as though Hollywood is intent on remaking everything that transpired during that decade. The Backstreet Boys, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The X-Files, and Full House are just a small number of the reboots from this period that are currently underway. Why is this happening? “They remind us of a better time” is the best answer that I have received. While talented, this year’s offense will likely fall short of the lofty expectations set forth by the man who will have the field named for him in honor of the impact he made at this school. Much of this was accomplished during the 90’s and with him back full time, Florida fans can only hope that his presence can usher in a reboot of the success they had during this time. With a little luck in the injury department, these ‘scary’ Gators are going to turn a lot of heads this fall.