The Gators have fought hard this season to put themselves in position to play for the SEC Championship. It hasn’t been easy, but they persevered against a lot and now that week has come where they can go out and try and make history. Florida head coach Jim McElwain spoke to the media on Monday and said his team will be ready to go Saturday when they take on number one Alabama.
“First of all, this is one of those weeks that not a lot of teams are able to play in,” McElwain said talking about the teams in the various conference championship matches around the country. “It’s an honor to be representing the East. I know our guys are excited to get back to what they experienced last year. It should be a lot of fun, a good week of focused practice. We’re looking forward to the game.”
Florida and Alabama played in the very first DSEC Championship game back in 1992 when it was played in Birmingham. Florida has been a participant more than any other team and Alabama right behind them. The SEC is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the contest and the gators and Crimson Tide are the two teams seemingly synonymous with the event.
“It’s a great opportunity for everybody on our team,” McElwain said. “This is a special, special occasion, playing in the 25th anniversary, the two teams that have been in it the most. I think that’s pretty fitting. We’re excited to face the guys. Obviously, they are one heck of a ball squad. I think probably the best team that Coach (Saban) has put together from the standpoint of offense, defense and special teams. Their depth is really good and they are playing at a high level. That’s a credit to what he’s been able to do and maintain. But we’ve got good players too.
“I know our guys are excited to go compete. As we talk about the opportunities that you have as a player, this is one of those opportunities. You are going to be judged based on your performance and your effort and the way you go about your business in this week of preparation. People are going to look at how they do against a high level of competition. How they do in an environment that is unlike any other. As I’ve said before, the one great thing about this game, there aren’t necessarily a bunch of corporate tickets. You have two fan bases there that split the stadium. That’s something that is pretty special. We are looking forward to it.”
The Gators finished the regular season 13th in the conference in offensive production per game with just 352.7 yards. McElwain knows they have to make a lot of adjustments next year whether it is philosophy or personnel, but for the moment they have to use what they have and make it work. Those adjustments are on the horizon.
“There is going to be a lot of that in the offseason and yet we are in season and not a lot of teams are right now,” he said. “So we’ve got to focus on giving our guys a chance this week. We've got to get the ball in a playmaker's hands in space and a lot of them will be able to make plays and that's got to be a focus this week.”
At receiver the name that comes to mind the most is sophomore Antonio Callaway. McElwain knows he has to find creative ways to get Callaway the ball and for the most part they have been doing so.
“I think one of the things we got to do is make sure somewhere in there he’s in that eight to 12, maybe even more with the addition of the punt returns,” McElwain said of Callaway’s touches of the ball. “I think those are all touches we try to get him. Brandon Powell’s got to touch it in space and Tyrie’s got to, we’ve got to get this ‘get-it-to’ list… we’ve got to increase that.”
Florida struggled early in the year with driving the field in the opening drive and putting up scores. Lately that has changed. Even though they failed on a fourth down and goal attempt Saturday against Florida State, the offense really had a nice drive to open up the game and that has happened in the last few.
The Gators have a scripted first eight plays and they rarely go off script. McElwain says after looking at things, they have to be a bit more creative in what they are showing the defense, after they get through the script.
“We’ve got to do a better job of maintaining the art of deception, and we’ve got to continue to do that throughout and not become so predictable,” he said. “In some cases, when we retake the field say after play 18 or 19. So that’s something that we’re working on and something we’ll do this week, as well.”
Against South Carolina a few weeks ago, the Gators rolled out the zone read option keeper with quarterback Austin Appleby. It resulted in a huge run in the first series and a couple of other big plays during the contest. We have seen little of it since then.
There seemed to be a couple of times that Appleby should have kept the ball and run it against FSU, but he never did.
“We had three of those last week that they played it the way they were supposed to play it,” McElwain said. “But it is kind of an element of surprise we’re going to have to use this week, more from a wildcat standpoint as well, with him being that kind of guy. There again, to create different shifts, formations, motions, to try to get a guy be out of his gap. These guys are really gap sound in what they do.
“You hear me talk about communication a lot. When you see the great teams that have really good team defense, anytime a guy goes in motion, there will be seven to eight guys communicating through some form of hand signal. It shows a group of guys that understand all 11 of them have to be on the same page. You see us doing it a lot more. I really like the way our group is doing it.
“That commitment to team excellence is something that Coach (Saban) has really been able to define, and it’s pretty fascinating. Take a look when you go back and watch their games, you just see all the communication that goes on whenever there’s a shift or a motion and everybody’s on the same page. That’s impressive to see.”
Not caring for the knocks on offensive production with his team playing for an SEC title, McElwain knows that they have to make drastic improvements
"It's obviously one of those things that you have to constantly evaluate and get better at,” he said about being hired to fix the offense. “I was also brought in here to get to Atlanta. How many years have I been here? OK."
Reliable kicking game…
One aspect of the team a year ago that was in more disarray than even the offense is now was the place kicking duties. Austin Hardin was struggling to hit anything, his backup Jorge Powell was injured, they held a midseason tryout for a walk-on kicker spot and a Dentist student won that spot and actually kicked extra points in the championship game a year ago.
McElwain vowed to fix that situation and did so in a big way. He turned his recruiting efforts on to Eddy Pineiro who was committed to Alabama at the time. Pineiro has been a breath of fresh air for the Gators this season and as reliable as McElwain could ask for.
“I like Eddy,” he said. “Eddy struggled the other night, though. He didn’t swing his leg and kicked two out of bounds and gave them field position at the 35. I think he went and tried to muscle the ball. That’s been the problem. His field goals, I just love how effortless he is in his ability to get the ball up.”
The field goal unit all around is just better overall from Eddy to his backups to holder Johnny Townsend to long snapper Ryan Farr.
“Our operation time, and we talk a lot about Eddy, but Johnny Townsend has got great hands and great ball placement as a holder, and let's not forget about Farr in both cases. I mean, he's become a really, really good snapper as far as location, time, revolution in the case of a PAT, field goal. It's been really good.
“In fact, in today's meeting, Jorge Powell is healthy, who was kicking last year, I think, before he got hurt in the LSU game. And he gets his Monday work in and we've got a couple other guys that have stayed out there… (Daniel) Justino, not to mention the punters. (We) actually (have) got a full cupboard there."
“Eddy's a lot of fun to be around, too. He's got a team that's really behind him and kind of enjoys it. He can keep it pretty loose at times and that's not a bad thing."
Building for the future…
Despite playing for an SEC Championship, many in the Florida fan base are worried about some aspects of the program moving forward. The offense definitely needs work. There are questions on the recruiting trail.
McElwain says that when the season is done, he will look back and try and judge on whether it was a success or not. Then he will go about making the changes needed.
“I’ll step back and evaluate it as you do every year,” he said. “There were some big disappointments and have been already. But I really think it’s what you learn from those more than it is anything. Looking at it when I took the job, this is a fan base that, at any place that really cares, you’re never going to please them all. I get it.”
“One thing I do know is I believe we’re in the SEC Championship again for the second straight year, maybe not the way people want it, but ultimately, the idea is to figure out how to win a ballgame and how to win the East. Now the next step is how to win the whole SEC. And that’s part of building it.
“We’re getting there. We’re getting a lot of really good things going on as far as commitment to the facilities, the things we need to do – not for me. That’s what people don’t get. That’s not for me. That’s for the sustainability of the University of Florida football program and its brand. We’ve been behind, but we’re catching up. I know that’s something that is making a lot of people nervous around the country, and that’s a good thing.”