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One of Rocky’s best quotes about the travails of managing became the title of Jim Bouton’s second bestselling book: “I Managed Good but Boy Did They Play Bad.”
Nussmeier’s Forida offense ranks 115th out of 128 teams in the nation. The Gators average 345.1 yards and 23.4 points per game, a modest improvement from last season when Nussmeier called the plays for a unit that averaged 23.2 points and 334 yards per game. The numbers beg the following questions: (1) Is Nussmeier in way over his head trying to call plays against SEC defenses; (2) Is his scheme too complicated for players to pick up; (3) Is he a bad coach; or (4) Is the problem with the players?
In other words, does he coach good but the players play bad?
Antonio Callaway, the closest thing the Gators have to a marquee star on the offensive side of the ball, would tend to put a fairly good portion of the blame on the shoulders of the players, noting “sometimes Coach Nuss calls the right play but the play isn’t run. Everybody doesn’t do their assignments to the best of their ability. So the play doesn’t look like it’s drawn up, you could say.”
If anyone has a right to feel frustrated about Florida’s inconsistent offense it’s Callaway. He’s such a weapon that stopping him cold will be priority #1 for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who face the Gators in the Outback Bowl Monday (1 p.m., ESPN) at Raymond James Stadium. Callaway is Florida’s gamebreaker, that one threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball, whether it’s on a bubble screen or a deep route or a jet sweep. He is that combination of speed, elusiveness and football instinct, that unknown quality that allows some players to zig and zag, speed up or slow down or spin at just the right instant to avoid a collision. If he’s getting the ball in his hands on a regular basis, Florida’s offense has a chance to have a very good game.
The problem has been getting the ball in Callaway’s hands often enough. His
stats for 2016 aren’t bad – 47 catches for 666 yards (14.17 per catch) and 3 touchdowns, 4 rushes for 26 yards and a TD, 3 kickoff returns for 97 yards and 1 TD, and 24 punt returns for 177 yards – but they aren’t what was envisioned for him after a freshman season in which he scared the bejabbers out of every defensive and special teams coordinator in the SEC when he averaged 19.37 yards per catch and 15.54 yards per punt return.
There are a couple of reasons why Callaway’s production has taken a dip. After a freshman season that made him a marked man, Florida hasn’t complemented him with a quality receiver on the other side of the field so he is the focus of every team’s defensive game plan. Dre Massey was supposed to be that guy but he tore an ACL in August and no one else stepped into his shoes to become the quality receiver on the other side of the formation to balance out the coverage. As a result, at the very least Callaway always has two people to beat.
“Every game you have a safety over the corner helping him out, so it’s hard to get the ball, but Coach Nuss and Coach Mac do a good job trying to fit me in the scheme and get the ball,” Callaway said.
It doesn’t help that Callaway has occasional lapses of discipline on the field. He has been known to break off a route a bit too early or run the wrong play. But, even so, he beats the double coverage on a regular basis and can be seen running free in the secondary, needing only the football thrown his way to make a difference.
If only the ball was thrown his way as often as he’s open. When Callaway comes to the sidelines, he does his best to tell the coaches that he’s available if they decide to look in his direction.
“I just come to the sidelines; I just tell them what I see,” Callaway said. “I don’t too much say, ‘Coach, I’m open right here’ or, ‘Coach, let’s do this.’ I just let him do his thing. I tell him, like, ‘Coach, when we run this they’re in this defense, this is open.’ I don’t too much say I’m open. Quarterbacks see different things. I might not see what the quarterback sees.”
What does the quarterback see? That might be Florida’s $64,000 question for the past two seasons. Watch the replay of most Florida football games and you’ll see open receivers who don’t get the football in their hands. Is it because the quarterbacks lack the vision to see what’s going on downfield? Are they reading the wrong keys when they do their pre-snap scan? Do they lock onto one receiver because they lack the patience and/or ability to see the entire field in search of a better option? Or is it because the QBs have been hit so much they are gunshy, wanting to get rid of the ball before the pass rush arrives?
The gunshy argument was at the top of the list in 2015 when Florida’s porous O-line gave up 45 sacks for 274 yards in losses in 14 games. The O-line hasn’t exactly leaked quite like a sieve in 2016 – only 25 sacks allowed for 202 lost yards – so there has been a measure of improvement but the protection is nowhere close to where it needs to be.
Whatever the reason, Florida’s offense hasn’t put it all together either in 2015 or in 2016 and fans’ dissatisfaction with the job Nussmeier is doing continues to mount.
Callaway doesn’t necessarily think that’s fair. “Coach Nuss,” Callaway says, “tries to put you in the best situations possible.”
Somewhere between trying to put the Gators in the best situation possible and the execution on the field, there is a short circuit. You can scheme everything perfectly; you can give your players everything they need to succeed; you can call all the right plays at just the right time but if the players don’t execute, it’s all for naught.
When the Gators execute, they can be very, very good. Against Alabama in the
Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Gators executed perfectly on the opening drive, going 64 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 5-yard pass from Austin Appleby to Callaway against a defense that hadn’t given up a touchdown in more than a month. On Florida’s next three possessions, there was an interception that resulted in an Alabama field goal, another interception run back for a Bama TD and a punt blocked for a TD. The Gators found themselves trailing 16-7 even though Alabama had -4 total yards. Those three bad series threw the entire offense off track and the Gators never recovered.
It’s an all too familiar theme. Too many times the Gators have gotten off to good starts only to see the all the air sucked out of their offensive balloon, leading to a less than memorable finish.
“How we start if we could just finish like that …,” Callaway said, recalling that first drive against Alabama. “If the offense could just get in it in their head to finish we’d be pretty good.”
There is no lack of confidence in Nussmeier or in head coach Jim McElwain. Callaway believes the Gators have the right coaches to make it all work well. If there are fingers to point, Callaway points them at the players. Coaches can only do so much. Ultimately, it’s the players who have to make the game plan work.
“We can do it,” he said. “We just got to believe. We got the athletes. We got the talent. We just got to believe and play on one accord.”