Kan Li / Scout

Gators have overcome plenty of adversity

TAMPA – Jim McElwain has mastered the art of coachspeak – saying a lot of words without really saying anything specific – but even at his coachspeak best Friday afternoon he couldn’t hide the fact his Florida Gators are one beaten up football team heading into Monday’s Outback Bowl encounter with Iowa.

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“I know somebody's gonna ask me because I know I'm forgetting someone, but the regular guys that're injured aren't going to play and that’s okay,” McElwain said after the Gators finished their practice at Jesuit High School.

Translation: All the usual injured suspects aren’t going to play, which means the Gators will once again play a lot of new faces against Iowa.

Nothing new to report there. Name the game and there’s a laundry list of players who couldn’t go. There were regular ankle sprains and high ankle sprains. Broken feet and sprained knees. Broken arms and bad shoulders. Muscle tears, pulled muscles and concussions.

When it comes to injuries in 2016, McElwain can say been there and done that because he’s seen just about every one you can think of. And while some of them have done their dead level best to heal fast enough to play against Iowa, most of them will be sidelined. Guys like Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis. Bryan Cox Jr. is another one who tried to go but he’s going to sit. Nick Washington’s high ankle sprain hasn’t responded. David Reese had surgery on his wrist and McElwain says “he can’t go through a metal detector right now.”

And these are just a few of the guys who have either missed time during the season or will be out Monday. It’s been that kind of a year.

Someone brought up the names Quincy Wilson (cornerback) and David Sharpe (left tackle). They deserve some sort of special mention at the awards banquet. They’re the only two Gators who started all 12 games.

“Those two guys have been the constant,” McElwain said. “It just shows how many times we’ve had to change lineups and the guys have adapted and come in and played.”

Take a moment and let that sink in.

Football requires more continuity than any other team sport. One player can dominate a basketball game to the point that a weak link can be made irrelevant. In baseball you can hide someone with a deficiency by playing him at a position that requires very little throwing or by playing him at designated hitter. In soccer, a player gets ejected and the game goes on with 10 guys.

But football? There is no place to hide. Any good coach will tell you it only takes watching a couple of series on film to find the weak links. It’s a developmental sport with limited opportunities to gain experience and improve since you only play one game per week and for a limited period of time, unlike basketball, baseball and soccer.

Since the Gators spent an entire season shuffling lineups, getting newbies ready to play while trying to nurse veteran players back to health, it really is quite remarkable that UF is playing a January 1 bowl game as the repeat SEC East champion. Oh sure, the Gators did a second straight November nosedive but things might have been different if somehow, someway all the injuries could have been avoided. How different we will never know but given the star quality – particularly on defense – of some of the wounded, you have to think the Gators would have had a fighting chance.

But in spite of all the injuries, in spite of the lack of continuity, in spite of having to do things like switch Chris Thompson from wide receiver to corner for the Outback Bowl just to ensure there is enough depth, the Gators won 8 football games. If not for a hurricane, they would have won 9 regular season games. They were picked third in the SEC East but for the second straight year, they won the division. Say what you want about how weak the SEC East is, but it’s still an accomplishment.

“Every week is a challenge, to say the least and yet, you know, that’s okay,” McElwain said. “That’s part of the gig. I go back, this is a team a little bit like last year’s that was picked initially not even to really be a factor on our side of the SEC, and ended up finding a way to piece it together. Now, we have a chance to go play in a great bowl game.”

Perhaps neither this year nor last year’s Gators measure up among the great Florida teams of all time, but take into consideration the adversity they’ve gone through. And yet they’ve won 18 games, played for the SEC championship twice and they’re playing a bowl game on January 1.

The lack of offense and the late season fades obscure the fact we’ve seen a team held together by bubble gum, band aids and baling wire the last two years. That couldn’t have happened without some pretty good coaching. If the Gators can ever make it an entire season without losing a whole host of critical players, we might see something truly special.  

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