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Sunday, November 27, 2022

‘PLAY THE HAND YOU’RE DEALT’: Florida still holding spring game despite limited roster

<p>UF head football coach Jim McElwain (center) smiles during practice on Monday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.</p>

UF head football coach Jim McElwain (center) smiles during practice on Monday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

Jim McElwain walked to the lectern inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium’s meeting room on March 10 with big-time expectations for his first set of Spring practices as Florida football’s head coach.

After three months on the clock and minimal contact with his players, McElwain looked forward to observing his roster over the next four weeks.

"We’ve got some hungry Gators out there, some guys that have really bought in to a lot of things we’re trying to accomplish," McElwain said that day, "and yet we’ve got a long ways to go."

Those hungry Gators comprised what former UF head coach Will Muschamp called a "deep and talented roster" with "some good football players in that locker room" in his post-firing press conference on Nov. 17.

While the talent part is up for judgment, that roster, especially on the offensive side, can be described with almost any other word except for depth.

"Obviously our numbers from a roster numbers standpoint are nowhere near where we need to be," McElwain said. "… We all knew this was coming, so it’s not a shock."

The lack of bodies will be evident on Saturday when the Gators host their annual Orange & Blue Debut at 12:30 p.m.

Even though Florida is working with a limited roster, McElwain said the game will be full-go.

"We’re still kind of piecemealing those groups together right now," McElwain said. "Yet I think we’ll be able to go, we’ll have a good competitive game as much as we can."

Right now, it’s a game of numbers.

***

When athletics director Jeremy Foley named McElwain UF’s 25th head football coach on Dec. 4, one of McElwain’s obvious endeavors was developing a successful offense, something the last regime failed miserably to accomplish.

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In four years under Muschamp, the Gators averaged 336.8 yards per game and never finished higher than 10th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference. They were dead last in 2013, averaging 316.7 yards of offense while skidding to a 4-8 finish, their worst finish since going 0-10-1 in 1979.

UF needed a change.

It needed an offensive-minded coach and a person who has experience turning around struggling programs.

To Foley, McElwain fit both of those tabs.

As the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-2011 under head coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide never fielded an offense that was ranked worse than 64th in the country and sixth in the SEC.

Both of those lows came in his first year with Alabama.

From there, McElwain moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he became the head coach of the Colorado State Rams from 2012 until 2014.

McElwain turned a team that went 3-9 for three consecutive seasons before he became head coach into a team that went 10-3 last season and boasted the No. 19 offense in the country (480.9 yards per game) and averaged 7.09 yards per play, good for fourth nationally.

"The guy’s been successful everywhere he’s gone," Foley said on Dec. 6, the day McElwain was introduced as UF’s head coach.

But his successful past trips all had a common denominator: The talent was there.

This time around, McElwain might not be as fortunate.

***

The quarterback is a team’s offensive leader.

He’s supposed to make the calls, rally the troops and take command of the field.

McElwain knows the position all too well.

He was an all-state quarterback at Missoula (Mont.) Sentinel High and was a signal caller at Eastern Washington from 1980-1983 before he began his coaching career.

Now, he’s tasked with figuring out who will be at the helm of the Gators offense for the 2015 season.

The clear front-runners to the naked eye are Will Grier and Treon Harris, the pair of four-star signees from UF’s 2014 recruiting class, and there are pros and cons to both of them.

Harris, a true sophomore, has the experience.

He led Florida to a come-from-behind road victory against Tennessee and started UF’s final six games last season.

His pure numbers (113.2 passing yards per game, 49.5 completion percentage, nine touchdowns) weren’t the best, but he played.

"I played in a big crowd and tough situations," Harris said. "I got in the game and did what I had to do."

But while Harris has the exposure to the collegiate game, his small frame (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) might be his biggest downfall in McElwain’s pro-style offense, an offense where the quarterback takes snap from under center instead of being in the shotgun every play.

This is where Grier could have the edge.

The redshirt freshman, standing at 6-foot-2, played under center early in his high school career at Davidson Day High in North Carolina before transitioning to a primarily shotgun-based offense.

"Everybody has their skillset and different things they do well," Grier said, "but knowing the offense, getting the offense down, being able to move the ball and take care of the ball is going to be the biggest thing."

And so far through Spring, Grier has a slight edge in the quarterback battle, but not necessarily because he’s the top pick.

Harris has missed a handful of practices and both of the team’s scrimmages, as he was dealing with the death of his cousin, who was killed in Miami on March 24.

Harris returned to practice about a week later.

"You really kind of wonder sometimes the true importance of what we do when it comes to family and how important third and 6 is," McElwain said on March 25. "Right now, our hearts go out to him and his family and what he’s going through and we’re here to support him and his mom and aunt in every way we can."

But when both Grier and Harris are in practice, they haven’t blown anyone away.

During the first 15 minutes of the Gators’ practices — the only portion open to media — the two have been erratic with their throws, hitting receivers right in the hands on one play and throwing a spiral into the dirt or overthrowing a pass the next.

McElwain said the defense got the better of the quarterbacks during Friday’s scrimmage, and the quarterbacks threw three interceptions during their final practice on Thursday.

"It’s OK, to be honest," McElwain said. "Yet, conceptually you see some flicker, and what I mean by that, the detail in which the routes have to be run, number one, has gotten better. "And so as much on the quarterback for throwing it to the correct color jersey, there’s a lot to do with the tight ends (and) running backs knowing exactly where they have to be to create the field spacing, the route depths down field."

McElwain said he is in no rush to name a starting quarterback and has no problem waiting until Summer practice to make the announcement.

"When it’s time we’ll name that," McElwain said before Spring practice began. "I’m looking forward to seeing what those guys can do and seeing the competition as we move forward."

But regardless of who takes the first snap — whether it’s Grier, Harris or McElwain’s dog Claire-a-bell — the quarterback is probably going to have problems staying upright because UF’s offensive line is as inexperienced as it can possibly be.

The Gators opened camp with just seven healthy scholarship offensive linemen. The eighth, fifth-year senior Trip Thurman, is out with a shoulder injury.

That number is now at six, as McElwain announced Monday that redshirt sophomore Rod Johnson — the only UF offensive lineman other than Thurman with starting experience — is out indefinitely after being injured during the team’s scrimmage on Friday.

"He got banged up and his fingers kind of went numb, kind of stinger-ish type of deal," McElwain said. "I still don’t know quite what exactly that is other than, you know, those are things that you’re always very cautious with."

Of the linemen still available for Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut, only sophomore David Sharpe has meaningful playing time under his belt.

He’s played in six games as a backup left tackle.

"You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt," McElwain said. "And right now, quite honestly, the hand we were dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas."

McElwain and offensive line coach Mike Summers are taking a glass-half-full approach to the lack of offensive linemen.

Instead of shying away and admitting defeat, they’re embracing the shortage, giving the unproven players a chance to get added reps.

"The thing about this group of guys is they care about each other and care about the team," Summers said. "They fight their way through tough times, and that’s how you build the foundation of a football team."

The Gators will receive an upgrade on the offensive line come July.

When Florida’s 2015 recruiting class steps foot in Gainesville, UF will have six more scholarship linemen on its roster, highlighted by five-star and No. 1 overall tackle Martez Ivey.

Depending on the severity of Thurman and Johnson’s injuries, the Gators could have as many as 14 scholarship linemen ready for their Sept. 5 opener against New Mexico State.

"As I’ve explained to them, it’s not like you’re going to stand in line at Disney World," McElwain said. "(You’re) in the Fast Pass line. You’re on the ride right now. It’s going to be a huge summer for them, and really summer for the guys teaching them because the coaches obviously can’t be there."

But come Saturday, six will have to be enough.

That’s all Florida has.

"We’ll do what we have to do, and you know, find out what those guys can do," McElwain said.

***

Despite the numbers, Florida is still attempting to make Saturday mirror a game as closely as possible.

With virtually no offensive line, running backs or linebackers, McElwain could have just made Saturday look like a glorified practice like UF did in 2013.

But he’s trying.

"We’re going to do everything we can to create some game-like situations, different offense, different defense working as a same unit," McElwain said.

Saturday will feature four 12-minute quarters.

There will be a running clock except for the final two minutes of each half.

The Gators will also play an untimed overtime period after the fourth quarter ends.

"We’re going to try to work," McElwain said.

Two seasons ago, the Gators were in a similar situation, having only six healthy offensive linemen when it came time for the Orange & Blue Debut, the team’s 15th and final practice.

So instead of a full game, Florida hosted an open practice that included six 11-on-11 scrimmage drills separated by individual drills.

McElwain doesn’t want that to happen.

"We’re still working out some of the details because of the depth and how we’re going to have to maybe trade some jerseys as we move along," McElwain said, "but they’re again trying to work as much as we can to get a lot out of Saturday."

But even at that, Saturday will show just how fragile Florida’s offense is.

It’s a numbers game at this point.

And unfortunately for McElwain, the numbers just don’t add up yet.

Follow Jordan McPherson on Twitter @J_McPherson1126

UF head football coach Jim McElwain (center) smiles during practice on Monday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

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