On Wednesday the Florida Gators football team reports to fall camp. Jim McElwain had a short time to access his roster and see the bulk of his team work out in the spring but with an influx of talented freshmen and the season just around the corner, it’s go time for the McElwain era.
When the Gators report to camp there will be just 31 short days before they kick off the season. As with any new coaching staff the team is surrounded by question marks. To get ready for fall camp Gator Country will preview the five most pressing questions that the Gators will face this fall and we’ll come back and address them as camp progresses and kickoff grows near.
1. Who will win the quarterback battle?
We would be remiss not to lead off with the hotly contested quarterback battle that will — more so than any other position battles — shape what the offense looks like in 2015.
Harris has the playing experience having taken over the starting job in 2014 but Grier was able to get a leg up this spring when a family tragedy kept Harris away from the team.
To say that one quarterback’s skillset is more befitting of what McElwain is looking for in a quarterback is premature. We simply don’t know what McElwain’s offense will look like. As a coordinator, McElwain did a good job of adjusting his offense to suit the talent he had on the roster. He’ll need to do just that in Gainesville.
The most telling thing that McElwain has said about the quarterback situation is that he needs a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him. This comes off as a message saying, the starting quarterback may not be the best or better of the two, rather the one that can get the other 10 players on the field with him to play as a cohesive unit.
Grier may be a better pocket passer, but Treon showed that he can rally the troops in a comeback win against Tennessee in 2014. Can Grier show McElwain that he can be a leader of men or will it be Harris that steps back into the starting role he earned last season?
2. How do Tim Skipper and Jim McElwain handle the touches at running back?
After a promising freshman campaign (111 carries, 508 yards, 4 touchdowns) Kelvin Taylor seemed poised for a breakout season in 2014. Unfortunately, Taylor’s role in the offense didn’t expand much (116 carries, 565 yards, 6 TD) as he split reps for most of the season with Matt Jones. Taylor’s numbers take an even bigger hit if you take out one game. Taylor had 21% of his carries on the season and 35% of his total yards in a single game against Georgia. Jones is now with the Washington Redskins but the competition for carries isn’t over with freshman Jordan Scarlett on campus.
In McElwain’s first season at Colorado State he had a very even distribution between two running backs but heavily leaned on just one the past two seasons. At Alabama, McElwain had a slew of talented running backs at his disposal but the only season where carries were pretty evenly distributed was between Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in 2010.
Florida could potentially have a two-headed attack in the backfield but history shows that McElwain likes to have a feature back. Can Taylor get over the hump that has held him back the past two seasons?
3. What will Brandon Powell’s role be?
It seems that every offseason there is a player that stands out and is talked about as the next playmaker. Quinton Dunbar seemingly always had “the best offseason he’s ever had” and then would largely disappear during the season.
Last year, Kurt Roper spoke highly of Brandon Powell, saying he was a guy they simply needed to get the ball to. Powell touched the ball 31 times as a freshman, respectable, but far from how the staff made it seem like he would be featured.
McElwain has identified the same qualities in Powell on the field and he’s even gone as far as bringing Powell (just a sophomore) with him to SEC Media Days. Powell has been moved from running back to wide receiver and was featured prominently in the spring. How many touches will the staff try to give Powell on Saturday? How many different roles will he fill and can Powell be the X-Factor that Florida has lacked on offense for years?
4. Where will the pass rush come from?
Dante Fowler was the guy that kept offensive line coaches and offensive coordinators up at night. Before him there was Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd and Ronald Powell.
But where do the Gators turn to in 2015 to get to the quarterback?
Jon Bullard is an All-SEC talent on the defensive line, but he’s never been a guy that puts up big sack totals. Alex McCalister led the Gators in sacks last season until Fowler finished ahead of him after recording four sacks in the last two games. McCalister really came into his own in 2014 but how will he do when defenses are scheming for him? Bryan Cox Jr. had a breakout game against Tennessee, getting to the quarterback three times, but finished with just one more sack the rest of the season.
The Gators return just 17.5 sacks from a season ago (they had 30 sacks as a team in 2014) and the question of who, if, how and can the defense consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks lingers overhead.
5. How does the offensive line take shape?
The biggest concern that McElwain had when taking over the roster has been fixed, at least from a numbers standpoint. However, from an experience standpoint, the Gators return just 10 starts (all by Trip Thurman) among the offensive line, down from 66 starts last year.
Redshirt senior transfer Mason Halter (Fordham University) picked up the offensive playbook faster than any player this offseason when he arrived to campus and is set to earn a starting spot. Halter started all 14 games for Fordham at left tackle last season but is a veteran and will likely get looked at on the right side of the line at either tackle or guard
The Gators will also be entrusting the health of their quarterback to sophomore left tackle David Sharpe. Sharpe showed a lot of promise as a freshman, but coming in as a sixth lineman is a lot different than starting at left tackle. Florida will also likely have to count on true freshman Martez Ivey this fall and potentially freshman center Tyler Jordan as well.
With two veteran offensive linemen, Florida may be best suited by playing their veterans at guard so the younger players have someone next to them who is more battle tested.
Look for the line (from left to right) to look something like: David Sharpe, Trip Thurman, Tyler Jordan, Mason Halter, Martez Ivey.
Can this young group come together and give Florida a fighting chance on offense?