Jim McElwain’s first spring football camp was filled with questions marks. He was left with a Florida Gators football team largely comprised of players he didn’t recruit and didn’t know. McElwain and his coaching staff had to make things work while balancing trying to hold a full camp with just six offensive linemen, no proven playmakers and an offense that had sputtered to a halt the previous three seasons.
Needless to say, Mac figured something out. Florida exceeded all expectations on their way to becoming SEC East Champions in a 10-win season. With the start of spring practice just one day away McElwain the Florida coaching staff face a new set of problems, some old and some new. Let’s take a look at what problems need to be solved and what question marks need to be answered.
The biggest issue that Florida faced last spring was depth along the offensive line. Miraculously the Gators made it through the majority of spring without a significant injury, the only one that occurred was to Rod Johnson, who was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. The Gators made it through that spring and have come out on the other side much stronger. The Gators return starters in Martez Ivey, David Sharpe, Fred Johnson and Cam Dillard. Tyler Jordan also received valuable experience his freshman season and Florida has a slew of redshirt freshmen and underclassmen to fill the depth chart behind a now experienced starting front. It’s the best example of the coaching staff coming in, identifying a problem and finding a solution to it.
Unfortunately, that can’t be said of every position. The Gators will go into another spring practice without a starting quarterback. Will Grier is gone, Treon Harris may get some looks in the spring but he essentially played his way out of contention over the course of last season. That leaves Luke Del Rio, graduate transfer Austin Appleby and early enrollees Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Appleby is the only one in the group with any real playing experience, so Florida will go into yet another season with an enormous question mark at the most important position on the field.
Every spring you’ll also have questions about how to replace players that left. Last year it was Dante Fowler Jr. This year the biggest losses are Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCalister and Keanu Neal. The mix of CeCe Jefferson, Bryan Cox Jr., Keivonnis Davis and Jordan Smith should be able to generate some pass rush, while Jefferson should move into Bullard’s role, moving inside and outside throughout the game. Caleb Brantley is coming off of his best season and should be a monster on the line in 2016 next to Joey Ivie and Taven Bryan.
The biggest question, and probably one that doesn’t have an answer is how to replace Keanu Neal. Nick Washington, Marcell Harris and Kylan Johnson will try and do the job. Duke Dawson is slated to be the starting nickelback in Florida’s defense but he’ll continue to cross-train and could be an option at safety if nobody else steps up. Still, Florida doesn’t have a player of Neal’s caliber at safety to fill that role and they’ll need to figure something out this spring.
Last spring there was a question about who would be able to line up on the other side of Demarcus Robinson and provide Florida’s offense with a playmaker. That proved to be Antonio Callaway but now Florida’s facing the same question. Who will line up on the other side of Callaway?
Finally, at running back, who breaks out and wins the starting job. McElwain’s history has shown that he heavily leaves on one running back to carry the load. Of the running backs in 2015 Kelvin Taylor owned nearly 75% of the total carries. That means Mark Thompson, Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite will be competing for not only a starting job but for the role as the featured back. That’s a lot of pressure and should provide for a great competition this spring.
For the most part McElwain and the Florida Gators coaching staff have done a good job identifying issues and solving problems. The depth that Florida has built along the offensive line in just one year is impressive. You can’t fault the coaching staff for Grier’s PED suspension; you can’t plan for something like that, and every team deals with players leaving school early or graduating.
Two areas where the coaching staff swung and missed last recruiting cycle are linebacker and tight end. C’yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby are very good options, but there isn’t any depth behind them. After Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis Florida has even more depth issues at linebacker given Matt Rolin’s on again off again health status and the liability Daniel McMillian proved to be in 2015. Early enrollee David Reese will have a big opportunity to earn some major playing time this spring and could work himself into a big role in 2016.
We’ll find out soon. Spring football is just a day away.