Recruiting has come and gone. Spring practice has come and gone. We now enter the dreaded college football wasteland that is the summer. Almost anything you hear from this point until practice cranks up again in August will be bad news. The Gators have already lost one important player for good and had another arrested. Gator Nation listened anxiously for any tidbit of positive news from the spring practices. Gator fans watched the Orange and Blue Debut with high hopes. So where is the Gator football program as they head into the off-season? I will endeavor to give an honest and realistic opinion of what head coach Jim McElwain has to work with in his first season at the helm of Florida Football and what expectations fans should have for 2015. If you are looking for Kumbaya and an Orange and Blue feel-good prediction, stop now.
There are many aspects of this team that give fans reason for hope. That said, it is not realistic to expect this team to be a championship contender in 2015. Every college team has questions going into every season and every team in the SEC East has some issues and some holes to fill. Therefore, the division is up for grabs this season and the Gators certainly have a chance to navigate their way to Atlanta in December, but it will require some fortuitous bounces for Florida.
Defensively, this has the potential to be a very strong unit. Florida may well field the best defensive backfield in the country. Vernon Hargreaves III will likely be the best cornerback in all of college football. Jalen Tabor and Brian Poole make for a great cornerback corp. But defense isn’t the real issue. Offensively, there are some very serious concerns. It is the offense that is the foundation for nearly all anxiety in the Gator Nation. And it is the offense that has coach McElwain concerned as well.
Offense starts with the quarterback. Quite frankly, you have to go all the way back to Tim Tebow to find the last quarterback that was stellar at the position for the Gators. Since then there have been several highly touted signal callers come through with little success. Gator fans are rightfully skeptical of potential at this point. This year it will come down to Sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Harris has the advantage of having real game experience in the SEC and that is significant. Grier and Harris both got their chance to showcase their talents in the Orange and Blue game. I thought Harris did some pretty good things, but I thought Grier’s passes looked crisper and more accurate. Grier looks like a future superstar to me but he may not be ready yet. Harris looked good at times, especially rolling out and throwing on the run, but I am still concerned about his accuracy. If protected, I believe that either could win games as a starter, but neither is an established SEC QB at this point and will remain a question mark until one of them steps up on the field and takes control of the position.
The real problem will be that protection. I know, I can practically hear Gator fans rolling their eyes at yet another pining about the offensive line, but you cannot discuss the 2015 fortunes of this offense without accepting and admitting that the offensive line is not just a concern but a major liability. With the loss of Rod Johnson, thin doesn’t begin to cover this depleted unit. Those claiming that things are not as bad as they seem here are just whistling past the graveyard. Even coach McElwain is trying to temper expectations for 2015 and that is because of what he has to work with on the O-line. Virtually every other aspect of this team is workable. That is not to say that it is impossible for the line to play well enough for the offense to improve OR for this team to win the East. What it does mean is that Florida will need everything to go their way with this unit. Injuries must be minimal to non-existent. Incoming freshmen must develop unusually quickly and contribute heavily as the season progresses. This unit has the potential to completely derail the upcoming season. It is not a coincidence that offensive line coach Mike Summers was the only coach held over from the previous staff. This could not be a start from scratch scenario and the hope is that somehow Summers will field a unit that is at least serviceable.
The running back position must improve as well. Kelvin Taylor shows flashes of brilliance but I would like to see him run with that determination and viciousness that you see with the great ones. To this point, I haven’t seen that ability to break through tackles as much as I would like. Perhaps that is nitpicking. Adam Lane has not been healthy during the spring and needs to be a viable option in the rotation this fall. Lane does seem to have that ability to break tackles but may not have that elusiveness that Taylor possesses. At least one of the freshmen needs to come in ready to play. Jordan Scarlett may jump to the top of the depth chart if he is as good as advertised. Of course, all of them will need the O-line to play well which is why all discussions begin and end with that unit. A quality running game matched with one of the nation’s best defenses would be enough to give Florida a chance in every game.
I know some fans will not agree with me here, but in my opinion the Gators have one single wide receiver threat, Demarcus Robinson. There are other supposedly talented options at both wide receiver and at tight end but to this point only Robinson has shown anything close to consistent SEC caliber play. A healthy Jake McGee would provide a second proven option but it remains to be seen if he has completely rebounded from this injury. DeAndree Goolsby looked pretty good in the O&B game and offers another option at tight end although he needs to cut down on drops. Others like Alvin Bailey and Ahmad Fullwood need to live up to their high school hype to take some of the pressure off of Robinson. It would not surprise me to see Brandon Powell utilized in the passing game extensively. Florida must find playmakers on offense.
None of this comes as a surprise to Gator fans. The same concerns have haunted their summers for three years now. But, the concerns over the offense are not limited to personnel. More than anything else, what the Gator offense needs is some kind of identity. For years now, nobody has had a clue as to just what the Florida Gators were even trying to accomplish offensively. Personnel issues might limit the amount of his playbook that McElwain gets to install in year one of his Gator tenure but as long as they execute that limited playbook properly there will be improvement over the last couple of years. The Orange and Blue game did little or nothing to alleviate fan unrest about the offense. While there were a few explosive plays, overall the offense looked slow and plodding which is not unexpected for where the program finds itself in the process. It needs to improve greatly between now and September or 2015 will be another hard season for fans. I would suggest cautious optimism with realistic expectations for the overall win-loss record. It is highly unlikely that this is an immediate turnaround. Recent news has only made that more apparent.