The hits just keep on coming, in more ways than one. Another ugly football game, this time with a loss attached. More key injuries to further deplete a roster that was hit devastatingly hard before the season even began. To quote Andrew Spivey, Gator football is no longer fun. It quit being fun in Will Muschamp’s third season and has seldom been worth the time, energy and emotional investment since. While I wasn’t surprised by the outcome Saturday, I was disappointed. Before the season, many of the so-called experts were predicting a Florida loss to LSU but that was before LSU floundered so badly for three games. Saturday’s loss was a bad loss for a coaching staff that needs to start showing signs of improvement. Most of my Saturday’s in the fall are scheduled around Gator football games. Well, that and a deer stand. It is starting to get easier to just stay in the deer stand. That is not good for the Gator Nation. Nor, the coaching staff.
Let’s begin with the coaching. Jim McElwain is the head coach so, by default and salary level, he must own everything that transpires below him. The Florida Gators have shown virtually no improvement on offense in two and half seasons under Mac. Much of that stagnation is due to poor quarterback play. But, in the end it is up to the coaching staff to recruit and develop a quarterback. Yes, the loss of Will Grier to Grier’s own arrogance was a blow (pun intended) to the staff, but Grier was recruited by the previous coach. Mac and his staff have signed four quarterbacks since arriving, Felipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Jake Allen and Kadarius Toney. Franks and Trask are redshirt freshman while Allen and Toney are true freshmen. Here’s the issue, both Franks and Trask were projects. Franks was horribly under-coached in high school and Trask wasn’t even the starter in high school. The common consensus on Allen was that he needed a lot of development at best. Starting to see a trend here? Toney was figured as a position change from the start. Right now, Toney plays mostly wide receiver but does line up at quarterback occasionally in the wildcat. Allen is redshirting, although that would be burned in a heartbeat if the staff actually thought he could lead the team. Trask is injured, a term that seems to have run rampant at this program for several years now.
The staff brought in three transfers in their first three seasons. Austin Appleby was clearly not SEC caliber. Luke Del Rio, when healthy, showed signs of being able to make the offense work but he cannot stay healthy. Malik Zaire transferred in amid mixed reviews. Some thought he would give the Gators stability at last at the position. Some thought he lacked the skills to compete against good defenses. Zaire got his chance against Michigan and looked awful. He hasn’t seen the field since. It is brutally obvious that the Florida offense will not improve until quarterback play does and there is little optimism for that right now. The choices have dwindled considerably. Assuming Jake Allen is not ready, that leaves three options. Florida must either hand the ball to Zaire and see what he can do long term, design an offense to utilize Toney as the full-time quarterback or stick with Franks and live with his lack of field vision.
Franks is just not getting it from a mental standpoint. He has all the physical tools to excel at this level and beyond, but he struggles horribly to process a play fast enough once the ball is snapped. Over and over, Franks locks onto a receiver and fails to see open options elsewhere on the field. The result is forcing the ball into triple coverage as defenders just read Franks’ eyes and converge on his target. This liability came back to bite the Gators in the worst possible way when Franks completely ignored a wide-open Mark Thompson in the flat on the crucial fourth down that ended up being the last offensive play of the game for Florida. Thompson would have easily gotten the first down and more probably putting the Gators close enough to at least try a long Eddie Pineiro field goal for the win. It appears that coach Mac and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier dramatically limit the playbook in an attempt to simplify things for Franks but even then, he cannot seem to go through his progressions to find the right option in the passing game. Maybe he just needs more time. Maybe he needs better coaching. Maybe he simply lacks the mind-speed necessary to play quarterback at this level. It happens. The reason matters much less than the reality.
To make matters worse for the offense, the options continue to dwindle. The Gators lost a pair of star playmakers to the preseason scandal. I won’t continue to promote them by naming them. Just when the offense showed signs of finding its way again with the emergence of Tyrie Cleveland, he goes down to injury. Now, Toney is injured as well. If it wasn’t for bad luck, Mac would have no luck at all. But that brings us to the injuries.
This makes at least five straight seasons where the Gators have been hit hard by the injury bug. Is this just bad luck or does it have something to do with preparation? Is the strength and conditioning program somehow lacking? Is there an issue with the turf in the Swamp? It did seem like Gator players were having a problem with their cleats sticking at times Saturday. For some reason, Florida has experienced a rash of injuries lately. Mac must not have learned the nutritional portion of the program in Tuscaloosa when he was there. It looks like Kirby Smart did.
Unfortunately, the problems do not stop with the offensive side of the ball. While the defense is not giving up a ton of points, it is struggling to get off the field which in turn lessens the number of snaps the offense can utilize to find its rhythm. Only five teams in the country run less offensive plays than the Gators. Florida simply does not make enough stops on third down. There is a lot of youth in the secondary so struggles there are to be expected but the front seven is not getting the job done either. I fear a lot of that is a trickle-down effect. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon is reluctant to isolate the young defensive backs by blitzing often and the linebackers are trying to do too much to in a read and react defense. The linebacking unit lacks the depth and size to accomplish this. The defensive line is solid and deep but, so far nobody has stepped up as a game-changer there to cover for the lack of blitzing. It is too early to pass judgment on Shannon but I certainly hope he will display a more aggressive philosophy as his players become more experienced. Reactionary defenses are seldom dominant.
The bottom line is this. Right now, the Florida Gators do not look very good. I believe Jim McElwain is the right person for the job but he needs to start showing improvement. In all fairness, his training camp and this season were a bit torpedoed by the poor decisions off the field by a surprisingly large number of players. When you add in the season ending injury to the most important returning player on defense, Marcell Harris, Mac was forced to begin and play this season short ten players from his roster (eleven when you add in James Robinson). Not all of them were starters but some were and they were expected to be key contributors. The others would have provided important depth as the injuries pile up during the season. So, what now? Teams that change coaches every three or four years rarely escape mediocrity. Fans always think the next guy will be the magic bullet. They are almost always wrong. Mac may need to make some changes to his staff in the offseason but he should and will get plenty of time to show what he can build in Gainesville. Most of the Gator Nation will give him a little bit of pass on this season if for no other reason than the suspensions. And if, as I suspect, Matt Corral ends up starting as a true freshman I will understand the growing pains that come with that as well. But only if those pains come from Corral making the occasional freshman mistake. Not if Corral is never given the chance to make those mistakes because the coaches are too scared to let him use the entire playbook.
In short, McElwain and his staff are midway through their third season in Gainesville and the Gators appear less competitive now than they were in year one. Mac has accomplished enough to warrant some patience and I recommend just that provided we see a few things. One, the team must not quit on him this season. Most of the remaining games are winnable if the players rally around each other as a team and put in the effort, energy and preparation. Second, Mac must show the willingness to make difficult decisions and necessary changes. That may well need to begin with Doug Nussmeier. If Nussmeier cannot figure out a way to put together some semblance of competence on offense using what he has talent-wise, then it may be time to find someone who can. And, last but not least, Mac needs to get a better feel for the pulse of his players. He cannot afford to be blindsided by widespread stupidity again.