One step forward, two steps back for the Florida Gators. I haven’t watched the ECU game a second time. I don’t really need to see it again to deduce a few important things. First and foremost is that I hope head coach Jim McElwain is correct and this was the result of players getting a little full of themselves and not preparing properly because if this is the caliber of play we can expect week in and week out it will be a long season. That said, I imagine McElwain is spot on as to why this team played the way it did Saturday and most of it can be handled in practice.
The loss of Vernon Hargreaves III was clearly felt at times, although over all the defensive play was not horrible. Giving up 346 yards through the air to a team starting their second string quarterback is a little concerning but -13 yard rushing is exceptional regardless of the opponent. The ability to stop the run will be a prerequisite for any kind of big Gator season to transpire. Florida will face at least three Heisman hopeful running backs this season in Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook. Jalen Hurd at Tennessee is no slouch either.
The Gators seemed to get a little more pressure on the quarterback this week but still not the kind of domination one would expect from the Gator defensive line against this level of competition. That will have to improve quickly as Florida steps up in competition entering the SEC schedule. Alex McCalister’s return to the lineup did not boost the pass rush as much as anticipated.
If Alex Anzalone’s injury is serious, the linebacker unit suddenly becomes a little thin. This is a team that can ill afford injuries in a few areas and linebacker was one of them. Antonio Morrison appears to be getting closer to 100% and he will have to be if Anzalone is out for any length of time. Jarrad Davis will have to step up and fill the void in the meantime. So far the middle of the defense has been solid evidenced by the rushing defense stats.
The secondary is one area where there should be enough depth to cover an injury which is why it was so surprising to see the loss of Hargreaves seemingly have such a huge effect on the unit. There is no question that the talent is there but there appears to be a good bit of communication issues without VH3 on the field. Hopefully, his is a minor injury as has been suggested and he will return soon. After the last staff in Gainesville, I’m skeptical of injury reports, especially ones containing the word “tweaked”. Any kind of long term loss of Hargreaves hurts because it removes what amounts to having a coach on the field. This should be the one of the best secondary units in the country and so far it really has not been spectacular. Solid but not spectacular. The good news is that I truly believe they will be by midseason.
The inclination is to start every offensive discussion with the quarterback battle but I will get to that in the next the paragraph. Those fans claiming that the offensive line is just fine are, to use a tired old saying are, “whistling past the graveyard”. This is an issue. A very worrisome issue. Florida has faced what should be two of the lesser defensives they will face this season and were nearly completely unable to open any holes for the running game Saturday. If they can’t move these guys off the line, it does not bode well for the next several weeks. Pass protection hasn’t been great but run blocking has been much worse. 168 yards on the ground against ECU is problematic and 42 of those yards were by the quarterbacks. Martez Ivey cannot get back fast enough and the fact that a true freshman is desperately needed tells you all you need to know about this group. Offensive line coach Mike Summers has his work cut out for him this season and the very success or failure of the season hangs on what he can pull out of his hat.
Speaking of quarterbacks, I know that many fans may disagree with me, but I believe the quarterback rotation needs to end. This is not going to work against good SEC defenses. The offense is too caught up in the competition and the continuity of having a single leader calling signals is lacking and it shows. The coaches are looking at the game film and will have to decide which quarterback gives the Gators the best chance to win games. In my opinion, they need to make that decision soon and live with the results. Personally, the offense seems crisper and faster with Will Grier running it although the results appear to be nearly the same with either guy. It just looks like the upside is vastly higher with Grier. However, with Grier you know that there will be those freshman moments that may cost the team a loss or two along the way. I would understand completely if the coaches opted to go with the lower risk-lower reward (possibly) of Treon Harris. Either way, I firmly believe that any attempt to continue this three or four series at a time rotation into the SEC schedule will be disastrous. The team needs to know who their offensive leader is and then rally around that guy. The other one needs to understand that they are one play away from starting the rest of the season and prepare accordingly.
As for the running backs, it is hard to really evaluate the position with the offensive line struggling so badly with run blocking. Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett are more likely to break long runs or go the distance, but Cronk (Jordan Cronkrite) looks to be more consistent at gaining decent yardage even when the hole isn’t there. It is my hope that Taylor’s little indiscretion and subsequent reprimand will ignite the kind of determination in him that we all saw in his father. A strong running game will help the passing game considerably regardless of which quarterback takes the helm.
Coach McElwain’s attention “getter” with the depth chart seems to have gotten Demarcus Robinson’s attention and he played like the star he is supposed to be on Saturday. The tight ends continue to contribute well in the passing game and Brandon Powell is what every expected. The targets are there for the passing game if and when the quarterback situation is figured out for the season. The progress of the receivers and tight ends is evident in much fewer drops so far this season.
Kick coverage and punt coverage have been decent. Johnny Townsend averaged a solid 43.2 yards per punt in the game. Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell combined for a measly two yards average on punt returns but I get the feeling that the mentality with this staff is to just make sure you get possession of the ball on punts. Kick returns were better with Powell averaging 28 yards per return on two attempts. The concerning special teams’ stat is Austin Hardin’s 1 for 3 on field goals. That kind of thing can cost you games against SEC opponents.
I think Jim McElwain summed it up pretty good in his post-season press conference with the word embarrassing. In the end, a win is a win but this was a very ugly football game. Last week’s wonderful stat of one penalty for ten yards has flushed away with a pathetic 12 penalties for 105 yards performance. Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties is not something coach Mac is going to tolerate. The team apparently regressed back to some old habits that became rooted in this program during the final two years of the Urban Meyer era and carried on through the Muschamp debacle. I read a phrase by a Gator fan last week that I think truly applies to the Florida Gator program at this point, “Adults are in control now”. That seems to cover my assessment of the new staff perfectly. These guys strike me as a group that will not accept mediocrity nor will they tolerate childish behavior from the players. They aren’t going to hold the players hands or coddle them to avoid hurt feelings. This staff expects you to be accountable for your actions, your preparation and your play. I like that.
Will that translate to a special season in 2015? Quite frankly, probably not. The pieces just aren’t there yet. It is hard to imagine that this offensive line is going to hold up against some great defensive lines ahead on the schedule especially as it begins to get banged up. The running game has been less than overwhelming against two of the weakest opponents on the schedule. The defense has been very good at times but again there are Heisman candidate running backs looming on the horizon. If the Gators can somehow make it to 4-0 it will be time to start dreaming of a trip to Atlanta and maybe something to crow about. For now, I am sticking by my initial statement that 8-4 should be considered an accomplishment and cause for a glass of good bourbon and fine cigar.