When Jim McElwain first set foot in Gainesville after becoming the new Head Gator, his mission was clear: rebuild the Florida offense.
Um, easier said than done.
As we all know by now, Will Muschamp did not exactly leave him in a great position to rebuild. To build anything, you need a foundation. And leaving McElwain six returning scholarship offensive linemen is not a sturdy foundation. Nor is leaving him just two scholarship running backs, one of whom transferred. Nor is leaving him with one wide receiver of proven worth.
The thing is, McElwain has done an amazing job so far in fixing the numbers problems on offense. He snagged prized offensive lineman Martez Ivey on National Signing Day, added Fred Johnson and held onto Tyler Jordan to give the Gators three promising freshman lineman. But that’s a long term fix (starting three freshman linemen at the same time is not a good idea for obvious reasons), so McElwain then grabbed transfers Mason Halter and TJ McCoy to use as band-aids this year. McElwain also did a phenomenal job in adding skill position players. He signed a pair of talented freshman backs in Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite and added receiver Antonio Callaway on Signing Day.
Then he went to work developing them.
Again, though, developing his players is not something that can be done in a short period of time. The production that he’s gotten out of his offensive players to this point, including quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris, is something he should be commended for. The offense looks better than it does last year through three games (take that how you want) and there’s hope that it can continue to improve and eventually become a really good one by year’s end. But the fact is that right now, it isn’t at that level.
As expected, Florida’s offense struggled in its first road game of the year in Lexington, particularly in the second half. The Gators’ offense generated just 14 points against a weak Kentucky defense- and seven of those came following a Vernon Hargreaves interception and return deep into Kentucky territory. Doug Nussmeier’s unit largely flopped in its first big road test, but Geoff Collins’ defense stood tall in the game it was needed most, sacking Patrick Towles six times and intercepting him twice. And despite McElwain being an offensive minded coach with the clear goal of making Florida’s offense great again, this is about what Florida fans should expect the rest of the season, beginning with this week’s game against Tennessee.
The Vols’ offense features a dual threat quarterback in Josh Dobbs, a tandem of talented running backs in Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, and a plethora of talented (albeit unproductive) receivers in Josh Malone, Preston Williams, Josh Smith and Marquez North. The fact is that Florida’s defense is an absolute necessity to beat this Tennessee team. All the offense has to do is not screw things up, and the Gators will win with a good defensive performance. And yes, the Vols’ defense is really bad, having surrendered 557 yards of total offense to Bowling Green, and blowing a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma at home. But from a numbers standpoint, Kentucky’s defense isn’t a whole lot better, giving up 33 points to Louisiana Lafayette, yet the Gators’ offense struggled mightily against them. To think that Florida’s offense will improve to the point where it’s capable of generating 500 yards in one week, and that it will be the unit that wins the game rather than the defense, is being hopeful at best.
But for all his faults (all ~82793748295682 of them), Will Muschamp did leave Florida with a very good defense. (This is worth repeating multiple times because it seems to be taken for granted by an alarmingly large portion of Gator fans.) The talent McElwain inherited on the defensive side of the ball included Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Tabor, Antonio Morrison, Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCalister, and a whole lot more. There may be six or more future NFL starters on this defense, and when you combine that talent with a great defensive coordinator in Geoff Collins, you have the potential for a rock-solid defense. And that potential has shown through the first quarter of the regular season; Florida’s opponents have combined to score five touchdowns, gain a grand total of 774 yards of offense, and turn it over six times. Or if you prefer looking at things in averages, that’s an average of under two touchdowns per game, 258 yards of total offense per game and two turnovers per game. And yet as impressive as those stats are, they don’t do the Gators’ defense justice. Simply put, without this defense, this season would already be on the brink of destruction- and without it going forward, the season could eventually teeter to said brink of destruction.
Great offensive performances would be lovely, and I know it’s something that all Gator fans, myself included, are hopping up and down waiting for. But this team doesn’t have that offense yet. It’s too young, too inexperienced, and just not good enough to expect anything from. We have to accept that, sit back, and be patient as McElwain slowly develops it. And in the meantime, while it’s being repaired in the body shop, we have an amazing defense that needs to bail us out.
It’s up to the defensive line to win the line of scrimmage and harass Dobbs in the backfield. It’s up to the linebackers to make open field tackles and stop the running game. It’s up to our secondary to shut down the Vols’ receivers and capitalize on any mistakes forced by the front seven.
It’s up to the defense, for one more year, to carry this program.