Survival of the fittest: adaptation is key to McElwain’s success at Florida

In a perfect world, we could find something we like, and stick with it forever without having to change the slightest thing. Wouldn’t that be great? Comedians could memorize one or two shows’ worth of jokes, and simply use repeat them every time they grab a microphone, as if on autopilot. Lawyers could get acquainted with one set of laws and simply perform at work from memory as opposed to having to research the newest modifications to those laws. And football coaches could run the same plays over and over again without having to get creative (I’m talking to you, Steve Addazio).

But that’s not how life works. Things change all the time. Big things, small things, medium things, important things, trivial things, anything, really. Other than death, taxes, and Will Muschamp losing games he shouldn’t, there are absolutely no constants in the world. Comedians constantly have to find new material, often working with what recent events give them. Lawyers are always rushing to teach themselves about the continually changing laws, or they are required to attend conferences to have somebody else do it for them (and that’s a shout out to my dad, because he’s the one who flies around the country speaking at these conferences). And as we learned with Steve Addazio and then Will Muschamp, if you try to do the same damned thing every play, your team is wholly screwed (blunt, sure, but true).

Let me take you back to 2005, when Urban Meyer, and more importantly in this case, Dan Mullen arrived in Gainesville. Mullen was the last competent offensive coordinator Florida has had, and he was the reason the Gators’ offense clicked throughout Meyer’s tenure. Meyer’s three best offenses came under Mullen, in 2006-2008 (and you could argue that 2005 was Meyer’s fourth best offense from a coaching standpoint, because the 2009 offense was only as good as it was due to sheer talent) and that’s far from a coincidence.

Part of the reason Mullen was so successful was that he would add a new wrinkle to the offense almost every week. First it was the installation of a fullback to the offense, then it was the Tebow package, the Andre Caldwell reverse, shovel pass, and so on. Mullen frequently had something new for each (somewhat tough) opponent, and more often than not, it became a permanent staple in the offense. The other thing Mullen would do exceptionally well was adjust his play-calling based on the looks from the opposing defense. If the defense stacked the box to stop the Tebow run, Mullen would punish them by throwing over the top with four wideouts. If the defense stayed back to try to stop the bomb, Mullen would move the speed to the backfield by swapping speedy wideouts like Louis Murphy for speedy running backs like Jeff Demps, and torch them in the option game.

The well coached and talented offense will defeat the well coached and talented defense every single time for the simple reason that the offensive personnel knows what is going to happen and the defense doesn’t. Because Dan Mullen always stayed one step ahead of opposing defenses, the Gators were able to run teams out of the building. How good the other team’s defense was became immaterial once Mullen settled in with his play calling.

And so the task falls on McElwain to do the exact same thing Mullen once did in Gainesville- always be one step ahead of the opposing defense.

With McElwain and (and his current offensive coordinator/Alabama OC successor) Doug Nussmeier calling the plays for the Crimson Tide, Alabama went 72-9. That’s doing something right. Or lots of things right.

McElwain has a history of simplifying the offense to benefit less than stellar QB’s, and it usually pays off in spades. Cases in point: John Parker Wilson (2008), Greg McElroy (2009-2010) and AJ McCarron (2011). Of those three, only McCarron’s playing career remains alive today, if by the slimmest of margins. And the one year McElwain coached McCarron was his freshman year. So there you have two moderately talented QB’s, and a sophomore QB starting for the first time; that’s a less than rosy way to summarize his quarterback situation at Alabama, but that’s probably how he would summarize it, too, if you fed him truth serum.

What he did have at Alabama were running backs, and good ones at that. Glen Cofee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddy Lacy made game planning so much easier for McElwain- just give them the ball and get out of the way. Every now and then, he’d call for a pass because you kind of have to, but more often than not, it would be a safe throw just to get his QB some confidence and to get the defense to back off. There would eventually come a time in every big game where his QB would have to make a big play through the air, and his QB would make that big play every single time (having Julio Jones for three years certainly made it easier). But having to make one big play a game is a lot easier than having to make ten of them, which is what some college QB’s are expected to do in various offenses…

The point is this. McElwain is one of the best at exploiting mismatches, utilizing what he has to the best of his ability and picking on opponents’ weaknesses. We know he’s good at game planning, and calling a game’s opening drive. But the opening drive is not the only drive of the game, and just because he has a new QB coming in doesn’t mean he can ever try to hide him. In order to really win at Florida, he will have to do more than just call a game to best suit the personnel he has. He will have to do all in his power to constantly keep the defense on its heels, all while making sure that he’s running plays that he knows his offense is capable of executing.

How will he compensate for having a young offensive line? What will he do if the defense crowds the box and dares Will Grier to throw if the offensive line is getting manhandled? What will his game plan be to free up DeMarcus Robinson if teams double team him?

How he’s able to answer these questions, and more like them, on the fly will go a long way

14 thoughts on “Survival of the fittest: adaptation is key to McElwain’s success at Florida

  1. Florida is going to limp around on offense for a bit, but that’s OK. I think Neil is right that Mac will have to learn to adjust, but I also think he’s going to have to learn to adjust long term. Year to year improvements are much easier to ask for than drive to drive, even though we’re paying him all that money to get him away from Colorado State lol. I also think he’ll have to adjust to recruiting four and five stars as opposed to two stars like he did at CSU (and I think Telfort was a good start).

  2. I think it’s time to quit referring to Alabama.It’s not like McElwain or Nussmeier actually did anything but what Saban wanted them to do. Alabama didn’t become a bad team on offense after one of them left. Alabama, also, was never thought of as an offensive powerhouse or being innovative at anything. Alabama won because they had better personnel that nearly everyone they played. They ran the ball and counted on their defense. To give credit to McElwain or Nussmeier for anything Alabama did is nonsense. I think we saw how much a difference Nussmeier made when he went to Michigan. Michigan’s offense was awful. It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the jimmys and joes. Alabama is going to continue doing what they do because they have talented players, the coordinators don’t matter, they just do what Saban wants them to do. If there was a difference between Alabama’s offense before or after McElwain or Nussmeier, you’d have something to discuss, but since there isn’t, it’s silly to think McElwain or Nussmeier made a hill of beans of a difference while they were at Alabama.
    The bottom line is that we don’t have a clue how well McElwain will do at UF. Colorado State doesn’t play at close to the same level as UF, so nothing can be gained from McElwain’s experience there, as well.We won’t know for a few years. Either McElwain is a briulliant coach like Meyer, who also came from a lower level school, or he’s a great coordinator that is ready for the big time, like Fisher at FSU. The other alternative is that he is a another “Foley Special,” a guy that Foley, who’s a notorious tightwad, got because he was cheap, ala Zook and Mushamp. McElwain is just as unproven, Colorado State is not big-time football. Foley, like Capt. Queeg, is trying to relive his one shining triumph, the hire of Billy Donovan, by hiring folks that are not big names to coach Florida. It will prove that he is a “Super Genius” if McElwain pans out. BUt if McElwain is a dud like Foley’s other hires, Zook and Muschamp, Meyer was brought in by the President, UF’s program is slated for at least another five years of mediocrity.
    I don’t have a clue which category McElwain fits under, but I do know that the tenure at Alabama is completely irrelevant.

      1. There are at least 25 college coaches that make more. As far as the buyout, Foley tried to be cheap with that as well. He thought he could waltz into little Colorado State and bully them into taking less than what Foley knew was the amount of the buyout. It was embarrassing. Foley’s ego had him coming back to Gainesville without McElwain and UF was a laughing stock because he wouldn’t pay what he knew was the price before he even went to Colorado. Happily, someone came up with a way for UF to get McElwain and Foley to save face. The farce of McElwain paying part of his buyout was born. If you think McElwain dipped into his wallet to pay part of his buyout, you’re very naive. Where do you think the money is coming from? Look at the other big program that was looking for a coach at the same time as Florida, Michigan. They did not try pinching pennies, they spent what it takes to get a big name coach. I think you can see the difference already in the recruiting by both schools this year. UF is in player heaven in the state of Florida, while Michigan is not even close to producing players like Florida. Recruits have never even heard of McElwain, but they have heard of Harbaugh. Perhaps McElwain is a steal and will turn out to be a great coach. But It could be the case that the old adage of getting what you pay for comes true. We’ll just have to wait and see.

        1. For starters I don’t recall saying anything about JM dipping into his own pocket.

          Secondly the Michigan comparison is not at all applicable – there are not “Florida guys” who are highly sought after coaches they could throw the vault toward.

          1. Sure the Michigan comparison is applicable. There are name coaches, I’m sure, that would have come to Florida, if Florida was willing to pay the price. The notion of there needing to be a Florida connection is irrelevant. As for the buyout, I didn’t say you had said anything about how it was handled. But you did mention it, and I thought it appropriate to point out how Foley tried to be a cheapskate in that area as well, much to Florida’s embarrassment. Dick Vermeil pointed out years ago, if you want to be successful, get one of jobs in the state of Florida. I hope McElwain is the right choice, and I am wrong. But I think Florida could have got a name coach if they hadn’t been cheap. I just hope I’m wrong, because UF can become Tennessee after they fired Fulmer. UT has been mired in mediocrity ever since, and I don’t think Butch Jones will pull them out of it. If you don’t think UF can suffer the same fate, I think you’re wrong.

            1. It’s not applicable. Harbaugh is a Michigan man through and through. He is strict from the mold of the most legendary coach in school history. He was paid a kings ransom to come home and they made it so the only way he could leave would be money which they will escalate.

              The ONLY way this would be applicable is if a former Spurrier player was now coaching, was successful at every level, became a free agent and Florida wanted him to “come home”

              1. I pretty much never agree with snowprint. But he is on point here. UF could have and should have hired some name coach by throwing a smackton of money at him. I am completely behind McElwain and wish him all the best as any Gator fan should but he was ANOTHER unnecessary risk. He simply does not have the experience that any UF HC should have before being hired. Even if he ends up having a 30 year career here and wins 8 NCs, the fact that he was an unnecessary risk remains. And when an unnecessary risk plays out, that is not brilliance. That is luck.

                I hope Foley is an extremely lucky man.

                1. I can’t disagree with that. If you don’t remember, take a look at where McElwain was on my list of head coaching candidates to replace Muschamp. I mean, he was wayyyyyy down on that list.

                  That said…

                  Jim McElwain is the head coach of the Florida Gators. That is a fact. So whining about who should have and who should not have been the head coach of the Gators following the misguided hire of Muschamp is not going to accomplish anything. That’s why you won’t see me complaining about that decision until (and if) Florida struggles for a couple of years under McElwain. If he goes 7-5 and 8-4 in his first two years? Sure, let’s revisit this. But let’s give him a chance first, huh?

                2. What name coach was on the market that was a viable option ?

                  They already went after a name coach who has aspirations of coaching his dream school and he won big then left.

                  JM was a great hire. He is innovative and most of all experienced. And early returns suggest he is not afraid to delegate and let his assistants work.

  3. I agree that we should be behind McElwain, but I don’t agree with giving him credit for anything until he earns it. I give McElwain very little credit for what was done at Alabama because there was no difference in Alabama’s offense before he came or after he left. Alabama’s offense was never thought of being innovative when McElwain or Nussmeier were there. Alabama was, and continues to be, a downhill running team. Muschamp tried to emulate the same thing at Florida. But there was a big difference in the talent level, hence Alabama was successful and UF was not. If you watched UF last year, they tried to change that philosophy to become a more wide open offense that threw the ball all over the place. I think the greatest example of that was the Alabama game, but it didn’t work, not because of the plays called, but because UF didn’t have the talent to execute the plays. UF had receivers open deep, but Driskel missed them or when he was accurate, receivers dropped the ball. A screen pass seems like a simple enough play, but Driskel never developed touch on his passes and Harris was not very accurate. Muschamp had to go, because , regardless of the reasons, UF failed to win. Now McElwain has his chance, and I hope he’s up to it. But let’s not praise him until he actually does something. It’s as bad as the legion of fans, added by the head coach, who kept saying Jeff Driskel was going to be great last year because, finally, “the system” was a perfect fit. I just go by results, and even the praise about his recruiting ability is not warranted. UF had the worst year in recruiting that I can remember last year. When was the last time UF was 20th or worst? That’s counting two guys that didn’t qualify, and when is the last time UF had, even one, someone not qualify they signed? It’s early, but UF isn’t exactly tearing it up in recruiting this year, as well. This can quickly change if UF starts winning real games, but until then, I for one, am not going to sing the praises of McElwain until he does something more than talk.

    1. P.S. I think something Kelvin Taylor said during Spring should be kept in mind before thinking UF is become a different team on offense.. He was asked about the offense and he said he loved it because UF was going to be a, paraphrased, “a one-cut downhill running team” and that was something he was looking forward to. There’s nothing wrong with that, Alabama does just fine, UF just needs to have better personnel, especially at quarterback.

    2. Bama won titles with JM. They won another with DN using JMS players.

      He recruited and trained game breakers.

      As for being innovative, did they reinvent the wheel ? No.

      But let’s not forget the 2009 SECCG

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