Because I was so busy the last week, I was unable to watch the spring game last Saturday. So I put Nick Joost on it, and he wrote up this review of what he saw.
Anyway, I finally got to watch it for myself, start to finish, and while I’m not saying Florida is doomed for the 2015 season, I can’t say I was jumping for joy, either. I love McElwain so far, and I think he’s capable of accomplishing great things at Florida. This is coming from the guy who wanted Muschamp gone after losing to Georgia in 2013; I’m not afraid to say exactly what I think about a Gator coach, and here I am saying that I trust McElwain in the long term
That doesn’t mean the spring game didn’t raise some short term red flags.
The first sign of trouble was when DeMarcus Robinson took the opening kick back for a touchdown. It got the crowd going, sure, but let’s be real. Nobody on the kickoff team looked particularly excited about the prospect of tackling or even catching him. Granted, Jim McElwain probably ordered the kickoff team to just sit back and relax (presumably to either ignite the Swamp or remove the risk of injuries), but that’s no better- if you don’t want your kickoff team to make a tackle or even practice staying in their lanes, why even bother with a kickoff? Or if it’s my first theory, why is the desire (or even desperation) to hear the Swamp go nuts so overpowering that you have to do it with a kick return that in no way, shape or form resembles what’s going to happen in the regular season?
If it was an attempt to direct attention away from Florida’s offensive line problems, it wasn’t a very good one.
Before I break down all the negatives, I will say that the defense looks fantastic. LB Matt Rolin was everywhere on Saturday, and that’s encouraging to see because this is his first playing experience as a Gator. We all grudgingly admitted that Will Muschamp left Florida with a solid defense, but this was one guy who had never done anything prior to this spring flying around making plays. We all know the secondary is going to be phenomenal (even though Vernon Hargreaves did drop a pick) and the defensive line made some nice strides, making the loss of Dante Fowler seem like almost an afterthought. I thought heading into the spring that Florida would maintain a top ten defense in 2015, and this game- even though it was against an anemic offense- helped bolster my confidence in that.
But read that disclaimer again. The offense made some strides this spring, but this spring game proved that the unit is nowhere close to where it needs to be for Florida to field an SEC contender.
Having six scholarship offensive linemen available is not in any way McElwain’s fault (thanks, Muschamp), but nonetheless, it was ugly. David Sharpe was the only lineman on either team who had ever seen action in a live college game before, and it showed. The entire line was manhandled. OK, so that’s partly because Florida’s got a defensive front that’s second to none, but the talent disparity between the units was so glaring that I stopped rewinding plays to focus on the offensive line specifically. I got the point; the line was completely outclassed the way we all figured it would be. There was one play where DE Justus Reed made Kavaris Harkless look really, really foolish, and though Harkless is admittedly quite inexperienced, Reed hasn’t gotten much playing time either. To see an offensive lineman get beat by an incoming freshman DE who will probably redshirt is not a good sign.
The good news is that reinforcements are coming in the fall. Trip Thurman returns from injury and incoming freshmen Martez Ivey, Tyler Jordan and Brandon Sandifer will get their opportunities to break into the lineup. So that sort of takes care of that problem, or at least shows a clear effort to fix it; unfortunately, there are several others that still need to be addressed.
Having your top three pass catching targets include two tight ends isn’t necessarily a bad thing (look at what the Patriots did with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) but to have a receiving corps that’s so devoid of talent does not bode well for 2015. Other than DeMarcus Robinson and possibly Ahmad Fulwood, Florida appears to have nothing there right now. Drops have plagued the Gators all spring, and they were still on display last Saturday, but this time, we got a rather unpleasant view of the consequences. On one play, Grier snatched up a bad snap, recovered and threw a laser to Raphael Andrades, who simply dropped it. The play would have gone for about 25 yards. But note the words “would have”. It didn’t, because Andrades dropped it. Let’s not just finger Andrades here, though; it’s a team wide issue. Everybody, from CJ Worton to Robinson to LaTroy Pittman to Alvin Bailey, was dropping passes frequently throughout the spring (though Bailey did haul in a bomb from Will Grier on a flea flicker).
The other side of that coin is the pleasant surprise we got in watching De’Andre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis make some nice plays from their tight end spots. Gooslby had a very good spring overall, and now we know that Lewis provides some depth behind him. And of course, Goolsby will be playing behind Virginia transfer Jake McGee, which gives Florida three tight ends to be comfortable with playing.
The QB battle was the hottest topic of the spring, and it reached intermission with a bit of a whimper. Neither Will Grier nor Treon Harris did anything particularly awful, but neither did anything to really elicit any wows, either.
Before I break down what I’m sure everybody wants to read about- the Grier vs. Harris debate- one quick thing. Let’s forget about Jacob Guy as a potential starter. I’m sure he’s a great guy and a hard worker, but he’s just not there as an SEC starter. He looked timid and uncomfortable in the pocket on Saturday, and maybe even downright afraid- and that was while wearing a white no-contact jersey and defenders couldn’t lay a finger on him. How do you think he’d react to LSU’s defensive line closing in on him with the intent to squash him? McElwain probably singled him out for praise in hopes of motivating Grier and Harris and seeing how they responded to something like that.
Harris, for all he did for the Gators last year, still does not seem to be very accurate in hitting intermediate routes. He loves to show off that big arm, but you’ve got to be accurate with your short and medium routes too. He likes to lead receivers a lot on deep balls- great, that’s what you’re supposed to do- but this somehow gives him the impression that throwing right where the receiver is on shorter routes will work out, and this leads to throwing behind receivers a lot. If you want to know what can happen when you throw behind receivers (particularly in the middle of the field), Jeff Driskel threw a pick six on the opening play of the 2013 Sugar Bowl in this way, which kick started a Louisville beatdown. He looks fairly comfortable in the pocket as opposed to the dual threat label he’s always been tagged with, but considerably less so than Will Grier.
That’s why Grier appears to be the starter against New Mexico State and beyond.
The only reason Grier had so many incompletions on his final stat line was that his receivers inexcusably dropped passes. Very rarely did he actually miss an intended target, and he displayed an impressive ability to mix up his throws. There’s a time to sling a bullet, there’s a time to put some touch on the ball, and there’s a time to throw a ball that’s somewhere in between. It’s not such a binary art, but rather a scale of lob to laser. On different plays that called for different types of throws, Grier just about always made the perfect throw, and when he didn’t, they were still not necessarily bad throws. This is an ability that I can’t ever remember a Gator QB having. Not even Tim Tebow, who threw a costly pick to Javier Arenas in the SEC Championship Game in 2009 that would have been a touchdown had he recognized that he had to put some air underneath it, had this extensive an arsenal of passes.
Grier also displays some exceptional athleticism. The QB race has been hyped as a battle of the dual threat (Harris) vs. the pocket passer (Grier) but Grier can really move, too. That may ultimately be what puts him over Harris, whether it should or not, because Florida doesn’t really lose anything in the agility department by putting Grier over Harris.
But while the QB battle appears to have been settled (for now, at least), many questions remain. And Jim McElwain is being put in a hell of a position.
Florida’s going to get lots of help in the fall. The boneyard of a roster Will Muschamp left for McElwain will be restocked with some fresh talent, but you can’t just expect that talent to explode right away. If it happens, great, but you can’t bank on it. That turned out to be a top 20 recruiting class, but all that does is create more questions that don’t have answers.
First: what’s the identity of the offense going to be? The obvious answer right now is run, because of Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane proving that they’re SEC running backs, (and Jordan Scarlett may help out when he arrives) but how can you run if the offensive line is as bad as I fear it’s going to be? Even if Ivey, Jordan and Sharpe someday grow into All-Americans, I guarantee you it won’t happen for at least two out of those three overnight. And in the meantime, while they’re taking their freshman lumps, they’re out there in live action, playing NCAA sanctioned games- and as the season progresses, those games will grow more and more important and their need to be adequate linemen will be, too. Don’t get me wrong, I do think each of them will become standout linemen. In 2016. Which is not this year.
Question number two: who’s going to step up in the receiving corps? Nobody other than DeMarcus Robinson appeared ready to in the game I watched on Saturday. Yeah, it’s nice to have a deep pool of playmaking tight ends, but that’s a luxury, not a necessity. Owning a private yacht does you no good if you don’t own a house. Florida may have found its future starter in Grier, but if his receivers don’t wake up and do what they’re on scholarship to do- catch the ball, Grier’s stat lines are going to keep looking mediocre while the offense keeps punting.
And finally, what’s going to happen if the offense suffers more injuries? We only have to go back two years in time to see what happens when your offense is totally decimated by injuries; this spring has left me with the distinct feeling that if anything like that happens again, Florida is thoroughly screwed. They’re thin on playmakers to begin with, but they do have a few in Taylor, Robinson and maybe Scarlett. Since nobody else stepped up this spring, I’m frightened by the thought of what will happen if any of them go down.
I’ve said all along that the theme for this season is cleaning up the mess that Muschamp started. And boy, it’s even more of a mess than I thought. Yes, Florida will still employ a top tier defense, but Muschamp proved three different times (2011, 2013 and 2014) that a top ten defense alone isn’t worth more than seven wins a season. The offense will be better by default; the coaching staff alone should make the offense significantly better, and it can’t possibly be any worse. Do realize however, that under Muschamp, the offense was so bad that “significantly better” doesn’t even guarantee that it will be decent. It just means it won’t be an abomination and a disgrace to the Gator Nation.
So Mac’s got his work cut out. Do I believe Florida will be brought back to prominence under McElwain? Someday, yes. But unless McElwain is a bona fide miracle worker, the spring game showed that someday won’t be this year.