GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida coach Jim McElwain took to the stage at Florida’s media day, he planned for one common thread to surround the Gators’ fall camp.
“This camp is going to be uncomfortable for our guys,” McElwain said.
McElwain and the Gators have lofty goals heading into this season. They’re eyeing a third straight SEC East title and a chance to make a run at an SEC championship in Atlanta.
So as the Gators’ marquee season opener against Michigan gets closer, McElwain wants his team prepared for just about anything.
That’s why players are cross-training and rotating around the depth chart to find out which combination of players will best optimize Florida’s production.
That’s why assistant coaches are calling out players when they miss assignments during individual drills, using them as an example for what not to do.
And that’s why, at any given point, McElwain will flip practice situations on their head, causing players to respond on a whim.
So far, the players say they’re responding to the challenge.
“When you’re uncomfortable, [you] still [have to] be able to work hard,” running back Lamical Perine said. “When times get harder, that’s when you gotta really man up and try and go out there and work hard.”
For quarterback Feleipe Franks, the thought of being uncomfortable took him to the practice field when all the pressure was on his shoulders.
The scenario: Ten seconds left on the clock. No timeouts. His team is down by a touchdown.
Essentially, Franks and the offense has one chance — maybe two — to make the play or have his team walk off the field with a loss.
Franks said they call it a “sudden change.”
It’s meant to be a scenario in which “something doesn’t go our way,” Franks said.
And it’s a scenario that Franks could see this season if he’s named the starting quarterback. Same for Malik Zaire or Luke Del Rio if either of them win the job, which is still up in the air. That’s why McElwain has made it a focal point during parts of practice.
“I would think our guys kind of understand that they better be able to flip that switch at any time and never know when,” McElwain said.
For most of the other players, uncomfortable took them to something they have to deal with on a daily basis: the heat.
On an almost daily basis, the team has practiced outside in the middle of the day — through the 90-plus degree heat and the sweat-inducing humidity — to get them prepared physically for game day. Not every game is played indoors or at night.
It’s gotten to the team so much that when Florida players walked into the team’s indoor practice facility for a recent practice, many breathed a sigh of relief.
And then McElwain and the coaching staff opened up the garage windows on the west side of the facility, letting in the stifling, humid air.
No cooling off period this time.
“It was like a sauna,” Del Rio said.
But that didn’t stop them from getting through an entire practice without too much trouble.
McElwain said he has seen the team transform in this regard since camp started almost three weeks ago.
“Now you’ve got guys that say, ‘You know, I was kind of thinking about checking out, but that was actually pretty fun,’” McElwain said.
Wide receiver Brandon Powell added: “Everybody’s been pushing through and it’s been good to us.”
They need to push through, players said. If they can’t handle practice, how are they going to handle a real game?
“Games are not comfortable,” Del Rio said. “They have scholarship players, too. They have 5-stars, too. We have to execute in spite of that.”
The Gators are less than two weeks away from their season opener against Michigan.
When they kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET from AT&T Stadium — the home of the Dallas Cowboys that can fit 100,000 fans — it won’t be like any normal season opener.
Florida will be on neutral ground, playing away from The Swamp for its season opener for the first time since 1987.
The expectations will be magnified. An opening-game loss to a Power 5 opponent will have many wondering if Florida can succeed this year, if Florida can win a third straight SEC East championship, if Florida can make the jump McElwain and players have been saying they can make.
It’s all more elements of uncomfortability.
Time will tell how it translates to their performance in a game.
“I guess the biggest thing is they understand the why,” McElwain said, “and that’s what I like.”