FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — I’ve lauded Jim McElwain for his in-game strategy.
I’ve been thrilled with his willingness to attempt to convert fourth downs to prolong drives in enemy territory. I admire these decisions not because it is a risk. I admire it because he has put thought into the decision-making process. He understands that statistically, being aggressive on fourth down is the right thing to do. He is comfortable that he has made the right decision, irrespective of the result.
The result of Florida’s game against Arkansas on Saturday was an embarrassment. But the decision-making process, both in the game-plan preparation and the discussion afterward, was an embarrassment as well.
In Friday’s preview, I expressed concern that Gators QB Luke Del Rio would be making his first start on the road. After two early drops by his receivers cost Florida a pick-6 and a third-down conversion, Del Rio looked like a true freshman. It became clear by the end of the first quarter — and definitely by the half — that Del Rio was overmatched.
With the Gators marching to tie the game at 14, Del Rio threw a backbreaking interception to Arkansas free safety Josh Liddell. Just prior to the snap, the strong safety crept up 5 yards, a dead giveaway that the free safety is going to be playing center field — right where Del Rio was trying to throw the ball.
This is a true freshman mistake, and it’s one that you might be able to justify for someone with Del Rio’s lack of on-field experience. Except he made the exact same mistake twice against Missouri two weeks ago, predetermining his throw to the middle of the field despite the pre-snap read.
McElwain likes to say he tells his players to be proud of what they put on film. Well, Del Rio keeps putting the same mistakes on film week after week. He kept holding the ball and double clutching so much that I wondered whether the receivers were being blanketed by Arkansas. But reporters in the press booth were adamant that there were open receivers. Del Rio just wasn’t able to get them the ball.
Maybe you can't see it on the broadcast but receivers are open https://t.co/2NltdIf8Ia
— Nick de la Torre (@NickdelaTorreGC) November 5, 2016
After the game, McElwain started talking about how it isn’t too late to use either of his true freshmen QBs, Kyle Trask or Feleipe Franks. He’s wrong. Even worse, this shows a poor process for making decisions.
Right after the Florida game, I watched Alabama true freshman Jalen Hurts lead the Crimson Tide to a road win at LSU (Rivals had Hurts ranked as the 231st overall recruit; Franks ranked 57th). It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t his best work. But his ability to perform in that game is directly correlated to the experience he got against cupcakes such as Western Kentucky and Kent State.
Nick Saban saw that his more-experienced QBs were limited and took a calculated risk by giving Hurts a chance early in the season. Hurts ran with the opportunity and now is in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy.
In contrast to his mentor, McElwain let Will Grier walk (I’m OK with that). Then he brought in graduate transfer Austin Appleby, whose track record clearly indicated that he was a backup at best (not OK). Finally, he hasn’t played Trask or Franks.
And now he’s going to consider throwing them into the fire? On an emotional senior day against Will Muschamp, who recruited those seniors? Or he’s going to put them in on the road against LSU or Florida State?
Burning a redshirt on a true freshman with less than 30 percent of the season left is indicative of a poor decision-making process. If the freshmen were going to be an option eight games into the season, there should have been a plan for them to play against UMass, Kentucky or North Texas.
But that plan clearly hasn’t been in place. Which means that if we see either of the true freshmen at QB, McElwain is violating one of the key tenants that Saban teaches. You have a decision-making process and you trust that long-term, the results will follow.
So, what should the coaching staff do about this dumpster fire of an offense? I think the coaches need to go with Appleby.
You can’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over and have zero consequences for it. It sends the wrong message to the rest of the team.
But irrespective of the QB, the Gators need to run the freaking ball. Against Arkansas, Jordan Scarlett got 5 carries, by far his fewest of the season. This wasn’t because Florida was behind. They clearly went into the game with a plan to throw the ball. This is really confusing, since Arkansas gave up more than 500 yards rushing to Auburn just two weeks ago.
And yes, the immediate pick-6 did put Florida behind early. But the Gators were within 14 points until halfway through the fourth quarter. The Gators offense held possession for 22 plays in the first half, and 14 of them were called pass plays. Florida ran just three times in the entire second half.
The staff can talk about how it is disappointed in the effort all it wants. When you’re one-dimensional on offense, you’re going to struggle. The play-calling was so skewed toward the passing game from the start, the offense couldn’t exploit an Arkansas weakness.
Del Rio wasn’t any good. The defense struggled to get off the field. The injuries mounted.
But if you’re supposed to be proud of what you put on film, the coaching staff should be embarrassed.