GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida coach Jim McElwain builds his depth chart each week, it is beginning to look more and more unlike anything he probably initially envisioned.
First there was the season-ending injury to Marcell Harris, a fifth-year senior safety who suffered a torn Achilles tendon before fall camp. Harris was Florida’s leading returning tackler and was expected to play a significant role in a secondary that featured just three upperclassmen and six freshmen.
Then it was the nine players being suspended before the season opener — including star wide receiver Antonio Callaway and starting running back Jordan Scarlett — who have been investigated for credit card fraud. Callaway was Florida’s leading receiver in his first two seasons and Scarlett was on the verge of a breakout season.
And then there were the injuries — safety Nick Washington with his shoulder; quarterback Luke Del Rio with his collarbone; wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland with his ankle; wide receiver Kadarius Toney with his separated shoulder; and now defensive end Jordan Sherit’s season-ending hip surgery.
All told, the Gators have used a different starting lineup on offense in every game this season and a different lineup on defense in the last five games.
“It’s a joy,” McElwain said. “I’ll put it that way.”
It’s also forcing McElwain to adapt.
“I think the big thing is it’s ‘next guy up’ and making sure that you put things in that both offensively and defensively that they can handle and not be exposed,” McElwain said. “That’s where the chess match, that’s where the creativity [comes in].”
The mixing and matching has worked fine on defense. The young group has come into its own the last two weeks despite losses to LSU and Texas A&M. In those two games, the Gators held the two SEC West foes to just 33.3 percent on third down (10 of 30), forced nine three-and-outs and allowed just 36 total points to LSU and Texas A&M teams averaging 25.6 and 32.1 points per game, respectively, this season.
The Florida offense, however, has shown signs of regression. Since Del Rio’s season-ending collarbone injury and Cleveland’s high-ankle sprain against Vanderbilt, Florida’s passing game has begun to tank.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who opened the season as the starter, was benched against Vanderbilt for Del Rio. He regained the starting job after Del Rio’s injury and has completed 65.1 percent of his passes (28 of 43) for 243 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions over the last two weeks. His longest completion in those two games was 20 yards — and that came on a shovel pass to running back Malik Davis, who had most of the yards after the catch.
McElwain said regardless of injuries and regardless of who is playing, the Gators need to figure out ways to adapt to their personnel if they want to win.
And Florida needs to win. At 3-3 with five games left, the Gators need to win three in order to secure a berth in a bowl game.
“Those are the things you know in certain ways that you play to give yourself an opportunity to win it in the fourth quarter,” McElwain said. “That’s something you have to do. In our case, obviously, we haven’t won. So we’re not doing a good enough job of that. We’ve got to really focus on that moving forward.”