GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida’s offensive struggles have mounted this season, there have been plenty of targets for fans’ frustration.
Most prominent, perhaps, have been offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and quarterback Austin Appleby.
And on Thursday, one took the opportunity to defend the other.
Speaking at the start of the Gators’ Outback Bowl preparations, Appleby was asked if he felt Nussmeier was getting heat with Florida ranked 115th nationally in total offense (345.1 yards per game) and tied for 110th in scoring (23.4 points per game).
“Heat? You tell me. What do you guys think? I don’t know,” Appleby said before offering his perspective.
“I think at a place like the University of Florida, when it’s good it’s really good. And when it’s not maybe going so good, it seems like maybe the sky is falling from the outside. And it’s like that for even my position. I think Luke (Del Rio) and I can both attest to that. I think a lot of the quarterbacks that have played here can attest to it. When it’s good, it’s great,” he continued.
“We try to keep it in-house. The only thing we control is the way that we come to work every single day. And I know that Coach Nussmeier, he grinds like no coach I’ve ever been around. That guy sacrifices more for us and takes away from his family to be in here late, late, late.”
Appleby said “late” for Nussmeier can mean 2-3 a.m.
“The guy’s there forever. (Strength coach) Mike Kent comes in at 4 in the morning and he likes to brag. And I think he crosses Nuss and kind of waves on the way out,” the quarterback said.
Nobody would assume the Gators’ struggles are for a lack of effort, though.
The main frustration from fans, beyond the bleak statistics, is that head coach Jim McElwain arrived in Gainesville with the reputation and track record as a successful offensive strategist, from his time as the offensive coordinator at Alabama and then turning around a slumping program as the head coach at Colorado State.
And a familiar theme throughout McElwain’s rise up the coaching ranks is that, for the most part, where his path has taken him, Nussmeier has followed.
After one season as the offensive coordinator at Fresno State, McElwain left for Alabama and was succeeded by Nussmeier. After four seasons with the Crimson Tide, McElwain left for Colorado State and was succeeded in Tuscaloosa, Ala., by Nussmeier.
Then, of course, when McElwain got the Florida job, he hired Nussmeier away from Michigan to join him.
The pair has not had any stability at quarterback to build around these last two seasons, and that is either an explanation for some of the struggles or another failing on the coaches’ part, depending on one’s perspective.
Meanwhile, Appleby shared more of his own perspective Thursday as the conversation pivoted to the quarterback play and the more complex formula for success at that position that he feels fans don’t necessarily understand.
“I think I played well. You’re the most dependent position in all of sports. You’re the guy that gets all the glory when things go great, and you’re the one that gets all the blame when things don’t go well — right, wrong or indifferent, that’s how it goes,” he said.
Appleby, who arrived last winter as a graduate transfer from Purdue, opened the season as the backup quarterback, but he has started 6 games with Luke Del Rio sidelined by injuries and will start for the Gators in the Outback Bowl matchup with Iowa on Jan. 2.
Some fans wanted to see Florida turn the page and get a look at the future while playing true freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks for the first time, but McElwain said it wouldn’t be fair to take away Franks’ redshirt for that reason. He also indicated Franks might not necessarily be ready for that role, and also that Appleby deserves the opportunity to make one final start.
The fifth-year senior has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,225 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
He was 26-of-39 passing for 261 yards, 2 TDs and 3 INTs against No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, committing those 3 costly turnovers (including a pick-6) that derailed Florida’s hopes to compete but also leading 2 touchdown drives against a Tide defense that hadn’t allowed an offensive touchdown since Oct. 22.
Two of the interceptions were arguably not his fault as he and wide receiver Antonio Callaway crossed signals on the throw that resulted in the pick-6, and receiver Ahmad Fulwood later got outworked for a 50-50 ball down the sideline.
The Gators’ offensive line has also been an issue at times, especially in a dismal loss at Florida State when Appleby was sacked 6 times and had little time to function.
That’s part of the bigger picture he feels is missed at times.
“We know what goes on in this building. I get coached hard every single day. I know the things I do well, I know the things I need to work on. So does the rest of this team,” Appleby said. “The past game is a reflection not of just me throwing the ball, but it’s protection, it’s receivers being where they need to be. The details of the pass game are so in-depth. At the end of the day what most people see is the ball and where it goes. And that’s the end result.”
But no matter where the blame goes or how it’s spread around, it doesn’t change that end result or the frustration toward an offense that coaches and fans alike expected more from this fall.
The day before that SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, McElwain spoke in support of his embattled offensive coordinator.
As did Appleby on Thursday, crediting Nussmeier for “reinventing” him as a quarterback, teaching him that he doesn’t have to take risks and try to win a game on his own, that he can trust the process.
That process hasn’t always led to success for this Gators’ offense, for any number of reasons, but Appleby reiterated those reasons are more complex than the efforts of the guy calling the plays.
“He’s trying to find the best plays for us and he’s trying to get us in the best matchups,” Appleby said. “I’ve never been around a coach who is so committed and so dialed in because of the way that he cares about us and puts a plan together for us. When he’s in his groove, there’s nobody better. At the end of the day we’ve got to go out there and execute for him. It’s takes all of us; it’s not just one person.”