Jim McElwain prepared his team in August for this turbulent week, he just didn’t know it then.
After checking into the team hotel at the start of fall camp, Florida was forced to move the younger players to a different hotel and send the older players back to their own places due to a “little mishap.”
“I love creating chaos,” McElwain said of the ordeal during fall camp. “For that reason, that’s just another piece of that chaos. In a game nothing goes perfect, but you always have to focus on the detail of getting better. Those are just little teachable moments along the way.”
The first-year Gators coach is hoping that tactic helps the team navigate through the off-field distractions surrounding the program. But the opponent and the location tied to this week’s game don’t help matters, as No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0 SEC) travels to take on No. 6 LSU (5-0, 3-0 SEC) on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) in Death Valley.
The wild week began Monday with the news that Gators starting quarterback Will Grier will miss the rest of the season and part of the 2016 season due to a year-long suspension for a violation of the NCAA’s policy for performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s something that sort of just comes out of nowhere,” Gators tight end Jake McGee said of his reaction to the Grier news. “You don’t have much time to dwell on it.”
It continued Wednesday with the arrest of Florida defensive back and special teams contributor Deiondre Porter. The redshirt freshman was suspended indefinitely after being charged with four felonies and a misdemeanor in an aggravated assault case. He’s accused of firing a handgun in the direction of his pregnant girlfriend.
Halfway through the regular season, Florida has had seven players suspended since the opener – safety Marcus Maye, defensive end Alex McCalister, wide receiver Latroy Pittman, quarterback Treon Harris, cornerback Jalen Tabor, Grier and Porter.
“What we try to do in our program in general is try to create as much unknown and chaos,” McElwain said of the method he uses to help his players overcome distractions. “The key is that you have to focus on the detail of the task at hand and don’t let any of the periphery get to you.”
It’s easier said than done, though, especially when it involves a starting quarterback.
The Gators will now have to rely on Harris to lead the offense. It helps that the sophomore has experience as the starter, recording a 5-2 record in seven career starts.
Harris threw for 1,019 yards and nine touchdowns, and ran for 338 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman last season. In his only start this season, the dual-threat quarterback threw for 215 yards and two touchdowns against New Mexico State in the opener before Grier won the job.
“We already know what (Treon) can do,” Gators linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “Last year we saw him and I was kind of surprised that he wasn’t starting this year. At the same time, coach makes those decisions. He picked the right guy and now it’s time for Treon to step up, take that spot back, charge on, and take us to the next checkpoint.”
“Next guy up” is the slogan McElwain has used repeatedly to address injuries and suspensions this season. But even McElwain admitted that he has never been through a week like this during his coaching career.
As 7-point underdogs, the Gators will try to overcome all of that against the unbeaten Tigers in one of the most intimidating environments in sports.
“I’m not sure anyone was prepared for any of it,” McElwain said of the past week. “But at the same time, that’s all part of creating chaos. Let’s talk about chaos and distractions, playing in Tiger Stadium in a night game, there’s a lot of it going on. So, I think the important thing is to eliminate the clutter, take care of yourself, do your job and let’s go focus and have a good time doing it.”