GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Speaking after Florida’s thoroughly dominant win over Kentucky last Saturday night, Gators coach Jim McElwain couldn’t get over the one interception quarterback Luke Del Rio threw in the second quarter.
It wasn’t clear if his disappointment was more with the quarterback or the receiver, but either way, it was “unacceptable” and “still haunting” him.
It mattered little that the miscue didn’t translate to any Kentucky points and that Florida would go on to win the game 45-7.
Having just watched Del Rio pass for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns with only that 1 turnover on a tipped ball by his receiver, the media was expecting McElwain to toss some praise at his new quarterback for a breakout performance.
It wasn’t coming, though.
Two days later as McElwain held his weekly Monday media session, he had seemingly moved on from the interception, but there were three other missed passes by Del Rio that he was dwelling on instead.
One was “just ridiculous” and the other two “bothered” him.
As for Del Rio’s impressive stat line — becoming the first Florida quarterback to throw for 300 yards since 2013 and the first Gator since Chris Leak in 2004 to pass for so many yards in an SEC game — the credit should go to the offensive line for keeping him protected, McElwain said.
“He just did what he was supposed to do. He did his job,” he added. “And yet, if he does his job better, which he can, he’ll hit those throws, OK? And really, it irritates me.”
McElwain did credit Del Rio’s coachability and sponge-like desire to learn and grow from his mistakes, but his sharply critical assessment of his quarterback seemed a bit odd after such a big step forward, especially when he had spent the past week talking the first-year starter up after a less impressive showing.
One reporter felt compelled to note that McElwain seemed a little worked-up about it while asking if he always coached his quarterbacks so hard?
“I try to coach them all hard because I want them to, you know, I want them to be successful. And especially at that position, but really all of them, you know,” McElwain responded. “I don’t think I’ve done anything different from what I’ve ever done. Maybe ask some of the quarterbacks that one I guess, I don’t know.”
Asking the QBs
Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy is not surprised to hear any of this.
He was the Crimson Tide’s starter for the 2009-10 seasons with McElwain as his offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
He knows his ways as well as anyone, and this is classic McElwain, he says.
“Coach Mac is very consistent. He’s very predictable in the way he handles QBs,” McElroy said this week in a phone interview. “I remember after games in which I struggled, he would come in and be as complimentary as humanly possible. He’d say, ‘That was a great game,’ always try to find the silver lining. Even if it was a poor decision — ‘I understand why you went there.’ …
“And then after a great game he’d come in and completely scrutinize everything that I did. So it was pretty funny. I remember after the Florida game, we played Florida in the (2009) SEC championship game, things went really well, I ended up having a really good day and he looked at me and said, ‘A little late on this one, you have got to get your feet set on this one …’. Even though they were completions. He always wants to coach you up.”
(McElroy went 12-18 for 193 yards and a touchdown in that win, for the record.)
McElwain’s desire to “coach you up” meant both building up a player when he needed it and knocking him down a few pegs before any taste of success could affect his drive to get better.
And McElroy, who would play briefly in the NFL with the New York Jets, appreciated it.
“I loved it. I thought it was great because it’s a mental position so it’s always important to keep things in perspective and recognize that, look, if you’re doing well, there’s always things you could be doing better. And if you’re doing poorly, there’s ways around making the mistakes you made in the previous outing,” he said. “I always appreciated it because as a quarterback you have to be very level-headed, you have to be very poised, you have to be the same guy every day whether it’s after a good game or a bad game. It’s a tough position to play and I think his handling has been outstanding.”
As a disclaimer, McElroy admits he himself can be “certifiably nuts” when it comes to holding himself accountable and critiquing his own performance. Even after a great game, he’d find himself lamenting a run check he missed or dwelling on a pass he could have gotten rid of sooner that might have gone for a touchdown instead of just a completion.
He’s the same way now as an analyst for ABC/ESPN and the SEC Network, he added, but as a quarterback, yes, he meshed well with McElwain’s approach.
“Most quarterbacks are (wired) to think that way because you’ll never have a perfect game,” he said. “Unless you go 30-for-30 and hit every receiver in stride and make perfect throws, you’re going to mess up once or twice. You’re human.”
Garrett Grayson, who was the starting quarterback for two and a half seasons at Colorado State while McElwain was the head coach there, had a similar recollection to what McElroy experienced and what Del Rio is getting now.
“I think he has a way of kind of keeping you level-headed,” Grayson, who is now on the practice squad with the New Orleans Saints, said in a phone interview Friday. “I’m sure Greg said the same thing. When you had a great game and you’re feeling really good about yourself, he’ll find something, for lack of a better word, to nitpick at because he always feels you can go out and get better. And that’s true. And then (after a bad game) he’ll pick you up and tell you you’re doing fine. He’s obviously had a lot of success (with his approach).”
Building a quarterback
McElwain’s approach is more involved than just motivational tactics, of course.
Tom Brandstater, who was the starting quarterback at Fresno State in 2007 when McElwain was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, recalls his attention to detail and calming approach.
“It’s been a while,” Brandstater said over the phone this week, thinking back to his experience with McElwain. “I don’t remember him being completely like the hard-driving type of coach. He definitely expects a ton. What I remember most is feeling super prepared and you’ve gone through every scenario, you know what to expect, you know what the offense should look like, you have answers against any defense. I never felt like the defense had the upper hand.”
Even though McElwain’s stay at Fresno State was a one-season stop before moving on to Alabama, Brandstater said the coach formed a quick connection with the whole offense — and especially the quarterback.
A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, Brandstater had four different coordinators in four years, with McElwain being the third, but he put up his best statistical season during that 2007 campaign with 2,654 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and a career-best 62.6 completion percentage.
The previous season he had tossed 13 touchdowns and 14 picks while completing 54.5 percent of his passes.
He does recall McElwain going over team-based critiques after the game and stressing the point that every play is one guy away from being perfect.
For the most part, though, he remembers McElwain keeping the players loose.
“He was a name for everything. There’s a joke and a light-hearted way to approach everything,” Brandstater said. “If I’m a 20-year-old kid I want to go play for Coach Mac because it’s fun and it’s engaging and he’s a really good football coach.”
As an example, Brandstater recalls when Fresno State was playing New Mexico State, which has a cowboy mascot named Pistol Pete with a sizable mustache. Well, Fresno State happened to have an assistant coach with a prodigious ‘stache in his own right. So that became the joke for the day, McElwain’s way of lightening the mood.
“We were always making it fun that we were playing the ‘Fighting Coach Masons’, as Coach Mac said,” Brandstater recalled. “He just always finds a way to get a point to stick out, to get a 20-year-old kid to understand this is a game, this is fun and to enjoy the process.”
From a play-calling standpoint, McElwain kept things simple at Fresno State with two-word pairings like “four-door” to refer to route trees and route concepts that put everybody on the same page as to who was supposed to go where and who was in charge of blocking who, etc. Brandstater, who spent time with several NFL organizations after college, said to this day whenever he sees the number four he thinks of door
“When you have roughly 40 days to get ready to play a game (with a new coordinator taking over), you better have an offense where you can learn it and master it and understand what you’re supposed to do, what you’re expected to do and have answers when a defense throws a curveball at you,” he said. “He made me, whether it was subconsciously or not, every Saturday I felt like I had the tools to win the game. If I just did what I was supposed to I had the tools to win. I had had success before, but the confidence was really instilled in me walking on the field.”
McElroy spoke to that as well and felt that McElwain was able to effectively simplify ideas through the teaching process while also getting his quarterbacks to recognize blitzes and pick up on tells from the defense at a level which gave them a competitive advantage.
“He’s just very good when it comes to explaining things like that,” McElroy said. “He’s great at teaching fundamentals. He walks you through your reads, he teaches you where your eyes need to go, the tendencies you need to recognize (on) blitzes, which you don’t see a lot of at the college level. He had a process with how he teaches.”
And, again, as McElwain has made clear with Del Rio this week, part of that process is holding the quarterback to a high standard and pushing him to always be working to get better.
Just like McElroy appreciated that approach during his time at Alabama, he suspects that any good quarterback with the right mindset would take well to that kind of coaching.
“I’m sure Luke feels the same way,” he said. “Yes, it was a good outing statistically, but was it really as good as it seems? Most QBs strive for more. That’s what separates the good players from the great players.”
A welcomed approach
Indeed, like McElroy before him, Del Rio says he welcomes the strong critique from his head coach.
“I love it,” he said after the game Saturday night. “If I wanted someone to pat me on the back, I’d go ask a fan or look at Twitter. I want to be coached. I wanted to be coached hard. I want to be expected to make every play because I know I can make every play.”
Doug Nussmeier, who followed McElwain as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Fresno State and again later at Alabama, is in the same position now with Florida and works directly with Del Rio and the QBs on a daily basis.
But McElwain remains plenty involved as well, make no mistake.
“He gets after me pretty good. Yeah, you can ask guys during practice, he’ll get after me,” Del Rio said. “I expect it though. I came here to play for him. So I knew what kind of coach he was and is, and I didn’t really want to play for a coach that kind of just said, ‘Ah, it’s OK, get the next one,’ you know? You understand that as a player, but you want to be held to the standard the coaches set.”
Grayson, who had McElwain as a head coach at Colorado State rather than a coordinator and position coach, said McElwain was much more involved with him as a sophomore than he was during his later seasons.
“It was kind of just one of those things where if he felt he needed to say something he would,” Grayson recalled. “I would say he was more involved my sophomore year than my junior year and senior year. I don’t know if he just trusted me more or knew I was going down the right direction.”
Del Rio, meanwhile, is still growing into what it means to be a starting quarterback.
As for McElwain, as he’s grown through his own career, his coaching philosophy has no doubt evolved over the years.
One of his early influences was Dick Zornes, his head coach at Eastern Washington in the early 1980s. Zornes came from a defensive background and taught McElwain as a young quarterback how to read what he was seeing across the line of scrimmage.
He also credits the time he spent with Scott Linehan, who was the offensive coordinator at Louisville in the early 2000s when McElwain was a position coach there.
“You learn something every place,” he said this week.
And one can assume he also took something away from the famously sharp-edged Nick Saban during his time at Alabama. Or so it would seem this week, at least.
The similar tenets overlap, though, in the stories from Brandstater to McElroy to Grayson and now Del Rio, who like a couple of those other quarterbacks highlighted McElwain’s ability to “keep it simple” and allow his players to think fast and play without a cluttered mind on the field.
As for that wit and humor that Brandstater recalls, that hasn’t gone anywhere either — be it McElwain referring to sluggish offensive linemen as “dead fish” or making a self-deprecating joke at his own expense.
And, of course, the high standard of expectation.
Those criticisms McElwain levied on his quarterback this week were valid. Going back and watching the tape, Del Rio and the Gators did leave some potential big plays on the field as he missed on a few open targets.
He readily admits that as well.
Del Rio is still trying to prove he is not just the Gators’ quarterback of the present, but also of the future as he has two more seasons of eligibility after this year.
What is already pretty clear, though, is that he’s a good fit with McElwain.
In addressing his big game Saturday night, Del Rio deflected the praise to his linemen and the play calling. He took the blame for the interception and welcomed the criticism despite a breakout performance.
He has a unique perspective for a college quarterback in that he’s at his third school, having started as a walk-on at Alabama (with Nussmeier as his offensive coordinator), followed by a year at Oregon State and now at Florida.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play for some really good coaches, Coach Mac definitely being one of them. The common theme among them is that they’re going to tell you the way it is,” he said. “They expect you to make every play. Like I said, I expect to make every play. I definitely left some plays out there, I agree with him. Mechanically, especially, I think I can be more sound. So I appreciate it. I don’t want somebody to pat me on the back.”