GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some of the Florida football players have talked about there being a new standard within the program now, and how that as much as anything is fueling their collective confidence heading into the 2016 season.
Their success last fall opened eyes about the Gators and new head coach Jim McElwain not only around the country, but within the locker room.
And those eyes now are fixed on far greater goals than most could have imagined a year ago.
“I feel like last year did a lot for us. We weren’t expecting to win 10 games,” junior cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “I mean, we all expect to win, but we didn’t expect it to go that way. We weren’t expecting to be in the SEC championship game, but now that’s like the standard. So we’re definitely trying to get back there this year, and it’s very possible.”
It’s very possible because the Gators return a plethora of defensive talent from that 2015 team that went 10-4 in a breakthrough season.
It’s very possible if the offense takes the steps forward that McElwain expects this season.
But it also helps that these Gators now know what they’re capable of if they cash in on their potential.
That wasn’t necessarily the case this time last year.
“We didn’t know what it took to win,” redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley said plainly. “A lot of guys have egos. They think they know what it takes to win. A lot of people don’t want to listen to the coach, and when Coach Mac came in we kind of just bought in. It was like, ‘This guy knows how to win. If we buy in, we have the players and the talent.'”
Said Wilson: “We feel like we’re a championship team. We all believe now. Last year it was hard to believe because the past couple of years have been slow here, so finally when we started winning games last year we started believing. So now we already believe so we’ve just got to get it done.”
Florida was coming off records of 4-8 in 2013 and 7-5 in 2014 under former coach Will Muschamp before breaking out last fall, jumping out to a 10-1 start.
“We kind of talked even last year, I think there was some uncertainty as to what is really possible,” McElwain said Monday, reflecting on his debut season. “Sometimes guys have got pretty good talk, but really what are your actions? Because your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you say.”
Along those same lines, he believes this 2016 team still has to establish what it’s going to be; that while this group may be helped by the confidence gained a year ago — and that’s important — those past successes won’t determine anything once the season begins next month.
“Every year’s team is different. What’s that standard going to be?” McElwain said. “And yet it’s evolving. It is possible, yet how do we take it maybe even a step further? So really you start to get into that discovery phase of who you are, and to me that’s establishing a standard, which not only can be established from your older guys — that’s kind of the natural thing — but what are your younger guys willing to do to push themselves to not accept mediocrity? That to me is where the mindset stuff that we work on is so important in how we go about who we are.
“I don’t know yet. It’s been interesting because at least they’re aware of it. Why do I say that? They’ve expressed that, ‘No, that’s not how we’re going to go about this. Let’s do this over.’ Those type of things, which tells me the educational piece is having some impact and that’s a good thing.”
One point of emphasis McElwain has made to the Gators is to finish what they start this year.
As exciting and encouraging as the 2015 campaign was, the reality is it ended with three straight lopsided losses — including a humbling 27-2 defeat at home to rival Florida State and a 41-7 loss in the Citrus Bowl to Michigan.
“We’re putting a big emphasis on finishing and not coasting at the end and getting comfortable,” Brantley said. “Coach Mac challenged the older guys, some of the more talented guys, not to coast at the end of the season and worry about the NFL and stuff like that. We’re trying to win a championship. All of the other stuff is irrelevant.”
Said Wilson: “I don’t think it was complacency. I just felt like we needed certain parts of our team to be better and other parts to pick it up to be able to win those games. But there’s always room for improvement, you can always go harder in practice and we’re going to get it done this year.”
Of course, there’s a lot to sort out yet.
The coaches haven’t decided who the Gators’ starting quarterback will be. McElwain reiterated Monday that the offensive line has to get a lot better and the receivers more consistent.
And for all the talent that does return on the defensive side, there are six key cogs from the 2015 team now in NFL training camps, meaning the Gators are counting on greater contributions from a number of players on that side of the ball.
But the confidence is there — there’s no doubt about that.
“I feel like (there) wasn’t no panic because the older guys left,” Brantley said last Friday. “Us making it to the SEC championship game, it’s like a standard now. That hard work we put in last year and in the offseason, that’s just what it takes.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.