GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While there’s no question Florida made the only decision it could last week to cancel its game with Northern Colorado amidst the approaching effects of Hurricane Irma, it was still a lost opportunity for the Gators.
Instead of discussing the offense’s presumably productive performance against an overmatched FCS opponent and talking about how the offensive line had a chance to gain some confidence, the same questions that surfaced in the season opener against Michigan remain.
No. 24 Florida now must try to answer them in a pivotal SEC showdown with No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday in The Swamp.
In the meantime, we take our best shot at tackling the questions submitted by readers on the SEC Country – Florida Facebook page.
And off we go …
Kevin W. asks … “How did Mac say the O-line was going to be so strong this year? We return the same guys from last year, basically.”
CJ S. asks … “Is Michigan’s defense that good or did our offensive line play that bad? And what’s the ceiling for this offensive line?”
Let’s lump these two together as a good summation of all the questions that came in this week about the offensive line.
The reasoning for the preseason optimism was two-fold. After starting a total rebuild up front when he took over, inheriting only four scholarship offensive linemen, Jim McElwain and others were confident that the natural development of key guys such as Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan over two-plus years, and a year of experience for Jawaan Taylor and T.J. McCoy, would lead to a matured unit ready to reach another level. The other factor was the emphasis McElwain and new offensive line coach Brad Davis placed on creating a more aggressive and tougher mentality up front. The players raved about the impact Davis made since taking over last winter, and it was easy to buy in to the notion that he would be able to unlock whatever might have been missing from the group.
It didn’t happen in the first game. In hindsight, maybe McElwain’s preseason praise was as much a motivational ploy as an honest assessment of the unit. Either way, I don’t think the offensive line is going to be any worse this season. The way the unit was dominated by Michigan two weeks ago was not all that different than the way it was dominated last season by Florida State’s great defensive front, or the way it has struggled against top competition in recent years.
Michigan was really good and really well coached. Florida’s line will be much better than that most weeks, but I’m no longer convinced it will be better overall than it was last season. Not worse, not better, just the same. That’s probably not reassuring. The Gators will get enough up front to have a chance to win plenty of games, but unless something suddenly clicks, it’s hard to see the line performing well against the best teams on the schedule.
Doug L. asks … “Do you think Massey, Davis and Toney will get more touches this week? They have some real speed we need to tap into.”
Definitely. It will be inexcusable if Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney, in particular, aren’t heavily involved after McElwain acknowledged the speedy slot weapons were a big part of the game plan against Michigan, but that the Gators simply weren’t able to use them as planned. With the scrutiny being what it is on the offensive coaching staff, look for Florida to force-feed touches to Massey and Toney if that’s what it takes. Hopefully, though, Nussmeier is able to deliver a game plan that creatively uses their skill sets to get the offense moving.
As for freshman running back Malik Davis, I really like his upside. As long as Jordan Scarlett remains suspended, there’s no reason not to give him more opportunities. Sophomore Lamical Perine has earned the right to start at running back after what he showed last season, and senior Mark Thompson nearly contributed Florida’s best offensive play against Michigan, but his touchdown run was negated by a holding penalty. They likely will continue to get the bulk of the carries, but what’s the harm in giving Davis more than the one carry (for 8 yards) he got against Michigan? As a freshman, he probably isn’t totally up to speed on his blocking responsibilities and other nuances, but he looks like a playmaker. And Florida can use as many of those as they can get.
Daniel B. asks … “Do you think McElwain has lost confidence in his team or was he just down because of the stress of the hurricane?”
As for McElwain’s gloomy press conference Wednesday, I think he was deliberately trying to be sensitive and respectful to those still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Many of the other big football programs around the state have cancelled or postponed their games this weekend. Florida is right to move forward with its game, but I think McElwain was very cautious not to give off the impression that he thinks the effects of Irma are gone in the state.
Ben C. asks … “What’s up with the nine players suspended? Seems like this is out of the coaches’ hands and up to the school.”
There’s so little clarity on this matter. McElwain has declined to offer any insight into the process or his role in the process. It seems clear, though, that he will not make any changes to the players’ status until the police investigation into the matter is complete. To that end, the UFPD has stated as recently as Thursday that it has no timeline for when its investigation will conclude. In the meantime, we all wait for answers.
Kenny H. asks … “Do you feel good going forward without the suspended players against a SEC schedule?”
Not at all. I don’t know if Scarlett and Antonio Callaway would have made a difference in that loss to Michigan. I suspect Scarlett would have willed his way into a couple extra first downs and Callaway would have created a couple more openings in the passing game. But moving forward, I do believe their absence has the chance to swing the outcome of games. This is the biggest story for Florida football right now, and as it drags out it threatens to become the story of the Gators’ season.
Again, I like Perine’s ability at running back and Davis’ upside. But there is a reason Scarlett was positioned to be the lead back. Teammates and coaches raved about his heightened field vision and cutback abilities. Those are things a running back adds to his skill set through experience. Florida is not going to replace the production Scarlett would have provided, which means every close game could be at risk for a worse outcome without him on the field.
The same goes for Callaway. Tyrie Cleveland is going to be a great player for Florida this season, but imagine how much easier it would be for Florida’s quarterbacks to have both Cleveland and Callaway giving defenses fits downfield. Having a wide receiver that every defense has to game-plan around opens up so much for an offense. It’s hard to say what Callaway would do against Tennessee, but it’s a safe bet the Gators would be better off on the field with him than without him.
Jeff D. asks … “If Nuss has another poor showing does Mac take over the play calling?”
I know this, the questions will keep coming if Florida stumbles again offensively. And I don’t know what answers McElwain can keep giving if the results don’t change. I expect McElwain to be as patient as he possibly can be with Nussmeier. It’s obvious he believes in him (more than most anybody else) and has loyalty to him given their overlapping careers.
The other factor, though, is Florida is sitting on a tantalizing 2018 recruiting class loaded with top offensive prospects. Prospects that Nussmeier helped land commitments from. What happens to the intentions of those recruits if McElwain strips his offensive coordinator of his responsibility, or worse? Those are all factors he has to balance and reasons why he is hoping Nussmeier can figure this out.
Micah V. asks … “How is changing Nussmeier’s position on the field going to change his play calling?”
Good question. I don’t think it is the solution, but why not change it up? Change up everything. McElwain is hoping the different vantage point and perspective will improve Nussmeier’s ability to make in-game adjustments and read and react to what the defense is showing.
That is the biggest criticism of Nussmeier’s play calling. McElwain has even mentioned it at times, that Florida’s scripted early plays often are effective, but as the game moves on the offense gets stale and predictable. The Gators’ best drive against Michigan was their first one, which resulted in their only offensive points, but they had no answers for the Wolverines the rest of the game.
I don’t know if a different view will improve Nussmeier’s ability to make in-game adjustments, but it can’t hurt.
Josh L. asks … “What do you think needs to improve regarding the offense moving forward?”
Keith M. asks … “Do you believe they need to show more trust in our QB? Let him make mistakes and learn?”
I combined these two questions because they get to the point I want to make. Yes, the offensive line has to improve. Plain and simple. And yes, the play calling has to be more creative and dynamic. No doubt.
But what I want to see is how the coaches utilize quarterback Feleipe Franks. I understand wanting to protect a young quarterback who was making his collegiate debut in the last game. But if they’ve determined that he’s their best option at quarterback, if they believe he’s the guy, then they need to let him be the guy.
That means taking advantage of Franks’ best asset — his big arm. The Gators need to open up the playbook and take shots downfield and not relegate Franks to the role of game manager.
That’s what I’m eager to see moving forward.
Bill W. asks … “Do you think Florida will make it back to the SEC Championship Game?”
I’m not ready to make any determination on that until after this Tennessee game. I won’t be surprised if Florida delivers an uplifting performance this weekend, renewing some confidence and optimism.
We don’t know yet if that debacle against Michigan was reflective of where the season is heading or merely an anomaly. Everybody will have a better sense for that after this SEC opener.
I think Georgia is the favorite in the SEC East, but the Bulldogs have plenty to prove as well. The rest of the division seems pretty balanced, which should make for an entertaining conference race.
Florida certainly could be right in the middle of it. But those hopes will fade fast with each loss if the Gators can’t address the aforementioned issues.