GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Fixing Florida’s offense was Jim McElwain’s primary objective when he became head coach of the UF football program in December 2014.
The Gators were entertaining and fun to watch offensively during their championship runs under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, and they brought in the offensive-minded McElwain to rekindle that flame.
He inherited a unit that in the previous four seasons had ranked 96th, 115th, 104th and 105th nationally in total offense.
McElwain and his staff quickly turned that around in the first half of 2015, averaging 32.2 points per game with quarterback Will Grier under center. After Grier’s suspension, however, the offense nosedived.
The Gators averaged just 12.8 points over the final six games, including an average of eight points during their three-game losing streak to end the season. They finished the year 112th in total offense.
“Obviously, everybody knows kind of where we were at going into it,” McElwain said of the offense prior to the Citrus Bowl. “We’ve done some really good things. There’s things we’re going to get a lot better at. And yet, those parts are coming.
“You fit the pieces to the parts and the parts to what we gotta do. And change the carburetor a little bit and clean out the exhaust.”
McElwain is no mechanic, but he’s now equipped to fix the offense with those new parts he has acquired. Over the past 14 months, McElwain has completely overhauled Florida’s offensive personnel through the addition of several four-star recruits, junior college transfers and graduate transfers.
It starts at the quarterback position, which has been the root of UF’s offensive woes for the past five years.
“Jim McElwain was hired for an offensive identity, a proven history of winning with multiple programs and producing results with multiple quarterbacks,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said. “And so he knows as well as anybody that the quarterback position has to be fixed. It’s that simple.
“And if that gets solidified, I think everybody knows Florida is a different program to every opponent they play as a result of that one fix.”
With Grier transferring from UF and Treon Harris reportedly moving to wide receiver, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are starting from scratch at QB. Fortunately for them, there’s several signal callers to choose from.
Unable to sign a quarterback recruit at the end of the 2015 cycle, McElwain added Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio to the roster. Despite sitting out last season due to NCAA rules, he generated a lot of buzz with his play during practices and offseason workouts.
Now eligible, Del Rio is considered the front-runner heading into spring practice. McElwain likes his energy and football IQ.
“When he came here he was a little bit of a sparkplug out there,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “A guy who kind of knows how to go about it.”
Sensing the need for another upperclassman at quarterback, McElwain landed Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby last month during the week of mid-year enrollment. The 6-foot-5, 239-pounder started 11 games for the Boilermakers in 2014 and 2015.
“Here’s a guy that brings experience,” McElwain said of Appleby. “The guy started at a high level, and a guy that understands what it is to prepare as a starting quarterback. That’s something that gets lost sometimes.
“Those guys in the meeting room that can kind of translate with those younger guys and everybody (to) build competition, but also teach how you go about your business. I’ve been really excited to kind of hear what he’s been doing. Having an older guy in there is pretty good.”
— Austin Appleby (@AAppleby12) February 4, 2016
Appleby arrived at Florida in January along with early enrollees Feliepe Franks and Kyle Trask. Franks was a U.S. Army All-American and one of the top 2016 quarterbacks in the country. Trask served as the backup on his high school team and played behind Elite 11 finalist and fellow 2016 classmate D’Eriq King, a Houston signee.
“When you talk about Kyle Trask,” Nussmeier told GatorVision, “here’s a guy that came out of Houston, Texas, was in a very unique situation, probably the most unique situation that we’ve ever recruited a quarterback in. But he’s got size, he’s got arm strength, he’s a very, very intelligent guy. Extremely hard worker. You look at his numbers, when he played high school football, it was really good numbers.
“Obviously Feleipe, to get him to flip from LSU and come to us was big. Large arm, can make all the throws, played for a state championship this year. Really, really excited about him and his future. When we get him in the system and really get him acclimated to how we do things, I really think he’ll grow quickly.”
Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell was impressed with Franks during the Army Bowl practices and thinks McElwain could mold him into UF’s quarterback of the future.
“Quarterback is a big, big problem right now for Florida,” Farrell said. “I like what I’ve seen from Feleipe, but he needs to develop his game. He does have a big arm. In three or four years, we could be talking about this kid as a 6-foot-6, 235-pound guy who can move and make all the throws that the NFL is constantly drooling over.
“It’s boom or bust with him. Based on what Florida did with Will Grier and what McElwain did at Colorado State and Alabama, I think the chances of boom are much better.”
Florida’s QB position now consists of three Elite 11 finalists (Appleby, Del Rio and Franks) and a promising prospect in Trask, who has the skill set and willingness to develop into a serviceable option for the Gators down the road.
“We’re going to have a real competitive spring,” McElwain said. “I know this, we’re going to be able to complete some routes on air now.”
UF also has some new blood on the receiving end of those routes on air. McElwain inherited a solid and deep group of tight ends, but the cupboard was almost bare at wideout.
McElwain immediately addressed that last year on National Signing Day by landing Antonio Callaway, who went on to set the school record for receiving yards (678) by a true freshman.
McElwain and assistant Kerry Dixon II once again upgraded the wide receiver talent with the five signees for 2016. The haul at that position was the highlight of the class, capped off by the flip of Tyrie Cleveland.
Ranked the nation’s No. 2 WR, Cleveland is Florida’s most promising recruit at the position since Percy Harvin but possesses more size (6-3, 194). UF also signed four-star wideouts Joshua Hammond, Dre Massey, Freddie Swain and Rick Wells.
“They had to revamp their offense, and some of these guys need to have an impact,” Farrell said of Florida’s offensive recruiting under McElwain. “They’ve brought in a lot of guys with a ton of upside. Some of the can’t-miss guys are at wide receiver.
“Obviously Tyrie Cleveland is huge, and I expect Freddie Swain, Joshua Hammond and Dre Massey to be catch-and-run guys that can really help this offense.”
Hammond, Massey and Swain are already on campus as mid-year enrollees and will practice in the spring. According to several scouts and analysts, Cleveland and Swain were two of the top receivers at The Opening, while Cleveland and Hammond both stood out during the Under Armour All-America practices.
“I think we’re going to be a huge boost for Florida’s offense,” said Massey, who is ranked the No. 5 junior college wide receiver. “Just adding explosive receivers and playmakers is pretty much all the offense needs. Of course quarterback as well, but I think coach McElwain will have that problem fixed soon.”
Running back wasn’t a problem for UF in McElwain’s first season, with starter Kelvin Taylor having a breakout year and becoming only Florida’s second 1,000-yard rusher since 2004.
But the Gators’ backfield won’t be a one-man show in 2016 with the depth McElwain has built. U.S. Army All-Americans Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett — late additions to McElwain’s first class — both took a back seat to Taylor last season but showed flashes as true freshmen, Cronkrite against South Carolina and Scarlett in the win over UGA.
UF now adds Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson to the mix, both of whom were coveted by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Perine was named the Alabama running back of the year in the state’s highest classification (7A), while Thompson comes in as the No. 1-ranked junior college running back.
“I think the first thing that comes to mind is size, and when you watch the film his ability to finish,” McElwain said of the 6-foot-2, 239-pound Thompson, who enrolled in January. “He runs behind his pads and he has really good speed.
“You throw in there Lamical Perine with Krite and Jordan already, that’s a pretty good backfield. We’re really excited about it.”
Florida should have four players capable of contributing in the run game next season, and the average weight of those backs is 215 pounds. This will keep fresh legs on the field and presents a more ideal situation than the heavy workload Taylor carried last year.
“First off, I just think they’re good kids,” running backs coach Tim Skipper told GatorVision about his position group. “I just like seeing them and talking to them. They all have smiles on their face and they’re excited to go to work.
“Then secondly, I just think people are going to have to really, really load that box up now to come tackle us. We’re going to bring the wood a little bit and we’re going to start moving some piles forward.”
Moving those piles will be UF’s offensive line, a position that now has the numbers (16) and talent to potentially be a strength of this team.
The group had lost five starters from 2014 when McElwain took over. Then, his best returning player, Roderick Johnson, was diagnosed with a career-ending spinal condition last spring, which decimated Florida’s depth chart.
But the Gators have rebounded. McElwain signed six offensive linemen in the 2015 class, four of whom committed during the final week of the cycle.
Three of the six signees played a combined 34 games as true freshmen, with each lineman earning at least two starts. Martez Ivey, the nation’s top offensive tackle and No. 2 overall prospect, started eight games.
McElwain said guards Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer were close to burning their redshirts, and Florida landed three linemen for 2016 who all tip the scales at more than 300 pounds.
“First and foremost, you think about the size and then you couple that with the athleticism,” McElwain said of signees Stone Forsythe, Brett Heggie and Jawaan Taylor. “Three guys who really wanted to be Gators. That means a lot. They’ll fit in there and we got our numbers back.
“I think as we sat here and talked going into spring ball last year, what were we at — six or seven O-linemen, maybe? Something like that? So I’m glad we at least got some bodies there.”
McElwain has even improved Florida’s abysmal kicking situation by adding Eddy Pineiro, the nation’s No. 1 junior college kicker who also enrolled last month. McElwain personally recruited Pineiro to flip him from Alabama.
“No,” McElwain said when asked if he’s ever pursued a kicker that hard. “Absolutely not. Never have. I never have until I saw two go down with (torn) ACLs.
“Eddy, he can kick. So, that’s a good thing. … I think we got a chance to maybe put one through the uprights.”
In all, McElwain has delivered 31 offensive players to Florida in 14 months. One has transferred, another didn’t qualify and two were graduate transfers.
Of the seven recruits that committed to McElwain during the final two months of the last cycle and made it to fall camp, five of them played as freshmen and two had major roles.
This year’s newcomers are expected to have a similar impact on the offense, as the Gators look to regain the level of production they had in the first half of 2015 and during their championship years.
“Obviously that side (of the ball) needed most of the restructuring,” McElwain said. “I think we addressed some of those position needs. I feel really good at the skill spots. We obviously have some young offensive linemen and we got a couple we look forward to adding to that.
“But when you look at it from the receiver/quarterback/running back side, I think we’ve got some really good talent in there. It’ll be fun to watch.”
- Get to know future Gators QB Feleipe Franks
- Persistence, loyalty landed Florida the No. 1 junior college RB
- The story behind Tyrie Cleveland’s commitment to Florida
- Plaxico Burress praises Gators WR enrollee Josh Hammond
- Explosive WR transfer Dre Massey bringing ‘juice’ to Florida’s offense
- NFL receiver wowed by UF’s Freddie Swain at ‘The Opening’
All player rankings are from the 247Sports Composite.