GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Fix the offense and win championships.
That was the job description for Florida’s head coaching positon in late 2014. Jim McElwain gladly signed up for it, not deterred by the pressure of those demands.
“Here is the beauty: Pressure is awesome. That’s why we do this,” McElwain said in his introductory news conference. “If there’s no pressure, why wake up in the morning, right? That’s really what drives me anyway.”
McElwain aims to apply pressure rather than feel it, but through his first 20 games, he’s still trying to get the Florida offense to put its foot down and assert itself. His championship expectations have already been realized by the Gators in their division, but the conference and playoff aspirations aren’t within reach yet.
Despite McElwain’s accomplishments at Alabama and Colorado State, some national pundits suggested the Gators could’ve hired a better coach in 2014 or the year before. Well, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez are both 2-5 this season, Texas is about to fire Charlie Strong and James Franklin was on the hot seat prior to Penn State’s upset win over Ohio State on Saturday.
McElwain is 15-5 at UF, a slightly better mark than former coach Will Muschamp at the start of his tenure (14-6). But measuring McElwain’s success in his first season and a half goes beyond wins and losses.
To return the program to a championship level, he’s had to do more than the fix the offense. McElwain needed to improve Florida’s infrastructure, recruiting efforts, roster depth and team mentality — all of which remain a work a progress.
McElwain led the charge on the indoor practice facility and now has a stand-alone football complex coming next year. He’s bulked up the support staff significantly and even helped bring back Steve Spurrier as an ambassador.
Along with landing elite players such as Tyrie Cleveland and CeCe Jefferson, the recruiting evaluations have been promising with the likes of Lamical Perine, Jawaan Taylor and Jabari Zuniga. UF is getting more talent from South Florida and the Tampa Bay area, but also plucking prospects from California to New Jersey and several states in between.
McElwain not only overhauled Florida’s offensive personnel with his first two recruiting classes, he provided some much-needed depth. The Gators could not fully practice or scrimmage in the spring of 2015 because they were so short on offensive linemen.
Florida now has 15 players at the position and returns all of them in 2017, barring attrition. Seven of the 11 offensive starters are McElwain recruits, and the unit loses just two seniors (wide receivers Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson) after this season.
So the stage is set for McElwain to start producing offensively, and UF is currently ranked sixth in the SEC and No. 52 nationally in total offense. But while the Gators may have the numbers and talent to perform well, McElwain is still trying to get his young offense (six of his seven starters are underclassemen) to play with mental toughness.
“Look, these guys gotta realize that they’ve got a chance to really be good,” McElwain said. “Now, overcoming the negative event or adversity or failure, that’s the key, right? And the great teams, they just clap it off and go win the next play. We’re still not there on that mindset piece. And yet, I’ve seen some steps in that direction.
“It’s about rebounding from when things don’t go well or you don’t get your way. You can pout about it, or you can go make something happen positive.”
In other words, apply the pressure instead of worrying. The Gators have to play sharper and with more confidence on offense to accomplish their goals this season — and meet McElwain’s demands. There’s a reason his defense ranks No. 2 nationally in three major categories (total, scoring and passing defense).
“They’re pretty darn good,” McElwain said. “And they’re a lot of fun to be around. And they’re holding each other accountable. And they’re not worried about when a play does break. This is where I think the difference of the mindset piece is.
“They don’t worry. They come back and go win the next play. And that right there is what great teams do and what great units do. We’ve got a ways to go on one side, and yet the other side’s got it pretty well organized.”
If the Gators can get their offense going and keep playing at a high level defensively, their remaining games are all winnable — even the regular season finale at Florida State. But this team’s top priority is repeating as SEC East champions, and anything less will be a disappointment for McElwain in Year 2.
“We’re 5-1. Last time I checked, that’s leading the East,” McElwain said. “Our guys are excited about it. We’ve been given a breath of life through some things that have transpired without our control, right? Now go take advantage of it.”