GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Although he already had been hired to take over the Florida football program by that point, Jim McElwain did not coach the Gators in their Birmingham Bowl finale to the 2014 season.
But he watched, and he was impressed at the effort level he saw particularly from defensive end Dante Fowler, who was at the top of his game despite wrapping up a frustrating season for the team and knowing that his next game would be in the NFL.
“Here’s a guy who knew he was going to be a top-round draft choice and yet chose for his team to go out there and play his tail off. I was so impressed with that,” McElwain said this week.
Fowler, who went third overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, capped his Florida career with 3 sacks and 2 quarterback hurries in a 28-20 bowl victory over East Carolina while leaving an impression on Florida’s next head coach.
Unfortunately for McElwain, he wasn’t quite as impressed with Florida’s season-ending performance a year ago, a 41-7 Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan.
He intimated that the Gators’ NFL draft-eligible veterans may have been looking forward too much, and he doesn’t want to see that again Jan. 2 in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.
“It will be interesting to see, some of the guys that are kind of getting ready for the NFL, their mindset moving forward. We’re going to need those guys to play as Gators and give everything they have,” McElwain said. “… It’s a personal choice. We’re going to prepare to go win the ballgame and we’re going to need those guys to play well, play with energy and to give us an opportunity to go win it.”
The 8-4 Gators, ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25, have a number of guys awaiting NFL opportunities or facing decisions about their future.
None of Florida’s draft-eligible juniors have formally announced their intentions yet, and a couple had different takes on how that pending decision weighs on them.
“Definitely. It’s always a distraction looking forward, knowing that you have a chance to actually go to the next level, but we all talked about it and we want to stay focused,” junior left tackle David Sharpe said. “We still have a game left so we want to finish strong.”
Meanwhile, junior cornerback Jalen Tabor dismissed any notion that he could possibly be distracted heading into what likely will be his final collegiate game.
“Not really. Not to a guy like me. I love football. If you ever know anybody that talk(s) to me or hang(s) around me, I’m a football guru. So I’m glad to be back out at practice,” he said.
The Gators returned to practice on Thursday, and after a day off Sunday, are expected to start honing in on the matchup with No. 21 Iowa (8-4) on Monday.
With his team coming off back-to-back lopsided losses to Florida State and Alabama and looking to avoid a second straight 0-3 finish to a season, McElwain has emphasized how big this game is for his program.
And he has not tempered his disappointment for how last season ended, particularly in that bowl finale against Michigan. It’s clear it lingered with him through the offseason and sticks in his mind still.
“I was embarrassed,” he said. “And you know what, it happens. It happens in a lot of programs, but this is one that they’ve got to understand we’re representing the Gators and that’s different.”
Tabor admitted he too was surprised by that one-sided affair with the Wolverines, indicating that is motivation enough to stay focused on Iowa these next couple weeks.
“Last year was, shh, I didn’t think Michigan was that good. They’re well-coached. As far as athletes, they didn’t surprise us,” Tabor said. “Obviously, we had a better team. But they were just well-coached. But, I didn’t expect them to do us like that. We had the way-better team, no question about it.”
That would be the minority opinion, especially in the face of the blowout result, and those comments drew a simple response from a Michigan player, who simply reiterated the final score.
The Gators might believe they’re a better team than Iowa too, and they might well be, but they’re going to have to prove it on the field.
Quarterback Austin Appleby didn’t join the program until last January and wasn’t around for that bowl debacle, but he’s heard about it.
And he doesn’t think this Gators team is going to have the same issue.
“We’ve definitely been challenged. I was told and I’ve heard that maybe wasn’t the case last year, guys were maybe looking ahead thinking about the next level and maybe were trying to protect their bodies,” he said. “We’ve been challenged. If you want to play and you want to go do this thing, let’s go — let’s be all in and let’s go beat a great opponent. …
“And we’ve got the kind of guys in this locker room that truly want to give their best and put it all on the line because of the guys next to them.”