TAMPA, Fla. — Florida coach Jim McElwain doesn’t always provide helpful responses to the questions he’s asked by reporters. He can be evasive or protective of whatever nugget of information is in question, as coaches often are.
But he’s usually pretty clear with whatever message he wants to put out there.
On Monday, after a resounding 30-3 Outback Bowl win over Iowa that gave him a forum to talk positively about his offense heading into the offseason, McElwain was pointed in his comments about what he needs to see from the unit moving forward.
Or rather, what he’s going to demand.
“One thing I will tell you, going through this offseason, we’ll become a lot more physical up front than we were this year, and I’m looking forward to getting Swamp Life going,” McElwain said.
Swamp Life is a reference to the Gators’ offseason strength and conditioning program, but there’s also a mindset he wants his linemen to better embrace heading into 2017 as well.
“We got our skill players out in the open a little bit. I don’t think we did enough,” he said of the win Monday. “We’ve got good skill players, but we’ve got to develop a mentality up front that says we’re not going to be denied, and that’s going to happen over this offseason.”
Florida’s offensive line did enough against a solid Iowa squad that came into the day ranked No. 26th nationally in total defense, but it wasn’t a stellar effort when considering the numbers.
The Gators only averaged 3.4 yards per carry while rushing for 109 yards total and quarterback Austin Appleby was sacked 3 times.
But it certainly was better than some other performances by the unit this fall.
The Gators are banking on another year of experience furthering the development of a line that relied heavily on four sophomores, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman as the lineup changed and adjusted up front due to injuries.
Junior left tackle David Sharpe, who is considering declaring for the NFL Draft, is the only potential loss for the unit, so continuity and further maturation are certainly reasons for optimism.
“You know, our offensive line did a really good job today, but getting more physical wouldn’t hurt them at all,” running back Jordan Scarlett said. “They’re going to get stronger this offseason and I will as well so we should be a great team coming back. … Now we’re all bonding together and we all have the same plan and there’s only one guy leaving off the offensive line. It should be a great year coming up offensively.”
But the other part of the equation, the mental aspect, is just as important.
Appleby touched on this as well, intimating that the unit responded well to certain motivational stimuli — like being called out by an LSU defensive player before one of their better performances — while reiterating McElwain’s point that that mentality needs to be consistent every week.
Nobody would know better about the play of the line up front than a guy who took his share of big hits as a result of protection breakdowns.
“The sky’s the limit for these guys when they want to,” Appleby said. “The key for them is that maturation process of understanding just how good they are, and they don’t need somebody to disrespect them and they don’t need to be motivated by somebody on the outside to go out there and kick someone’s butt each and every play.
“When those guys make that collective decision to themselves that we’re going to be the baddest dudes in the country because we can and we are, you know, then we’ll show what they’re capable of. They do it in flashes.
The offensive line yielded 28 sacks overall this season, which is obviously better than the 46 it gave up in 2015. But the unit still isn’t near where McElwain wants it. This is a guy who spent four years as the offensive coordinator at Alabama, which has turned itself into the preeminent national power in large part due to its physical advantage on both sides of the line.
Fans may have mixed reviews about this 2016 season, but Florida finished 9-4 and has won 19 games and two SEC East titles over McElwain’s first two seasons. That’s progress.
And he knows what the next steps are in continuing to elevate the Gators. All season he has seemingly felt disappointed by the lack of patience from the fan base, or their perspective of the direction of the program, and he reiterated Monday afternoon that this remains a process — a popular word in college football today.
“Well, we’ve got a lot of really good recruits that are excited to be Gators, and that’s a good thing. We had a heck of a year. Two straight SEC East championships, new facilities. We’ll look for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward, see where that’s at, and I know this, we’ve got a lot of good young players that have played a lot of football for us this year and they’ll teach the guys that are coming in next year the same thing. …
“You know, this was and still is a heck of a building process. We’re headed to building it, but we’re building it right.”