On the precipice of the first ever early signing day, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the Gators need to change moving forward based on what happened in 2017.
Obviously, the offense must improve. After two straight years of offensive futility under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier, 2017 was more of the same. The Gators finished tied for 103rd in points per game against FBS opponents at 22.1.
Offense: What happened?
I wrote during the offseason that major improvements in the offense were unlikely unless Malik Zaire took over and was something he wasn’t at Notre Dame. That did not happen.
After two years of futility though (ranked no better than 100th in points per game in 2015 and 2016), I didn’t dream that Florida would go backwards. But backwards it went, defying the percentages. Teams from 2012-2015 that finished bottom 90 in offense improved 76 percent of the time, but not this Gators team.
Most of that is attributable to Nussmeier, who has steadfastly shown no desire to change as the game around him changes to utilizing a running QB. But that didn’t stop the braintrust from bringing in Zaire, who was clearly miscast trying to run McElwain’s offense.
The arrival of Zaire was a sign I should have taken more seriously. It meant that Feleipe Franks wasn’t ready. The optimist in me wanted to believe it was just to provide a push that Franks needed, but deep down I knew it wasn’t true. That’s why I wrote in June that Luke Del Rio should get a serious look as the starting QB. I’ve never gotten more vitriol from the Gators fan base, even when I picked Michigan to win the opener.
Del Rio bailed out the Gators and extended the winning streak against Kentucky, but once he went down against Vanderbilt, the season was doomed.
It didn’t help that Michigan was actually the young, inexperienced team that people were expecting in the opener. The Gators just didn’t make them look like it. And after seemingly righting the ship with the miracle win against Tennessee, there was hope that the light would come on for Franks.
Instead, it took a few more weeks to realize that Tennessee wasn’t any good either. Once Florida lost to LSU and Texas A&M in what were winnable home games, it was clear this was going to be a season to forget.
So Florida goes into 2018 with no clear answers at QB, with its best running back going through rehabilitation from a major knee injury, and with no clear No. 1 wide receiver to rely on. There was reason to believe going into 2017 that the offense was about to turn the corner. It turned a corner and ran right into a light pole.
Defense: What happened?
It was always clear — and became more so after Marcell Harris went down — that the defense would take a step back. With no Antonio Callaway or Jordan Scarlett to bail out a QB who was in over his head, the offense ground to a halt, exposing that defense even further.
Blaming the season on the defense, though, is incredibly unfair. It actually played very well in the first half of the season. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon wanted to play a cover-2 scheme that just didn’t utilize his players well. It wasn’t until after getting gashed repeatedly on jet sweeps against LSU that he finally adjusted and switched to a cover-1 scheme that better fit his personnel.
Regardless, the Gators defense outscored the offense 14-3 against Michigan, giving the Gators a lead going into halftime. Yes, Michigan exploited a few missed coverages and gained the upper hand early in the second half. But the only reason the game wasn’t 45-0 was because of the defense.
The defense ran out of gas in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, but only after spotting the Gators a 13-3 lead. Had Malik Davis held on to his long run instead of fumbling just before going into the end zone, that game is a blowout and the talk would have been about the play of the defense.
The defense then stepped up big-time in the second halves against Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M, and the offense was only able to do anything about it in the game against Kentucky. By the time the Gators played Georgia, news of its coach being fired had already been leaked and any depth that the Gators had was gone due to injuries.
The Missouri game was also a debacle, but the defense accorded itself pretty well against South Carolina, UAB and Florida State.
Coaching: What happened?
It turns out, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than most of us knew prior to the season. I was incensed when McElwain blamed his players and their conditioning after the loss to Michigan.
It turns out that must have been the beginning of the end. After his firing, news leaked out that the administration had been harping on the strength and conditioning in the program during the offseason. It seemed weird at the time that McElwain started acting so mopey in his press conferences after that Michigan loss. But it seems pretty clear now that he was a dead man walking and realized it based on the play of his team with all offseason to prepare.
Neither Franks nor Zaire were capable, and Del Rio got injured again. Moreover, based on the play of Del Rio, I can’t imagine what the coaches saw in practice that led them to start Franks against the Wolverines.
And after making all the right decisions in close games coming into the season, McElwain’s fairy dust finally ran out. He screwed up timeout usage against both LSU and Texas A&M. Against the Aggies he just wasn’t aware he had one. He and Nussmeier repeatedly refused to get the ball consistently to the Gators playmakers, even when it was working.
Even worse, after those losses, McElwain had the gall to blame his players again, saying “the plan was good, but the execution piece needs to get better.” McElwain may have already lost the administration after the Michigan game, but this was where he lost the fan base.
Putting your players in the position to succeed is the real job of a coach. McElwain, Nussmeier and even Shannon to a certain extent failed to do so. Not only did McElwain fail in that regard, he also refused to take responsibility until it was finally time to go. The death threats fiasco was just the excuse used to let him go.
The 2017 season was a system failure. The offense got worse. The defense got worse. Even special teams — with All-SEC performers at kicker and punter — was bad.
And yes, McElwain’s recruiting classes have been historically low for Florida, but they did average a 14.7 ranking nationally during his tenure. This is a team that needs some quality depth and an infusion of elite talent, but it is not a 4-7 team.
And that is where the hope for the 2018 season lies. Dan Mullen is not just a quality offensive mind. He has a track record — in the SEC West — of immediately improving an offense.
The recent hiring of strength coach Nick Savage indicates that the new administration is serious about making sure the Gators are prepared for the rigors of an SEC schedule. And the pursuit of QB recruit Justin Fields — even if it cost them Matt Corral — shows that the staff is unafraid of taking big swings.
The defense was really talented coming into 2017. The issue was depth and youth. Youth no longer will be an excuse, so Mullen will have to fill in the depth through recruiting. This is particularly true at linebacker, where the Gators struggled in 2017 and will need more depth as new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham switches to a 3-4 scheme.
But help is coming in the form of the other David Reese — a 4-star linebacker recruit — and potentially safety Amari Burney, who is athletic enough and big enough to play the Marcell Harris role. Harris may also return to play that role as well, bolstering depth in the secondary and allowing Chauncey Gardner to go back to his more natural position of roving center fielder or nickel cornerback.
Even though the defense wasn’t up to the level of the 2015 or 2016 squads, it wasn’t terrible in 2017. It was decidedly middle of the road, ranking 60th in points per game allowed and 69th in yards per play allowed against FBS opponents. But some quality talent and experience should make the unit much improved in 2018.
As has been the case since Tim Tebow left, the fortunes of Florida in 2018 will be up to the offense, and more specifically, the quarterback.
I don’t see any way Franks starts in 2018. I’ve written about how high school statistics — particularly accuracy — translate from high school to college. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Franks’ completion percentage in 2017 (54.4) was in line with his completion percentage in high school (57.0).
There is hope that a big-time recruit — either Justin Fields or Emory Jones — flips to the Gators on Wednesday. If that happens, the fan base will be eager to see that player in action.
But the best player the Gators have at QB currently was playing at wide receiver last year. I wrote last March that Kadarius Toney should get a serious look at QB in 2017. I think the same thing applies for 2018.
That’s even more the case because Mullen’s offense is tailor-made for a player with Toney’s abilities. But an offense with Toney at the helm wouldn’t be a gimmick. He completed over 70 percent of his passes in high school.
This is the problem with using the “eye test” when evaluating a player. Toney is small and will make a poor throw on a screen from time to time. To someone just watching him execute the offense as planned, that makes it seem like he would be a liability.
But what they don’t see is the pressure he puts on the defense. His legs introduce a threat that has to be respected. That opens up space and causes lapses in coverage that he can exploit when they come open. It’s not a coincidence that his 70-percent completion percentage included an average of 11.5 yards per attempt.
Explosive plays lead to points. That’s not just a flippant and obvious statement. It’s backed up by statistics, which indicate it is more important to get to the red zone a lot than it is to convert once you’re there. Toney would bring that, particularly in a Mullen offense.
And there’s that Mullen factor again. It’s not just that Mullen brings a promising track record from his time at Mississippi State, it’s that he isn’t his predecessor.
Mullen has immediately brought energy. He has connected with the fan base in a way that McElwain just was unable or unwilling to do. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would give up on a series, let alone on a season like it appears McElwain did after the Michigan debacle.
Florida isn’t going to win the national championship in 2018. But to expect the Gators to be a top-15 team is perfectly reasonable. Even if Mullen’s transition recruiting class ends up in that range, that means that the Gators have a full roster of players with top-15 talent. Mullen will make them live up to that. And that means that 50-10 drubbings where the team looks completely outclassed should be a thing of the past.
And that will be really neat.