When it comes to the beleaguered Florida offense, the same sad, tired storyline seems to play out every season.
Heading into the year, there is great optimism, and assurances that things are going to be better, that the Gators are going to pull out of their seemingly endless offensive slump and finally start flying up and down the field again.
But, of course, it doesn’t happen. The stall/stagger mode sets in early and UF never finds a way out. And at the start of the season, the offense ends up right where it usually does — at the bottom of the SEC offensive statistics.
The reasons are usually the same: inconsistent quarterback play, inadequate offensive line, not enough playmakers.
So, why should this season be any different?
Jim McElwain, an offensive-minded coach who has been just as frustrated as everybody else, can offer a compelling argument why the offense will be better.
He has more talent at quarterback with the combination of Feleipe Franks, Malik Zaire and Luke Del Rio. The offensive line is experienced and has evolved into a team strength. There are plenty of playmakers at running back, tight end and wide receiver, even with Antonio Callaway away on suspension.
But, of course, it starts with the quarterback, where the Gators have had all kinds of issues the past two seasons — mainly Will Grier being ruled ineligible halfway through the 2015 season and Del Rio’s injuries last season.
“I think for the first time our quarterback room is really good,” McElwain said. “We have talent. We’ve got guys that are competing against each other and learning from each other. The competition is making them all better.”
Whoever starts, or whatever the playing rotation turns out to be, McElwain said the quarterback now has the pieces around him to finally get the offense moving.
“Oh, absolutely,” McElwain said. “And yet, I don’t put it all on the quarterback, either.”
Like in any offense, it starts up front, and for the first time since he’s been here, McElwain feels good about his offensive line, a veteran group led by tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor. He’s been calling it a team strength since the spring, and that has not changed.
“I’ve seen two things,” McElwain said. “I’ve seen a sense of understanding through competition, that no spot is safe, which then helps breed excellence in performance, especially as you’re going through practice. I also see a group of guys who now have been together enough, have understood the communication piece, understand that they’re a little bit tired of being that group (that gets blamed).”
Running back Jordan Scarlett, who rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns last season, said the line is the biggest reason the offense will start to click this season.
“We’ve finally got an offensive line and an offensive line coach (Brad Davis),” Scarlett said. “He’s teaching those guys the right way. The communication is right. They actually know where their landmarks are, who they need to block. We’ve got a quarterback, a couple of them, who can do some things. We’ve got a lot of good things coming this year.”
It’s about time, most would agree.
This is a slump that had been going on for five years before McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier arrived in Gainesville. It’s been a long dry spell.
The last two seasons have been somewhat bittersweet. Despite the poor offensive play, the Gators have won the SEC Eastern Division both years.
“The ultimate goal is to win, and we’ve won 19 in two years, which is pretty good, but it’s not good enough,” Nussmeier said. “We’re not where we need to be. We know that. We’ve got to get better.
“Is it frustrating? No, it’s a process, and you want to go from here to there quickly, and we need to go. But at the same point in time, I feel like we’ve set the floor and now we’ve got to rise. We’ve had a chance to turn over a couple rooms, get some guys in there we think we can turn the field over now, and now it’s time to go get it done.”