SEC MD17 Notebook: Gators’ growth in McElwain’s Year 3

Coach Jim McElwain
It's Year 3 of Florida football coach Jim McElwain's administration in Gainesville. Is this his best team? [The Associated Press]

HOOVER, Ala. — Whether the media picks Florida to win the East again or not this week, the feeling around SEC Media Days seems to be that this could be coach Jim McElwain’s best team.

He’s not ready to anoint the Gators just yet.

“Time will tell,” McElwain said. “Each team kind of creates their own identity. You are never what you were a year ago, and you’re never going to be staying the same. One thing I do know, you’re either getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same.

“With these guys, it’s a different team. Our strengths are going to be in some different areas that maybe hasn’t been a strength since we’ve been here. We’ve got some good young players that are going to have to grow up awfully quick. That’s a pretty darn good team, and I’m excited to see what they do this fall.”

McElwain said he’s optimistic because it’s just not the players being on board and committed, it’s everyone around the program and athletic department.

“Going into year three, I’m really excited not only about our team, but more so about our organization, and our organization understanding what it takes and understanding that the small little details and sweating the small stuff is something that’s really important,” he said.

“I think we’ve done a pretty darn good job of understanding the why we’ve been successful at times and understanding the why we haven’t been successful. Learning from those things is something that you constantly grow with.”

Tide embraces Daboll

Alabama’s move back toward a more pro-style offense apparently has been a seamless transition under new coordinator Brian Daboll.

Daboll came to the Tide from the New England Patriots, where he was the tight ends coach from 2014-16. Previously, he was an offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.

“Brian Daboll has done a really, really good job as offensive coordinator,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “The players have really responded to him well. He’s got a great personality. I think he’s exactly what we’re looking for in terms of helping us re-develop a pro-style passing attack that would go with the athleticism with some of the spread offense that we’ve used with Jalen (Hurts) and our other quarterbacks, which helped us tremendously.”

No early start

While some schools have pushed up the start of preseason camp to late July with the abolishment of two-a-days, the Gators are not.

The Gators are expected to open camp at the usual time, likely Aug. 3, with the report date Aug. 2.

“Look, we’re still in school,” McElwain said. “Man, if we started when we could, they’d have two-and-a-half weeks left of school plus finals. What are you doing in practice between classes and all that kind of stuff? We’ll go as is, as normal, use some walk-through opportunities and as much of those things as we can getting ready for that first game so we’re fresh.”

Keep an eye on Zuniga

Looking ahead to next year, one of the UF players McElwain brings with him to SEC Media Days could be defensive end Jabari Zuniga. The redshirt sophomore has become an elite defender, offensive tackle Martez Ivey said.

Ivey goes against Zuniga in practice, and he says it’s a demanding task.

“He’s physical. He’s just dominant,” Ivey said. “He can beat you in the pass rush, he can beat you in the run game, he can hold his gap, he can set the end. Man, he can do it all. I’m impressed. He’s come a long way since he got here. He’s one of the standouts, most definitely.”

Because of players like Zuniga, Ivey said he’s not anticipating a drop-off on the defense despite having seven players taken in the NFL draft.

“It’s a standard they play with on defense,” Ivey said. “Last year, I don’t know how many starters were missing. We were playing with young guys. LSU, we had a bunch of young guys step up. Ever since that game, they’ve been stepping up. I don’t see a drop-off. I see them living up to what their standard is. They’re going to come in and play. They know what they’re expected to do. They’re going to get the job done.”

Lack of respect?

The Gators don’t seem bothered by the prospect that they might be picked to finish second in the East behind Georgia, which is receiving all kinds of preseason love.

“Respect is earned, not given,” Ivey said. “We’ve been there (to Atlanta) the last two years. I guess we have to do it three times now.”

Dawson, Shannon tight

Cornerback Duke Dawson said he has become very close to defensive coordinator Randy Shannon over the past two years. Shannon is one of the big reasons Dawson decided to return for his senior season, he said.

“I can say yes,” he said. “Me and Coach Shannon have a great relationship. Him and my parents are close as well. Every day I talk to him he asks about my parents. That’s something that my parents really love. They know that coach is really caring about me to ask about them. It’s great.

“We just didn’t talk about football, we talked about life itself. Talking about everything that goes on outside of football, once I get into the real world.”

Swamp life

UF safety Marcell Harris was asked to rank his top SEC stadiums to play in and, of course, he made The Swamp his No. 1.

“I’m going to rank the top two or three,” Harris said. “First is going to be The Swamp, just because that is where we play and that’s the best stadium in college football, best atmosphere with our Gator fans. The second, I like playing in Tennessee. The Rocky Top fans are very loud. I don’t know if they put speakers by our bench or not. But at the same time, a lot of people say that’s loud. I like playing at LSU.”

With Tennessee and LSU coming to Florida Field, Harris will be playing in only one of his favorite stadiums this season.