Florida football coach Jim McElwain has often said when it comes to discipline, players have freedom of choice, but not freedom of consequence.
Through McElwain’s three seasons at UF, Gator players have had their share of scrapes with the law. According to a Gainesville Sun survey:
— Florida players have been charged and/or cited 16 times since McElwain took over as head coach in December of 2014, more than SEC champion Alabama (13) and rivals Georgia (11), Tennessee (9), Florida State (6) and Miami (6) during the same span.
— The 16 charges have involved 14 players, seven of whom were recruited by McElwain and seven were recruited by former UF coach Will Muschamp.
— Of the 16 charges, four were felonies, though felony counts involving Gator receivers Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells firing a BB gun in a UF dorm were eventually reduced to misdemeanor charges. Five of the charges were citations for marijuana possession and two were citations for driving with a suspended license. Alabama (6) has had more felony arrests than Florida during the same time span.
The 16 charges do not include the nine Florida players suspended for their involvement in an alleged credit card fraud ring, which has hamstrung UF’s offense and depth this season. Seven of the nine players were offered pretrial diversion Thursday, though the State Attorney’s office is still looking into multiple charges against offensive lineman Kadeem Telfort and defensive lineman Jordan Smith.
The season-long suspensions have taken their toll on a Florida team that’s 3-3 heading into its showdown with No. 3 Georgia on Saturday. Florida’s offense is ranked 102nd in the nation heading into its game against the Bulldogs without standout junior receiver Antonio Callaway and starting junior running back Jordan Scarlett, who are two of the nine players suspended. Last season, Callaway and Scarlett were instrumental in leading the Gators to a 24-10 win over Georgia. Callaway had a team-high 42 yards receiving and one rushing TD against the Bulldogs, while Scarlett rushed for a team-high 93 yards and one TD.
Lack of scholarship depth on the roster has hurt on special teams as well. In UF’s 19-17 loss to Texas A&M, the Gators failed to successfully cover a punt on a 43-yard return by Texas A&M receiver Christian Kirk, which led to Texas A&M’s go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
McElwain said he’s tried to reinforce player behavior in a variety of ways.
“We’ve got basically weekly sessions as well as special speakers that come in on all different topics,” McElwain said. “We’ve talked about it before, current issues, different things through social media. It’s a long list, and then what we do is not just forget about it, we actually come back, talk about it, do some small group work as well. We’ve got some fantastic people here that are involved in that. The big piece is really kind of showing the choices you have.”
In some instances, McElwain has taken a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to off-field issues. McElwain kicked former Florida defensive back Deiondre Porter off the team in his first season in 2015 after he was arrested on felony charges for firing a gun near his pregnant girlfriend and pointing the gun at her head. In another instance, before the start of McElwain’s first season, former UF defensive back J.C. Jackson transferred after Jackson was arrested on felony armed robbery charges. Jackson eventually went to trial and was found not guilty.
In other instances, McElwain has given second chances. Callaway was suspended during the 2016 offseason when he and former quarterback Treon Harris were involved in a Title IX investigation. While Harris transferred, Callaway stayed with UF after he was cleared of allegations of sexual assault. During the Title IX hearing, Callaway admitted to smoking marijuana, but was not suspended for UF’s season opener in 2016 against UMass. Callaway also was cited for marijuana possession last spring before his involvement in the credit card case.
McElwain said he takes character into account during the recruiting process. Each player recruited by UF’s coaching staff, McElwain said, receives a “C” tag.
“That’s the character tag, which what we do is as thorough a job as we can finding out the background, talking not only to the coach but obviously to teachers, people within the school,” McElwain said. “In some cases, people in the community that might be in their lives, about maybe the hiccups and some of the things that might be there. It’s extensive from that standpoint and obviously I’m not sure anybody’s hit 100 percent on that. We haven’t. And yet we’ll continue to do that and vet those sources as these guys come in.”
Comparison with rival schools
Florida — 16 charges, 4 felonies
Alabama — 13 charges, 6 felonies
Tennessee — 9 charges, 2 felonies
Georgia — 11 charges, 2 felonies
Florida State — 6 charges, 2 felonies
Miami — 6 charges, 1 felony