With expectations high, Florida coach Jim McElwain enters the SEC cauldron
HOOVER, Ala. – Jonathan Bullard remembers moments last season when frustration got the best of him. The Florida defensive lineman helped the Gators finish fifth nationally in total defense (4.55 yards per play allowed) in 2014. But a stellar defense wasn’t enough to make Florida an SEC contender. Instead, a lifeless offense overshadowed the work put in by Bullard and his defensive teammates.
Bullard couldn’t help but feel down as he watched his team struggle. He often found it difficult to hold his tongue, especially when addressing teammates on offense.
“It got frustrating at times,” Bullard said at SEC Media Days on Monday. “You might say something in the heat of the moment [to a player on offense] that you didn’t mean.”
It’s easy to see why Bullard felt slighted. Despite that defense, Florida finished the year with a 7–4 record and an offense that ranked 11th in the SEC in passing offense and 12th in total offense. The direction of the program—and a 17-15 SEC record over four seasons—ultimately got former coach Will Muschamp fired. The Gators weren’t talked about as one of the SEC’s best defenses. Instead, a failed offense became the punch line of the Muschamp era.
On Monday, the man tasked with reviving the Gators’ program met reporters at SEC Media Days. Under the hot lights of the Hyatt Regency, head coach Jim McElwain got his first true taste of the SEC as he fielded questions on Florida’s future. It didn’t seem to matter that the Gators are nowhere near reaching Atlanta for the league title game. McElwain still addressed questions regarding a timeline for his high-pressure rebuilding project. A once-proud Florida program is just two seasons removed from a 4-8 campaign, the program’s worst record since 1979. The natives in Gainesville have been getting restless, and McElwain knew it as he addressed reporters on Monday. But the new coach smartly invoked his SEC background and simply asked for patience.
“Part of the experience of being in this conference,” McElwain said, “is realizing that it just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Florida fans might as well get used to the word “patience.” Yes, this is a program that has won two national championships in the last decade. But culture matters, and the team McElwain inherited does not have a winning culture. Moreover, the Gators don’t know what it’s like to have an offensive-minded head coach. At Media Days, some players said they enjoyed that change with McElwain, who spends plenty of time with his playmakers. “The head coach is around the offense a lot, and we really didn’t see that too much last year,” receiver Brandon Powell said.
McElwain deserves patience as he enters his first season at Florida. After all, he’s delivered with patience before. After spending four seasons as an assistant at Alabama, where he won two national championships under Nick Saban, McElwain took the head-coaching job at Colorado State before the 2012 season. The Rams had won no more than three games in each of the three seasons prior to McElwain’s arrival. After three seasons, McElwain’s 2014 team won 10 games, averaged 34 points per game and featured a quarterback (Garrett Grayson) who ranked fifth nationally in passing efficiency. The coach turned a bottom-feeding program into a team in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Of course, success at a Group of Five program doesn’t always translate to the SEC. Expectations don’t, either. In the SEC, schools have been known to fire coaches two seasons after winning national championships (see: Chizik, Gene). Florida fans see the recruiting base in the Sunshine State and demand an SEC contender each season – which isn’t entirely unreasonable. The dominant past tenures of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer at Florida lend credence to those demands.
But talent likely isn’t the issue at Florida. In his departing press conference, Muschamp issued a warning to the program’s next coach. “We’ve got a deep and talented roster,” Muschamp said in November, “so don’t let that new guy tell you he ain’t got no good players.” That served as an eventual shot across the bow of McElwain, who needs no extra pressure as he inherits this Gators roster.
The roster might have talent, but much of it will be unproven this fall. Florida returns just four starters on offense. It exited spring practice without a sure-fire leader in the quarterback competition between Treon Harris and Will Grier. Players like receiver Demarcus Robinson and running back Kelvin Talyor should give McElwain something to work with, but none of it will matter if a thin offensive line can’t gel. Moreover, McElwain said on Monday that freshmen will be forced to play major roles.
But some players see enough talent in Gainesville to contend. Someone just needs to maximize the roster's collective talent.
“We’ve got the players to do it,” Powell said. “We just have to put in the time to execute. That was the main thing last year: We had the players, we just couldn’t make plays to help us out and put up points and help the defense. That was the most frustrating thing last year.”
As he wrapped up his press conference on Monday, McElwain discussed his relationship with Spurrier, the current South Carolina head coach who laid the foundation for Florida’s recent success in the 1990s. McElwain doesn’t have to be reminded of Spurrier’s effect on the Gators; the new coach passes a bronze statue of the Head Ball Coach each day outside the Swamp. And like Spurrier, McElwain hopes to turn around Florida’s fortunes with his offense.
That’s why Florida’s history is a constant reminder of the expectations that come with McElwain’s new job. The coach knows championships are the standard in Gainesville. After all, that’s why McElwain took the job in the first place.
“It’s kind of great to have the expectations,” McElwain said. “That’s something we look forward to.”