December 23, 2014

Jim McElwain's image is nearly impossible to miss anywhere Florida's program is mentioned, but prominence on the sideline will have to wait one more game.

The Gators face East Carolina on Saturday with interim head coach/defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin finishing the season in the Birmingham Bowl before handing over the reigns to the program's man of the future.

While McElwain fills out his staff and focuses on recruiting after being hired away from Colorado State on Dec. 4, Durkin, who took over for Will Muschamp, has the unenviable task of guiding the Gators (6-5) through a 60-minute swan song after McElwain elected to hire Mississippi State's Geoff Collins to replace him as defensive coordinator.

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill was in a similar situation as a lame-duck boss in 2009 at Texas Tech while filling in for Mike Leach.

"That's one of the hardest positions to be in, and I was in that position at Texas Tech at the Alamo Bowl," McNeill said.

Just as unenviable might be facing East Carolina's offense. The Pirates (8-4) ranked fifth in the FBS with 532.8 yards per game and tied for 14th with an average of 37.2 points. Their passing game was second with 367.3 yards per game.

And they didn't simply pile up numbers in the American Athletic Conference.

In three consecutive matchups with Power 5 conference programs South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina from Sept. 6-20, East Carolina averaged 581.3 yards and 40.3 points. It lost 33-23 at then-No. 21 South Carolina before a 28-21 win at then-No. 17 Virginia Tech and a 70-41 home blowout of North Carolina.

Florida suffered a 23-20 overtime home loss to South Carolina on Nov. 15 for the teams' only common opponent.

"Our guys know the challenge we have ahead of us," Durkin said. "Everyone keeps mentioning all the stats and numbers, which are very impressive and eye opening. The most important thing to me, when you turn on the film, is that they have a group of guys who play the game the right way.

"They play really hard and with great energy. They have great enthusiasm, and you can tell they take great pride in what is going on."

East Carolina's Shane Carden had the second-most passing yards in the nation with 4,309 while throwing 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Justin Hardy, a third-team All-American, has been the main offensive weapon with 110 catches for 1,334 yards and nine TDs, and he will face a tough matchup with Florida cornerback and second-team All-American Vernon Hargreaves III.

Florida's strengths certainly lie on the defensive side of the ball, where it's held opponents to 21.2 points per game while ranking ninth in the FBS with 311.0 yards allowed per game and sixth with 5.7 yards allowed per touch.

"(Durkin has) been in it and been at some top places and done a great job on defense," said McNeill, whose team concluded the regular season with a 32-30 home loss to Central Florida.

Offensively, the Gators failed to crack 300 yards in five games. They ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense (370.2), and their 12th-ranked passing attack (180.7) never built any momentum in league play.

Outside of the SEC, however, Florida managed 542.5 yards of offense in blowout wins over Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky, its two nonconference games aside from a 24-19 season-ending loss to then-No. 1 Florida State.

That game featured offensive struggles similar to those that contributed to Muschamp losing his job with the Gators totaling 282 yards. Freshman Treon Harris was 13 of 32 for 169 yards, a TD and two INTs.

Harris' status for the bowl game remains unchanged despite facing a misdemeanor charge for allegedly operating a motor vehicle without a valid license.

Harris was stopped by campus police Dec. 13 for speeding near the stadium. Two other Florida players, freshmen defensive backs Jalen Tabor and J.C. Jackson, were in the car.

According to police, an odor of marijuana emanated from the car and two plastic bags were found that appeared to hold a small amount of marijuana. Because the vehicle did not belong to Harris, Tabor or Jackson, police did not charge any of them with possession.

"We are aware of the incident and are dealing with it internally," team spokesman Steve McClain said.

Harris' continued development, among others, under the watchful eye of the offensive-minded McElwain figures to be a point of emphasis as a new leaf is turned in the program.

"Change is always a difficult thing, but it is a part of life - not just football, but a part of life," Durkin said. "Our guys are going through the process and responding well to it. I told the team that life does not stop for anyone. You have to keep going, and our guys understand that. ... They are going to be ready to go."

Florida didn't make a bowl a season ago but has won four of its last five. East Carolina has dropped four of its last five.

The Gators won the only previous meeting 24-17 in 1983.

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