McElwain era begins at Florida with hope of improved offense
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Florida's passing game was difficult, maybe even impossible, to watch the last five years.
Deep balls were mostly non-existent. Tight ends were an afterthought. Creativity was conjecture. Productivity was three touchdowns.
Forget the Fun `n' Gun. With all the jokes surrounding the Gators' paltry passing game, the offense should have been dubbed the Run `n' Pun.
New coach Jim McElwain plans to return Florida to passing prominence, or at the very least, respectability. His first chance comes Saturday night against New Mexico State, a seemingly overmatched opponent that managed just five victories in the last three years.
McElwain has a strong vision for rebuilding the Gators. It includes better facilities, a few extra bodies working behind the scenes and bolstering recruiting efforts, and - maybe most importantly - better offensive efficiency.
''As hungry as (fans) are, I guarantee you that I'm twice as hungry to see and get after it,'' McElwain said. ''Yet, we still have to find out what they're capable of. For us, we want to discover some explosive playmakers and really stretch the field. One of the things we've stressed is trying to put the ball down the field vertically and not worry as much horizontally.''
Florida ranked 114th, 107th and 104th in passing yards the last three years, way down from the Tim Tebow era and significantly below when Steve Spurrier's ''Fun `n' Gun'' started revolutionizing the Southeastern Conference 25 years ago.
Florida hired McElwain to turn things around. He has directed several high-powered offenses, including recent stops at Fresno State, Alabama and Colorado State.
Getting it done at Florida won't be an overnight fix. After all, he hasn't even settled on a starting quarterback.
McElwain picked sophomore Treon Harris to start over redshirt freshman Will Grier in the opener. Harris is expected to play three or four series before turning things over to Grier. McElwain believes competing under the lights and in front of nearly 90,000 fans will help decide the outcome of the competition.
Florida has other concerns, too. Although tight end Jake McGee, running back Kelvin Taylor and receivers Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell are considered the team's top playmakers, the offensive line is a seemingly shaky unit with little experience and even less depth.
''I'm excited,'' guard Trip Thurman said. ''We've never really had an offensive coordinator that stayed here. With McElwain being an offensive guy, I think that's really the key to getting Florida's offense back on track the way they've been in the past.''
Florida's defense should be stout as usual.
Former coach Will Muschamp left behind a deep and talented unit, and new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins made few changes. The Gators will blitz more, which should create more turnovers and put the revamped offense in better spots.
''Kind of looking forward to seeing what our identity is going to be,'' McElwain said. ''This will be the first chance to give us a chance out there and see what we are, what we're all about. ... I know what we want it to be. There are certain things that we want our guys to be able to do and show.''
Offensive prowess tops the list.
Here are some other things to know about Florida and New Mexico State heading into the opener:
FLORIDA DEBUTS: Don't read too much into McElwain's first game. Former Florida coaches Ron Zook and Muschamp enjoyed dominating debuts, with the Gators pounding Alabama-Birmingham 51-3 under Zook in 2002 and thumping Florida Atlantic 41-3 under Muschamp in 2011. Florida edged Wyoming 32-14 in Urban Meyer's opener, and Meyer went on to lead the Gators to two national titles in three years.
ABOUT THE AGGIES: New Mexico State ranked last (128th) in rushing defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014 and 116th in total defense. The Aggies also have lost 10 in a row.
INJURIES: Florida likely will be without two projected starters. Safety Keanu Neal and left tackle Martez Ivey are considered doubtful.
SUSPENSIONS: The Gators will be without safety Marcus Maye, defensive end Alex McCalister and receiver Latroy Pittman because of an undisclosed violation of program policy.
MORRISON RETURNS: Florida linebacker Antonio Morrison is expected to start and play, eight months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.