Florida, McElwain exceeding expectations; Michigan back on track behind defense
First-year Florida coach Jim McElwain knew all about the tempered expectations entering his inaugural campaign. His Gators were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East by the media. He was supposed to have a quarterback controversy and need time to generate excitement for a powerhouse that hasn't been the same since Urban Meyer's departure nearly five years ago.
McElwain has simply ignored all the prognostications. Instead, he has Florida (4-0) tied for first in the SEC East. He appears to have found a gutsy starting quarterback in redshirt freshman Will Grier and has brought a swagger to the 25th-ranked Gators that they haven't exhibited in years.
Florida will try to take its next step toward reclaiming its place among college football's elite on Saturday night, when it hosts third-ranked Ole Miss in a matchup with College Football Playoff implications. It's an SEC clash reminiscent of the Gators' past glory days. "This is where the Florida Gators should be," McElwain tells The Inside Read. "Are we surprised? No. This is what we expect."
That's the type of confidence that helped McElwain win two national championships in his four years as Alabama's offensive coordinator under Nick Saban. So, as thrilling as Antonio Callaway's game-winning 63-yard touchdown reception to beat Tennessee 28-27 Saturday was, McElwain kept the victory in perspective. "I know it was ugly and the kids did, too, but [these games are] why you come to the University of Florida," McElwain says. "That's right, we're the Gators."
And they still haven't lost to rival Tennessee since 2004. The Volunteers were picked to finish second in the SEC East by the media and led by 13 points Saturday with just over 10 minutes left. "What we're trying to get across is that's how it's supposed to be," McElwain says of beating Tennessee. "There's an order. Our guys are starting to understand that."
That's one of the many lessons that McElwain and his staff are imparting. Just like they're preaching better tackling against Ole Miss, which ranks second in the FBS in scoring (54.8 ppg). Florida had problems bringing down Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs in Saturday's win. It was a tackling effort McElwain calls "horrible."
"If we wrap up when we're supposed to wrap up, a lot of those big plays are null and void," McElwain says. "To miss those and still get a win, that's what's huge."
So was the play of Grier, who completed all five of his fourth-down passes for 123 yards, including Callaway's game-winner on 4th-and-14 with 1:26 left. The other four were good for first downs.
Although Florida scored on just one of its first nine possessions Saturday, Grier was 23 of 42 for a career-high 283 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. "He found a way, still not playing great, and not doing what you want, to finish," McElwain says. "That's huge. I'm proud of him."
But even in the aftermath of Saturday's victory, Grier had some levity. He told McElwain, "I've got a lot to learn."
"[He'll] learn it, that's the beauty of it," McElwain says. "I keep forgetting the guy is only a freshman."
McElwain described the gritty Grier as being "bruised up" and having sore ribs after being hit repeatedly by a Tennessee defense that had its way with Florida's inexperienced offensive line. "Like I tell him all the time, that's part of being an SEC quarterback," McElwain says.
And McElwain showed Saturday what's he going to be like as an SEC coach. Earlier in the week, Callaway wanted to practice chest-bumping McElwain because the freshman wide receiver thought he might return a punt for a touchdown.
"Man, I don't know if I can get up that high," McElwain told Callaway.
But after Callaway's game-winning reception, McElwain gave it a try. "Let's put it this way, it was a baby bump," McElwain says with a laugh. "There wasn't a lot of air involved."
There was an air of electricity on Saturday, though, as the Gators hosted what McElwain calls a "who's who" group of 2017 and '18 recruits. Those classes will be instrumental to McElwain's future in Gainesville. "You can start to feel that turn and that buzz," McElwain says.
McElwain also felt it Saturday for the first time since his arrival. The atmosphere humbled him. "We're so far from being a finished product," McElwain says, "and yet we're finding a way to hold up the Gator legacy."
One that McElwain can add to Saturday night with an upset of Ole Miss. It's the first Top 25 matchup the Gators have hosted since 2012.
"This will be fun," McElwain says. "I'm going to tell our guys to enjoy it. Don't get locked up. This is what should happen when you play games at The Swamp. Every year, it should be like this."
Now those are the type of expectations McElwain can get used to.
Led by coordinator D.J. Durkin, Michigan defense has been dominant
When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hired D.J. Durkin as his defensive coordinator in January, Durkin had just one question. The former Florida DC wanted to know if the Wolverines' secondary could adjust to playing more man-to-man coverage after often being in zone schemes last season.
He's received a resounding answer as Michigan's defense is ranked fifth in the nation against the pass this season, allowing 121.8 yards per game. It's part of Durkin's aggressive approach that's helped improve a unit that was already one of the nation's best last season.
Under Durkin, Michigan is also second nationally in total defense (203.8 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (9.5 points per game) entering Saturday's game at Maryland. Since a season-opening 24-17 loss at Utah, the Wolverines have surrendered a combined 478 yards and 14 points in three straight wins.
That's why the 37-year-old Durkin is one of college football's brightest young defensive minds and why he'll garner attention for head-coaching jobs in the months ahead. He was Florida's interim coach during the Gators' 28-20 win over East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl last season.
"There hasn't been any fight with what we're doing," Durkin tells The Inside Read of his defense. "There wasn't any, 'Oh, we've done it this way or it's better's this way.' They've bought into our system and scheme."
Durkin credits his defensive line's ability to control the line of scrimmage, which has allowed his secondary to play aggressively. It's an experienced group that has been led by redshirt junior defensive end Chris Wormley and thrived under defensive line coach Greg Mattison, the Wolverines' defensive coordinator last season.
Mattison's support of Durkin's new defensive approach has been instrumental in getting players to believe in the flexible scheme with 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. Durkin and Mattison worked together at Notre Dame from 2003-04.
Back then, Durkin was a defensive graduate assistant and Mattison was the Fighting Irish's defensive line coach. "He does a great job," Durkin says of Mattison.
Michigan's secondary has embraced playing more man-to-man coverage than zone, and in the process has become increasingly confident, according to Durkin. "The guys have that competitiveness about them," Durkin says. "Because back there when a defensive back makes a mistake, everyone knows it. They were excited about it. They knew exactly what that meant and what they're getting into."
In Michigan's 31-0 rout of BYU on Saturday, the Wolverines played mainly man-to-man coverage to try to limit the Cougars' dangerous passing game that has twice won this season on late-game Hail Mary touchdowns. The result was BYU quarterback freshman Tanner Mangum completing just 12 of 28 passes for 55 yards as the Cougars had just 105 yards of total offense, their worst offensive output since 1974.
"The key is that we keep improving," Durkin says. "We still have a ways to go. If you look at every week so far, I think we've done some better things and played better. The whole key to the season is to keep that going and then you might find yourself where you want to be at the end. We've just got to keep doing it."
Durkin praised the play of junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who is third in the Big Ten in passes defended with six. "He's done a phenomenal job," Durkin says. Durkin also spoke highly of junior cornerback Channing Stribling and redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark, who has a team-high two interceptions after being moved from safety in preseason camp. "He's done really well," Durkin says of Clark. "He does a great job playing press coverage and getting his hands on guys."
It's also helped that Durkin's has versatile redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who struggled with injuries last season before getting a medical redshirt. He's played cornerback and safety as well as nickel and dime this year.
Yet the stabilizing force of Michigan's secondary is senior safety Jarrod Wilson. "He calms us down and is in charge," Durkin says of Wilson. "For us to do as much as we do back there and mix it the way we do, you need that quarterback and that's what he is. He's really smart, always in the right place and gets guys lined up."
Although Durkin knows his defense didn't play well in Michigan's season-opening loss at Utah, he was encouraged that his players felt the same way about their performance. Since then, Durkin has repeatedly reviewed how his defense prepared and practiced leading up to that game.
"It makes you feel good as a coach if there's things you want to do better and the players are on the same page and not looking at you like, 'What do you mean?'" Durkin says. "That's when you've got something. Their pride was hurt and they felt like they knew they could play better."
Former Utah QB Brett Elliott excelling as JMU coordinator
In August 2003, Utah quarterback Brett Elliott led the Utes to a 40-20 victory over Utah State. He opened the scoring with a 12-yard touchdown pass to receiver Larry Miles on a play called Houston. The moment remains notable as it marked the first touchdown of Urban Meyer's coaching career at Utah.
Twelve years later, Elliott mentioned the touchdown pass as a fitting mile marker on his circuitous route to becoming one of the hot coordinators in college football. Elliott, 32, is in his first season as co-offensive coordinator at FCS James Madison, which pulled off a 48-45 upset of SMU on Saturday night.
If you've never heard of Elliott, that's because he got hurt a week after that victory at Utah State. An under-recruited back-up named Alex Smith took over the starting job, and in 2004 led Utah to an undefeated season and became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Realizing he'd have a hard time beating out Smith, Elliott transferred to Division III Linfield for the 2004 season.
Elliott laughs as he acknowledges his fleeting affiliation to Meyer's coaching tree. "I'm the dead leaf hanging on for dear life," Elliott told The Inside Read.
After transferring, things turned out well for Elliott. He went on to lead Division III Linfield to a national title in 2004. In 2005, he won the D-III Heisman, known as the Gagliardi Trophy and Melberger Award. He got a cup of coffee in the NFL with the Chargers in 2006 and played minor league ball for a few years before getting into coaching. He hooked back up with his old quarterback coach at Utah, Dan Mullen, and spent the last three years in Starkville in quality control helping with the quarterbacks. He worked closely with Dak Prescott and Bulldogs quarterback coach Brian Johnson, who replaced Smith at Utah. "He's a very sharp and up-and-coming coach," Mullen said on Sunday night. "He will be a hot name in coaching soon. He paid his dues the right way, worked hard and is taking advantage of his opportunity."
Elliott's big break came when JMU offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer left for Houston last year. JMU head coach Everett Withers is a former defensive coordinator under Meyer at Ohio State. He wanted someone with experience in Meyer's offense. Elliott walked into an ideal situation, as JMU quarterback Vad Lee, a Georgia Tech transfer, may be the best QB in the FCS. Lee ranks No. 5 in the FCS in passing yards and No. 5 in the FCS in rushing yards.
He reminds Elliott of the quarterback he left behind in Starkville. "There are so many similarities between Vad and Dak," Elliott said. "From everything on the field to what they're like off the field. They are like clones."
Elliott downplays his impact on JMU this season. He credits Mehringer and co-offensive coordinator Zak Kuhr, who brought the system with Withers over from Columbus and tweaked it to jack up the tempo. It showed in JMU's signature victory on Saturday, as Lee led the Dukes (4-0) on an eight-play, 75-yard drive for the winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to beat SMU. That leaves JMU as No. 1 in total offense (671.3), No. 2 in scoring offense (50.3) and No. 1 in rushing offense (356.3).
Elliott is the play caller, but says he walked into a loaded roster and great staff dynamic. "It's crazy how perfect of a situation it is and how seamless its been," Elliott said. "The great thing about the offensive staff is that we're all young and really get along."
Elliott jokes that he "wasn't the golden child at Utah," but it's undeniable his time there under Meyer has indelibly shaped his coaching career. And if he needs a reminder from his cameo role in Meyer's coaching ascent, he doesn't need to look further than his call sheet. JMU's base passing play is called Houston.
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