- Jim McElwain would love to have an answer to the biggest summer question in the SEC East. But he doesn't just yet.
HOOVER, Ala. — Even in the age of social media, we apparently still play Telephone. Remember that game? Whisper a message to one person. That person whispers to the next and the message goes down the line until it comes out garbled on the other end.
Tuesday, the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi asked Florida coach Jim McElwain about something McElwain had allegedly said in an interview a few minutes earlier.
Question: Coach, somebody just tweeted out that you said earlier that you know who your starting quarterback’s going to be. If that's true, can you shed a little bit more light on that?
If that were true, that would be very big news indeed. The Gators have won two consecutive SEC East titles, but they remain a dynamic quarterback away from leaping into true SEC or national title contention. In both of McElwain’s seasons in Gainesville, Florida’s offense has languished in the 100s nationally in yards per play. Florida will have its best supporting cast around the quarterback since McElwain arrived, but the Gators probably can’t make the leap they desire unless they get more out of their signal-caller. If McElwain had a quarterback he knew could drag the Gators closer to the end zone more often, he’d probably shout it from the rooftop. But he doesn’t know that yet, and McElwain quickly set the record straight Tuesday. “I don't know how that came out,” he said. “Who knows? I know we will start a quarterback.”
The exchange that started the game of Telephone happened a few minutes before McElwain took the stage in the ballroom SEC Media Days. SI colleague Bruce Feldman asked the questions, and McElwain’s answers got misinterpreted by someone. Here’s how it went. McElwain had just finished answering a question from Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes about how much difference a special quarterback can make. Feldman followed up.
Feldman: Are you convinced that one of these four guys has “it”?
McElwain: Yeah. I believe so.
Feldman: Do you know which guy it is already?
McElwain loves to have fun during these interviews. He tells great stories about when he roomed with Colin Cowherd at Eastern Washington or about the bear he encountered at his cabin in Montana. What he rarely does is offer concrete information about his football team. And he especially isn’t going to offer much about the most important open job on his two-deep. He’d love to come to SEC Media Days with a clear starter at quarterback, but the plain truth is the Gators don’t have one.
The inability to solve the quarterback puzzle is the biggest stain on an otherwise stellar stint at Florida for McElwain. He is the only SEC coach to ever win a division title in his first two seasons. Down SEC East or not, that’s an impressive feat. But the longer the quarterback questions linger—and they’re extending into a third season now—the better the chances someone else in the East catches up to the Gators.
When Florida takes the field against Michigan on Sept. 2, one of three players will run the offense. It might be senior Malik Zaire, the former Notre Dame quarterback who just arrived in Gainesville as a graduate transfer. It might be redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, a former four-star recruit who is easily the best athlete in the quarterback room. Or it might be Luke Del Rio, who started six games last season and has recently recovered from shoulder surgery.
Yes. Luke Del Rio remains a viable option. That isn’t what Florida fans want to hear, but that is the situation. Also hanging over this situation is the distinct possibility that former Florida quarterback Will Grier will shine as West Virginia’s quarterback. After taking over in 2015, Grier led Florida to a miracle comeback against Tennessee and a dominant win against an Ole Miss team that would go on to win the Sugar Bowl. Soon after, the NCAA suspended Grier for a year for testing positive for a banned substance. Instead of waiting out the suspension, Grier and the Gators mutually agreed to part ways. With Grier starting in Morgantown, every touchdown he throws could be a reminder of what might have been. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to do,” McElwain said Tuesday. “He’s going to light that place up.”
McElwain can only worry about the players he has on campus, though. Unfortunately, there is no perfect choice. Zaire has a limited body of work. “I know he beat LSU,” Gators safety Marcell Harris said Tuesday. Yes, Zaire did lead Notre Dame to a win against the Tigers in the 2014 Music City Bowl. Then he helped the Fighting Irish whip Texas in the 2015 season opener. Then he got hurt against Virginia the following week, and that was pretty much it. A few series for Zaire and DeShone Kizer in the 2016 season opener at Texas showed that Kizer was clearly Notre Dame’s best option at quarterback. By the end of last season, it was apparent Brandon Wimbush would succeed Zaire in South Bend. Zaire didn’t have a host of teams willing to hand him the starting job, which is why he was still on the market in early June when the SEC tweaked the graduate transfer rule and allowed Florida to take him.
Franks, meanwhile, got the best of fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask in spring practice. But Franks didn’t win the hearts and minds of his teammates and coaches. If he had, the Gators probably wouldn’t have brought in Zaire to compete for the starting job. The 6' 6", 219-pound Franks looks and acts the part, but he must take complete command of the offense and cut down on interceptions to win the job.
Del Rio remains an experienced alternative, and McElwain said the fifth-year senior has begun throwing again. McElwain also expressed remorse for playing a hobbled Del Rio in the loss to Arkansas that ended Del Rio’s season. “I should have never put him out there in that game,” McElwain said. Florida’s fanbase might lose its collective mind if McElwain starts Del Rio—not because of any personal animosity toward Del Rio but because of the fear of more of the same on offense.
That is the prevailing fear in Gainesville, and that’s why McElwain isn’t as beloved as someone who just won two consecutive division titles normally would be. Plenty of teams would gladly trade places with the Gators, but the offense of the past two seasons created a ceiling that—with apologies to Michael Jordan—was the roof of the Georgia Dome as Florida offensive players stared up past the Alabama defenders who had just splattered them. For the Gators to be what they aspire to be, they have to compete with Florida State. They have to not only win the East but be competitive in the SEC title game.
That only happens if the offense gets better. And that only happens if a great quarterback emerges. Contrary to the result at the end of Tuesday’s game of Telephone, the Gators don’t yet know if that will happen.