By Mike Capshaw, Photos by Tim Casey/UAA Communications
An estimated 21,000 Florida fans ushered in the Jim McElwain Era during the annual Orange & Blue Debut on April 13.
The Gators won. Orange 31, Blue 6.
It was the lowest announced attendance for any UF coach’s inaugural spring game since the first was played in 1996, but in McElwain’s defense, the crowd has been dwindling in recent years. With only six scholarship offensive linemen suiting up, fans were not certain if it would look more like a practice than a scrimmage until an announcement two days prior that the teams would line up 11-on-11 during four, 12-minute quarters.
In comparison to other top-tier programs with first-year coaches, Nebraska had a record 76,881 for Mike Riley’s debut while Michigan hosted an estimated 60,000 fans for Jim Harbaugh’s debut.
But let’s face it – there is much more to do in Florida than in Nebraska or Michigan during the spring. The Sunshine State is, after all, the top destination for spring breakers every year. When is the last time you heard a college kid say they were headed to Lincoln or Ann Arbor for spring break? Our guess is never.
But back to football. The Gators gave fans glimpses of the quick-strike, up-tempo offense that fueled McElwain’s turnaround of Colorado State as head coach and capture of a pair of national titles as offensive coordinator at Alabama. Most eyes were on the offense, especially the quarterback battle between redshirt freshman Will Grier and sophomore returning starter Treon Harris. Grier took the first snaps of the scrimmage for the Orange and looked crisp passing. He was 80-of-11 for 136 yards while leading three touchdown drives. Harris, who missed practices because of the death of his 16-year-old cousin, began behind an offensive line made up of walk-ons while going up against the first-team defense. He was 6-of-10 passing and tossed the game’s only touchdown pass.
Neither young quarterback did anything to help or hurt their chances during the scrimmage, which aired live on the SEC Network. McElwain did acknowledge that Grier is in the lead for the starting job while pointing out that there is still plenty of time (142 days from the spring game to the season opener against New Mexico State) before 2015 officially kicks off.
The offense was multiple but mostly vanilla, save for a 42-yard pass down the middle seam from Grier to Alvin Bailey off a flea flicker. It lined up pre-snap in everything from one-back and no-back spreads to a “jumbo” package with two tight ends.
“It’s a work in progress,” McElwain said of the offense. “Let’s face it, there [are] parts [to the offense] and we’re identifying the parts and we’ll put some plans together to help the explosive playmakers have an opportunity to make those plays. That’s for us to come up with after we go back through and go through every single cut-up of every practice. It’s amazing what you see when you do that; see how guys get better to details.
“There’s a lot of left to do.”
One of those playmakers is junior Demarcus Robinson, who McElwain clearly will look for ways to get the ball to on reverses, screens and other short passes as his “get-it-to” guy. If that’s successful, Robinson will easily best his team-high 53 receptions for 810 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Running backs Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane had solid spring games as well and will provide the offense with a one-two punch that will ease the pressure on whichever young quarterback steps under center.
The biggest issue remains along the offensive line, which handicapped the spring scrimmage and has consistently been an issue in recent years. Expect signee Martez Ivey to vie for significant action early on at left tackle.
“When we get the roster back to balance we’ll, you know, juice this thing up [in the spring scrimmage],’’ McElwain said. “But I did the best I could, we did the best we could, our O-line did the best they could and I’m proud of them.”
Defense should continue to be a team strength with young talent filling a few gaps left open due to graduation and early NFL departures.