Jim McElwain admits it: Hurricane Irma changed the 2017 season for UF’s football team.
“I don't think you can ever say that we're going to get back to normal,” he said Wednesday, “because through this storm that hit us... there is no normal.”
The unusually subdued McElwain seemed almost disinterested in football, though he was happy to talk about this Saturday’s clash with No. 23 Tennessee in Gainesville. It was clear, however, that some of his mind was elsewhere.
He said his odd mood was due to concern for players’ families affected by Irma, some of which he said were “displaced.” For them, football isn’t a priority at the moment. For them, there really is no going back to normal.
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But McElwain acknowledged that when the No. 24 Gators play the Volunteers on Saturday, it could serve as a distraction for them and for fans.
“I hope that it gives the people of the state of Florida,” he said, “just a couple hours of something to take their mind off as they recover from what they've gone through.”
For Florida’s football team, meanwhile, change could be a good thing. Especially on offense.
McElwain announced Wednesday that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who had been calling plays from the sideline, will call plays from the booth moving forward. That decision was made with Florida’s offense currently ranked worst in the nation in total offense and rushing.
At quarterback, things will remain the same. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will start his second game, and he’ll turn to the same supporting cast he had against Michigan.
Both Franks and McElwain are hoping for better results than they had against the Wolverines, who limited the Gators to 181 passing yards and 11 rushing yards.
Following Irma, McElwain admitted that will be challenging. But he was also confident in Franks and the rest of the offense to get it done.
“It's what we do,” he said. “It's in our fabric. One of the great lessons you learn in athletics and especially the game of football is sometimes you get knocked down. The measure of a true man is how he gets back up and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Gators faced similar circumstances last season when Hurricane Matthew forced Florida to postpone its home game against LSU and face the Tigers in Death Valley instead. The Gators won that contest thanks to a 98-yard touchdown pass and a goal-line stand. They also won the game immediately after the postponement — a 40-14 drubbing of Missouri.
This year, with Franks under center, players believe a similar rebound is possible.
“He was really calm and poised,” wideout Josh Hammond said of Franks’ demeanor against Michigan. “I think that was a big thing for him, just being calm. But I think he’s excited and he’s ready to go and be able to show that he can throw the ball around a little bit.”
Even with the interruption from Irma, players said they haven’t lost any practices, with coaches opting to shift schedules around the hurricane. And now that it’s passed, their focus is Tennessee.
Even with the changes Irma brought, that remains the same.
“Everyone was worried about their families,” cornerback Duke Dawson said. “Now that that’s out of the way, we can focus on ball.”
▪ McElwain said the nine players who are suspended in relation to a misuse of school funds will remain suspended against Tennessee. He offered no timetable for their returns. But even though the group includes starting running back Jordan Scarlett and starting wideout Antonio Callaway, he insisted their absence is “no concern.”
▪ Tight end DeAndre Goolsby will be available against Tennessee after an injury against Michigan, and freshman tight end Kemore Gamble will be available for the first time this season. Linebacker Kylan Johnson is out, as is wideout James Robinson, who is having his heart examined by specialists at UF Health Shands Hospital.
▪ Gators defensive tackle Khairi Clark had never heard of “Rocky Top” — the Osborne Brothers bluegrass classic turned Tennessee Volunteers fight song — until Wednesday afternoon. His thoughts? “No thoughts at all,” he said.