Without coaching a game, Jim McElwain has already pocketed a pair of victories in 2015.
The University of Florida’s appointed savior quickly won over Gator Nation simply by being a coach other than the much-maligned Will Muschamp. Expediting the construction of the school’s indoor practice facility was his next triumph.
But offseason moral victories won’t carry much weight unless McElwain wins actual football games in the fall.
With a new regime on board, the Gators are hungry, but how much Florida can chew in Year One of a restoration largely remains a mystery.
“We’re going to surprise a lot of people. A lot of people are counting us out,” defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. said. “Our defense expects to be the best in the nation, and our offense is coming along really nice. They’ve improved a lot. You can see their confidence in everything they’re doing. We’re going to be good.”
Perhaps if everything breaks right.
Florida football needs fixing, so athletic director Jeremy Foley tabbed the very man who was a critical component of the Alabama machine that kick-started UF’s nosedive into a Southeastern Conference also-ran.
The Gators are 38-26 since the infamous 2009 SEC Championship Game rout by Alabama, with just 11 victories the past two seasons.
Muschamp is gone now, but problems persist.
Florida’s offense — ranked 96th, 115th, 104th and 105th the past four seasons — remains a work in progress.
Whoever wins UF’s quarterback derby — a battle between inconsistent underclassmen Will Grier or Treon Harris might not be decided until the season opener — will play behind one of the most inexperienced offensive lines in the country.
The Gators still lack a quality group of developed playmakers, too, as McElwain inherited a roster full of mismatched and marginalized players recruited for four different offensive systems.
“You look at us getting off the bus now and it’s like the Land of Misfit Toys,” McElwain told ESPN.com this spring. “There’s good players here. It’s our responsibility to get them going.”
McElwain comes to Gainesville touting impressive credentials. He won a pair of national titles as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator, and he oversaw the country’s 19th-best attack at Colorado State last season.
So while Florida’s flashy “Fun ‘N Gun” won’t be revived immediately, there’s confidence McElwain’s background, knowledge and player-friendly system will at least produce a competent attack in 2015.
“We had the players last year,” sophomore receiver Brandon Powell said. “We just didn’t have the plays.
Said McElwain: “They’re capable if they allow themselves to be. … At some point when you’re beat over the head so much you end up thinking that you’re not worthy. Everybody boos them. It’s like, ‘what about these guys?’ You guys write it, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And yet, at the same time, when you hear it over and over and over, then all of the sudden you think it’s true. Well, I’m telling you it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Still, while evidence suggests Florida should improve under McElwain, it will take time, and the Gators’ 2015 schedule isn’t exactly forgiving.
Six ranked teams — including five in a row during a brutal October — sit on UF’s slate. With a stacked defense — ranked in the top 10 nationally three of the past four seasons — again shouldering the load, UF boasts enough blue-chippers to theoretically beat anyone.
Of course, the Gators are flawed enough (see: depth) that they could just as easily lose to Kentucky or South Carolina.
“Sometimes you need to be the underdog,” starting nose tackle Joey Ivie said. “Sometimes you need people to doubt you because the worst thing you can do to somebody is doubt them. That just makes you more hungry.
“I think our confidence is pretty high. I know we’re probably not ranked the highest right now. I don’t think anyone is really looking at that. I think as a team, with Coach Mac [at the helm] we’re pretty confident.”
Offensive line health, quarterback play and improved special teams are paramount to Florida’s success in 2015, so while there’s renewed hope in Gainesville, the offseason’s optimism won’t mask the team’s question marks this fall.
“We’ve had some great change already, and yet we’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re getting there,” said McElwain, who hired a solid, sensible staff and immediately sought to modernize Florida’s “tired” facilities. “They’re not overnight fixes.
“Those are things that happen over time, and I’m excited this administration and our president has afforded us the opportunity to take this program in that direction.”
Early in training camp, Florida released a video declaring, “A storm is brewing in Gainesville.”
Maybe, but right now the horizon is just cloudy, and 2015 is as much about the future as the now.
ELEMENT OF SUCCESS:
Florida’s secondary is rightfully heralded, but the Gators’ pass rush could be scary good, too. Despite having to replace NFL Draft first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. at defensive end, UF still boasts a young, tenacious and disruptive defensive front. Tackles Caleb Brantely and Taven Bryan are powerful interior rushers, and ends Alex McCalister (six sacks) and Bryan Cox (four sacks) are primed for increased roles. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, formerly at Mississippi State, loves attacking the quarterback, as the Bulldogs’ aggressive unit ranked second in the SEC in sacks last season.