It’s a start.
The Florida Gators officially popped the cork on the Jim McElwain Era on Saturday night, and a fan base starved for hope — and offensive fireworks — got a little taste of the future on a gorgeous evening in The Swamp.
“I’m really proud of how our guys played the game,” McElwain said after UF throttled lowly New Mexico State 61-13 in front a crowd of 90,227.
“We played the game fast, physical and we played it clean. That showed me a lot. It showed me our guys are listening. … I was really proud of that but we’ve still got a long way to go as a ball squad.”
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Florida might have even found a quarterback — or two.
The rotation between sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier worked flawlessly, and the battle remains ongoing.
Grier dazzled in his debut and might have seized control of the competition had Harris not been so sharp early in the blowout.
Harris, a former star at Miami Booker T. Washington High, started the game 7 of 7 for 119 yards and a score — piloting the Gators to a quick 14-0 lead.
The Gators (1-0) cruised the rest of the way, but the quarterback derby kept the night’s proceedings interesting.
After Harris’ first three series, McElwain inserted Grier — and stuck with the redshirt freshmen for nearly two full quarters.
Grier’s first collegiate pass fell incomplete, but otherwise the 6-2, 215-pounder was excellent. He completed 15 of 17 passes for 164 yards and two scores, adding 43 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“Both guys played really well,” McElwain said.
“We moved the ball with both of them. The whole team responded well to both of them. It was kind of the plan to start Treon and get him 12 to 15 [plays] or three series and then bring Will back after the half kind of as the starter to see how that goes. For the most part, both did a pretty darn good job.”
So much so that McElwain said he might consider playing the duo moving forward.
“I could see that,” he said.
Aside from a fumble on a poor blitz recognition, Grier was efficient, flashing his strong arm and unsung mobility. He played six consecutive series, leading five scoring drives. He hooked up with promising tight end C’yontai Lewis for both touchdowns (the redshirt freshman’s first two-career receptions) and plenty of other fresh faces also flashed play-making ability absent from Gainesville for a half decade.
Sophomore Brandon Powell impressed with two catches for 50 yards and a score, and freshman wideout Antonio Callaway, another Booker T. Washington alum, sophomore tight end DeAndre Goolsby (three catches for 38 yards) and freshmen tailbacks Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite (with a touchdown apiece) all made plays.
In all, 14 Gators caught passes, including All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators had 244 yards passing by halftime — more than they had in nine whole games in 2014.
“I like that. Just sprinkle it around the infield a little bit,” McElwain said. “A lot of guys stepped up and made plays. We didn’t have a lot of drops, which I thought was good.”
Still, it was only New Mexico State (0-1).
The Aggies were among the nation’s worst teams the past three seasons, and they haven’t made a bowl game since 1960. UF knocked the socks off a similar foe in last season’s opener (655 yards and 65 points against Eastern Michigan), so unbridled expectations should be tempered.
The Gators (amazingly) committed just one penalty, but their performance wasn’t flawless.
The inexperienced offensive line was OK, and the Gators’ defense had periods of sluggishness. Although Hargreaves (41-yard interception return) and sophomore Jalen Tabor were solid (two pass breakups, one tackle for loss), UF’s secondary — missing both starting safeties — surrendered a couple of big plays (specifically Teldrick Morgan’s terrific 31-yard touchdown catch).
The team’s tackling was suspect at times, too.
But it was only the opener, and it was a start.
McElwain’s team scored the most points ever in a UF coach’s debut.
During halftime, Macklemore’s Return of the Mack blasted over the loudspeakers.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, or perhaps it was a glimpse into Florida’s future.
The Gators extended the nation’s longest opening day winning streak to 26 games. … NMSU received a $1 million payout for the game. … Former UF All-American center, assistant coach and athletics director Bill Carr served as the team’s honorary Mr. Two Bits. … Nine true freshmen saw playing time: Callaway, Scarlett, Cronkrite, cornerback Chris Williamson, right tackle Fred Johnson, end CeCe Jefferson, guard Tyler Jordan, tight end Camrin Knight and cornerback Deiondre Porter. … Defensive end Alex McCalister, safety Marcus Maye and backup wideout Latroy Pittman were all suspended for a violation of team rules. … Starting safety Keanu Neal (leg), freshman left tackle Martez Ivey (knee scope) and backup linebacker Matt Rolin (undisclosed) all sat out Saturday’s opener.