University of Florida

Gators once again stressing offensive improvement

With Austin Appleby, right, out of the picture, it might at last be Feleipe Franks’ time to run the offense in Gainesville.
With Austin Appleby, right, out of the picture, it might at last be Feleipe Franks’ time to run the offense in Gainesville. AP

One of Florida coach Jim McElwain’s missions when he took over the program was to bring offense back into the limelight.

Instead, the offense has been remembered more over the first two seasons for its three-and-outs, predictability and inability to break through and overpower defenses.

Heading into a daunting schedule in Year 3 — one that includes a season opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and home games against Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State — and with the defense having to replace eight of last season’s starters, McElwain and the Gators know the offense needs to take a step forward if they want to once again contend for a Southeastern Conference title.

“[The coaches have] been preaching that to us all offseason and so far all spring,” center T.J. McCoy said, “just straining and trying to be the best and proving a point. When we play Michigan in September, it’s time to prove a point. Are we going to prove the critics right or are we going to prove them wrong?”

Through two years, though, the momentum has been in favor of the critics.

Florida has finished in the bottom 30 nationally in total offense in each of McElwain’s first two years. The Gators have averaged 23.5 points per game in that span — the fourth-fewest in the SEC — and have converted just 39 percent of their third-down attempts.

“Obviously, every game you look at and say, ‘What can we do better? What do we want to do more of? What do we need to develop?’ ” UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “... The overall big picture of where we’re headed and the guys understanding how we’re trying to accomplish it, I feel real good about it.”

The offense’s success will likely come down to finding its quarterback. Redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are still in the midst of a quarterback battle that will likely continue past Florida’s spring game on April 7. McElwain on Monday praised both 19-year-olds for their ability to work the deep ball but noted both had accuracy issues in the team’s half scrimmage last Friday.

“Both quarterbacks had some real explosive throws,” McElwain said, “and yet I think our sense of urgency needs to pick up a little bit.”

While Florida’s quarterback battle between Franks and Trask is still heating up with about two weeks of spring practice left, McElwain and Nussmeier believe the pieces surrounding the quarterback are in place to make a statement.

Florida lost just four mainstays from last season’s offense: quarterback Austin Appleby, wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood and offensive linemen David Sharpe and Cam Dillard.

Florida returns running back Jordan Scarlett, a former St. Thomas Aquinas standout who led UF with 889 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns last year, along with rising sophomore Lamical Perine and rising senior Mark Thompson.

The Gators bring back their three top receivers in Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell and Tyrie Cleveland. Dre Massey, a junior-college transfer who sustained a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff of the season, will be back as well along with tight ends DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis.

“We have not only players coming back who have played but good players coming back who haven’t played. That obviously helps,” McElwain said. “I mean, the continuity and understanding of the things that we’re trying to get accomplished and when you are installing new stuff — changes, wrinkles, whatever you want to call it — there’s that base that’s already there and now you can add to it moving forward.”