“Jim McElwain views his first two years at Florida like a game of poker: He was dealt cards when he arrived, and he had to make it work.
“Whatever hand you're given,” he said Wednesday, “you figure out how to play that hand.”
He did so to considerable success in his first two seasons at UF, riding the defensive pieces left behind by former coach Will Muschamp to a 19-8 record.
But entering his third year, he admitted he’s been able to stack the deck in the form of his own players.
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He also admitted he was brought to Gainesville to fix Florida’s stagnant offense, which he didn’t do in his first two seasons. And even though he’s proud of his team finding a way to advance to two-straight Southeastern Conference championship games, he thinks the time for the offense to shine is coming.
That journey officially started Thursday when the Gators opened preseason practice.
After losing key defensive players like Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Caleb Brantley and Jarrad Davis to the NFL, the team’s defense is in flux. Especially on the back end, where the Gators lost safety Marcus Maye to the NFL Draft and, more recently, redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris to a torn Achilles tendon.
In place of Harris, the Gators used sophomore Chauncey Gardner at safety alongside redshirt senior Nick Washington on Thursday. McElwain, however, asserted that Gardner will play corner and said Thursday not to read too much into his time at safety.
But regardless of who plays what, the defensive changes put more pressure on the offense. Especially at quarterback, where McElwain maintains it’s an open competition despite bringing in Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire. Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks took snaps with the first-team offense on Thursday, although McElwain once again said that meant nothing as far as who will be the team’s long-term starter.
No quarterback looked particularly sharp during drills, with each one — Zaire, Franks and Luke Del Rio — missing some throws and making others. The team’s other quarterbacks — freshmen Kadarius Toney, Jake Allen and redshirt freshman Kyle Trask — worked with a different group in the split-squad practice.
“It was a little shaky to begin with,” McElwain said of the quarterbacks. “You could tell some of the nerves, and yet as the practice wore on I thought we were very accurate in where we were going with the football. There were some big plays made on the outside, and that's a good thing, so we've just got to continue that moving forward.”
He said Wednesday the team has the supporting cast to make that happen, starting with an improved offensive line and depth at receiver.
And as for stacking the deck entering year three, McElwain said he was able to get a good look at the team’s freshman in the first part of practice. His thoughts?
“We did pretty darned good in recruiting,” he said.”
▪ Florida is ranked No. 16 in the first Amway Coaches Poll, which was released Thursday. Other SEC teams included are No. 1 Alabama, No. 12 LSU, No. 13 Auburn, No. 15 Georgia and No. 24 Tennessee. The state placed three other teams, with Florida State at No. 3, Miami at No. 18 and South Florida at No. 21 . Michigan, which Florida opens against on Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas, debuted at No. 9.
▪ Toney took reps with the wide receivers. The move was no surprise, as McElwain said that he plans to use Toney “a little bit everywhere,” along with wideout Dre Massey.
▪ Freshman offensive lineman TJ Moore was the only player injured. McElwain said his “back kind of locked up on him a little bit,” but it didn’t sound serious.