University of Florida

Struggling Gators offense likely to unleash QB Treon Harris against Alabama

Florida head coach Jim McElwain, left, embraces quarterback Treon Harris after defeating South Carolina 24-14 on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Columbia, S.C.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain, left, embraces quarterback Treon Harris after defeating South Carolina 24-14 on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. AP

The Florida Gators’ offensive issues reached a nadir in last weekend’s humbling 27-2 loss to Florida State.

The No. 18 Gators, who averaged a paltry 13.8 points per game in November, were shut out offensively against the Seminoles, and now they must devise a game plan to score against No. 2 Alabama’s top-shelf defense (No. 3 in scoring, No. 2 in total) in the SEC Championship Game.

Quarterback Treon Harris has been bombarded with criticism in recent weeks, but first-year coach Jim McElwain shouldered some responsibility for Harris’ — and the entire offense’s — struggles.

“You need to look a little bit at me and what I’m asking him to do,” McElwain said. “We’re trying to push the envelope a little bit. That’s how we’re going to be offensively as we continue to grow. He’s probably handled and done as good a job with his skill-set as far as helping some of those things moving forward.”

Exactly. Harris’ skill-set.

The principle issue with UF’s listless attack is that its quarterback is a round peg (a spread-option QB) being asked to fit in a square hole (a pro-style, drop-back system).

And it’s not working.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Miami native is an elusive playmaker, but McElwain prefers a pocket passer, and Harris’ limitations — and inconsistencies — have been a liability.

He struggles to see over the line. He’s inaccurate and indecisive. He’s missing open receivers or holding the ball too long. A porous offensive line has hamstrung him, too. In the past four games, Harris has completed just 52 percent of his passes, with six turnovers and just three touchdowns.

“Treon has come under some heat in the last five weeks,” former UF quarterback Tim Tebow said. “Part of it is they’ve asked him to do some things that he’s not necessarily comfortable with.”

Still, Harris’ deficiencies aren’t a secret. As a freshman, he completed just 49.5 percent of his throws, but he protected the football and displayed a knack for explosive plays.

He continued a similar trend early this season, too, including a solid performance (17 of 32 for 271 yards, two touchdowns) in a 35-28 loss at LSU.

But opponents quickly diagnosed Harris’ strengths (rolling right, naked bootlegs), and McElwain & Co. have been unable (or unwilling) to adjust.

“Part of it is, I think, a little bit of the unknown in the LSU game,” McElwain said. “What people have done to take the things away from him that kind of made him successful there.”

Some of Harris’ marquee moments this season (a couple 50-plus yard passes to freshman wideout Antonio Callaway) have come off scrambles or busted plays.

With former starter Will Grier suspended until next season and no legitimate depth behind Harris, the Gators have been shy at calling many designed quarterback runs.

That’s likely to change Saturday.

For the first time this season, Harris’ athleticism could be unleashed when the Gators (10-2) battle the Crimson Tide (11-1).

“Quarterback run has hurt these guys if you look at the couple of games they’ve lost over the last few years,” McElwain said, referring to Alabama’s lone susceptibility in losses to Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Ohio State. “When you look at what they did against them, those were all the common dominator: running quarterbacks, Wildcat stuff.

“We aren’t built that way. But we’ll put something together to hopefully at least make them think. My biggest thing is I just hope they come away scratching their heads and say, ‘That was cute.’