Jim McElwain has taken an unorthodox approach to bowl preparation this December.
Last week, Florida’s first-year coach told his seniors and all juniors considering or entering the NFL Draft to take three or four days off from practice.
Instead of gearing up for UF’s showdown with No. 17 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, McElwain started preparing for 2016 and beyond.
“It gives us a little jump-start moving forward as we get back on [Jan. 5], when school starts. It’s a quick turnaround for our guys as we start our offseason stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to see. And in it as a coach and as players, it’s kind of fun to look into the future with the guys that are taking reps.”
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The No. 19 Gators practiced as a full-squad Tuesday and Wednesday before heading home for the holidays, but the initial bowl practices were spent exclusively with younger players.
It allowed the veterans to rest, injured players to get healthy and McElwain & Co. a chance to identify potential contributors and leaders for next season.
“It’s big for those guys,” said sophomore cornerback Jalen Tabor, specifically alluding to freshmen and redshirt freshmen eager to prove their worth. “They can show the coaches what they can do going into spring ball. We’re just building for next year.”
Although Florida is a relatively young team, the Gators will lose some key senior leadership — especially along the offensive line. With guard Trip Thurman and swing-tackle Mason Halter graduating, McElwain has implored left tackle David Sharpe to take an increased role with such a young and developing unit.
“It’s a change,” said Sharpe, a sophomore who started 12 games this season. “I’ve got to step up and become more of a leader. More vocal. [The coaches] are definitely trying to pick out the leaders and captains of next year’s team.”
According to players, even without the veterans, practice competition stayed fierce. Sharpe said the youngsters, especially the freshmen redshirting this season, took the spilt-squad practices “way more serious.”
“They’re going harder than they usually do,” he continued. “They’re trying to show the coaches that they’re ready for next year, so that’s always great.”
McElwain strongly believes his approach will help Florida both in its bowl game and serve as a launching point for 2016.
“We use the term spring ball loosely, but at the same time it allows us a chance to step back and get a bunch of guys a lot of valuable, fundamental reps in a block,” McElwain said. “That will only move to help them as we move into next spring. To be able to do that is huge.
“And then segmenting it where now we go into more game-prep stuff, starting here in the next couple days, the value of it is hard, I just know how refreshing it is and how far it pushes your program forward.”