University of Florida

Despite question marks, Florida coach McElwain eyes improved offense

Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Mon., July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala.
Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Mon., July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. AP

University of Florida coach Jim McElwain’s mantra last year was 15 opportunities, the notion that the Gators were going to be national title contenders in his first season at UF.

They came close, winning the SEC East before falling flat down the stretch with three consecutive losses by a combined score of 97-29.

When McElwain took to the lectern on Wednesday to open up the 2016 edition of Florida football training camp, the coach from Montana did not back down with his expectations for the team, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

“I would challenge us to be dramatically better,” McElwain said.

It would be tough for the Gators to experience more of a dropoff than they did to end last season. UF scored just two offensive touchdowns in the final three games and averaged a paltry 238.3 yards per contest.

Yet just how much of an improvement the offense will have is to be determined. Outside of Florida’s three-headed attack at running back, the offense is littered with question marks heading into camp.

The starting quarterback battle will be ongoing throughout camp and potentially into the season. Journeyman Luke Del Rio, after stints with Alabama and Oregon State, remains the front-runner. Whoever does end up starting — whether it’s Del Rio, fellow transfer Austin Appleby or one of the true freshmen in Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask — will be the Gators’ eighth quarterback since Tim Tebow left in 2009.

“We’ll make the decision when we’re ready to make the decision,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, “and when we think the timing’s right.”

And with the uncertainty at quarterback also comes uncertainty at wide receiver, as the status of playmaking receivers Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells remain up in the air, too.

Callaway, a freshman All-SEC selection last year and Florida’s top big-play guy in 2015, remains suspended for a student code of conduct violation.

“There hasn’t been any change in the status,” McElwain said. “He’ll be practicing. Like I said, he’s back with the team from that standpoint. Nothing from a status standpoint has changed, and there isn’t a time frame on that.”

As for Cleveland and Wells, a pair of freshmen receivers who were arrested on July 18 for firing a BB gun at a residence hall on campus, McElwain said they “were dealt some pretty heavy consequences right as it happened. Those consequences are continued on and nothing has been finalized.” He added both have been cleared to practice.

The offensive line, which gave up an NCAA-worst 45 sacks last season, lost two of its most experienced players in Trip Thurman and Mason Halter.

But the Gators aren’t looking at what they might not have. With a new season on the horizon, a sense of optimism filled the room as UF prepares for its first day of practice on Thursday.

“It kind of goes back to control what you can control,” Del Rio said. “I can’t really control how people think we’re going to do. Obviously, they don’t think we’re going to do too good. We’re excited to prove them wrong.”

And with a month until the season opener against Massachusetts, McElwain is continuing to stress that his team focuses on the present.

What happened last year — both the good and the bad — is in the past.

“This is a team that has to understand that what they did a year ago was kind of discover a little bit maybe what was possible,” McElwain said. “And yet [they] learned some lessons along the way about understanding, never being satisfied … you can’t go into coast.”

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