Florida’s passing game has been reduced to a frozen state of mind the past five seasons.
Absent have been the days of the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” and the “Jump Pass,” with fans instead seeing a slow-paced, low-risk attack. The lack of consistent quarterback play combined with four offensive coordinators in five seasons turned the Gators’ attack from fun to glum.
Enter new coach Jim McElwain from Colorado State; his offense-minded ways and pro-style playbook most certainly will include stretching defenses with a downfield passing attack.
Today’s college football stresses the importance of explosive plays, led by quarterback-driven spread offenses. McElwain will bring his version of an attacking offense to The Swamp, looking to thaw out the Gators’ passing attack. To put in perspective what McElwain is inheriting, take a look at the “explosive play” numbers in Gainesville and at Colorado State. Florida had 67 explosive (25-plus yard) pass plays in the past four seasons; Colorado State had 79 such plays in the past two seasons.
The encouraging aspect is that McElwain’s track record in Fort Collins and while he was coordinator at Alabama shows that he will throw the ball down the field. In 2011, with a first-year starter A.J. McCarron at quarterback, his Alabama offense averaged nearly eight yards per pass attempt while winning a national championship. Florida has not averaged eight yards per attempt since 2009, Tim Tebow’s last season.
Florida’s issue at quarterback is one that will play itself out in the first two games. In 2011, in a similar situation at Alabama, McElwain decided after one game that McCarron, not Philip Sims, would be his starter. Looking at the 2015 Gators schedule, it could be midway through Game 2, against East Carolina, before McElwain settles on his starter. Redshirt freshman Will Grier has a higher ceiling and could prove to be the guy. But sophomore Treon Harris, who will start the opener against New Mexico State, has shown he can make explosive plays in the passing game. As a true freshman, Harris had 11 completions of at least 25 yards — and did it in a vanilla passing attack.
One trademark of a good offensive coach is finding a way to get the ball to your best players as often as possible. Florida’s “big three” should be wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell and tight end Jake McGee. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has asked Powell and Robinson to expand their football IQ to handle more of the offense. Each guy looks to have risen to the challenge. Expect to see Powell in the slot, lined up outside and also in the backfield. Robinson will play inside and outside. Robinson is blessed with great physical talent and reminds me a lot of former Gator greats Willie Jackson and Jabar Gaffney.
I expect McElwain to take downfield shots on first down and especially around midfield. Last season, Colorado State hit 23 of its 41 explosive passing plays on first down. In a pro-style attack, you have to be able to keep the defense off-balance because you don’t have the zone read and all of its window dressing. Attacking on first down is a trademark of McElwain’s offense, and I expect to see it a lot early in the season.
Teams have made the Gators play in a phone booth the past five seasons, daring them to throw deep. This season, that defensive philosophy will change and UF finally again will have a downfield passing game. The explosive plays will return, which will melt the ice of the past five seasons and mean the Gators against will have fun offensively.
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