GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jim McElwain’s third season at Colorado State was really when it all came together for him out there.
His Rams climbed from 4-8 to 8-6 and eventually 10-2 that final season before he departed. And with that he was off to Florida to take on another rebuilding project.
This one enters year three as well, as the Gators open spring practice Tuesday.
McElwain’s task at Florida certainly has been far more high profile and nuanced. He’s gone 10-4 and 9-4 with a pair of SEC East titles in his first two seasons with the Gators, and yet — to borrow one of McElwain’s favorite transitions — vocal parts of the fan base remain unsatisfied.
The critics see two years gone and no answer at the quarterback position, a spot that has vexed Florida since Tim Tebow left town. They see a coach with a ballyhooed and legitimately impressive offensive track record overseeing an offense that has ranked 112th and 116th nationally in his two seasons.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
One could note that among SEC teams, only national superpower Alabama has more wins — total and in conference play — these last two seasons than Florida. Or note that McElwain is the first coach in SEC history to reach the conference championship game in each of his first two seasons, and that his 19 wins are tied with Steve Spurrier for the second-most among Gators coaches through their first two years.
More cynical critics will counter that Florida has beat up on a weak SEC East, being carried by a defense built largely with players that former coach Will Muschamp recruited, while the offense has continued to falter.
McElwain has his own perspective.
“As we go around locally, regionally, nationally, (seeing) a lot of people understanding what we’ve overcome and what we’ve been able to build in the two short years we’ve been here has been outstanding,” he said last week. “The excitement’s there, and you know what? It’s a lot of fun.”
McElwain’s arc of progress at Colorado State is relevant for no other reason than that was his only other head coaching job with which to compare.
But it’s not really an apt comparison.
He took over a program there already removed from its glory days, coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons and looking for any signs of encouragement. Which he provided and then some.
At Florida he took over a program with unyielding national championship expectations and minimal patience. Sure, the Gators were coming off seasons of 4-8 and 7-4 when McElwain arrived (he was hired before the 2015 Birmingham Bowl win), but the standard had been set long ago in Gainesville.
So no, not much similarity in the situations.
“That’s probably a pretty good question. I’m not one of those guys that really … you learn from the past, but you don’t ever look at it. Does that make sense?” McElwain said when asked to compare his two head coaching jobs. “Each place has its own set of issues, its own strengths, its own negatives and you’ve got to work on those independently in whatever it was. …
“I think every year is its own. I don’t think you can group it into something. I think when you start to do that, then you aren’t doing the service to what the issues are at that current moment.”
The issues at the current moment are obvious, as previously stated.
Florida doesn’t know who its starting quarterback will be in 2017, or if that guy will be the long-awaited “quarterback of the future” the Gators can build around.
Redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask will get the bulk of the snaps this spring as they look to show they’ve progressed in their grasp of the offense and as passers. Injured fifth-year junior Luke Del Rio should be healthy by fall camp and remains an option should the young QBs — primarily Franks, who was ahead of Trask on the depth chart in 2016 — falter.
The defense has to replace many core contributors and makes the transition from former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, now the head coach at Temple, to new DC Randy Shannon, who was promoted from within.
Shannon has instant credibility within the locker room and was the preferred hire by many of the players. He also guided the Gators to a dominant performance in the Outback Bowl as they held Iowa to 3 points and 226 yards.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a drop-off on defense. The Gators lost three likely first-round draft picks in cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson and linebacker Jarrad Davis. They lost another early-round pick in defensive tackle Caleb Brantley and yet more future NFL talent in safety Marcus Maye, linebacker Alex Anzalone and a pair of defensive linemen in Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. who also could find their way on NFL rosters this summer.
That’s a lot to replace, yet there’s excitement about the young talent — guys like defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr. and linebackers David Reese and Kylan Johnson — who are ready to take on larger roles. Along with remaining proven veterans like cornerback Duke Dawson, safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington and defensive linemen Cece Jefferson and Jordan Sherit.
Despite the exodus of talent, there’s reason for optimism on that side of the ball.
The spotlight of scrutiny will remain squarely affixed to the offense.
The Gators will hope new offensive line coach Brad Davis can get the most out of a group that is another year older and more experienced. And they’ll hope Franks proves ready to take the job and use his big arm to maximize a very talented receiving corps led by Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland and a wealth of depth. All while junior running back Jordan Scarlett looks to build on a very promising 2016 campaign (889 yards, 6 touchdowns).
Ultimately, it again comes down to the quarterback.
Building his program
For McElwain, his task at Florida has not been about just the on-the-field results, though.
That’s how he’s judged, he fully understands, but in the big picture fixing the offense or reloading the defense have not been his only obstacles.
McElwain took over a Florida program he felt was lagging too far behind its competitors in regard to facilities.
He immediately pushed for the construction of a long-overdue indoor practice facility to bring the Gators into the 21st century. And he’s kept pushing. Last week Florida announced it had selected an architect for the standalone football complex that will house the coaches’ offices along with a locker room, a strength and conditioning center, training area, players’ dining area and lounge.
“I think the excitement and the momentum that we’ve built, it continues to roll and go forward,” McElwain said last week. “The announcement, you know, with the architecture and the stuff moving forward with the new facilities is a game-changer.”
Behind the scenes, he also has worked on establishing the culture and mindset he wants the Gators to embrace.
“The biggest thing is the commitment and understanding of what we need to do moving forward to continually get better,” McElwain said. “Obviously anytime you get an influx of new players it always changes. That’s what kind of makes it fun. Watching those guys develop and mold themselves and eventually really dealing with the power of one and understanding that each one of us have the ability to get ourselves better, which in turn can affect others in a positive way.”
So how would he evaluate the progress in that department?
McElwain was broad and vague in that regard, but he indicated he feels that component is coming together while again circling back to the facilities.
In his news conferences last season, he often dropped some mention or commentary on institutional support. It could be as he discussed what made Alabama so successful, or it could come totally unprompted. Either way, he has continued to press his points to the administration.
While fans understandably fixate on the quarterback spot in 2017, McElwain has always kept a big-picture outlook. Having the necessary facilities and amenities to compete in recruiting are just as important to his long-term strategic plan.
Which led to that broad, if not vague, assessment of the progress he’s seen behind the scenes during his time with the program.
“You have to fail and you’ve got to be able to put yourself out there to fail to learn how to be successful,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to fail. When you’re afraid to fail, that means ultimately you’re not going to give your all to be great. So seeing our guys get out of that and seeing the department, the organization get out of that fear of, and rather let’s not fear it, let’s go jump in and see what we can do. That’s what I see, and obviously the commitment not to us as a football program or not to me as a coach, but the commitment to the University of Florida to become not only what it should be, but can be, and then (remain) sustainable on top of that. Seeing some of those things come to fruition is pretty cool.”
All of that said, if the equally long-awaited offensive improvements don’t come to fruition in 2017, fans will have a hard time getting excited about the team’s new training and dining facilities.
That’s the crux of the matter.
McElwain is two years into his tenure at Florida, and he deserves credit for establishing a foundation of success while making long overdue progress to the infrastructure of the program.
But the bottom line doesn’t change, not in Gainesville.
The fans have made it clear that getting to the SEC championship game only to get walloped by Alabama is not enough. That continuing to play quarterback roulette at a program that has produced three Heisman Trophy winners at the position is not satisfactory.
That’s the reality at Florida, as it should be. That comes with the territory of coaching a proud program that has won three national championships and expects to compete for more.
McElwain has done a lot of good at Florida in a short period of time, but the job is far from complete.