GAINESVILLE — When Florida coach Jim McElwain analyzed his offense's 2016 struggles, he noticed his Gators became predictable. As games went on, the art of deception disappeared.
Don't expect a lot of creativity in tonight's spring game. UF will save that for its Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan. But McElwain will likely give fans a peek at one wrinkle that adds a big-play threat and makes the Gators' offense harder to figure out: change-of-pace quarterback Kadarius Toney.
The early enrollee doesn't look like the long-term answer at quarterback, but the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Alabama native is such a dangerous runner that UF plans to prepare a special package for him this year.
"He's electric," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "When you put the ball in his hands, he can make things happen."
UF hasn't had a quarterback like that under McElwain.
Treon Harris had the athleticism in 2015 but couldn't use it much for fear of injury, especially after Will Grier's suspension left the Gators without a viable backup. Austin Appleby ran in spurts last season — his early 33-yard rush against South Carolina opened up holes the rest of the game — but didn't do it consistently.
Toney has more upside as a runner. The three-star recruit rushed for 31 touchdowns and almost 1,800 yards over his final two high school seasons. The Gators list him on their roster the same way recruiting services did: athlete.
"He's a playmaker," quarterback Feleipe Franks said.
But based on his throws during open portions of practice, he does not seem to be a threat to challenge Franks or Kyle Trask for the starting job. Toney is, however, effective enough as a thrower; he had a total of 69 touchdown passes in his junior and senior seasons, and McElwain referenced a downfield throw at last week's scrimmage to beat a defense dedicated to keep him from running. That means Toney has the right skill set to be the kind of complementary quarterback McElwain has used since his days as an assistant at Eastern Washington.
Before he became a second-round draft pick, Drew Stanton filled that role for McElwain at Michigan State. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson took direct snaps during McElwain's four years in Alabama.
"I think it's something that gives the defense something else to have to focus on and work on," McElwain said. "It gives you a change of pace back there."
That's why McElwain has been trying to implement it at UF, even if it hasn't shown up on Saturdays.
In his first season, McElwain alluded to a Gator-tail package with converted receiver Josh Grady — a former Armwood High quarterback — in the backfield. That option never really materialized. Last year McElwain planned to line up receiver Dre Massey at quarterback occasionally, until the junior college transfer tore an ACL on the opening kickoff.
This time, the opportunity belongs to Toney. Even if UF won't unveil all its twists tonight, fans will be able to catch a glimpse of the Gators' newest weapon and imagine what he might look like with a few touches this fall.
"He brings a whole other dimension to our offense, the ability to put some packages in and do some things differently," Nussmeier said. "It takes you out of, 'Hey, this is what they're going to be in.' "
If nothing else, it's unpredictable. And after how much UF's offense has stumbled over the past two seasons, that's a start.
Times correspondent Ethan Bauer contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.