GAINESVILLE — After quarterback struggles plagued Florida the past four years, new coach Jim McElwain picked an interesting analogy to reassure Gator fans that he understands the game's most important position.
"I believe I can win with my dog, Clarabelle," McElwain said during his introductory news conference in December.
Within a few days, McElwain's mutt had her own Twitter parody account (@clarabelleqb). But strip away the humor, and McElwain's track record backs up his confidence. Nearly everywhere the 53-year-old Montana native has been, his quarterbacks have put up big numbers — even if the players weren't exactly the pick of the litter.
He used a cattle rancher at quarterback to lead Eastern Washington to the Division I-AA playoffs. At Montana State, McElwain had to stifle a laugh the first time he saw Rob Compson throw on the run; Compson ended up breaking the school's touchdown record. Three of the four quarterbacks McElwain groomed into NFL draft picks entered college as only two- or three-star prospects.
That won't be an issue at UF, where McElwain must recharge a program with a Fun 'n' Gun history of flashy offense.
McElwain's former quarterbacks say he can succeed with the Gators if he follows his model for success: earn passers' trust quickly with the knowledge he gained as an all-state quarterback and keep it by remaining calm and understanding, even during struggles.
"I think the patience and the work he put in with me made my career what it was," said Compson, who threw for almost 7,000 yards at Montana State. "I hope I can throw the ball a little better than his dog, though."
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When McElwain reflects on what he learned about coaching from his father, he comes back to the basketball goal on the garage.
McElwain's dad, Frank, coached high school football and basketball, and he wanted to make his son better at using his left hand. The solution: move the basket to the right side of the garage. McElwain had no choice but to grow confident driving left.
McElwain has followed the same principle in his own career: do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to make your players comfortable with themselves.
"He's not going to give up on you," Compson said.
Even if some fans already have.
Boos peppered the Gators' offense at home last year as a once-proud passing attack fell to one of the worst in college football. Since the SEC expanded to 14 teams, the Gators' 6,112 passing yards are more than 1,000 behind every other team in the league. Only four major-conference teams have fewer passing touchdowns over the past three years than UF (42).
"At some point when you're beat over the head so much, you end up thinking you're not worthy, right?" McElwain said. "Everybody boos them. … When you hear it over and over and over, all of a sudden you think it's true. I'm telling you this: It doesn't have to be that way."
McElwain knows that from experience.
When he became Fresno State's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2007, he joined a 4-8 team fresh off its worst season in almost three decades.
"We were basically a bad football team," said Tom Brandstater, who quarterbacked the country's No. 104 passing attack that fall.
To change that, McElwain started by fixing the offense's mentality. He didn't dwell on what the Bulldogs did wrong the year before, and he didn't overhaul Brandstater's game.
Instead, McElwain focused on the positives. He told them what they were going to do in his system and why it would succeed. Because McElwain had been a quarterback, he knew how to break down exactly what Brandstater wanted to see as he dropped back. McElwain scripted the first few plays, so his offense could ease into the game.
"From there, the playbook opened up," Brandstater said. "Once you have that confidence and a little bit of swag, you can pretty much do whatever else you wanted."
The plan worked.
Brandstater led Fresno State to a 9-4 record in 2007. His passer rating jumped more than 30 points as he increased his touchdown total and trimmed his interceptions from 14 to five.
"He's arguably the best coach I've ever had," said Brandstater, who went on to spend time with five NFL teams. "He just had a different level of being able to relate to the players, get everyone to buy into the system, buy into what we were doing and get you to play at a level you never thought you could.
"I have no idea how he did it."
But McElwain has kept doing it.
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Compson was understandably nervous.
He started the 1995 season on Montana State's scout team, but injuries moved Compson up the depth chart, forcing him to prepare for his first career start as a redshirt freshman. McElwain calmed him by comparing the conference showdown to one of Compson's rivalries from high school.
Compson said McElwain spent more time with him in the film room that week than he did with his family. Compson didn't move well, so the game plan focused on staying in the pocket. If Compson wasn't comfortable with a play, McElwain wouldn't call it.
"If he didn't feel like I was ready for that game," Compson said, "he wasn't going home until I thought I was ready."
McElwain's renovation projects have been flowing ever since. At his past three stops — Fresno State, Alabama and Colorado State — McElwain boosted the passing offenses he inherited by 40 yards per game while increasing touchdown passes and decreasing interceptions.
As Alabama's offensive coordinator, he helped the Crimson Tide win national titles with two different quarterbacks, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron; both were deemed game managers, not gunslingers. McElwain's Colorado State team was second in the country last season in yards per attempt, helping Garrett Grayson become the third quarterback drafted this spring, behind only Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.
Even during the worst season of his 30-year career, McElwain left a positive impression on his quarterback.
Andrew Walter used words like "archaic" and "decrepit" to describe the Oakland Raiders' offense in 2006, when McElwain served as his quarterbacks coach. The playbook was so predictable, Walter said, that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis called out Oakland's plays before the snap.
Years later, what Walter remembers most isn't anything McElwain did — it's what he didn't do. McElwain never complained or second-guessed the system his bosses installed. Instead of dwelling on the negative, McElwain tried to make Walter comfortable with the situation, even when Walter loudly questioned schemes in the quarterback room.
"He would just kind of look at me and let it hang out there," Walter said. "And he'd say, 'We still have to work, man. We still have to work. Let's go to work. We're going to make it right.' "
They never did. Oakland had the NFL's worst offense during a 2-14 season.
The challenge McElwain faces this year doesn't seem that steep. A program that has produced three Heisman-winning quarterbacks has a roster that includes two passers who were top-100 recruits in high school.
The results of McElwain's transformation won't be seen until the Gators' Sept. 5 opener against New Mexico State, but early reviews are positive. Quarterback Treon Harris said McElwain has already taught him to remain calm while reading a defense, and Will Grier said McElwain's film sessions show that the offense can be successful if executed properly.
"You don't need a Peyton Manning to run the offense," Brandstater said. "You need someone that buys into it."
Preferably someone who throws better than a dog named Clarabelle.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.