GAINESVILLE — As Florida opened last season's fall camp, Jim McElwain said he expected the offense to get dramatically better.
So this time, the Gators coach is taking the opposite approach.
"I think we are going to dramatically be worse," McElwain quipped.
Jokes aside, it would be hard for the UF offense to decline much more.
Only Rutgers had a worse red-zone scoring offense last season among the 128 Division I-A schools than Florida. The McElwain era is the fifth-worst two-year scoring stretch in the past three decades of UF football. Both of McElwain's first two seasons have featured fewer points than the 2013 season that got Will Muschamp fired and led Florida to hire the offensive-minded McElwain.
"I feel like we've set the floor," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said, "and now we've got to rise."
As preseason camp began Thursday, the Gators had several reasons to believe this year's offense could finally be more Fun 'N' Gun than doom and gloom, regardless of which quarterback starts the Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan.
Despite the dismal final numbers, UF made small offensive strides from McElwain's first year to his second. The yards per play increased slightly (5.11 to 5.19). So did the yards per rush (3.48 to 3.69).
McElwain raved about his receivers' speed during the spring, and the group only seems deeper now. Dre Massey has fully recovered from a torn ACL. Electric true freshman Kadarius Toney took reps at the position after spending the spring at quarterback (a position he could still play in the fall in specialty packages). Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Daquon Green looked the part of a four-star recruit in his first college practice.
The team's top three running backs return, including leading rusher Jordan Scarlett.
"I think our running back room is real," McElwain said.
But the biggest key is the offensive line that must protect whichever quarterback wins the starting job.
When McElwain arrived, the line was a liability; he had only six healthy offensive linemen on scholarship during his first spring. Now his line returns six players who started at least one game last year, including four who started the 30-3 Outback Bowl win over Iowa.
"When I can finally say the strength of our team is our offensive line, I feel pretty good about it," McElwain said.
So does Malik Zaire.
When the former Notre Dame quarterback was considering his graduate transfer options, the line was one of the Gators' biggest selling points. Tackle Martez Ivey was second-team All-SEC last fall, and the other four players who worked with the first team Thursday average 317 pounds.
"I think our offensive line is the first thing that stood out to me, just in terms of how big all the guys are," Zaire said. "The O-linemen, I'm telling you, they're going to be something special this year."
If that happens, the offense might finally resemble something special, too.
Zaire's debut: Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks took the initial first-team reps at quarterback Thursday, because "he deserved it," McElwain said. It's too early to read too much into that. McElwain said Luke Del Rio also spent time with the first team, and Zaire got some looks, too, in the red zone. It does seem significant, however, that Zaire worked with the veterans, while redshirt freshman Kyle Trask worked with the rookies. That suggests the quarterback battle is a three-man competition, as expected. McElwain's first impression of Zaire: "He does really have some good feet."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.