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Gators have holes to fill but optimistic about McElwain's second season

Florida’s offensive struggles last season began when quarterback Will Grier was suspended.
Florida’s offensive struggles last season began when quarterback Will Grier was suspended.
Published Jul. 12, 2016

HOOVER, Ala. — Florida spent its first football season under coach Jim McElwain camped in one of two extremes.

There was the 10-1 start that fueled a trip to the SEC title game, and there was the 0-3 finish that nearly knocked them out of the top 25.

So which is the better representation of where the Gators are headed as they prepare to enter McElwain's second season: Are they the squad that looked like SEC championship contenders, or the one that looked ready to return to the mediocrity of the Will Muschamp era?

"The hot start, definitely," offensive lineman David Sharpe said during Monday's SEC media days. "I think we can do the same thing — we can go farther this year than last year."

Sharpe's optimism is typical for July and the league's annual kickoff at The Wynfrey Hotel, where every team has championship hopes. For Sharpe to be proven right this season, UF will have to fix its offense while patching holes on one of the country's top defenses.

The Gators' offensive collapse after quarterback Will Grier's suspension remains one of the league's most interesting points of discussion. A program set to rename its field after legendary offensive mind Steve Spurrier scored only two offensive touchdowns over its final three games.

"I know that based on last year they didn't have to redo any light bulbs on the scoreboard," McElwain said.

But they will have to replace plenty of other pieces, including leading rusher Kelvin Taylor and much of the receiving corps. Although McElwain continues to tout all four of his quarterbacks, Luke Del Rio remains the top candidate to earn the starting job.

Sharpe's optimism, however, comes from the returning components. The offensive line is mostly intact and has developed a sense of familiarity with the rest of the roster.

"I think we're more confident this year, lining up," Sharpe said. "Everybody wants to win. We're more together as a group."

That group will have to be better, especially if the defense takes a step back. Over the last five seasons, only five teams in the country allowed fewer points per game than the Gators. No program has surrendered fewer passing touchdowns (63), and only Alabama has held opponents to a better passer rating.

But the Gators lost two first-round defensive backs (Keanu Neal and Bucs rookie Vernon Hargreaves), its top defensive lineman (Jonathan Bullard) and its leading tackler (linebacker Antonio Morrison). UF had five defenders drafted this spring, trailing only Clemson and Ohio State.

"I feel like the guys we've got this year can be just as good," defensive back Marcus Maye said. "For the most part throughout the depth chart, our talent level's just as good as it was last year."

While the talent level is open to debate, some of the intangible advantages from last season are clear.

Linebacker Jarrad Davis said some UF players were scared to talk to McElwain soon after he took the job; they didn't know what to think of the new boss. Now the team has had a full year to adjust to him, his staff and his expectations.

"With the unknowns, we didn't know what the schemes were going to be like," Davis said. "We didn't know what kind of protocol we would have in the weight room, our daily routine. Now we kind of have a feel for our daily routine. We have a feel for how we're supposed to carry ourselves each and every day, how we're supposed to take care of our bodies, how we're supposed to react to certain situations."

With the basics figured out, Davis expects UF to begin taking the next steps. That's one of the reasons why he chose to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft; he wanted to prove that the Gators were more like the successful team it was early last year than the struggling team it was late.

"It just wasn't us," Davis said. "That's something that I don't want to have to sign off on. I wanted to come back and take another shot at it."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.