The Florida Gators notched a 10-win season and advanced to the SEC title game last year after they were projected to finish fifth in the East.
That success didn’t come easily, considering how inconsistent and ineffective the offense was during the final stretch of the season — particularly in the passing game.
Thanks to four brand new signal-callers — including two transfers and a pair of freshmen — Jim McElwain may have found a solution at the quarterback position in year two.
“Here’s the good thing — we’ve really got good arm talent,” McElwain said at SEC Media Days. “I’m excited about being able to stretch the field vertically. Should be a lot of fun.”
Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio emerged as the clear frontrunner for the starting job following his impressive performance in the spring game (10-for-11 for 176 yards and two touchdowns). McElwain hasn’t yet named him the definitive starter, but it’s obvious that the job is Del Rio’s to lose. Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby and freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are also in contention, but they have a lot of ground to make up.
Del Rio is well-traveled at the collegiate level, having transferred first from Alabama, then Oregon State, before settling down at Florida in 2015. Though he was with the team last season, he had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules.
With full eligibility this year, Florida believes the addition of the 6-foot-1 quarterback will elevate the play of the entire offense and help the Gators avoid a late collapse similar to last year, when they were blown out by Florida State (27-2) in the regular-season finale, Alabama (29-15) in the SEC Championship Game and Michigan (41-7) in the Citrus Bowl.
“Very disappointed in how we finished,” McElwain said. “Not something that we’re proud of, and not something that, you know, I take very lightly. Yet, at the same time, it was an opportunity for us to kind of learn.”
The Gators can’t afford to not finish strong this season if they’re to repeat as SEC East champions.
Florida will try to fend off the most talented team in the division — Tennessee — as well as Georgia, a team poised to reclaim national relevance in Kirby Smart’s debut season as head coach. The other four programs — South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt — haven’t shown much reason for optimism.
With only three real contenders in the divisional race, McElwain has to feel good about his chances of reaching Atlanta again despite just 10 starters returning from last season.
That said, question marks still surround the statuses of two of those starters: sophomore receiver Antonio Callaway and junior quarterback Treon Harris. Both were suspended in January for violations of the university code of conduct policy and have yet to be fully reinstated.
Callaway had a breakout freshman campaign last season, catching 35 passes for a team-high 678 yards and four touchdowns. Harris started nine games as the Gators’ quarterback, but he’ll move to wide receiver if his suspension gets lifted. Getting those two back would obviously be a plus for the aerial attack; it would give Florida two more proven weapons on the edge. As it is, even without these two, the Gators have a deep crop of talented young receivers that can step up and become playmakers.
Given the depth both at quarterback and within the receiving corps, Florida will undoubtedly make considerable improvements in the passing game this season—and it should only get better with each year McElwain spends in Gainesville. Will it translate to another SEC East title? Time will tell.
At any rate, the Gators are in much better shape offensively heading into 2016 than in 2015. The future of this offense — and this program as a whole — is bright.
“Things are good at the University of Florida,” McElwain said. “And that’s the way it should be.”