After watching Urban Meyer win 65 games, including two national championships, in his six-year tenure, Florida fans have endured a rough four-year stretch in which the program posted just 29 victories and a number of heart-crushing losses.
Outside of a fluke 11-2 season in 2012, the Gators have been downright average in the post-Meyer era. And at times, even worse.
Will Muschamp’s time in Gainesville featured many ups and downs that have left Gator Nation frustrated beyond belief. Incompetency on offense frequently overshadowed excellence on defense—an area where Muschamp definitely left his mark.
Even as the Gators produced defensive stars like Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler Jr., the struggles on the other side of the ball have led to the agonizing collapse of a program that ruled the SEC from 2006-2009.
Now that Jim McElwain is at the helm, it’s time for Florida to start making wholesale changes to get back into the SEC title conversation. But how exactly can the Gators’ new head coach erase the negative narrative of the Muschamp era? Here are three critical areas that UF needs to address in order to get back to prominence.
Find a Competent Quarterback
Ever since Tim Tebow left for the NFL, Florida has desperately tried to find his successor. That failure to recruit and develop a starting-caliber quarterback has been the Achilles heel for a team that’s otherwise boasted a ton of NFL talent.
Florida first tried local prep star John Brantley. Turns out the Ocala native couldn’t live up to the hype following a standout high-school career.
In two years as a starter, Brantley did complete more than 60 percent of his passes, but he posted an ugly 20:17 touchdown-to-inteception ratio.
Of course, he wasn’t as overwhelmingly disappointing as former five-star recruit Jeff Driskel, whose skill set was supposed to be a picture-perfect fit for Meyer’s read-option offense. Long story short, Meyer “retired” before Driskel ever stepped foot on campus and his career never took off. In 29 games, Driskel threw for just 3,411 yards and 23 touchdowns while tossing 20 interceptions.
Despite his lack of consistency, Driskel always got another shot from Muschamp, which led to the transfer of promising signal-callers like Jacoby Brissett and Tyler Murphy. Between his injuries and sheer incompetence, Driskel’s transfer this offseason was the definition of addition by subtraction.
That leaves us with the second-year duo of Treon Harris and Will Grier—neither of whom have done anything to give Gator Nation the confidence that their quarterback search is over. While Grier has the pedigree that would suggest he’s the long-term answer, he’s also coming off a redshirt season where he didn’t play a single snap due to a back injury.
Given the strength of their defense on an annual basis, Florida doesn’t even need to find another Tebow, or even an all-conference quarterback like an Aaron Murray or Dak Prescott. A competent quarterback who can make the right reads, protect the football and provide some stability and leadership at the position will go a long way toward righting the ship at Florida.
Develop the Offensive Line
It may sound cliche but it all starts in the trenches. And in the case of the SEC, that statement couldn’t be more relevant.
No matter where you look, the SEC is full of NFL-caliber bodies on both lines. During Florida’s run of dominance, Meyer was able to recruit some of the top linemen in the country to fortify the trenches and the results speak for themselves.
Under Meyer’s watch, several linemen became first-round picks, including Jarvis Moss, Derrick Harvey and the Pouncey twins. Beyond that, he helped cultivate a number of other NFL talent like Ray McDonald, Carlos Dunlap, Marcus Gilbert and Maurice Hurt.
While Muschamp continued the trend on defense with the likes of Floyd and Easley, the overall drop-off in production on the offensive line proved to be detrimental.
What’s even more concerning is the fact that so many of those players ended up getting drafted, which suggests that NFL teams felt the Gators’ offensive linemen were talented but perhaps not coached well in college.
After losing essentially their entire starting offensive line to the NFL this offseason, the Gators are in worse shape than ever up front. Luckily McElwain reeled in blue-chip tackle Martez Ivey, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to get UF back to prominence. Recruiting four- and five-star offensive linemen is one step. Developing those kids into skilled blockers is another challenge in itself that McElwain and his staff must place a priority on over the next few years.
Recruit More Playmakers
Notice a trend here? Once again, UF’s path back to prominence falls on the offensive side of the ball, where the team desperately needs to recruit more playmakers.
During the Meyer run, Florida featured a bevy of skill players that kept SEC defensive coordinators up at night. From Percy Harvin to Aaron Hernandez to Chris Rainey to Jeff Demps, the Gators could score at will in so many different ways.
The ability to take the ball to the house has largely disappeared in recent years, particularly because of a lack of talent. Andre Debose was supposed to be Harvin’s replacement, but he never lived up to expectations in his six years on campus.
Players like Matt Jones and Quinton Dunbar flashed at times, yet couldn’t carry the load. The jury is still out on the receiver duo of Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood, too.
At the core of it, Florida simply needs to reel in more top-level playmakers. Even if Grier ends up being the real deal, he still needs a strong supporting cast to succeed. UF needs to place an emphasis on finding players with special skills that can be maximized in McElwain’s system.
It appears the offense is heading in the right direction with freshmen Jordan Cronkrite, Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway, but adding more blue-chip skill players is absolutely necessary in order for UF to get back to prominence.