2017 Florida Football Mid-Year Assessment

Many Florida football fans are angry right now. Most are mad at the team, and very clearly some are mad at one another.

I think some of the infighting stems from people shouting past each other as they argue two completely different points. Some people are mad that, given the time the coaching staff has had on the job, the team is not as good as a Spurrier or Meyer team. Others argue that, given the more immediate circumstances, it’s unreasonable to expect much more than what the team is doing.

To the former, I say: I feel you. I was born in the mid-1980s. I grew up on Spurrier’s brand of football. I like throwing the ball down the field, hanging half a hundred, and talking a little smack afterwards.

I also knew that the 2017 team was never going to be that. Jim McElwain didn’t do himself any favors by talking up the team all offseason. Beyond that, once the nine players got suspended for their dumb credit card scheme, all hopes that this team could be more than a squad that guts out an East title like the last two years should’ve vanished.

It sucks watching this team a lot of the time. The offense is boring and predictable. The defense isn’t as good as it’s been most of the last 30 years. The return game is not producing big plays and the coverage units are bad.

I don’t think the whole thing is irredeemable though. Here is my first half assessment taking as much into account as I can.

First, let’s get the defense out of the way.

The defense is populated by a lot of guys who are first or second-year players, and the ones who are older didn’t start much before this year outside of Jordan Sherit, Cece Jefferson, and Duke Dawson. It was always going to take some time for this unit to figure things out.

The line has been great overall aside from sporadic lapses in setting the edge against runs. It will only get better as the young guys like Jachai Polite, T.J. Slaton, Kyree Campbell, and Elijah Conliffe get more seasoning.

The linebackers aren’t great, but the fact that there’s only one 4-star among them should’ve been taken more seriously. They are bad at pass coverage, which is always one of the last things to come for college linebackers. Their occasional run busts are more troubling, but they are what they are. Them lacking the gifts of blue chip recruits means that only time will get them up to UF’s usual standards — which is to say they won’t get there until late this season at the earliest.

The secondary is what you should’ve expected it to be. Dawson and Nick Washington are fine, but if they were as good as their fellow Muschamp DB recruits like Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Maye, Hargreaves, Poole, and the rest, they would already be in the NFL where all those guys are. Chauncey Gardner is a corner playing safety and looks it in run support.

The freshmen are promising, though. You won’t lose sleep over Marco Wilson or C.J. Henderson over the next two years, that’s for sure. All of them getting more snaps under their belts should mean the unit continues to get better as the year goes on.

I, too, would like to see Randy Shannon call a more adventurous game. I don’t know whether he’s doing what he’s doing because he has vanilla running through his veins or because of all the youth and inexperience. Holding LSU to 17 and Texas A&M to 19 is encouraging. I wouldn’t have called that given how the season began.

This isn’t a shutdown defense, but it might be next year. Sometimes, like this year or 2007, a team gets caught with a bunch of youth on one side of the ball. You just have to ride it out and hope that it’ll be better the next year. There is reason to think it will be.

A word on numbers.

There is a term usually associated with team that loses nine scholarships at once: probation. Being down that many players before the inevitable injuries that come with football is a significant penalty.

There is no way around the fact that Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett being gone has hamstrung the offense, especially in light of the injuries that have come after.

Do a thought experiment with me. Think of the 2006 national championship team’s offense. Not the offense that trashed Ohio State in the bowl. The real offense that we saw for most of the season. The one that failed to score 30 points in any SEC contest and was held to 21 or fewer points in half of those conference games.

Now take away Dallas Baker (an analogue for Tyrie Cleveland), Bubba Caldwell (Callaway), Percy Harvin (Kadarius Toney), and DeShawn Wynn (Scarlett). It’s not a perfect match — Harvin was better than Toney is, Scarlett is better than Wynn was — but it’s not so far off.

Imagine that offense then. Even with a senior in Chris Leak running the show, it’d be about as awful as what we’re seeing this year. The top targets left would’ve been Jemalle Cornelius and Cornelius Ingram — themselves not terrible analogues for Josh Hammond and DeAndre Goolsby. UF’s running game is better off now with Malik Davis and Lamical Perine over Kestahn Moore and I guess Mon Williams, but the 2006 line was better than this year’s line.

The point is, of course the offense would struggle against LSU and especially A&M if the best playmakers were gone. The offense isn’t flawless absences aside, but it’s indisputable that the problems are in no small part attributable to injuries and suspensions. No team can lose that many important pieces and not suffer.

Fine. Let’s talk about the offense.

Bill Connelly likes to say that football is about talent acquisition, development, and deployment.

Talent acquisition is one of the few areas where the trend under McElwain is clearly going upward from the start. Recruiting was damaged by the 4–8 season, falling in 2014 and even further in 2015. The 2016 class was an improvement, and the 2017 class closed strong to be better than its predecessor. The 2018 class is shaping up to beat 2017 if the big commitments stay in the fold.

Talent development on offense has been utterly lacking in the McElwain era. Muschamp leaving behind a disaster on offense forced Mac to have to turn over almost the whole offensive roster by even the start of 2016, so some unevenness was to be expected.

However, think about all the McElwain signees who’ve done the best: Callaway, Scarlett, Martez Ivey, Jawaan Taylor, Cleveland, Perine, Davis, Toney. Something they all have in common is that they showed glimpses of high-end ability as true freshmen. Cleveland probably showed the least of them, but he fought injuries at times last year and still had the 98-yarder against LSU.

If a player doesn’t show flashes of greatness in his first year, he just doesn’t later on. Hammond and Freddie Swain are the two most obvious examples of this.

They’re both former 4-star recruits. Hammond had 14 catches last year and Swain, who also fought some injuries, had eight. That’s fine for true freshmen, but as 4-star guys, we should see some clear improvement this year.

Hammond has 11 catches, five in the two games Cleveland’s been out (I’m counting Cleveland out against A&M though he did see the field briefly). Swain has six, four in the games Cleveland’s been out. The former’s yards per catch rate is basically unchanged, while the latter’s is down three.

I don’t mean to pile on those guys, but that’s not a sign of improvement. Quarterback issues have hurt their numbers, yes, but they almost never get separation via either speed or route running. Their production is not significantly different than it was a year ago, and they’re not alone. Many offensive players just haven’t improved year-over-year under this regime. Fred Johnson, for as many snaps as he’s played in his career, is another example.

As for deployment, I know that’s the biggest point of contention. No one ever likes the play caller. I’m old enough to remember people calling for Dan Mullen to be fired during Tim Tebow’s Heisman campaign in 2007.

I’m not Fire Everyone Guy. Far from it. I don’t like seeing anyone lose their job.

That said, something has to change with Florida’s coaching staff for McElwain to stay around long term. The bare minimum is probably replacing offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier this winter.

Now, anyone who is OC under McElwain will be running the McElwain offense. To that end, Mac himself keeps saying there’s nothing wrong with the game plans.

I actually tend to believe him. He’s heavily involved with the scripted plays at the beginnings of games, and those are usually some of the best series they run. To wit, here are how the first drives in every game have gone:

Michigan: 6 plays, 46 yards, FG

Tennessee: 15 plays, 65 yards, FG

Kentucky: 4 plays, 20 yards, punt

Vandy: three-and-out, but then 10 plays, 62 yards, TD on second drive

LSU: 4 plays, 24 yards, punt

Texas A&M: 13 plays, 63 yards, FG

That’s not going to remind anyone of the Spurrier era, but that’s a fair sight better on average than what the team has done for much of the rest of games.

In hindsight, Luke Del Rio being the third guy at quarterback is decreasingly defensible.

Feleipe Franks is tall and has a strong arm, but he just doesn’t seem ready. He misses open receivers, stares down covered ones before rifling it to them, and doesn’t appear able to go down progressions. Worse, the offense has often had a hard time getting plays ready in a timely manner when he’s in there. It’s hard to believe that none of that was evident in spring or fall practice. Beat writers reported about much of that, in fact.

The Malik Zaire experiment against Michigan was a disaster. The team basically tried to run a different offense for him, and preparing that scheme in fall camp took reps away from the normal offense (and from Franks).

It’s hard to call the decision to bring in a grad transfer in a mistake given that Kyle Trask’s foot injury means Zaire is the only thing standing in the way of Jake Allen (who is really not ready) being the backup. However, everything about the way the situation following the decision to being in a grad transfer has been handled doesn’t inspire confidence. Some of that is on McElwain, but Nussmeier surely was in on it too.

Which leaves Del Rio. He doesn’t have the physical tools Franks does, or even that Zaire does, but he was the best quarterback option for this year. He can make multiple reads and has no issue getting plays in, unlike Franks. He knows the playbook inside and out, unlike Zaire after the three whole months he had to study it before the season.

But Del Rio is gone for the year, so they have to make do with Franks. It should be said again that the absences have hurt him. His first read would be open more often if defenses had to worry about Callaway, Cleveland, and Toney all at once. Those four-yard slants to Brandon Powell that keep failing on third and fourth down would be more open if it was Callaway and Cleveland going deeper behind them instead of Hammond and Swain.

Even so, the offense is not maximizing what it can do with Franks as he is. Here’s one example.

McElwain has been saying since the summer that Franks has better wheels than people think. It has borne out from the 16-yard first down scramble against Michigan to his 79-yard run against A&M.

I don’t need to remind you about how LSU used a few quarterback draws with the comparatively lead-footed Danny Etling to hurt Florida’s defense. The Gators could be doing the same with Franks four or five times a game to get some cheap yards and give the defense one more thing to worry about. Alas, they don’t. Maybe they won’t now because there aren’t any good options behind Franks, but they didn’t do that before Del Rio went down either.

Nussmeier is the quarterbacks coach on top of the OC. If Franks is this far from being ready after being in Gainesville for two full offseasons, that’s at least partially on him. If the order of quarterback use doesn’t make sense, that’s also on him. And, again, on Mac too, but I’m sure he takes the judgment of his OC and QBs coach into heavy consideration.

Further, as offensive coordinator, Nussmeier oversees the whole offense. The general lack of player development on that side of the ball is in some part on him in that capacity too.

Plus, player usage just hasn’t made sense at times. It took about a month too long to make Scarlett the clear № 1 back last year. Toney was a missing man until garbage time in Week 1 this year, and it took until Week 4 for Davis to get a lot of carries consistently. Other misjudgments apparently include Dre Massey. We’ve been hearing since the 2016 offseason about how dangerous a playmaker he is. Maybe his season-ending injury last year has limited him — though we’ve heard nothing of the sort from the coaches — but Massey has been a complete non-factor for basically all of this year.

Even with a good game plan, execution of that plan has been lacking. If the plays aren’t getting in quickly, that’s at least partially on the coordinator. If the rest of the problem is the quarterback, that’s at least partially on the quarterbacks coach. Further, how many times have we heard that they had more plays for one purpose or another but they “just didn’t get to them”? If that keeps happening across many weeks, that’s on the play caller. Nussmeier is all three.

I don’t know who should replace him. When in 2015 Mark Richt hired Brian Schottenheimer—who wasn’t exactly exceling as an NFL offensive coordinator at the time—he basically said that pro-style coordinators are rare. That’s still true today. No less than Nick Saban just hired an NFL position coach who had only three middling coordinator seasons on his resume to run his offense.

Nevertheless, Florida needs some new perspective on the offensive staff. Replacing Nussmeier would represent the largest possible dose of new perspective in a single move, but if not him, it has to be someone.

I’m not calling for change for the sake of change. There are things that are just not working out, and they’ve not been working out in the same ways for multiple seasons. I hate coming to the conclusion that someone needs to move on, but at least one someone needs to move on to clear room for new blood.

Special teams are just bad.

The punt coverages are bad. The return guys don’t break off game-changing runbacks. It’s amazing they ever take kickoffs out of the end zone given how bad the coverage is. They should take a knee every time. They don’t, though, and they basically never get to the 25 when they bring it out.

UF currently has no punt returns of at least 20 yards. It has only one kickoff return of at least 30. They’ve allowed three punt returns of at least 20 yards, the most in the SEC. At least they don’t allow many long kickoff returns, mainly because Eddy Piñeiro nearly always kicks it through the end zone.

But, you may ask, what about the numbers issue? Doesn’t the lack of healthy and available bodies affect special teams?

Yes and no.

Yes, because some players who would be contributing aren’t there. This goes beyond the normal numbers and on to guys like Garrett Stephens.

No, because the coaches could be putting their best players on special teams. Doing so was a hallmark of the Urban Meyer era. He made special teams a priority and put starters from both sides of the ball on those units. Not coincidentally, they were some of the best special teams units in the country.

Meyer isn’t alone. Damien Harris, who is no worse than third among Alabama’s best offensive players, has a punt block this year.

Putting the team’s best athletes—or not—on special teams is a choice, and the staff chooses not to. If most of what you run out on special teams is backups, freshmen, and walk ons, you’re going to get special teams that look like they’re staffed by backups, freshmen, and walk ons.

What they’re doing on special teams isn’t working and needs an overhaul.

Nevertheless, the sky isn’t falling.

Connelly’s S&P+ system includes a method for estimating the likelihood of a team winning a particular game. Here is the definition:

This communicates how frequently a team would have won a specific game given that game’s primary stats. It is intended to say “Given your success rates, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc., you could have expected to win this game X% of the time.” It has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments.

The Gators earned a 0% win expectancy for the Michigan game. If you watched it, you’d agree with that.

In the five games since, their lowest win expectancy is 76%. It’s a tie between the Kentucky and LSU games. They got an 82% for Tennessee, 98% for Vandy, and 94% for Texas A&M.

The Vandy result also makes sense, but otherwise, how can this be? Take the A&M game, for instance. It’s the clearest example.

The Gators outgained the Aggies by 108 yards. They won yards per play 5.46 to 4.24. They dominated success rate by a margin of 41% to 21%. They had 17 first downs to A&M’s ten. They scored 5.7 points per trip inside the Aggie 40-yard-line. TAMU only scored 3.2 points per trip inside the UF 40-yard-line.

Those vitals of the game strongly suggest a Florida win. The problem is that Texas A&M had a lot of field position advantages, and the Gator defense’s few chunk plays allowed were particularly bad.

Texas A&M’s field goal drives consisted of 38 yards, 40 yards, 57 yards, and 24 yards, respectively. Its touchdown drive was 55 yards. The Aggies never had a scoring drive span the whole field, but thanks to field position, they didn’t have to.

Further, all but the last of those series—the 24-yard, game-winning field goal drive—had an explosive play. The 38-yard drive had a 30-yard pass. The 55-yard touchdown drive had a 33-yard pass. The 40-yard drive had a 40-yard pass. The 57-yard drive had a 42-yard pass. Even that last drive that didn’t have a big offensive play had a 43-yard punt return setting it up.

The Gator defense allowed an average of 2.1 yards per play on the Texas A&M scoring drives absent those big plays. They did their job excellently—except when they didn't. Those kinds of lapses will happen when a defense is as young as Florida’s is.

On the flip side, only one of the Gators’ scoring drives was less than 60 yards long. Franks had a 79-yard run—on its own longer than any A&M drive in the game—and he didn’t score on it.

All of this is to say that Florida had the tools to win all these games except the opener even when down a catastrophic number of key players. They can get to 6–5 by beating UAB, Missouri, and South Carolina without changing much at all besides getting Cleveland and Toney back from injury and having a little better luck.

That said, I’d like to see them go for more than that. FSU isn’t what it was when it was at full strength in Week 1, and weird things happen in Jacksonville sometimes—usually to Georgia’s detriment.

Here are some simple adjustments they can make without needing to hit the panic button or do something drastic.

1. Put better players on special teams

They can’t rely on the defense alone anymore to keep the field position situation favorable. Johnny Townsend is still a big-legged punter, but his hangtime hasn’t been great this year and even he has lapses like that fateful punt that was returnable for Christian Kirk at the end of the A&M game.

There are guys who are now among the best players on the team who once paid their dues on special teams. They know how to cover punts, and they’re more athletically gifted than the guys tasked with doing that so far this year. Put them back on special teams.

2. Use more spread sets on offense

From the flexbone to the Air Raid, the point of spread offenses is to minimize the number of people near the ball at any one time. The reason why teams run up the middle with receivers on the numbers and the slot guy at the opposite hash is to make it so that there are six defenders in the box instead of eight. The cliche of “getting guys in space” from spread passing sets is true because there literally is more open space around them than if they had started closer to the offensive line.

When an offense has a dominant line, it can afford to run from bunched up sets. When it has receivers that can reliably beat defenders, it doesn’t have to give them the help of a spread out field.

Florida has neither of those, except when Cleveland is healthy. Therefore, it would do the offense some good if it spread things out more often. Doing so would be the exact opposite of what they’ve been doing at times so far, but what they’ve been doing so far isn’t working all that well.

The thing is, Florida has been trying to have Alabama’s offense from 2008–13. This makes sense because it employs the offensive coordinators from those teams. However, Alabama itself doesn’t want to have that offense anymore. It has moved beyond that and has increasingly spread the field since 2014. It did that even with the pocket-bound Jake Coker in 2015. Incorporating more spread sets doesn’t require a dual threat quarterback.

Spreading the field on run plays would mean more room for Davis and Perine to use their good vision to find running lanes. Spreading the field on pass plays would help Franks out by usually having less defensive clutter near any given receiver. Not spreading the field made sense with Del Rio, since he can’t put much zip on the ball, but Franks is more than capable of throwing frozen ropes.

3. Change things up more

I mentioned above that mixing in a handful of designed draws for Franks would get defenses guessing. There’s more than that, though.

Florida has gone with the pass on third or fourth down with seven or fewer yards to go 28 times this year, not including scrambles. Three of those plays ended up sacks, and another was a reception by Franks when his own pass got batted into his face. That leaves 24 other throws in such situations.

I know what you’re going to ask, and I have the answer. Twelve of the 24 passes targeted Brandon Powell.

That includes passes by Del Rio and Zaire, by the way. For just Franks, it’s eight targets at Powell in 14 throws. In the last two games, it’s five targets for Powell in seven throws.

It would be one thing if throwing to Powell in these situations always worked. It doesn’t. Only three of the 12 overall targets picked up the conversion, and with Franks, it’s two of eight. Either way, it only works a quarter of the time.

I’ll give you one more. Florida has faced third or fourth down with one or two yards to go on 23 occasions this year. Only three times have they called for a pass play, and two of them were with Del Rio under center. The third came late in the second quarter against A&M where Franks bootlegged to the right, couldn’t find anyone open, and made an awkward attempt at running for the first down that failed.

Calling runs on third or fourth down and two or fewer yards to go has been fine against the lesser competition. Versus Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, running for short conversions has worked 12 of 13 times. Against better competition—Michigan, LSU, and Texas A&M—it hasn’t. The Gators converted just two of six attempts.

Mixing in some passes that aren’t to Powell would make defenses have to respect more possibilities. That in turn would help those middle runs in short yardage situations be more successful against better teams.

These all are relatively simple changes they could make right now without needing a full offseason to implement them.

This Florida team is not among the country’s elite. It’s also not horrible either. It has been improving visibly in some areas this year—the offensive line is getting better, the secondary generally makes fewer mistakes by the week—and some adjustments, while slow to materialize, are happening. Mark Thompson is clearly not as good a back as Davis and Perine are, and he had no carries or pass targets against Texas A&M.

Once the players who can return from injury do, Florida will be back up to being in the № 25–35 range nationally. For a team that’s down a baker’s dozen scholarship players due to suspension and injury—some of them vitally important like Marcell Harris, Callaway, Scarlett, Del Rio, and, now after the A&M game, probably Sherit—that’s not bad.

I wrote in late August about why this year was scheduled to be a down year for the team. A week later, still before the opener, I warned that a handful of key injuries on top of the suspensions would mean the team would be staring 6–6 in the face.

All of that has borne out. It was there for anyone who wanted to find it.

The 2018 season is McElwain’s prove-it year. I wrote in June about why there realistically can be optimism for that season. That optimism will be muted to a degree if none of the suspended true freshmen ever make it back because then the team will be down on numbers again (though not as badly as it is this year).

With an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who can solve this year’s solvable problems, whether that’s Nussmeier or someone else, that optimism can be fulfilled.

For now, just cheer on these guys as best you can. It’s evident that they play hard every week. There’s no lack of effort.

Through all kinds of weather we all should stick together for F-L-O-R-I-D-A.

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