This is how Florida ends up conservative on offense so much
You’re Doug Nussmeier, offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators. You’re preparing to face Michigan and its stingy defense in Week 1.
You were hoping that one of your three quarterbacks would distance himself from the others over the offseason, but none did. You and your boss decide that the best way to go is to throw out the talented but raw redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. He has a big arm but makes mistakes and turns it over more than you’d like in practice.
You expect to be able to lean on the offensive line and the rushing game. Your boss has gushed about the line publicly for months now, after all.
You get hit with a snag though: three days before the game Jordan Scarlett, your best running back, the one who is by far the best at breaking tackles, is suspended for the game. You’re already down your best receiver and playmaker in the open field Antonio Callaway, and now the guy who can best fight for tough yardage is gone too.
Anyway, things start well. You get five yards on an end around on the first play, and a late hit tacks on 15 more. The offense is near the 50 and you barely did anything. It’s a good chance to take a shot down the field, so you do. You call the deep sideline pass Franks completed to Josh Hammond in the spring game. And it works! Just as it did in April. It’s a 34-yard gain. Two plays in and you’re just outside the red zone.
Best not to risk throwing away this good progress. You call on that line you like so much to step up and you run it between the tackles. Except, the right guard steps on the quarterback’s foot. Franks tosses it to the back instead of just holding onto it and taking the loss. It’s nearly a turnover. You knew that this guy was turnover prone, and that issue just reared its head.
You can’t have him throw after that. He needs a chance to settle down. You call for a run play. Except, Michigan’s great defensive tackle runs through a cut block like it wasn’t even there and tackles the back for a loss. It’s now third-and-15. You send in the new play, but Franks breaks the huddle slowly and looks confused as three guys stay right next to him talking out what’s supposed to happen. Dang it. You have to call timeout to make sure they don’t blow this play.
You decide to throw for the first down after the timeout. We’ll give him this chance to do it. Except, your all-conference left tackle false starts. On third-and-20, you run it to just get a few yards for your all-conference kicker. And so you do. And then the kicker hits the field goal. You went from feeling great after two plays to thinking that at least you got three points.
On the next drive, you go with a fake pitch and a rollout. Misdirection often works against aggressive defenses. Except, Michigan stays at home and Franks throws it away. That’s fine. He didn’t force it. Good play, freshman.
On second-and-10, you want to get a few sure yards, so you do a quick screen to your best wide receiver. Except, you’ve got your smallest slot receiver out as a blocker, and he doesn’t hold his block for nearly long enough. It’s only a two-yard gain.
You need to throw the ball down the field to pick up this third down conversion, so you leave a senior running back in to give Franks some extra protection. Except, he blows the blitz pickup and Franks is sacked.
By the next drive, Michigan is up 10–3. You have to stay aggressive, but you’re slowly realizing that this line isn’t all it’s been talked up to be. You go with play action on first down to compensate. It should work out because you’ve got single coverage. Except, Franks trips and falls during the play fake. This guy’s gonna kill you yet.
On second down, you go with more play action and a screen to a fast slot guy. Let’s get someone in space so he can make a play. Except, the line doesn’t get its protection right and that great defensive tackle stops the screen for a two-yard gain. If this DT can stop a speedy slot receiver on a screen, what exactly is going to work?
You roll Franks out to his left on third down just hoping someone will get free deep. No one does, but he somehow manages to reverse field and use his long legs to pick up the first down scrambling. What luck!
He’s probably winded though, so let’s run it to give him a little time. Except, everyone in the building knows this’ll be a run and your 2016 freshman All-SEC right tackle gets thrown out of the way like he weighs nothing.
It’s second-and-8, and you’ve got to get something, anything to avoid another third-and-long. You call another run. Except, your true freshman slot receiver who was a high school quarterback doesn’t know how to block a blitzing corner and it’s a loss of one.
You still want to get this first down, so you call a deep cross. The guy gets open, but Franks overthrows him by a yard or two. Good call, good read, close.
By the time the offense touches the ball again, you’re up 17–10 thanks to a pair of pick-sixes. It’s also following a blocked punt, so you begin in field goal range. You go a little conservative with a couple of runs with a short throw in between. No need to risk the turnover machine appearing again. The kicker is money from this distance anyway. Except, he pushes the try wide left.
On the final drive of the first half, you keep trying to push the ball. Franks hits on a nice back-shoulder throw for 31 yards to start the drive. After one run goes nowhere, another gets eight yards. It’s third-and-short. At last! And the running back breaks loose for a touchdown! Except, it’s brought back for holding. You call for a downfield pass on third-and-13. Franks puts it right on the money but the corner makes a good play on it.
By the time the offense touches it in the second half, you’re down 23–17 instead of up 17–10. The defense gave up a score and then the ensuing kickoff was fumbled away.
You call for a downfield pass on first down. You have to stay aggressive. Franks throws to the double-covered deep sideline route instead of the single-covered shorter sideline route. At least it was only deflected. It does make the defense back off the line a little, though, and that gets you six yards on a second down run.
It’s third down. You call for a pass. The rush gets to Franks a little, and he takes off. He looks like he might have the conversion again, but as he prepares to stretch the ball out for the first down, he drops it. He just drops it. No one put a hand or a helmet on the ball. He just… drops it. Michigan recovers and kicks a field goal.
Six minutes into the second half, UM has scored three times for 13 points. Your team has turned it over twice. You can’t afford to give it away again, so you and your boss agree to put in the senior graduate transfer quarterback who is the most mobile of the three. His legs will be able to better deal with the pressure, so long as his arm can complete passes…
The Florida offense too often in the past six years has gotten itself into negative feedback loops.
They start on the conservative side because the coaches believe, with reason, that the defense can win most every game. Then when anything bad happens, or they build up a lead, they get more conservative to try to avoid turnovers that would put pressure on that defense.
However, going even more conservative makes them outright predictable. Predictability leads to negative gains which lead to third-and-longs, which lead to drives dying quickly.
It’s easy to see how, in the heat of the game, Florida went away from Feleipe Franks. He nearly turned it over on his first drive, didn’t always make the safest read, and then did turn it over on his final snap. With the coaches knowing from practice that he’s the greatest turnover threat among the three quarterbacks, him turning it over in a time when everything is going against the team probably was always going to get him the hook.
They did what they always have done in Gainesville so far: go the “safe”, conservative route to reduce pressure on the defense.
There are two obvious problems. One, this defense isn’t as good as the last two. It’s probably still a top-25 defense overall, but it’s not top-five or ten. It can’t perform the miracles they’ve been accustomed to.
Two, Franks may have the biggest risk but he also has the biggest reward. He can make throws that the other two simply can’t.
The Florida coaches can’t have their cake and eat it too this year. If they want fewer turnovers, they have to accept a lower potential for the offense. If they want it to be at its greatest potential for upside, it must also be at its greatest potential for downside in the turnover department.
I’m not ready to fire the staff yet. They apparently overestimated what their offensive line could do. That’s a failing on their part to be sure, but now they know and can try to adjust. Jim McElwain even took some not-so-veiled shots at Nussmeier’s play calling and the team’s strength training regime in his Monday presser, indicating that he understands where some shortcomings are.
Which, again, are his failings ultimately. It’s up to the head coach to make sure the play calling is appropriately aggressive and that the team is doing what it needs to in the weight room.
It’s possible that Florida looked the worst it will all year in Arlington. By playing a good team in Week 1, they have a lot better understanding of what they have—and what they don’t—than if they’d started the season with the customary pair of cupcakes.
If they can adjust and improve by the Tennessee game, then memories of Michigan will begin to fade. If they don’t adjust to the actual reality of the team, then big questions—and a coordinator change—will be coming up this winter.