Florida's spring practices are ... going
One of the few reasons that you haven't seen any coverage of Florida's spring practices here is that I am very skeptical of taking anything away from them — especially this year.
Jim McElwain's had his charges for about 10 days now — Florida's spring practices began on March 16, but there hasn't been a practice every day since then. And all anyone not on the team or invited to practice has seen are the first two periods of those practices, and the stretching warm-ups prior to the practices. That is liable to produce a lot of speculation based on even smaller sample sizes than observers were given prior to Florida's 2013 and 2014 seasons.
I think the things done during the first two periods of a given practice will likely — at least to my mind — produce observations that fit into five categories. There will be truths so blindingly obvious (like, say, that Florida's secondary is incredibly talented and deep) that they hardly need observing. There will things that are obvious and yet prove to be utterly meaningless (like, say, John Brantley looking like a all-world player, or Jeff Driskel like a calm and poised pocket passer) in time. There will be performances that are truly flukes (pick a Gators wide receiver tabbed to "break out" based on practice reports in the last four years, apart from Demarcus Robinson) based on small sample sizes. There will be observable differences from previous years (Florida is now practicing faster, whatever that's worth) that fit into a larger picture. And there will be things that just don't really matter (football players looking like athletic young men) that get observed because, well, there's nothing better to do.
Over the course of a series of practices, maybe seeing two periods of practices that last a dozen or more periods gives enough information to be sure about some things. But I doubt it.
So we have to regard the information that's coming from Florida's coaches to be the best information coming from these practices. That's why press conferences are actually going to be worthwhile watches right now: You'll get information (that you, yes, have to evaluate based on the source) from people who have at least seen the entirety of Florida's practices.
And yet: This is a cagey bunch that seems to understand the give-and-take of negotiating with the media well, and one that certainly knows the value of not blowing up expectations. There's been little to suggest that this coaching staff feels any given way for certain about this team, and that's, I think, by design; not tipping their hand allows them to better control anticipation, and force reporters to wait for openings to pry.
Anyway: Here are the last press conferences from McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. Feel free to mine them for tidbits like I will — but what you're going to get is "The defense is ahead of the offense, we're still installing things, and everyone has work to do" — truisms that will apply to pretty much every football team in America — and "The offensive line depth is worrisome," which will apply to far more than just Florida.
Will Grier, Treon Harris exchange tweets of support
If you really want to read into something from the first 10 days of the McElwain era, it should be this: McElwain and his staff are emphasizing the importance of togetherness and harmony. You can hear that in Collins's comments about wanting his defenders to celebrate together after a big play, and I think you can see it in the tweets exchanged Tuesday night by Will Grier and Treon Harris, both competing to be Florida's starting quarterback.
The rivalries (in some cases, "rivalries") between big-time Florida quarterbacks in years past — Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, Brantley and Cam Newton, Driskel and Jacoby Brissett — have generally ended with one player winning and one player both losing and leaving. Leak and Tebow were staggered enough in their experience, and close enough to a title in 2006, that there was no reason for a true competition, and plenty of reason for Urban Meyer to use the two-quarterback system that ultimately helped Florida win a national championship, but the other competitions have all had one player winning out and one player transferring out of the program.
In Berlin's case, Grossman was the better player, and the transfer didn't do that much harm to Florida, except in that one game in Miami. In Newton's case, it was less play and more off-the-field immaturity that produced a departure. But with Driskel and Brissett, distinctions between the two players' talent levels were harder to find, and boiled down largely to style, at least prior to the 2012 season.
I'll go to my grave defending the decision to make Driskel Florida's starter in 2012, given the leaky offensive line and ferocious defense Muschamp and company knew they had, and the turnover woes that had submarined previous Muschamp defenses. It was the right situation for that team in that year, and it did produce success in that campaign, though things undeniably went horribly awry afterward.
But I believe that decision also helped seed one of the more contentious locker room situations after a quarterback battle that Florida's program has had, with Driskel and Brissett each having cores of friends and defenders who helped contribute to lingering resentments. While I don't totally buy the easy logic that Florida played "harder" for Harris than Driskel in 2014 (or for Tyler Murphy than Driskel in 2013), and definitely don't buy the idea that players sandbagged because of Driskel being named Florida's starter, I do think that Driskel's struggles frustrated his fellow offensive players — and I think that having plausible alternatives, in the form of Brissett in 2012 and Harris in 2014, made it easier to be disgruntled.
I also think background, most notably race, likely had some significant part to play in the reception of Driskel beating out Brissett. Driskel was not chosen as Florida's starting QB because he is white, nor was Brissett passed over because he is black — and I've always thought it quite ironic that Driskel, whose legs set him apart in a way that the athleticism of stereotypical "black quarterbacks" is always supposed to, trumped Brissett, who was more polished, and far closer to a protoypical (white) pocket passer. (You may recall that Charlie Weis pursued and landed Brissett — which certainly should've been the first clue that Driskel didn't exactly fit his scheme perfectly — and that it was Brissett who played more extensively (and better) in the fall of 2011, despite not having the spring practices Driskel got as an early enrollee.)
But Driskel was, more or less, a good ol' boy who went hog-hunting and fishing with his cheerleader girlfriend, and tended to hang with players on the periphery of Florida's roster, especially back in 2012. He grew to have better relationships with his whole team as he got older and matured into a better leader, but Driskel did not have every Gator won over in 2012 — and Brissett, who had "presence" impressive enough to inspire pseudo-psychological drivel like this, had closer friends among many of Florida's more notable players, most notably Matt Elam, whom he played with at Palm Beach's Dwyer High. It's not fair to say that any divide in the locker room broke down purely on racial lines, but it's probably fair to say that, regardless of why, Driskel was better able to forge connections with white players, and Brissett with black ones.
It's also fair to say that Brissett (and his friends) had a right to be miffed about the way Florida's quarterback battle played out. Brissett was Florida's starter on opening day against Bowling Green ... but Driskel "started," too, at wide receiver in an unorthodox formation, and then took the helm for the rest of the first half, with Brissett relegated to the second half. That use of the Bowling Green game as an extended audition for the starting role cost Brissett a year of eligibility he could have used elsewhere had he decided to transfer, and that move — and refusing to insert Brissett until Driskel got hurt against Louisiana, despite significant struggles at times, and Florida deciding to go with Driskel into 2013 instead of reopening a quarterback competition — almost surely wounded the pride of a proud athlete. Brissett's high school coach, Dwyer's Jack Daniels, said "I don't think he's been given the fair shot" in the wake of his decision to transfer, and it's not a stretch to think that he was speaking with some knowledge of Brissett's own sentiments.
That is a long and roundabout way of explaining why it is a good thing that Grier and Harris appear to be friends.
It's easy to draw comparisons between Grier and Driskel, two white quarterbacks whose significant "future face of the program" hype was followed by a slow start, and Harris and Brissett, two black quarterbacks from South Florida whose play as freshmen had bright spots and iffy stretches. But I think the truth is that both Grier and Harris are more natural leaders than both Driskel and Brissett, and part of that derives from them — and especially Grier — being more than happy to make friends with a variety of people. Both Grier and Harris are the sons of successful football coaches who played for their fathers in high school, but Grier's also been unusually accustomed to fame, thanks to his record-setting performances in high school and his brother Nash's Vine-derived popularity — and, with all due respect to Brissett, Harris played at a bigger school in the heart of Miami, and led it to state titles and mythical high school national championships.
I could be wrong, but I think both Grier and Harris have a greater capacity for leadership than Driskel and Brissett did, and I think both are better equipped to handle winning or losing the starting job than Driskel and Brissett were in 2012. (It should be noted that Driskel handled losing the starting job in 2014 beautifully, but that was an older, wiser Driskel.)
Florida's going to need to choose one quarterback and go with him eventually, and I sincerely don't know who that guy will be at this moment. My theory is that Florida will go into the summer without naming a starter, and use that period to continue evaluating what both players do to get better without the structure of practicing every day, then pick a horse to ride in fall camp.
But no matter who does take snaps as Florida's signal-caller this fall, it will be helpful if the Driskel-Brissett fallout is not repeated. Grier and Harris tweeting emojis at each other isn't much on its own, but if it's reflective of the sense of camaraderie I get from both players, it's a very positive sign.
Florida's IPF is in progress — and no longer an excuse
Here are the best pictures I've seen of the progress made on Florida's indoor practice facility, as tweeted by Jason Kruse, who teaches about and researches turf management.
Everything appears to be continuing apace to me. Nothing major has been erected yet, though that big black tube would, I'm guessing, be related to the plumbing of the eventual structure, and there's a lot of dirt where a field once was. Great.
I'm most interested in Florida's IPF not as a means of achieving parity with other SEC programs — which I think, given Alabama's significant leads in any "arms race" happening, is actually not possible — but as a means of finding an acceptable level of support that allows the success or failure of Florida football to be about the efforts of its principals.
I've thought this for a while, because I've never fully bought the hue and cry holding that Florida needed souped-up facilities to compete with other SEC schools, despite being less than a decade removed from two national titles in three years and even less distant from a Sugar Bowl berth despite a withering 2012 schedule. But it was this USA TODAY article on basketball recruiting expenses that actually brought this to mind, because of the way Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs brutally summed up Tony Barbee's time on the plains.
"It was a bad return on investment," Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs told USA TODAY Sports. He said he authorized the increased spending — from $203,000 in 2008-09 to $465,000 in 2012-13, the most recent school year for which full numbers are available — at the behest of then-coach Tony Barbee, hired in 2010.
"It didn't work out," Jacobs said. "So I fired him."
Jacobs said Auburn increased use of a university jet when Barbee was hired "so that our coaches could go wherever they felt they needed to go to sign the best players in the nation. … I wanted to take away every possible excuse. I wanted to give (Barbee) and his staff whatever it was they thought they needed to be successful here.
"It did not pay off for us, but it took the excuse off the table."
To his credit, Will Muschamp only very rarely publicly pressed the topic of improving Florida's facilities. I very seriously doubt that Jeremy Foley would say anything like Jacobs's quotes about Barbee about Muschamp, and not just because it would be very much out of character for him to be so blunt about a coach's failings.
Despite his brusqueness, though, Jacobs has a point: Coaches (and humans) tend to find excuses when their facilities (or any facets of their life) aren't perfect. "We would've landed Player X if we'd had a waterfall" is a ridiculous example, but "We could be a better team if we didn't have practices rained out" is a more plausible one, and one that certainly became compelling for a wide swath of Florida fans in recent years.
Whether that plausible explanation was the truest one is immaterial, though, because excuses and explanations have a way of blurring and bleeding into each other. And either way, they become distractions.
There will be something else for Florida fans to bay about "their" program not doing to support football in the years to come, whether it's dragging feet on a full-scale renovation of The Swamp or an adherence to a strange font scheme in marketing materials. (I like to think of the Florida fan base as one of the smarter and funnier fan bases in the world of big-time college sports, but we sure do have a capacity for whining.)
For now, though, the excuse of not having an indoor practice facility is going to be off the table. I'll take the temporary reduction in whine volume.