In the realm of nature, the season of spring brings new life. This is most certainly the case with this season's Florida Gators, and in their upcoming spring game, they'll be unveiling a new up-tempo offense with passing yards and passing TDs as far as the stat sheet can record.
Or, at least, that's what you thought they would do, right?
Well, don't be alarmed when I tell you Florida's offense will change this season, but maybe not in the ways you had anticipated.
New head coach Jim McElwain has had offensive success all across the college football landscape. In 2007, he led a Fresno State offense to the nation's No. 32 ranking in points per game. Then, at Alabama, he had three seasons of at least 12 wins which included two national champions as their offensive coordinator, while churning out balanced offenses and minting the only running back since Reggie Bush to win the Heisman Trophy. After accepting a head coaching position at Colorado State, he improved the program each of the three seasons he was there, ultimately being named the Mountain West Coach of the Year in 2014.
It's easy to write off the Alabama years and say, "Well, he had the best players and a great defense behind him", but McElwain's success existed and continued without Nick Saban's help. That's what made him a coveted coach in Jeremy Foley's eyes. But when you dig deeper into why McElwain has a good chance to be a success again, this time at Florida, it's not always in the pass-happy approach everyone is probably hoping for; it's not even in the numbers at all, really. It's what he does with his players before they get a chance to put up those numbers.
Author's note: Much of the information and concepts I'll be sharing with you are brought to you by an extensive conversation I had with Roll Bama Roll's Benjamin Litvin. He's one of the most enlightening Xs and 's people I've ever come across, and for that, he deserves a ton of credit for the piece.
Not All Quarterbacks
In today's college football, at least to the casual fan, you're either running the spread option, or you're just not trying to score and hate the fans, the school, winning, and fun. (I'm paraphrasing.) But not all teams are built to run the spread option, and, more importantly, not all quarterbacks have to have five receiving options to win a down. This is where the first McElwain foundation begins.
I'll go ahead and throw out the Fresno State year just because if I reference it, all I'll get back is, "But college football is so different now!" And since there's some merit to that, I'll save myself the words. Let's talk about what McElwain did in the Ess Eee Cee.
During his time at Alabama, McElwain didn't have the best quarterbacks to work with; he had John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron. So, with less-than-stellar arm talent, how did his offenses move the ball well enough to win national championships? That question is answered is in the game plan. McElwain has always tried to make his offenses as simple as he could for his quarterbacks, which is a great thing for a Florida team rolling with Treon Harris and Will Grier -- I expect Florida to be much more 2010 Alabama than 2014 Colorado State in terms of QB play this season.
Much of what you see from McElwain's play calling at Alabama is one-read passing plays, and as I type this, I can hear Gators fans groaning. But wait! One-read isn't as easy as you think it is. The wording makes it seem prehistoric, but it's really just efficient. Those one-read plays are about getting victories before game day, on the practice field. Making an offense easy for a quarterback means what you call has to work nine times out of 10 -- and according to McElwain's track record, his calls do.
Vertical concepts in McElwain's one-read were limited beyond Julio Jones during his time at Alabama, but when he made the move over to CSU, he really seemed to open up what Garrett Grayson could do.
The play above doesn't just have vertical options: That's all the play is. It's quite different from what we saw back when he was calling plays for Alabama.
With his only option this year being starting a young, still-green quarterback, it's good to know McElwain has nearly mastered how to simplify an offense. I think he realizes he may have to go back to the Alabama style of play-calling this season, which would explain his tempering of expectations. But we should still have a chance to see Demarcus Robinson play some of the old Julio Jones roles. Screens, and short passes to him over the middle, will be some of the one-read plays that get Florida's primary playmaker the ball.
McElwain is going to open up the field as much as he can for his quarterback, but he'll do that by running the ball quite a lot. This offense may stretch the field, but it will only do so by running the ball first. That won't change as we fade from the Will Muschamp era.
What we hope changes, though, is how Florida marries the run and pass games.
Game of Zones
In 2010, Alabama almost exclusively ran its offense out of the shotgun or the pistol. But in 2011, you saw many more plays under center, with the pistol mixed in. In its run game, Alabama shifted from a zone-running scheme with Mark Ingram to a much more power, north-to-south style when he ran Trent Richardson. The difference is in the intelligence.
What made Ingram a Heisman winner wasn't just that he was running behind a stout Alabama offensive line. McElwain knew that space is dangerous, as a positive and a negative. If your running back doesn't do well thinking on the fly, he's probably not going to do so great when his first gap is closed up.
With both styles available, what Florida will do may be best answered by what McElwain did at Colorado State with Kapri Bibbs. Bibbs finished his time in Fort Collins with the most single-season rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in school history, and mostly ran out of a shotgun formation. Bibbs's bread and butter was any draw between the tackles that allowed him to be shifty, agile and a thinker. I expect more of the Bibbs/Ingram role for Kelvin Taylor at Florida with screen plays and blockers in motions.
Unfortunately, zone running takes serious intelligence and chemistry from the offensive line as well. That's where I'm worried this season. If it were up to McElwain, he'd run a zone blocking style every time, I think. It allows him to trust the players he assembles to make the most out of space created.
But don't expect that to happen in year one. At this point, Florida's just hoping they have enough offensive linemen to play, and we're going to see walk-ons who won't see the field in the fall playing in this Saturday's spring game. Down the road, watch for McElwain to recruit quicker, lighter, smarter offensive lineman, as opposed to the big maulers you might have seen him take at Alabama.
A Play Within A Play
McElwain was on the forefront of package plays, even back at Alabama. On package plays, an offense will be looking to utilize a certain playmaker's skills, whether that guy is a running back, wideout, or tight end, on a single play that may favor them over a different player and even the opposing defense. But there's another aspect of package plays that boils down to read-and-react football.
Though the quarterback's job may be simplified on a package play, that doesn't mean the total play is. McElwain loves to combine concepts within a single call. For example: A screen package with an inside run. The QB hikes the ball, and makes one read: The defensive end. If he collapses, whippt goes the screen; if he doesn't, the ball is handed off. There are more moving parts than just a Plan A and Plan B; it's almost like he's letting his offense run two different plays at the same time.
He's also creative in how he uses crossing plays with tight ends.
There's plenty of open space on a football field, and it's not exclusive to vertical routes. McElwain has a knack for finding it, especially horizontally. I expect him to target pass-catching tight ends with athletic offensive lineman and smart running backs, but look to see how much he tries to go to those guys in the spring game. Tight ends can be a serious X-factor in McElwain's offense, but he has to trust them first.
Time is Undefeated
After four years of molasses-paced offense under Will Muschamp, many Florida fans are looking for McElwain to establish some sort of play calling -- and I won't crush your hopes on that front! Colorado State ran a lot of hurry-up during McElwain's tenure. Not only did it help get his quarterback in a groove, it forced the defense to make pre-determined substitutions, or risk a possible miscommunication. It's smart to at least have hurry-up as a flavor of an SEC offense in 2015, and I think McElwain will install that at Florida, but it's tough to say how much right off the bat. I think we'll get a better look at tempo during the spring game.
In conclusion, I think the combination of a simplistic quarterback role from the Alabama days with Colorado State-style running and play-calling is what Gators fans can expect in 2015. Above all, McElwain knows he can only deal with the talent he has. Temper your QB expectations for this season, but look for both Harris and Grier to grow.
The point of emphasis for McElwain so far has been laying a new foundation. What you see in Year One will likely be just the foundation for what he can do at Florida. But I think the foundation has a good chance to set quickly.