In the late 70’s, Leonard Nimoy, Spock from the original Star Trek tv series, hosted a quasi-sci-fi tv series called In Search Of.
Today, as fall camp has already begun for the Florida Gators in preparation for the 2016 football season, head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier could host an episode of their own as they go in search of a solution to last season’s offensive troubles.
By now everyone is fully aware of how the Gators offense tanked after Will Grier’s suspension.
To anyone that watched last season’s offensive debacle there was certainly a stark contrast between the play of Grier and that of his successor Treon Harris.
However, both players have since transferred out leaving Luke Del Rio, who transferred in before last season, to compete with grad transfer Austin Appleby for the starting quarterback job this season.
What will it take to improve on last season’s putrid 111th (out of 127 teams) ranking in total offense?
With that in mind coach Mac was asked in his media session on Wednesday what a successful offense looks like to him.
“I look at it as efficiency in staying on the field,” he replied. “Obviously being successful keeping your defense off the field by not only prolonging series, but you know, the three-and-outs thing just kills you, all right.”
“And ultimately, the production of points, when you’re down inside that score area, is something that to me kind of defines it.”
With that being said let’s look at a couple areas on offense that must improve if the Gators have any shot of defending their SEC East title this season and why they should be improved.
Last season, the Gators finished 95th nationally in third down conversion percentage. They converted a mere 36.4 percent (75 of 206) of their third down opportunities.
This means that they failed to convert on almost two-thirds of their third down chances.
That’s not just bad, it’s putrid.
Tough to have any kind of consistency when you can’t keep your offense on the field.
Not to mention the pressure it puts on your defense.
If third down is money down then offensively the Gators went belly up.
You get the point.
They have got to be better on third down.
What will it take for them to be more successful on third down?
Better offensive line play…
The Gators started three true freshman last season and only had one returning player who had ever played a down at Florida when the season began. Behind them were more freshman and ineligible transfers.
I’ve been following Gator football since 1977, and I can’t remember a more inexperienced offensive line than what they started the season with last year.
Not exactly a prescription for offensive success for a first year head coach.
Manufacturing ten wins and a division title was pure wizardry. And, of course, a little luck.
Surprisingly, the young line actually played fairly well overall last season. There were some clean pockets and running lanes but the line play was simply too inconsistent. A lot of that can be attributed to poor communication.
Particularly on third down.
Blitzes, stunts, and other tricks can be difficult for young, inexperienced players to recognize and execute properly against.
They saw a lot of that on third down last season.
The good news?
They gained a ton of valuable experience after having everything thrown at them including the kitchen sink.
While it might be foolish to expect this line to improve by leaps and bounds, we can surely expect improvement.
And after watching the two end of season losses to Bama and FSU repeatedly over the summer, I can assure you, minor improvements in technique and recognition should pay off big dividends this season.
“I would challenge us to be dramatically better [offensively],” McElwain said. “Now, are we going to get to where we are eventually going to be in the program? No.”
“But with that being said, I think the experience we developed up front is going to be very helpful. And I’m going to challenge those guys to help us get a little better.”
“But you know, I see it drastically much better in operations… or at least winning half a battle up front, right.”
After one practice, it was already obvious to the staff that the line is farther ahead this year than last.
“In a practice like this the one thing I could tell was they [offensive line] were set into the right place in pass protection and they weren’t just sitting there, they were actually talking to each other,” McElwain said. “Which tells me they were communicating at least based off the Mike point, where their combination blocks were going. So I’d say in that case, those guys are ahead of, obviously, where they were a year ago.”
Better quarterback play…
As important as improved line play is, perhaps even more important might be improved play from the quarterback position.
While Grier had his ups and downs, Harris was outright terrible on third down.
Where do we begin?
Batted down passes, poor throws, missed reads, happy feet, etc…
Good news for Gator fans is that all of the Gator quarterbacks this season are 6-1 or taller meaning there will likely be less batted down screen passes, a staple of this offensive system.
I believe both Del Rio and Appleby are a huge step up from Treon and Grier.
Del Rio has experience in the system, is a coaches son which provides a level of intuition others may not have, and he is smart and poised in the pocket.
“I think the big thing there has more to do with growing up around the game,” McElwain said about Luke being a coach’s son. “And you know what, probably seeing it from a little bit different perspective; I think understanding how you can help your team win, sometimes by throwing the ball away and allowing your defense to be successful.”
“You know, there’s certain things in playing the position, I think that help. I think the fact that he grew up around it, is something that obviously helps him.”
Appleby is an experienced game day college quarterback. While his career stats are nothing to write home about, it’s hard to discount the effect of having significant game experience in the pocket particularly considering he’s surrounded by far better skill talent than he had at Purdue.
Together the two combined to go 19-23 for 256 yards and a couple td’s in the spring game.
While it was only a spring scrimmage, it is important to note that the quarterbacks were finding and hitting the open receivers, something the Gators qb’s struggled to do consistently last season.
“He (Del Rio) did a good job letting the game come to him,” Florida’s second-year coach Jim McElwain said after the spring game adding “it’s amazing what happens when you throw it to the open guy. You get a pretty good stat line.”
As bad as the Gators offense was on third down, they were even worse in the red zone where they finished 124th out of 127 FBS teams.
They scored on only 34 of 51 red zone trips (66.7%) which means they failed to score on a third of their trips inside the red zone.
The issues for Florida in the red zone were very similar to their issues on third down. Poor quarterback play and inconsistency along the offensive line.
All too often when they got down into scoring position breakdowns at those two spots doomed them.
However, an even bigger issue reared its head down in the red zone: poor place kicking.
When I say poor place kicking, I really mean horrid place kicking.
Have I already used the word putrid?
Out of those 51 red zone opportunities the Gators came away with 5 field goals.
1…2…3…4…5 field goals.
Over the course of an entire season.
There are kickers that kick 5 in a game.
The Gators could only manage 5 the whole season.
When a team gets into the red zone which is inside the opponents 20 yard line, a field goal should be almost automatic.
Starting kicker Austin Hardin was 5-14 from all distances overall an unheard of 35.7%. That has to be some kind of modern era Gator record for kicking futility.
It led to coach McElwain taking chances by electing to go for it on 4th down in the red zone which mostly led to turnovers on downs.
Driving deep into an opponent’s territory without coming away with points is demoralizing for your offense but even more so for your defense.
The good news?
Hardin is gone (transferred out) and in his place is JUCO transfer Eddie Piniero who became an Internet sensation with viral videos of him kicking 77 yard field goals.
Despite being already committed to Bama, Piniero flipped his commitment to and eventually signed with the Gators after a whirlwind courtship by coach Mac.
He brought Piniero in on an official visit and stressed both the Gators need for a top flight kicker and the location being close to home so his family could see him play.
The power play by McElwain worked as Piniero flipped his commitment shortly after his visit to UF.
Will he be kicking 70+ yard field goals for the Gators?
However, he should be automatic inside of 40 yards and high percentage inside of 55.
That’s all they want, that’s all they need.
Consistency is the key to changing their red zone fortunes this season and Piniero along with returning backup Jorge Powell (2-3 last season) should provide that.
Which should be a huge boost towards moving the Gators up from #100 in scoring last season.