"His track record on the offensive side of the ball is special. You can look it up, see the records." — Florida then-athletic director Jeremy Foley, December 2014
GAINESVILLE — After Will Muschamp led some of the ugliest seasons in modern Florida history, Jeremy Foley knew the Gators' next head coach would have to revive one of the worst offenses in the SEC.
He thought Jim McElwain could.
McElwain developed NFL quarterbacks. He sent two running backs to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He turned a two-star recruit into the nation's leading receiver.
McElwain didn't vow to bring back the Fun 'N' Gun, but he did promise something at his introductory news conference in December 2014:
"It will be a blast."
Two and a half seasons into his tenure, it looks more like a bust.
UF's scoring average (23.7 points per game) is on track to be the program's third worst since 1988 — behind McElwain's first year and Muschamp's 4-8 disaster in 2013.
The Gators have already allowed more sacks through six games (20) than in Muschamp's entire final season (17).
Only four teams in the country have fewer touchdown passes than UF (four), and that grim figure could easily be worse: Two came when Kentucky left receivers unguarded, and a third was Feleipe Franks' 63-yard miracle that beat Tennessee.
McElwain spent some of the bye week reevaluating his system and found one recurring problem.
"Consistency is the big piece," McElwain said.
But there are plenty of other pieces missing — ones McElwain has been talking about since his first day on the job.
Monica Herndon | Times
"The simplicity of this is really what it's all about, right?" — McElwain, December 2014
The most damning indictment for McElwain's staff is how the Gators struggle too often with simple things.
An illegal substitution in the red zone stalled UF's promising opening drive against Texas A&M; instead of challenging for a touchdown, the Gators settled for a field goal in a 19-17 loss.
UF ran only 54 plays against LSU, partially because it couldn't get the calls in efficiently.
"It's on me," McElwain said.
So is this: The Gators were in A&M territory with six seconds left in the half. Rather than take a shot in the end zone or fire a short pass to set up a field goal, UF threw an intermediate incompletion.
"We didn't have an ability to stop (the clock)," McElwain said.
Except UF still had one timeout left.
Monica Herndon | Times
"There's this column that says, 'Get it to.' That means get it to the guy that can score…" — McElwain, December 2014
UF's get-it-to list would look much different if receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlett weren't among the nine suspended players facing felony complaints of credit card fraud. But the old cliché is true: You recruit your own problems. And McElwain didn't only recruit Callaway and Scarlett; he kept them after previous off-field issues.
Regardless, the Gators' other skill players haven't developed enough. None of the seven offensive players (excluding linemen) McElwain signed in his first class have even touched the ball this season. Of the six blue-chip receivers/running backs UF landed in 2016-17, only one (receiver Tyrie Cleveland) has more than 140 yards this fall.
UF's viable offensive weapons — including Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis and electric athlete Kadarius Toney — don't always get the ball enough.
"We need to make sure that the guys that need to touch it, touch it," McElwain said two days after the season-opening 33-17 loss to Michigan. "Those things need getting called."
Eve Edelheit | Times (2015)
"I believe I can win with my dog Claire-a-bell (at quarterback)." — McElwain, December 2014
McElwain's small-school roots taught him to adjust to whatever quarterback he could land. They also might have caused him to repeat one of Muschamp's biggest mistakes: He let a good quarterback get away.
Four years after leaving Muschamp's Gators for North Carolina State, Jacoby Brissett starts for the Colts. Two years after starring for half a season under McElwain, West Virginia's Will Grier leads the nation with 21 touchdown passes; he threw as many in the final 21 minutes against Texas Tech as UF has all season.
Franks is clearly talented. His bomb against Tennessee and 79-yard rush against A&M are two of the best plays UF's offense has produced in years. But UF is still experiencing growing pains at the position with Luke Del Rio (collarbone) out for the year.
Franks failed to see at least two wide-open receivers against A&M. One stopped a drive on third down, and the other resulted in an interception in the end zone. While some of the 20 sacks UF has allowed fall on a line that leaks too often on the right side, Franks could have avoided two last week by simply throwing the ball away.
"There's times here and there where I'm just — a little bit uncomfortable …" Franks said. "Not really excuses. It just comes with playing experience."
UF hasn't used Franks' youth as an excuse, and it shouldn't. Georgia leads the SEC East with a true freshman quarterback who started the year as a backup (Jake Fromm). Another true freshman, Kellen Mond, led the Aggies on three fourth-quarter scoring drives last week.
"Last time I checked," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said in March, "greatness wasn't defined by age or experience."
Monica Herndon | Times
"I look at it as efficiency in staying on the field. ... And ultimately, the production of points, when you're down inside that score area, is something that to me kind of defines it." — McElwain, August 2016, on what offensive success means
UF's 2016 offense converted on less than 42 percent of its third downs and ranked No. 126 nationally in the red zone. Coaches vowed to improve both — and they're 1-for-2.
UF is one of only five teams in the country to score on every trip inside the opponent's 20. The problem is that the Gators have only done so 15 times — tied for ninth fewest nationally. And that's partially caused by a failure to improve the other issue.
UF has converted on only 27 of its 81 third downs. That percentage (33.3) would be the Gators' fourth-worst on record (dating back to 1979). UF had seven three-and-outs against the Aggies.
"The plan's good," McElwain said. "The execution piece needs to get better."
So why isn't the execution better?
"You can't just nail it down to one thing," Franks said.
Monica Herndon | Times
"(Improving the offense) certainly is one of the things, as we all know, that I was brought here to do, and it hasn't been done yet." — McElwain, August 2017
The Gators have improved in some of McElwain's key areas.
The offense is less predictable, thanks in part to the long-awaited Wildcat quarterback package. Only eight teams have more balanced rushing/passing yards than UF. The interception rate is down, and the rushing average (4.6) is on pace to be UF's best since 2009.
But the Gators still rank outside the top 50 in almost every major offensive category, putting UF in danger of missing a bowl appearance for the second time in the last quarter-century.
McElwain has had plenty of time to turn things around. He recruited all five starting linemen, the five leading rushers, three of the top four receivers and the starting quarterback.
Yet he still hasn't done what UF brought him to do. His offense remains more bust than blast.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
UF under Jim McElwain, 2015-present (national rank)
Scoring: 23.6 ppg (No. 108)
Passer rating: 125.95 (No. 87)
TD/INT ratio: 1.45 (No. 93)
Yards per pass attempt: 7.05 (No. 82)
Yards per rush: 3.77 (No. 104)
Rushing TDs: 41 (No. 101)
Sacks allowed: 93 (seventh worst)
Eve Edelheit | Times
UF under Will Muschamp, 2011-14 (national rank)
Scoring: 25.3 (No. 90)
Passer rating: 124.59 (No. 87)
TD/INT ratio: 1.34 (No. 101)
Yards per pass attempt: 6.86 (No. 86)
Yards per rush: 4.14 (No. 78)
Rushing TDs: 75 (No. 73)
Sacks allowed: 106 (48th worst)