GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio walked by a large media contingent waiting around an empty chair Wednesday and thought “sucks to be that guy.”
A few seconds later, Del Rio took his seat — right in the middle of the scrum.
Del Rio was the main attraction at Florida’s annual media day Wednesday, the key player in an offense that coach Jim McElwain believes will be “dramatically better” in his second season.
Despite winning 10 games and the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division last season, the Gators were downright dismal on offense for most of last season. It was far from what McElwain envisioned when he was hired to revitalize Florida’s stagnant offense.
And while the Gators still have lots of questions on that side of the ball heading into fall camp, McElwain insists the results will be much improved in 2016.
“I would challenge us to be dramatically better,” McElwain said. “I see it drastically much better in operations and getting it to the open guys.”
Florida didn’t do that often enough in 2015, especially with Treon Harris at the helm down the stretch. The Gators scored just two offensive touchdowns in their final three games, all losses.
The Gators ended up ranked 100th in the nation in scoring, averaging 23.2 points a game and turning in as many sub-par outings as substantial performances. There were plenty of other paltry numbers, too: Florida was 112th in total offense, 86th in passing and 113th in rushing.
Florida managed to win a dysfunctional division thanks mostly to a dynamic defense.
Despite losing six defensive starters — defensive tackle Jon Bullard, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Alex McCalister, linebacker Antonio Morrison, safety Keanu Neal and defensive back Brian Poole — to the NFL, the defense is expected to reload and remain one of the best in the country.
Getting the offense turned around is another story — and the top priority.
“Everybody’s more comfortable in the offense,” Del Rio said. “People say that a lot, but it really does matter. If I taught you something and I expected you to do it perfectly, it’s really tough. But if I talked to you a couple of times and you got to practice and do it and play it and do it again, you’d do much better.”
Maybe so, but Florida has plenty of concerns heading into practice Thursday:
—Del Rio hasn’t even been named the starter, partly because he has little playing experience. The son of Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, Luke Del Rio is a college journeyman who has thrown just 18 passes in three seasons. He started at Alabama and left after one year in hopes of finding more opportunity. He landed at Oregon State and then transferred again after coach Mike Riley resigned to take the head coaching job at Nebraska. Del Rio ended up at Florida, where he sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Now, he’s vying with former Purdue starter Austin Appleby for the starting job.
—Florida receivers Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells could be suspended to start the season. Callaway, the team’s top returning playmaker, remains partially suspended for violating the university’s code of conduct policy. Cleveland and Wells, both freshman, are facing felony charges for allegedly firing BB guns into a residential hall last month. All three will be allowed to practice.
—Florida lost two starting offensive lineman, Trip Thurman and Mason Halter, to graduation. It could lead to some early growing pains, but the Gators started three freshmen against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl so that experience could prove invaluable.
—The Gators also lost leading rusher Kelvin Taylor, who turned pro after his junior season. They have Jordan Cronkrite, Jordan Scarlett and junior college transfer Mark Thompson in a crowded backfield, but none of them has proven to be a reliable option at this level.
“Obviously, we have to get better at a lot of things,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “That’s maybe a lot of the excitement: to watch how much growth we’re going to have, not only where we came from the end of last year through spring, but where we’ll be from the start of camp to the end of camp.”
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