May 10, 2016
Spend five minutes with Florida head coach Jim McElwain, and you’ll see why he’s so likable.
Whether it’s asking reporters how their golf games are progressing or discussing his latest concoction on the Big Green Egg (it was a pizza), the second-year head coach of the Gators has an ability to relate to other people that’s unmatched in college football.
It’s a big reason why he has been successful as a coordinator and a head coach.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to have some good guys, and guys who understand the importance of the position and what it takes to be successful at it,” McElwain said earlier this month.
He arrived from Fresno State as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2008 and helped the Crimson Tide turn from SEC West also-ran to division champ. Alabama was within one quarter of winning the SEC Championship Game and earning a spot in the BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma.
John Parker Wilson, the quarterback of that Crimson Tide team, threw 10 touchdowns, averaged seven yards per attempt and became the game manager they needed behind a stout running game and ultratalented defense.
“When [McElwain] got there, his personality was like, ‘Hey guys, I got this,'” Wilson told Bleacher Report. “The offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in college is installing everything, so he’s got to win the offense. He did with me really quickly, and it didn’t take much longer for the rest of the group.”
It is McElwain‘s ability to figure out the personality of the individuals on his team that has allowed him to find early success anywhere he goes.
“He does it very genuinely,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t change himself based on if he’s talking to the media or a running back or receiver. He is who he is. He really gets people, what drives them and what motivates them.”
Greg McElroy followed in Wilson’s footsteps under McElwain at Alabama from 2009-2010. McElroy saw the same affable attributes play a big part in him leading the Crimson Tide to the 2009 national title in his first year as the starting quarterback.
“Every coach has a different style,” McElroy told Bleacher Report. “‘Mac’ has a very sarcastic personality…kind of dry. I think he majored in sarcasm at Eastern Washington. We were really similar and hit it off immediately, and [he] is one of my favorite people in the business.”
As the head coach at Colorado State from 2012-2014, it was more of the same for McElwain.
Garrett Grayson threw 62 touchdowns in three seasons as the quarterback of the Rams in McElwain‘s three seasons in Fort Collins. McElwain helped Grayson achieve his dreams by getting drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints in 2015.
“He’s serious, but he makes sure you enjoy football,” Grayson said at the 2015 Reese’s Senior Bowl, according to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union. “Before he got to CSU, we were missing that. He changed the atmosphere, made it more of a family culture.”
The same thing happened at Florida last year. Quarterback had been a position of instability ever since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season, but behind McElwain and redshirt freshman Will Grier, Florida jumped out to a 6-0 record before instability struck again thanks to Grier’s yearlong suspension.
Fast-forward to this year, and stability is back, thanks to Mac.
The Gators entered spring practice with two journeymen vying for the top spot on the depth chart—Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby and former Alabama and Oregon State quarterback Luke Del Rio, who sat out last season after transferring from the Beavers.
Midway through spring practice, things didn’t look great.
Appleby was still getting his feet wet, and Del Rio—the son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio—had already been tabbed as the front-runner in the battle, but he had hit a wall. Appleby and true freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks were gaining ground.
Del Rio busted through that wall in the spring game. He completed 10 of his 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, solidifying himself as the presumptive starter in Gainesville.
“I was pressing a little bit and not letting the offense work for me,” Del Rio said after Florida’s spring game. “They do a great job of installing plays and putting guys open for us. I just let the offensive line do what they do and let the wide receivers do what they do, and I just went through the progressions. It’s easier that way. The coaches are right. Just run the offense. It works.”
The ability to relate to his passers breeds confidence in the offense, thanks to the trust that’s generated through McElwain‘s ability to relate to the most important player on the field.
“He just explains the system in a very fundamental way,” McElroy said. “It’s not that the system is any easier or more difficult than others that I’ve been in, but he gives you the answers, knows how to prepare and knows how to talk to you based on how you approach the game. So when you’re discussing it, he talks to you in very matter-of-fact way so you know exactly what he needs from you. As a player, there’s very little gray area.”
The absence of gray area has McElwain back on the right track again following the detour Grier’s suspension forced him to take midway through the 2015 season.
As a result, Florida’s in good hands at quarterback despite those hands belonging to Del Rio—a journeyman who got his start by walking on at Alabama. In true McElwain fashion, his response to a question about his quarterback’s success shows off that “sarcasm degree” better than if it were framed in his office.
“Maybe they’re all as screwed up as I am.”
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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