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Florida’s Jim McElwain characteristically said little at SEC Media Days

Florida NCAA college football coach Jim McElwain speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Tuesday, July 11, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/AP photo

Jim McElwain learned plenty from Nick Saban in his time as offensive coordinator at Alabama. One of the most obvious things he picked up is verbal evasiveness.

As usual, the head coach of the Florida Gators didn’t say much of note about his team at SEC Media Days. He loves to do his Coach Mac routine where he uses his folksy charm to tell stories of Montana or explain why he doesn’t wear socks. When it comes to the squad on the field, getting specific information out of him is like pulling teeth.

Here is a page from the Gainesville Sun with three short videos of McElwain talking about Malik Zaire and the quarterbacks in general. Try finding anything of value in those clips. It’s almost all generic compliments about the new quarterback or a very coachspeak-y statement about how he doesn’t want any players to be satisfied with being a backup.

The only thing he divulged is that he is, for the first time in Gainesville, happy with his quarterback unit. “We’ve got talent,” McElwain explained. “We’ve got guys who are going to be able to compete against each other.”

It sounds like something notable right up until you think about his past two seasons. It was painfully obvious in 2015 that Florida had nothing at quarterback that was going to work in McElwain’s offense behind Will Grier. Last year, it never appeared that Luke Del Rio was in danger of losing his starting role except to injury. McElwain was so down on Austin Appleby as a second option that he played an obviously hurt Del Rio in the road game at Arkansas. He has since said he realizes he shouldn’t have played the very limited Del Rio.

So what McElwain said on Tuesday basically is that, for the first time, he has more than one quarterback he would feel comfortable in starting. Is that news? Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks put in a good spring game performance. It came after other praise the former 4-star recruit received from the coaches. The fact that Florida has more than one starting-caliber quarterback was already obvious to anyone on the outside who is paying attention. Adding a former Notre Dame starter in Zaire only cemented it, but again, that wasn’t new in Hoover. McElwain’s comment about the room didn’t add anything.

One of the biggest outstanding issues for the team is star receiver Antonio Callaway’s status for the opener against Michigan. He was cited for marijuana possession this offseason while riding in a car driven by a 40-year-old who also was cited for the same in the same incident. It’s not his first time showing bad judgment, as he was a part of a Title IX investigation last summer and used being high on marijuana as a defense against sexual assault allegations.

Here is what McElwain had to say when asked about Callaway and the first game: “You know, and he’s going through some things right now, and obviously he’s been handling it well. We’ll continue to see how that goes.” After those two content-free sentences, he went on to effusively praise Callaway. He compared his receiver to others he has coached on the college level, Deion Branch and Julio Jones. McElwain said nothing and then pivoted to answer a different question he’d rather have been asked. He’s a pro at that.

As far as real news goes, there were only two bits of information and possibly a third. First, 2017 signee James Robinson, a 4-star receiver and a major part of the class, is being held up from joining the team by the NCAA Eligibility Center. Second, the official Gators football roster is wrong and true freshman Tedarrell Slaton is playing as a reserve on the defensive line, not offensive line.

The third bit is that McElwain pronounced the offensive line as “the strength of the team.” It’s an upgrade from spring practice when he thought the line could be “a true strength.” He likes the O-line a bit more now than two months ago. I’m not sure that counts as news in absolute terms, but relative to how McElwain talks about anything else, it qualifies.

Ultimately, it makes sense for him to be evasive. Not giving specifics on Callaway means Michigan must prepare for him even if the receiver is suspended. Not tipping his hand on the quarterback competition makes sense considering neither Del Rio nor Zaire has practiced for Florida yet this year. He probably doesn’t honestly know yet who will start. Naming any of them the leader might affect the player’s intensity of preparation, so better just not to say.

It’s remarkable how much McElwain has had to reform Florida football. He had four scholarship offensive linemen when he arrived; now it’s a position of strength. He had two second-year players at quarterback when he came in; he now has four players — Franks, Zaire, Del Rio and Kyle Trask — competing for the starting role. He got the school to commit to improving facilities that had been lagging; he made a reference Tuesday to the prior lack of upgrades, according to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd.

Part of McElwain’s overhaul of the Florida program has been to lock down the flow of information out of it. Tuesday at SEC Media Days was just another example of that change.

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