1. This had to be something of a different spring for Florida, with a new coach taking over for somebody that was unceremoniously fired. Was there a general vibe or mood coming out of first practices of the Jim McElwain Era in Gainesville?
Well the mood is that defense will carry the team and there really isn't a doubt about it. From the outset, McElwain was pretty blunt about how far the offense was behind the defense and how this spring was going to be developmental more than anything else. They went back to the fundamentals and spoon-fed during installation - remember this is the third offense in as many years this team has had to play in - and by the end of spring if the ideal is 100-percent install of what McElwain wants to do, I doubt they got to 50%, and I think that was by design.
McElwain's brilliance is what he's doing behind the scenes with support staff. While Muschamp staked his future on mimicking Alabama on the field, McElwain aims to duplicate what the Tide do off the field hiring real coaches to be quality control coaches and beefing up his player personnel department. Muschamp's fatal flaw was a lack of effectiveness developing and evaluating offensive talent. McElwain aims to reverse that trend.
2. How has McElwain been received? On the one hand, he's replacing a coach that was resoundingly unpopular, but he definitely wasn't a "flashy" name.
Fans like him - for now. I don't believe in the value of winning the press conference. Everyone wins the press conference. If you can't win the press conference following Muschamp you must be the most anti-social person in human history. McElwain has a history of coaching offense and honestly that was good enough for most UF fans to sign off on him. He's folksy, you've met Jim McElwain before, he's your friend's corny dad and that's ok. He laughs at his own jokes and has the old school colloquialisms like "I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday." It never seems forced it's just how he is and I think people like that, makes a guy who earns $3 million seem much more down to earth. The fact is Florida could have hired nearly anyone with an offensive background and it would have played well enough with the fanbase, but if he doesn't show progress in year two and three of his tenure the folksy demeanor will get real old with people real quickly and he won't get a year four.
3. Offense was the big problem under Will Muschamp, and McElwain built his reputation with some very good attacks at Alabama. What strides were made in that area?
Not many. Florida had six scholarship offensive linemen available in the spring game, one of which had ever played in a college football game. The program was handed a cruel blow last week when offensive tackle Roderick Johnson's career was ended due to an injury he got late in spring. They thought it was stinger, it ended up being congenital cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the material surrounding the spinal cord, and weakening his natural protection against spinal cord injuries. Johnson will serve as a student assistant until he finishes his degree and has exhibited unbelievable perspective on his situation, but the Gators lose a lineman with all-SEC potential on an already thin line. That means freshmen will be playing on Florida's offensive line this season and that is not any team's ideal.
As for what's behind that patchwork offensive line: the quarterback situation is in a state of flux. Most people believe Will Grier (who redshirted last season) will end up being the guy over Treon Harris (who underwhelmed as the season wore on) but when either of them will be named the starter no one knows. It benefits UF not to name a starter before camp but I wouldn't be surprised if they headed into game one playing two quarterbacks but it seems much more likely Grier is named QB1 late in fall camp.
At running back UF will be strong, I think Kelvin Taylor has a lot of natural running ability but is yet to round out as a complete and consistent back. Incoming freshman Jordan Scarlett will push immediately for playing time and he will shine. Birmingham bowl standout Adam Lane will also be in the mix when a bowling ball is needed in the backfield.
At tight end it looks like UF will finally have a consistent vertical threat for the first time since 2012 in Virginia transfer jake McGee. Behind him there are three young guys vying for position but they're all pass catchers, not the old school blocking tight end mold. At receiver, UF may struggle. Demarcus Robinson is good but Ahmad Fulwood shows flashes sometimes and leaves much to be desired other times. They need more from him. Converted running back Brandon Powell will be a playmaker and they can find inventive ways to use him to their advantage in the slot. Other than that, the receiver position is slim pickings. They've got bodies, but they're all mostly the same 6-foot tall slot type guy that don't strike you as playmakers.
4. The defense was obviously more consistent, and is replacing one stud in Dante Fowler Jr. but returns a few in Vernon Hargreaves and Antonio Morrison. How's that unit looking?
At linebacker, Morrison suffered a really bad looking knee injury that his family chose not to disclose during the bowl game against ECU and Jarrad Davis tore his meniscus during a game late last season against South Carolina. Both were held out of spring practice while recovering. Behind them at linebacker is Alex Anzalone, Matt Rolin, Daniel McMillan and Jermi Powell none of which have played a significant amount of snaps.
That may hurt Florida but consider this: they're only going to play two true linebackers most of the time because of the amount of nickel they'll run. Their base defensive alignment should be nickel because they have so many stinkin defensive backs. So many that they don't even pretend to have a formal depth chart in the defensive backfield, opting for an above the line/below the line approach. If you're above the line, you're in the rotation, if you're below the line, you're not.
J.C. Jackson was arrested for armed robbery over the weekend and his future with the team is still left to be determined but if he's back - not likely in my opinon - then he will push Jalen Tabor to start opposite Hargreaves. Quincy Wilson, Duke Dawson, Brian Poole are also in the corner mix perhaps even Deondre Porter as well. At safety, Marcus Maye, Nick Washington, Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris are names to look for. Simply put, it's an embarrassment of riches back there, have fun trying to throw the ball.
On the defensive line, the talent is also very good. Bryan Cox, Jr., Jon Bullard, Caleb Brantley and Alex McCalister should anchor the starting line, McCalister replacing Fowler at the hybrid rush end/linebacker spot. I have questions about how well he can do that, but we will see, I think his length poses a unique challenge for opposing offensive linemen.
Behind them sits young guys like Joey Ivey, Justus Reed, Taven Bryan, Jay-nard Bostwick, Thomas Holley and Jordan Sherit. Few of those players have not played many meaningful snaps but I think they're ready to deliver when thrown into the line of fire.
New defensive coordinator Geoff Collins brings will continue to do much of what Muschamp with both of them coming from the Nick Saban coaching tree. He decided it was a good idea not to do a wholesale change of terminology, keeping a lot of things the same which will help young players that are working on stepping up.
The defense will be leaned upon, but will it break under the pressure if the offense doesn't begin to come along at the back half of the season?
5. What are the expectations for 2015? Are Gator fans understanding of the situation Mac's walking into, or expecting a quick turnaround with the SEC East fairly wide open?
I want to give Florida fans a ton of credit. It's a fanbase that got trashed throughout the coaching search as being fickle and spoiled and expecting things that are unrealistic, but coming out of spring I see expectations right where they should be from most Gator fans. They got what they wanted in Muschamp getting fired but most fans I talk to and go back and forth with in person and on Twitter don't think this team will be automatically turned around although they may hope that to be the case. I think most people understand that when a coach arrives in December his recruiting class is going to leave a bit to be desired with not a lot of instant impact guys because of lack of time devoted to get them to Gainesville.
Make no mistake, this is much of the same team that won seven games last season (most likely would have been eight had Idaho opener not ben canceled). The offense will most likely be worse with an offensive line that goes through major growing pains. Seven wins seems to be the target number with six more likely than eight. This team's got a long way to go to get to where Gator fans want it to be, but there is optimism McElwain is the guy that can get them there.