GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Coach Jim McElwain's new endeavor at Florida has allowed him to sympathize with the struggles of undertaking renovations for a new but damaged house.
"It's kinda like HGTV a little bit," McElwain told ESPN.com earlier this week, referencing the myriad home-improvement shows on Home & Garden Television. "This is an unbelievable neighborhood — it's a great place — and yet we gotta fixer-upper here."
First-year Florida coach Jim McElwain has hopes of renovating the Gators' program into the best house in the SEC neighborhood and beyond.AP Images/Phil Sandlin
Extra sledge hammers and hacksaws are needed for this doozy of a project.
While one of Will Muschamp's parting shots following his late-season firing at Florida was a bold statement about a "deep and talented roster" he was leaving, the depth isn't as sufficient as previously thought. Yes, some good players are there, and Muschamp did leave McElwain a more level-headed locker room than how he found it after Urban Meyer departed in 2010, but the "deep" part? Not so much.
Florida won't hit the 85-man scholarship number this year and as of today, the Gators are working with seven healthy scholarship offensive linemen — and three walk-ons — two scholarship running backs and four scholarship linebackers. There's a lack of explosion at receiver and multiple pass-rushers must be found.
"We've got to re-do the roster from a numbers standpoint," McElwain said.
That might be putting it lightly, but McElwain knew full well the intricacies of Florida's issues when he left Colorado State after three years for Gainesville.
Five years of offensive ineptitude that helped shape an unacceptable 37-26 record since the 2009 season has Florida reeling. It's astonishing that a program nestled in one of the country's most fertile recruiting grounds has hit this type of slump and missed on so many prospects. The one-time villains of the SEC are now background noise in the conference. People aren't talking about Florida, and that's something McElwain wants to change, but it's no overnight fix.
"This is a tough league to get healthy in a hurry because of what everybody else is doing," McElwain said. "I understand that, and yet we have a heck of a brand here and it's a great opportunity for players to come in here and make an impact. We've got to make sure as a total organization that we're understanding the importance of the recruiting part of it — and not just getting players, but the right players.
"There are going to be some rough times. There may be a load-bearing wall that we can't move right away, figure out how we're going to put in a new support there. But that's part of renovation, right? That's part of fixer-uppers."
With so many holes and unknowns, McElwain's main focus is getting the Gators through the spring by building trust and relationships, while slowly intensifying the practice learning curve.
He has offensive, defensive and special teams players integrate on their buses to and from practice. They file onto the practice field together and there's never down time during drills. There are continual stations and constant movement, leaving minimal time for standing around, which McElwain hopes maximizes development by creating more reps for players.
Like a CEO, McElwain saunters through every station, soaking up as much of this team as he can, while gradually trying to piece together an identity.
"We're not just throwing things out there to see if they stick to the wall," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "This is a system, and Coach Mac's system is one that's been proven over time. We're going to try and paint the picture, try and get it right and hold ourselves to that standard."
McElwain wants a much higher standard, which is why he made a concerted effort to bolster Florida's foundation. He was very vocal early about major facility upgrades at a school grossly behind most of the SEC in that department. And while athletic director Jeremy Foley stood by the shape of the facilities back in November, he's coming around to the fact that Florida needs some remodeling.
A $15 million indoor practice facility will be built by the fall and renovations are in store for the football locker room in the athletic dorms (which will include hardwood floors!). Construction has also begun on a new, state-of-the-art academic center called the Otis Hawkins Center for Academic and Personal Excellence.
Other major projects could be in works down the road — like doing something about the dungeon of a facility under the stadium, where coaches' office views come complete with little sunshine and massive concrete supports from the Swamp's underbelly — but McElwain said he first wanted to focus on his players' immediate needs.
"The fact we're doing that; that gives us an opportunity," McElwain said. "That's a good thing. One thing I tell everybody within the organization itself is don't forget the only reason we have jobs is because of these players. What we can do to really make these kids be successful is really the key."
Nussmeier shares McElwain's "fixer-upper" sentiments. He's watching an offense start over from scratch with insufficient playmaker numbers and a quarterback battle marred by youth and inconsistency. Sometimes it's elementary football in practice, which can be frustrating, but Nussmeier understands the need for patience.
"It's about little things right now, building the foundation," he said. "You can't get caught up in being result-oriented. We all want great results immediately, but if we don't build the right foundation, this young group won't have anything to grow to.
"You see the baby steps that they're taking right now, knowing that we've got a long, long way to go. With the effort, the focus and the attention to detail, we'll get there. Now how quickly, that's the question."
Fans can show patience now, but come fall, this fixer-upper needs signs of progress. At a program like Florida, which dominated the SEC East in the '90s and won two national championships in the 2000s, it's winning, then repeat.
McElwain knows it and players know it. This isn't a quick fix by any means, but you can feel a sense of urgency rising at a program seeking atonement.
"This definitely isn't what I expected coming in," senior defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. "Coming in, I always expected to be in a bowl game and always be a contender. Things happen and you can only control what you can control. Hopefully, we can turn things around and try to get back to the old Florida.
"We all need to buy in. We don't have to play around."