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Florida counting on new coach Jim McElwain to revitalize paltry passing game

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GAINESVILLE, Florida — Florida coaches have been trying to improve the program's paltry passing game for years.

Urban Meyer started the trend in 2010. Will Muschamp made little, if any, progress during his four-year tenure.

Now, Jim McElwain is taking a shot.

A reasonable goal might be to get the Gators' air attack back under triple digits.

Florida ranked 114th, 107th and 104th in passing yards the last three years, way down from the Tim Tebow era and significantly below when Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" was revolutionizing the Southeastern Conference.

McElwain could be the guy who gets the Gators back to offensive respectability. But few expect it to happen this year. Even McElwain has hinted that Florida's offense lacks the kind of talent and depth it should have — or that he'd prefer.

"For the most part, we're starting to make some free throws and make some open layups," McElwain said Monday, using basketball references in a football-first town. "Probably not great on 3-pointers yet, but right now at least we're stroking the ball pretty decent."

That seems like an upgrade for Florida. After all, passing prowess has been a pipedream in Gainesville since Tebow left in 2009.

John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg and Treon Harris have tried — and failed — to find success under center. The position has been so unsettled that even tight end Jordan Reed and running back Trey Burton got chances to turn things around.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2015, file photo, Florida NCAA college football coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media during the teams media day in Gainesville, Fla. McElwain has offered few details about his revamped offense this fall, quite possibly because he knows it could be another long season for the Gators.  (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2015, file photo, Florida NCAA college football coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media during the teams media day in Gainesville, Fla. McElwain has offered few details about his revamped offense this fall, quite possibly because he knows it could be another long season for the Gators. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File)

Amid all that quarterback chaos, the Gators have ranked 88th or lower in passing offense in each of the last six seasons.

McElwain was hired in December to fix the team's offensive woes. His track record speaks volumes, with eye-opening stops at Fresno State, Alabama and Colorado State.

The Gators are counting on McElwain to do the same in Gainesville. His formations, shifts, route trees and various tempos have drawn rave reviews from players accustomed to simpler schemes.

But whether all of that makes a noticeable difference this season remains to be seen. The first real test for the passing game comes in the Sept. 5 season opener against New Mexico State.

"It's definitely going to be a big part of our offense, and we need it because we've been a run-and-pound team for so long," sophomore tight end DeAndre Goolsby said. "We need to bring that back. "Once we get things rolling, we'll be a totally different offense. ... It will be a big change for sure."


Aside from the passing game, here are some things to know about Florida heading into the season:

QB QUANDRY: Sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt freshman Will Grier are vying for the starting quarterback job, with Grier considered the front-runner. Harris started the final six games last season, completing 49.5 percent of his passes for 1,019 yards, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He also ran for 338 yards and three scores. Grier was regarded as one of the top high school prospects in 2013.

VAUNTED SECONDARY: Former Florida coach Will Muschamp left behind a stout defense, most notably a secondary that's considered among the best in the country. Junior Vernon Hargreaves III is the linchpin of the unit, but fellow cornerback Jalen Tabor and safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye are equally talented.

WOE LINE: If the Gators are going to improve on offense, the rebuilt line will have to hold up. The starting five include three sophomores with no starts between them, a graduate transfer from Fordham and a fifth-year senior who is dealing with a recurring shoulder injury.

FINDING PLAYMAKERS: McElwain has identified a few offensive playmakers, including running back Kelvin Taylor, tight end Jake McGee and receivers Demarcus Robinson and Brandon Powell.

MORRISON MENDS: Linebacker Antonio Morrison continues to inch closer to fully returning from a knee injury that required two operations. Morrison, who led the Gators with 101 tackles last season, injured his left knee in the Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina in January. Florida is hoping he will play this season, but no one has put a timetable on his return.

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