Beat Writer Q-and-A

Boarding soon for Atlanta then on to Gainesville. Special thanks to Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel for this beat writer Q-and-A:

Q: How much was Hugh Freeze’s name tossed about in the coaching search that led to McElwain?

A: Everyone with a computer and an Internet connection tossed around names in the wake of Will Muschamp’s firing last November. The wide-ranging list included coaches UF had no chance to land (Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh), coaches with UF connections who had moved on (Steve Spurrier, Bob Stoops) and pretty much anyone with an offensive background after four seasons of futility on that side of the ball. Freeze fit the profile there, and his recruiting was another major selling point. As the list of candidates thinned out, Freeze remained. A rumor surfaced he had looked at homes in Gainesville. By the regular-season finale at Florida State, Freeze appeared to be the leading candidate. By the next morning, though, Jim McElwain’s name surfaced. By Monday, Freeze had signed a contract extension and the rest is history. When I asked Ole Miss AD Russ Bjork at the SEC Spring Meetings he told me “there was some reality in all that,” but that he “was never concerned” he would lose Freeze to Florida.

Q: There’s a theory that Florida schools will always have an abundance of talent. What type of talent level did Jim McElwain inherit?

A: Before he left, Will Muschamp proclaimed, “Don’t let that new guy tell you he ain’t got no good players.” Soon after he arrived, Jim McElwain also was quick to point out, “The hand we were dealt is really insufficient at some of the areas.” Which is it?  A little bit of both. McElwain has marveled at the collection of NFL talent in Florida’s defensive backfield – one of the nation’s best and the area of expertise for Muschamp, a former college safety and secondary coach. But there were holes pretty much everywhere else – offensive line, running back, linebacker, wide receiver. McElwain and his staff also posted a an ad last spring on Twitter for walk-on offensive linemen and entered the offseason with just seven on scholarship. Florida’s best playmaker in the passing game might be first-year freshman Antonio Callaway, an 11th-hour McElwain signee who caught the game-winning 63-yard touchdown against Tennessee. McElwain and his staff landed two top tailbacks on National Signing Day – Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite – who became veteran Kelvin Taylor’s back-ups the day they arrived in Gainesville. A lack of a consistent offensive philosophy and success under Muschamp, who had three offensive coordinators and four receivers coaches, made it difficult to land top recruits. After all, there is a reason Muschamp was fired.  

Q: Will Muschamp was once coach in waiting at Texas and a hot name. What held him back at Florida?

A: The defensive-minded Muschamp simply never figured out the offensive side of the football. The Gators the past four regular seasons ranked among the nation’s top-10 defenses, but never had a potent offense. Muschamp failed to choose the right offensive coordinator – he had three – and philosophy or pick the right quarterback. The Gators, in turn, not only were inept on offense, but painfully boring to watch. Luring top playmakers was impossible by the end of his time in Gainesville. Muschamp’s teams also were heavily penalized, displaying a lack of overall discipline. Some coaches are simply not head coaching material, and Muschamp left the impression he is suited to be a lifelong coordinator.

Q: What’s enabled Will Grier to take hold of the quarterback job?

A:  Jim McElwain has given Will Grier every chance to be his quarterback Grier’s passing ability and comfort level under center seemed to make him better suited for McElwain’s pro-style offense than Treon Harris, a dual threat out of the shotgun formation. Against Tennessee, Grier finally delivered the kind of fourth-quarter performance he needed to win over his teammates and likely secure the job. It helped that the sophomore Harris was suspended for violating team rules, because there were times Grier was in need of relief. McElwain still kept open his options this week. He said he could continue to rotate his quarterbacks, if needed. Grier has gone the distance in consecutive games, but struggled enough for extended stretches to keep the door open a crack. Before leading the Gators to two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes in a 28-27 win against the Vols, Grier missed on seven of his previous 10 throws. If the Rebels begin to run away with the game and Grier struggles, McElwain might look to Harris for a spark.  

Q: With Hargreaves a tough matchup what are vulnerable spots in the secondary that Ole Miss might attack?

A: Hagreaves is a two-time All-SEC player, a preseason All-American and the face of the Gators’ talented secondary. But he sat out the East Carolina game with an injury, experienced back tightness against Tennessee and has not been the Gators’ best cornerback through four games. Jalen Tabor had outplayed Hargreaves until Tabor missed the Tennessee game with a suspension. Fellow sophomore Quincy Wilson has not been far behind. Both Tabor (6-0, 191) and Wilson (6-1, 209) have more length and are more physical, but no corner in the country might be as smooth and polished as the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Hargreaves. Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell is sure to test all three Florida corners. But with Cody Core and Quincy Adeboyejo, among others, pitching in, the Rebels’ receiving corps comes at defenses in waves. The Gators are one team that might be able to match up. Nickel back Brian Poole is an NFL talent, though prone to the occasional lapses in coverage. Safeties Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye are big hitters who combined for 23 stops against Tennessee. But Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram will challenge their coverage abilities. It’s a classic matchup, and likely what will determine Saturday’s outcome.

Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to John Davis and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

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