GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The kickoff to Monday night’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson was quickly approaching.
As a large video screen showed the captains at midfield for the coin toss, Gators head coach Jim McElwain looked on with four other coaches in a studio in Bristol, Conn. McElwain, USF coach Willie Taggart, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, Pat Narduzzi of Pittsburgh and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp analyzed the game as part of ESPN’s "Megacast Film Room" show.
It didn’t take long for McElwain, a longtime quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, to turn attention to the offense.
His opening comments focused on Alabama’s Jake Coker and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
"I’m looking forward to see how they prepared these quarterbacks for such a big stage in this game,” McElwain said. "Really, when you look at a first-year starter in Coker, you can say that, but the guy’s got some experience now. He’s been in systems. He knows how to do it.
"But especially early in the game, what are they going to do to get them off to a fast start? What are they going to do to try to spit the ball out quick and get a little confidence as the game moves on?"
Whatever Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney did to get their quarterbacks ready, it worked. Coker passed for 335 yards and two touchdowns as Alabama claimed its fourth national championship in the last seven years, and Watson was spectacular from start to finish in a losing effort, throwing for 405 yards, four touchdowns, and adding 73 yards rushing.
McElwain’s mind rarely drifts far from quarterbacks. He knows there is no more important position in the game. He won a pair of national titles as Alabama’s offensive coordinator with two different starting quarterbacks: Greg McElroy in 2009 and AJ McCarron in 2011.
In his three seasons at Colorado State, McElwain settled on Garrett Grayson and developed him into one of the country’s best. Grayson spent his rookie season in the NFL as understudy to Drew Brees in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, in McElwain’s first season at Florida, the Gators’ fortunes unfolded in two chapters primarily due to the quarterback play.
When the Gators started the season 6-0, they took off under redshirt freshman Will Grier, who beat out sophomore Treon Harris for the job. However, once Grier was suspended by the NCAA for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance, Harris regained the job.
The Gators were 4-4 over the last eight games with Harris running the offense, setting the stage for another intriguing quarterback battle in spring practice.
Harris remains on the roster. Grier is gone. However, Luke Del Rio, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, will have a shot at the job as will recent transfer, Austin Appleby, who joined the program earlier this month after transferring from Purdue. In addition to Del Rio and Appleby, true freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask are among the 13 early enrollees on campus and participating in offseason workouts.
Among the four newcomers, Appleby is the most experienced. The 6-foot-5, 239-pound Appleby appeared in 17 games at Purdue and started seven games last season. He completed 55.3 percent of his passes (268 of 485) for 2,777 yards, 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions over three seasons.
"It is time for me to turn the page and begin a new chapter in my life,” Appleby said via Twitter this month. "I am very excited about this opportunity and all the great things that are in store for Gator Nation!"
Appleby is eligible to play immediately as a graduate transfer. A native of North Canton, Ohio, Appleby faces plenty of competition from Del Rio, who has a head start on the other newcomers after spending a season in the program.
As the Gators prepared for the Citrus Bowl in late December, McElwain praised Del Rio for his work in practice. McElwain recruited Del Rio while head coach at Colorado State and UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier coached Del Rio at Alabama in 2013.
"He’ll be a guy obviously heavily in the mix,” McElwain said. "I think you guys were probably updated even through kind of the summer of when he came here was a little bit of a sparkplug out there."
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Del Rio started his college career as a walk-on at Alabama and later transferred to Oregon State. He has played in just three games during his college career, completing 8 of 18 passes for 141 yards.
Despite the lack of snaps, Del Rio impressed his teammates for his knowledge of the game and leadership ability. His father is Jack Del Rio, head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
"He’s done great. He’s has great chemistry on that scout team and has great chemistry throughout the team,” UF offensive lineman Trip Thurman said prior to the Citrus Bowl. "I think he is going to be a big part of this team next year. He knows defenses. He knows the offense, too. That’s a big key."
Franks arrived at UF this week to start classes after playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl over the weekend. Franks originally committed to LSU but opted to remain in his home state — he starred at Wakulla High near Tallahassee — for college.
Franks threw for 2,766 yards and 35 touchdowns his senior season and is considered a big get for the Gators. Finally, Trask committed to the Gators before his senior season at Manvel (Texas) High, where he completed 47 of 64 passes for 759 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
The Gators finished 87th nationally in passing offense (207.1 yards per game) and 111th in total offense (334 ypg) in McElwain’s first season. Inconsistent quarterback play was a major factor.
While it’s way too early to know who will start, what is clear is that McElwain will have more options at the position in Year 2. He knows how important the quarterback is in winning championships.