Jim McElwain knows how to get through to his players.
The first-year Gators head coach is dangling playing time as a consequence for undisciplined penalties.
“Get penalties and you don’t play,” defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr. said of the message McElwain is sending to the team.
That rule extends to scrimmages. A defensive lineman was kicked out of last Friday’s team scrimmage because of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. McElwain declined to name the player.
“We don’t put up with it,” McElwain said. “There’s no excuse. There’s absolutely zero. To me, it’s one of the most selfish acts somebody can do because it’s them and it’s usually because you’re not going as hard as the other guy so now you’re going to be Mr. Tough Guy or whatever. There’s no place on a football team for a selfish player.”
The Gators have had penalty problems over the past five years, averaging the second highest penalty yards per game in the Southeastern Conference last season (59.2) and in 2010 (57.3). Florida led the SEC in that category for three consecutive seasons from 2011 through 2013 with the number getting up to 68.8 penalty yards per game in 2012.
However, Colorado State was not much better under McElwain.
The Rams led the Mountain West Conference in penalty yards per game (64.6) in McElwain’s first season at the helm in 2012, but the team did improve during his three-year tenure. Colorado State lowered that number to 55.6 penalty yards per game in 2013 and 54.8 penalty yards per game in McElwain’s final season as the head coach last year.
“There’s a line [coach McElwain] drew,” Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor said. “There’s a line, then there’s being selfish. You made a play, you made a play. Celebrate with your teammates, but don’t get all loud, do dances and get a personal foul. There are going to be some pass interference penalties, some holdings with aggressive plays. But when you get the false starts, the offsides — those crazy penalties shouldn’t happen.”
Tabor said that cutting down on penalties was “one of the first things McElwain said” in his inaugural team meeting.
“That’s just what we believe in and how we’re going to run the program,” McElwain said. “We’ve got some behavior that we’ve got to keep working on. What are we? The most penalized team in the last five years, six years, whatever it is? I don’t know where we sit. It’s ridiculous.”
Tabor pointed to a few examples of costly penalties from last season that have come up among players and coaches.
One of them came when Florida was ahead of South Carolina 17-10 in the fourth quarter, and a holding penalty negated a 13-yard run by quarterback Treon Harris to the Gamecocks’ 6-yard line. The Gators eventually attempted a field goal, but it was blocked and South Carolina went on to win 23-20 in overtime.
With a new coach and a new message, Florida is optimistic less penalties can translate into more wins this season.
“We have a lot of talented guys who love the game, man,” Tabor said. “[Coach McElwain] just came in and said we just need to cut down on the penalties. If we cut down on the penalties, we can be one of the top-tier teams in the country. We just have to stay focused.”