GAINESVILLE | Jim McElwain looked and sounded tired.

 

The University of Florida football coach had just spent the past five days doing what everyone else in the state of Florida had been doing: watching weather forecasts, making preparations for Hurricane Irma, then focusing on protecting his family as the storm roared up the entire length of the Florida peninsula.

But McElwain, like many other college coaches in the state, had the added duties of making sure his players and staff were safe.

Given the risks — which weren’t as bad as they could have been, had it not been for Irma weakening — talking about the No. 24-ranked Gators home opener on Saturday against No. 23 Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium might have seemed trivial.

“Sometimes third-and-seven is not the most important thing in life,” McElwain said on Wednesday during a news conference at the stadium.

However, McElwain delivered two messages about the game: He wants his players to compete hard and the fans to enjoy themselves.

“Our guys are going to go play hard, release some of their energies and frustrations as we come out in the Swamp,” he said. “I know how much it means to our guys to play in the Swamp and how much it means to people in that environment to root on the Gators. I want our guys to understand it’s so much more than just them. I hope (the game) gives the people of Florida, this area, just a couple hours of something to take their mind off as they recover (from) what they’ve gone through.”

McElwain said around 60 of his players and their families were directly impacted by the storm. But after last week’s game against Northern Colorado was cancelled and players were only able to practice for the first time in six days on Tuesday, it’s fair to say they’re chomping at the bit.

“I know our guys are excited to play,” McElwain said. “Hopefully, (they) play with a little bit of passion and desire for the people of the state of Florida.”

McElwain is likely to have few worries about his team going at it hard, if, for nothing else, to wash out the taste of last year’s 38-28 loss to the Volunteers after leading 21-3, and the 33-17 loss to Michigan two weeks ago in a dud of a season opener.

“I’m very excited because I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve played in the Swamp,” said defensive tackle Khari Clark. “It just feels great to be able to run out the tunnel, and go out and play a big team.”

Defensive back Duke Dawson said it’s a relief to not have to keep one eye on weather reports.

“Now that the hurricane is out of the way we’ve been focusing more on football,” he said. “At first we were more focused on ourselves, needing to make sure everyone is safe. So I mean now it’s back to football 24/7, so the preparation is there.”

McElwain said it was a large undertaking to set up lines of communication between players, his staff and their families.

He said Florida dorms were considered safe, but players living in off-campus housing were given the chance to go elsewhere if they didn’t think they were safe. Some players’ families evacuated to Gainesville from other parts of the state.

“We had a really good plan,” McElwain said. “We had some systems in place that we were able to check periodically, with a response to make sure that they were OK. We set that up through our parents and family networks, gave them an up-to-date location where their sons were, where loved ones were.”

The break also gave some key players who were injured against Michigan a chance to heal. Tight end De’Andre Goolsby and cornerback Chauncey Gardner are among those who will be back. However, wide receiver James Robinson has still not been medically cleared after an abnormal heart rhythm was detected two weeks ago. Nine suspended players, including wide receiver Antonio Callaway and running back Jordan Scarlet, are still out, with no timetable for their return.