GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When the No. 17 Florida Gators stepped onto the field at AT&T Stadium for their season opener against Michigan, coach Jim McElwain knew it was possible his freshmen could give in to the pressure.
It’s their first collegiate game. It’s a top opponent. It’s an opportunity to start the season — McElwain’s third at Florida — on a high note.
In total, 10 freshmen saw playing time for the Gators in the season opener, a 33-17 loss to the Wolverines. Eight of them were on the defensive side of the ball.
There were moments — both good and bad — but McElwain said he was impressed with how they handled the atmosphere of the marquee season opener.
“It was by no means too big for them,” McElwain said Monday. That’s one of the things you worry about a little bit with guys that have never played in that kind of environment. I think playing in that environment is something that’s really going to help us down the road and with those young guys.”
As the season progresses, McElwain knows the freshmen will play a pivotal role on Florida’s young defense that is looking to keep its status as one of the best in the country.
Of the eight freshmen on defense who earned playing time, defensive backs Marco Wilson, C.J. Henderson and Shawn Davis saw the most time. Wilson started at cornerback opposite Duke Dawson and slid over to nickel when the Gators had three corners on the field. He recorded 3 tackles. Henderson played outside corner in those nickel situations and responded with one of Florida’s few highlights.
On third-and-7 early in the second quarter, the freshman picked off an overthrown pass down the left sideline from Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight and ran 41 yards untouched for his first career touchdown. He became the first Gators freshman to return an interception for a touchdown in a season opener since Dawson in 2014.
“I think this guy had an interception every day in camp,” defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson said of Henderson, who also recorded 2 tackles. “So it really wasn’t a surprise when he came out and did what he did.”
Davis was used early on as the Gators’ third safety behind starter Nick Washington and Chauncey Gardner, rotating in when either needed a breather. He finished with 3 tackles and played most of the second half after Gardner suffered a knee injury.
Florida’s other three freshman defensive backs — Brian Edwards, Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart — all saw the field as well.
“I think a bunch of those young DBs, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” McElwain said after the game. “And this was a good football game for them. It was a physical one, it was one where they needed to be able to cover deep balls.”
However, there were also communication lapses between Davis and Wilson.
A missed assignment late in the first quarter allowed Speight to find wide receiver Tarik Black in the back of the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown pass.
“I didn’t think they did bad, and yet [Michigan] took advantage on some big throws and they did what any normal coach would do,” McElwain said. “As soon as Nick [Washington] went out, they went after the [Davis] and that’s kind of what you do, and yet in saying that, those guys will learn a ton from this. The good thing is we’ve got some real guys back there.”
On the defensive line, tackles Kyree Campbell and T.J. Slaton worked their way into the rotation behind starters Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark.
Campbell, an early enrollee, recorded 2 tackles. Slaton had 1 of his own.
“[The] power football we played tonight is never easy for a young guy who isn’t physically mature enough with the exception of T.J. Slaton,” said senior defensive lineman Jordan Sherit, who recorded 2 sacks against Michigan. “That guy’s big.”
And the freshmen will need to come up big if the Gators want to be competitive in 2017.
The post Florida coach Jim McElwain: Freshmen defenders ‘will learn a ton’ from season-opener against Michigan appeared first on SEC Country.
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