Florida’s newest fullback walked into the visitor’s locker room of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and immediately darted for the most cramped corner in sight.
The inconspicuous move may have been unintentional, but with two receivers and a running back also striding into the room for interviews, perhaps he didn’t expect for many reporters to take up their time with him.
After all, here he is, a relative unknown to casual Florida fans, playing a position which is being all but phased out of the game of football.
However, mere nanoseconds had passed by before Gideon Ajagbe — it’s pronounced “Ah-JAH-bee” he says — was followed into the tight space by virtually everyone in the room, in turn becoming overwhelmed with recorders and cameras.
He picked his first words carefully and said them softly. But as time passed by, the redshirt junior and Miami-native began to warm up to the attention.
“I never played fullback before,” the former linebacker Ajagbe said. “I have a lot to learn, but I’m happy.”
When Florida briefly welcomed outside eyes to view it’s practices two weeks ago, Ajagbe immediately stood out to the throng of spectators.
Despite it being only his first week on the job, Ajagbe showed a natural flair for the forgotten fullback role, making blocks and catching passes as if he was enjoying his second or third year at the position.
“His transition is great,” running back Matt Jones said of Ajagbe last week. “All the coaches say a lot about him. Every practice he gets a shirt just for going hard every day. He’s learning the plays fast — just a great person.”
A 2010 graduate of the Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Ajagbe’s Florida career got off to a rather inauspicious start when the then-freshman tore his rotator cuff during preseason camp. He managed to see action in four games during UF’s 2011 campaign, but disaster struck again heading into last season.
“I had a MCL injury this year, this junior year,” Ajagbe said. “Got hurt the first week, like right before we played Bowling Green. I was going to play a little bit on special teams, starting somewhere, so it really crushed me.”
With three years having gone by without Ajagbe doing anything of great significance, time was running out for him to make a mark of any kind within the Florida program.
However, it was shortly before the start of spring practice when the fully healed Ajagbe received a potentially propitious call from Will Muschamp.
“We were at the end of winter conditioning,” Ajagbe said. “[Muschamp] was like, ‘Come up. Come up to my office.’ And we talked. He was like, ‘We just want to switch you over to fullback to see what you can do, if you can help the team.’
“I was like, ‘Man, I’ll do whatever, whatever you want me to do’ … I’m just so happy that coach gave me another chance to play here. I’m so happy that he did that. I had the opportunity to do really well at it.”
So far, the move appears to be one that could potentially pay dividends for the Gators this season.
Florida’s starting fullback, Hunter Joyer, was one of, if not the most dependable player on the Gators’ offense last season. With the 5’10″, 235-pound bruiser paving the way last season, Florida enjoyed its most successful season on the ground in years.
Muschamp had previously mentioned the possibility of utilizing Joyer’s broad frame in single-back sets, but with no suitable replacement behind him should the worse-case scenario take place, Joyer was held back from potentially being the one-man solution to Florida’s red zone woes (24 touchdowns in 46 opportunities).
When the spring practice depth chart was handed out however, it appeared the coaching staff was ready to address the issue — while giving a down-on-his-luck junior a fresh opportunity.
“At the fullback position, you see we moved Gideon and Rhaheim [Ledbetter] there,” Muschamp said. “Gideon has not contributed much for us on defense since he’s been here, and he deserves the opportunity to try and get into a situation to help us.”
Ajagbe insists that the move was made at the suggestion of Muschamp, and he was prepared to play the upcoming season at linebacker. However, by the sound of it, he’s extremely grateful Muschamp chose him to make the switch.
“He just felt like he needed help at fullback,” Ajagbe said. “I welcomed to do it, happy to do it.”
Although he admitted the fullback position is a foreign one to him, Ajagbe revealed that he does have a bit of experience in the offensive backfield: “I played running back in high school,” he said.
Being thrust suddenly into a new role, naturally, Ajagbe is leaning heavily on several people to help him learn the nuances of his new position.
“Coach [Brian] White has really helped me out, really convert, and really learn how to play the position,” Ajagbe said.
“On the sideline and sometimes in meetings I’ll be like, ‘What would we do here? What do you do?’ … I talk to the (graduate assistant) a lot during meetings and I always ask him for clarification, like, ‘How would I accomplish this block? How would I do this block?’
“I always try to pick at the coaches’ brain whenever I can.”
Another individual Ajagbe has turned to is Joyer — a player Ajagbe became quickly acquainted with during his days on defense.
“I used to hit Hunter every play during practice so I know what he goes through,” Ajagbe said. “When I went over to (fullback) I was like, ‘Man, I already know what’s going to happen.’”
Joyer is undoubtedly a fullback in the traditional sense. Stout and low to the ground, the compact junior fits the mold of what fans are typically used to seeing their fullbacks look like. However, at a legitimate 6-foot-3 on a chiseled 245-pound frame, Ajagbe is unlike many to man the position.
According to Joyer, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“At first when you see him, you don’t really notice it, but as you really look at him, he’s kind of a freak,” Joyer said recently. ”He’s had a solid spring. He’s tall, long arms.”
March and April are notorious for making practice all-stars out of players, but with all that’s being said about Florida’s newest fullback, perhaps the springtime progress is an indication of success once the leaves begin to change colors.
Right now however, Ajagbe is taking it one season at a time.
“I’m still learning a lot of things,” Ajagbe said. “I have a long way to go. I have a whole summer for that.”