Here’s a newsflash: Matt Elam is going to play as a true freshman this fall.
Actually, that notion shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has watched Elam practice this spring or read reports of his play on the internet. Although Elam came to Florida much heralded as Mr. Football of the state of Florida in 2009 and with numerous prep All-American honors, it is still impressive to see Elam play this well, this early.
Having a chance to see Matt Elam in action a couple of times last fall, it wasn’t hard to be impressed by his play on the field. However, I really saw Elam making an impact on offense in Gainesville, his insistence on playing safety (like his brother, Abram Elam of the Cleveland Browns) aside. Elam rushed for nearly 2,000 yards as a senior in leading Dwyer High School of Palm Beach Gardens to the Class 4A state championship last fall. His vision, smooth running style, and ability as a receiver coming out of the backfield seemed to be a perfect fit for the Florida offense. Not to mention his wide, squatty frame (he is listed at 5-10, 204 in the Florida media guide) seemed a perfect fit for the running back position. While he was obviously going to get a chance at safety, it stood to reason that could just be a brief stop for Elam in Gainesville on the way to the offense, where it seemed apparent he would excel for the Gators.
Now, after nearly a month of work at safety, this seems clear: Matt Elam is going to be a good safety for the Gators.
“I think Matt Elam has a really high football IQ,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Elam following the Orange and Blue Debut spring football game on Saturday. “He has a lot of work to do. By no stretch is he near being a finished product, so to speak. But he has a lot of things in front of him that say this guy is going to be a really good football player for us.”
Of course, at one point, it looked like Elam might not be headed to Florida. After committing to Florida midway through his junior season at Dwyer, Elam made a late decision to switch to Florida State (and enroll in school early following the Army All-American Bowl) in late December following the sudden departure (and subsequent reversal) of coach Urban Meyer’s status with the Gators. Once it was clear that Meyer was coming back—indeed the coach called Elam and convinced him that he should return, too—Elam rejoined the fold. While that was a tough time for Elam at the time, he seems content and at peace with the final outcome.
“It felt like a lot of weight off my shoulders,” he said. “Now (the recruiting process) is over with, I’m playing, competing. I’m a Gator now, playing in the Swamp. It’s the best feeling ever.”
After attending several games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium while he was still at Dwyer, just getting a chance to take the field in full pads was an exciting experience for the true freshman.
“That was a great feeling, seeing all those people,” Elam noted. “Playing in the Swamp. Not everyone gets that chance, so it was a great feeling.”
Despite being at several games, it’s still quite an adjustment going from a spectator in a stadium that holds 90,000 fans, to actually playing on that same surface.
“Compared to high school, when there was about 3,000 people in the stands, it was a great running through the tunnel. But it was just a little taste of this fall.”
Despite the fact that Elam should have been preparing for Senior Prom over the past few weeks, instead of the University of Florida’s spring game, the adjustment to being in college a couple of semesters early has been helped by a roster of old friends (high school teammates Robert Clark and Gerald Christian, who also enrolled early) and new faces in Gainesville.
“It has made it easier, because I’ve had people around that I knew,” Elam said. “But I have teammates I’ve met (in Gainesville) and become comfortable with too.”
Another thing that helps make the adjustment earlier is a brother who has made it on football’s highest level. Abram Elam is a five-year veteran of the NFL, and he made it out to a couple of practices this spring. The younger Elam is more than happy to have such a resource in his own family to turn to for advice.
“He was watching me this spring,” Matt Elam said of his brother’s presence at Florida practice.. He points out the small things, like what I do in the backpedal, reaction, and stuff like that. We just talk about the game, and what I can do to get better. He’s always telling me to run, run, run and get faster. He tells me what coaches in the NFL look for, and things like that really help.”
Like some of the other early enrolled freshman who impressed this spring, Elam started off slow and quickly picked up his play over the course of three weeks. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get him to the point where he is in a position to compete for serious playing time in the fall. He knows the mission is nowhere near complete, however.
“I’ve been working my tail off,” Elam said as he starts looking toward the summer conditioning program. “I still have a lot of work to do. I still have to work hard and compete, do whatever I can to play.”