In a huge rematch against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Greg McElroy snapped on his chin strap and marched the Crimson Tide right down the field on its first drive of the game.
With little pressure from the defensive line, he dissected the defense like a surgeon.
Finally, as Alabama faced a crucial 3rd-and-8 inside the red zone, the Gators got off the field with a huge play by true freshman safety Matt Elam.
Florida players erupted on the sideline as Elam launched like a rocket around the left side of the line and leveled McElroy behind the line, wiping the smug smirk off the Crimson Tide quarterback’s face.
While Alabama won comfortably, Elam played his best game of the season and gave Gators fans a glimpse of the future.
At 5 foot 10, 202 pounds, Elam is a more compact, muscular version of departed safety Ahmad Black. Florida shouldn’t see production plummet if Elam matches his play from the Alabama game when he steps into the starting role at strong safety.
The former Dwyer standout is a freakish athlete. The Army All-American hits like a ton of bricks and has an incredible nose for the ball.
But Elam’s toughest task in 2011 won’t be producing big plays. While he will be counted on to be a key contributor on the defense, he is also burdened with replacing the leadership of Ahmad Black.
Black was everywhere for the Florida Gators football team last season, barking out instructions to linebackers, moving the coverage around, and being the ball-hawking safety he became known for throughout his career.
His ability to get in the right position to make a play was uncanny, like he had seen every play a million times and knew exactly where it was going.
That ability is something that Elam probably won’t be able to duplicate, at least in his first season as a starter.
But he’s faster than Black. He’s bigger than Black.
And while Black was a silent leader by nature – he let his play on the field do the talking – Elam has a distinct confidence you can see sitting across the stadium from him.
He’s got the swagger the Florida secondary sorely lacked last season.
With only two returning scholarship safeties set to start spring football practice, Elam will be counted on to show the freshmen coming in this spring and fall how to play.
Even though he’s only got a year of experience as a backup, he’s got to be the guy Florida’s youngest players look to for guidance and leadership, along with free safety Josh Evans.
And, while he was cited for misdemeanor underage possession of alcohol in his first summer in school, Elam seems to have his hard hat on since. He shut his mouth and worked hard all season and the results showed on Saturdays.
After racking up 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery playing the nickelback role, Elam is itching for the opportunity to showcase his skills as the starting strong safety.
Because the Florida secondary has holes to fill, the Gators need Elam to stick his stamp on the secondary like he stuck McElroy in October.
They need the true freshman safety who fell on a key fumble in his first SEC road game at Tennessee to show up straight from the start of spring football.
There are too many other questions on defense for Elam not to assert himself and erase the questions about the safety spot.
After a relatively quiet freshman year as a backup and special-teams player, Black broke out and blossomed into one of the best ball-hawks in the country as a sophomore.
Florida needs history to repeat itself with Matt Elam.