Spring is in the air and the Florida Gators football team is back on the practice field for spring camp.
As the first day of camp arrived players were excited to get back on the field, get back to playing the game they love and to rid themselves of the bad taste left in their mouths by the way the 2015 season ended. It’s a new season with new goals, new aspirations and a new team.
Extra emphasis on the “new team” part.
Enrolling early has become a more widely utilized practice, but Florida has taken that to the next level this year with 12 midyear enrollees — the most of any school in the country. A dozen new faces turns to a baker’s dozen when you include Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby, who will compete for the starting quarterback spot, because it isn’t a spring camp in Gainesville unless you have a quarterback battle, right?
“Twelve guys, I’m going to need a roster,” Jim McElwain joked on Tuesday. “We actually talked about putting tape on the helmets just so we could know the names, but I’ve gone ahead and studied their jersey numbers. I’ll at least know who they are when they’re out there.”
The midyear guys are a mix of freshmen and transfers. Headlining the transfers are junior college players Mark Thompson and Dre Massey, as well as kicker Eddy Pineiro, who transferred from ASA College in Miami. Both Massey and Thompson have two years to play after transferring from their junior colleges. Pineiro hopes, as does Jim McElwain, that the new kicker can give Florida stability at a position that has seen none for three seasons. Appleby will be going head-to-head with Luke Del Rio, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Oregon State. Appleby is a step behind Del Rio, who transferred prior to the 2015 season and has had a full year in McElwain and Nussmeier’s system.
“He’s been here obviously and been learning,” McElwain said of Del Rio. “He and Austin have done an outstanding job together with those two young guys, Feleipe and Kyle.”
Also in the quarterback battle are two freshmen Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks. Both of he young gunslingers looks good during the first practice, with the size of both and their arm strength being the first two things that stick out.
“These two guys are good friends. You see them communicating, looking at each other’s notes,” McElwain said of the two. “That’s really what it’s all about. They’ve got some real talent. Now we’ll see if we can get it between their head a little bit.”
This will be Appleby’s last spring football camp and Massey and Thompson both hope it will be theirs as well. As junior college transfers both players know that the sand has almost reached the bottom of the hourglass and that they need to make an impact immediately. That means earning a starting job and significant playing time in the fall, a process that begins now, this spring. Pineiro will be largely uncontested this spring in his efforts to win the starting job. Neil MacInnes and Jorge Powell are both dealing with knee injuries and won’t be present and Austin Hardin fell out of favor with the staff in 2015. McElwain reported that Pineiro made all of his kicks on Wednesday, including a 58-yard field goal with the entire team around him to end the first practice session. A seemingly innocuous note to most is a fresh drink of water to Gator fans that are replacing televisions after throwing their remote through the set watching the team last season.
The beneficiary of improved quarterback play will be the receivers and three early enrollees bolster that group. Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond join the aforementioned Massey, who figures to play inside as a slot receiver. Hammond and Swain have already made a big impression on their new teammates.
“I really like what a lot of the receivers are doing,” senior linebacker Jarrad Davis said of the freshmen. “They come in, seeing them going over the plays and stuff like that, early, the past couple of months then coming out here today and looking kind of comfortable. Going out there and knowing that they’re just playing their game, playing football, they’ve been doing this their whole life. They took care of business today.”
On the defensive side of the ball Chauncey Gardner figures to work his way into the rotation and McArthur Burnett has put on 17 pounds already (157 to 174 lbs), according to McElwain.
“They are able to eat. Let’s call it the way it is. That’s one of the great things the NCAA did, was allow these guys to be able to have access to actual meals,” McElwain said. “For guys like that who aren’t used to getting consistent eating habits, it’s not hard, right? So that’s good to see.”
The Gators’ first spring practice is in the books. The new guys got their feet wet, had an opportunity to show the coaches why they were recruited and introduce themselves to a new set of teammates. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is they’ll have to do it 14 more times. The grind of spring camp is real.
“I told them afterwards I hope they have this same energy in practice 12. Obviously you’re out there in just a helmet and underwear and guys run around pretty good. We’ll see how it is, to see if we can sustain.”