Things have been crazy in Gainesville since the Florida Gators shocked Tennessee in the final seconds to get the 26-20 win, but the dust has finally settled and it is time to set sights on Kentucky.
Everyone saw the play of the year on Saturday, and it was great, but what about the unsung effort plays that put the Gators in that position in the first place? While the rest of the world has the 63-yard touchdown pass on replay, those are the plays Florida is watching this week.
Where effort often seemed to be missing on Florida’s tackling, sophomore defensive end Jachai Polite was the exception. He stepped up and took things into his own hands.
Tennessee’s John Kelly was headed straight for the end zone after catching a screen pass and making several Florida defenders whiff. Polite, a very big man (6’2, 260), was the first guy to the quarterback, and still managed to run Kelly down 40 yards down the field to save the touchdown. It was like watching a lion hunting its prey.
That play, and Polite’s improvement overall this season, was no surprise to the other players on the field. It’s what he does and how he carries himself every single day. He worked on his motor and cut down nearly 20 pounds of fat over the offseason. From that, his game made a complete transformation.
“Jachai’s really special, I like Jachai,” said fellow defensive lineman Luke Ancrum. “I told him the other day after that video got viral, I was like, ‘Bruh, I gotta practice like you.’ Because it’s really the way he practices. That’s why he’s like that. What you do in practice, you gonna do in the game, so if you slack in practice, you gonna slack in the game.”
In the moment, some players may not have watched the play or understood the magnitude of it, but head coach Jim McElwain and other coaches have made sure they all know it now. Polite was first recognized with the defensive player of the game award. Since then, it’s been played several times in film study to show what a true hustle play looks like.
“When we got into the meeting room, Coach Mac played it,” said sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Moon. “It kinda opened people’s eyes. A lot of people really give all they got. That was a big play.”
Along with using Polite’s tackle as an example and for motivation, the Gators are making tackling a priority in practice. It is a skill Florida works on in practice every day, but after struggling to finish plays two games in a row, the attention to good tackling is even more intense.
It will be needed this week when the Gators face Kentucky’s fast, elusive offense.
“Yesterday in meetings they made a big emphasis on tackling,” said redshirt senior safety Nick Washington. “We made a big emphasis last week, but now we truly understand how big tackling is. This week, starting yesterday and today, we had lots of tackling, wrapping up and bringing guys to the ground.”
Things are quite the same on offense this week as there are both low and high effort plays to take away.
There are few jobs in football more fruitless than blocking. It’s a stat that doesn’t show up in the box score and is often overlooked or forgotten by the next play, but a key block can make or break a play.
A couple memorable ones from Saturday were both on receptions by Brandon Powell. The first came on the first drive of the game when sophomore offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor absolutely annihilated a Tennessee defender as Powell got to the first down marker and picked up 22 yards. Later in the game, sophomore wide receiver Freddie Swain made a huge block to get Powell into the end zone for Florida’s first offensive touchdown of the season.
Swain did not have a single catch against the Volunteers, but still found a way to selflessly contribute to the game. That can be a difficult thing to teach to young college receivers, who were used to being the big playmakers on the team throughout their careers. At Florida, that is the ticket onto the field, not just good hands and route running.
“A lot of people don’t know, football is more than just scoring touchdowns and interceptions,” Swain said. “If you don’t block, then a lot of them plays won’t happen, but that’s where it starts at, is blocking. And if you can’t beat the man above you that’s next to you, then you ain’t gonna play.”
On the flipside, the Gators have not picked up every block they needed to this season and have struggled with ball security. Florida cannot continue to be careless with the football. The hustle plays have been used as an example to motivate those guys to be better as well.
“I showed it to our team about what hustle is,” McElwain said. “On the one with Malik [Davis], that was a heck of a play. He really still had it and then he got stripped. And then with Lamical [Perine], they did a great job of stripping. You know, Feleipe [Franks] in the first game, he was loose with the ball. There’s Tyrie [Cleveland] on the kickoff return. You continue to work on it. That’s the big thing, and I think the big piece there as well is understanding the play is never over.”
Big blocks and unbelievable hustle plays won’t always be shown on Sports Center the next morning, and effort doesn’t show up in the stats, but those plays can drive teams and push them to higher levels. If more players choose to follow that example, things should be different in Lexington this Saturday.