Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Matt Elam meandered towards the tunnel to leave Steve Spurrier Florida Field, eyes turned towards the scoreboard that flashed in bright letters “Gators Win!”
The former Florida Gators safety had spent the evening on the sidelines, watching and assisting as the No. 11 Gators squad defeated UT Martin 45-0 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. His nephew, true freshman Kaiir Elam, had notched his first career interception earlier in the night, in the back of the endzone, helping to hold the Skyhawks to the first Gators shutout since 2016.
He played that pretty well didn’t he, this reporter commented to Elam.
“The first of many,” Matt laughed.
It was a night of first for many with a Gators team that handled business the way one should against an unmatched opponent. Yet on a night when rivals Tennessee dropped their second in a row to lower tier teams (Georgia State and BYU) and in-state rival Florida State had to go to overtime and depend on Louisiana Monroe missing a PAT just for the Seminoles to win their first of the season.
In Gainesville, head coach Dan Mullen and staff went to the half with a closer game than they’d have liked but opened the floodgates in the second half. And the entire game met one of their primary goals for the match; rotate in younger guys all night.
“We played guys all through the game. I don’t know if you saw that. It wasn’t like we went into and say ‘we’re gonna play this group and then get them out. Then we’re going to play this group and get them out.’ We wanted to just keep rolling right through the beginning.
“I’ll go see when I watch the film. That was the plan. It felt like we were rolling a lot of players through. It wasn’t like, ‘ok younger guys you’re getting these reps kind of when the game is at hand.’ They were getting reps with the one defense and real stuff going on.”
In total, 15 true freshmen were able to see snaps during the win and, as Mullen mentioned, significant ones at that.
Corner Jaydon Hill was forced to sit out this past spring while recovering from an ACL tear but subbed in for CJ Henderson midway through the 2nd quarter on Saturday night. Within three plays, he batted down a pass and forced the Skyhawks to punt away the ball.
Later on in the night, Hill chased down UT Martin’s quarterback, John Bachus, 48-yards to bring down the scootin’ passer at the Gators 20-yard line and save a touchdown on the play. The next play was Elam’s interception.
Hill’s play was reminiscent of the times Henderson has raced past every other guy on the field to chase down the ball carrier and it bode well for the future on a night when Henderson left the game in the 2nd quarter with an apparent foot injury (he returned to the sidelines on crutches and in a boot).
Elam’s interception that followed was also the first turnover forced by the defense this season.
“Great play by Kaiir,” bragged Mullen.
“It was a jump ball and he was one-on-one and he makes a play. I'm happy, hopefully he gets some confidence to build on.”
One guy who’s had all the hype and none of the opportunity thus far has been Jacob Copeland. The redshirt freshman receiver has battled injuries and family issues, all keeping him away from the game that made him such a highly touted recruit. On Saturday night in the Swamp though, Feleipe Franks (25-27 plus six rushes for 307 total yards and two touchdowns) swung a screen out to Copeland on the sidelines to the audible gasp of some 80,007 fans in attendance and the rest of the night was Copeland’s stage upon which to shine.
“He just continually tries to work hard, learn the playback, get things down pat, and everybody has his back. It’s very encouraging to see him go out there and get his reps and kind of shine,” says Franks.
And when Kyle Trask (4-5 for 40 yards, one touchdown) found Copeland over the middle for a 9-yard touchdown pass to open the fourth quarter, Strength and Conditioning Coach Nick Savage was having to hold back senior receiver Van Jefferson.
“I mean, Jacob Copeland, I mean I thought he had a great game today. Got his first college touchdown. I was running on the field man, trying to run on the field but Coach Savage was holding me back.”
Once the guys did get to Copeland, the conversation didn’t stop.
“I don’t think we stoped talking to him after his touchdown,” admits receiver Tre Grims.
“Just to see him back on the field and going hard, going strong, is phenomenal….it’s an honor for him to be able to go out there and show what he has to do. There was a couple of times he got a screen and took it like an extra 15-yards. He’s a phenomenal player. He’s gonna be one of the best when his time comes.”
With the bulk of the Gators schedule now on the horizon, with a trip to Kentucky up next, having depth at the key positions will be crucial. Veterans to true freshmen (who can play in three more games and still redshirt) will be called up, especially in injuries to Henderson and receiver Kadarius Toney prove severe. Mullen said Toney’s arm will be looked at more on Sunday and he believes Henderson is just an ankle sprain. As defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has oft offered as a de-facto motto though, injuries create opportunities. And to paraphrase, so do blowout wins during which young bucks can work alongside veterans.
Says Mullen, “We have a long way to go. But it’s interesting, the first game [against Miami] was kind of such a unique, special game and you come off it, but cleaned a little bit of things up. We have a lot to clean up off of this game [too]. We have to take some big steps forward before next week, we get into conference. You have to understand human nature, which is these guys are 18- to 22-years-old, it’s hard to peak and motivate yourself. The big challenge is, are we giving maximum effort every single day? These guys [with UT Martin], we’re a little more talented than they were. They’re really well coached, they did an excellent job, their kids played really hard, we just have a little bit more talent - and our guys know that. But it’s got to really crank up about 10 notches getting into conference play, especially going on the road. Kentucky’s an excellent football team.
“So we have to really kind of crank it up, and it starts Monday morning when we show up. It’s got to be a greater sense of urgency for us. We have a good attitude, I just think we need to have a little more grind and sense of urgency to be exact in every one of our details.”