It's star-or-sit time for Florida's freshmen
The last two weeks of fall practice are typically the most important for every player in a college football program: For starters and prospective starters, this is the time to solidify or claim roles, and for role players, it's often a last chance to get into a rotation without injury or ineffectiveness by a starter opening up an opportunity later in the fall.
But most of those role players at least have the chance of such an opportunity opening in the fall — for freshmen, this fortnight may be their last chance of getting into the game until next fall, if their play doesn't get them above the red line of redshirting.
The Miami Herald's Jesse Simonton gave his predictions about which Florida freshmen that will and won't play in the fall over the weekend, and I thought they were pretty good. Here are mine, broken down by position:
Florida doesn't have any freshman quarterbacks; if the Gators did, I don't think they would be specifically targeted for a redshirt season, merely held in the third or fourth quarterback spot on the depth chart, much as Skyler Mornhinweg was in 2013.
Jordan Scarlett is probably the Gators newcomer that most excites fans, and he has been since the spring; a strong fall camp so far, and the transfer of Adam Lane, assures that he will be in the mix at running back. But Jordan Cronkrite, often forgotten as a second man in Scarlett's shadow, has had an impressive fall camp of his own by most accounts, and Lane's transfer really assures that it will be all hands on deck at RB. Neither player will redshirt, and both should play early.
It sometimes feels like Florida landed just one wide receiver in the 2015 class, Booker T. Washington's Antonio Callaway — that's how little Kalif Jackson gets mentioned. And Callaway wasn't as highly-touted as some of the players who theoretically began the 2015 season ahead of him on the depth chart.
But there's been enough buzz about Callaway — and enough of a lack of buzz about Florida receivers other than Demarcus Robinson, Brandon Powell, and C.J. Worton — that it would be foolish to think Callaway will redshirt, or that Florida could afford to redshirt him. Jackson? He's a developmental prospect at the moment, and Florida's better-served by redshirting him now, seeing what it has behind its tiny corps of core contributors at the position, and more fully evaluating him (after likely attrition thins the pack further) next spring.
This is the first spot where a redshirt is obvious: Florida has an established starter at tight end in Jake McGee, and sophomore DeAndre Goolsby and redshirt freshman C'yontai Lewis appear to slot in behind him; behind them is redshirt freshman Moral Stephens, and then there's Camrin Knight, one of just three players from Florida's 2015 recruiting class who committed to the Gators while Will Muschamp was still Florida's head coach. Knight will redshirt, to be certain.
What was clear before the fall — some of the many newcomers on Florida's line will be pressed into service, while others will be saved as the foundation for the future — still remains true. And Martez Ivey performing to expectations so far means he'll be one of the freshmen to rotate into Florida's line this fall.
But the rest of the biggest Gators' fates are still somewhat in doubt. Tyler Jordan is regarded as a strong candidate to play thanks to his early (summer) enrollment, and Florida is undeniably weaker inside than at tackle, where Mason Halter, David Sharpe, and Ivey would seem to be three-quarters of an talented two-deep. Jim McElwain's recent praise of Fred Johnson and Johnson's SEC-ready frame make him another candidate to play from Florida's freshman class. Adding Jordan, Ivey, and Johnson to Florida's seven non-true freshman linemen, though, would create a two-deep at each position — so the question of whether freshmen will becomes "Are these guys better than those guys?" rather than "Do we need numbers?" So if, for example, Nick Buchanan can beat out Travaris Dorsey, Kavaris Harkless, and Andrew Mike, he might play.
The three freshmen I do expect to redshirt from Florida's offensive line are Richerd Desir-Jones (who needs to add a little weight, as Florida's only scholarship tackle listed at under 295 pounds, and who ultimately may end up on defense), T.J. McCoy (who arrived a bit suddenly to be fully up to speed, and who slots in behind Cameron Dillard and Jordan at center), and Brandon Sandifer (who checked in at 357 pounds, and needs to lose some bad weight). I fully expect both Ivey and Jordan to play rotationally, and I'm beginning to think Johnson will, too — which leaves just Buchanan in limbo. The next two weeks will probably decide his (and Johnson's) fate.
CeCe Jefferson's playing, at least in some role; he has too much talent to stay on the sideline. The rest of Florida's freshmen defensive ends — Luke Ancrum, Keivonnis Davis, and Jabari Zuniga — were all in the "raw, and needs more weight" category as recruits, and none has shocked the world so far in camp. Andrew Ivie, meanwhile, slots in well behind a lot of beef at defensive tackle. Expect Jefferson to be the lone freshman to escape a redshirt; Florida just doesn't need anyone else to bolster its deep defensive line.
At the moment, Florida has two linebackers who didn't end 2014 with a season-ending injury (like Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison) and haven't been limited by injuries in camp (like Anthony Harrell and Matt Rolin) — and one of those linebackers is Jeremi Powell, whose 2013 season ended with a season-ending injury (as did Anzalone's, though his injury may not have been season-ending had it not occurred in November), and whose contributions to date have been primarily on special teams. The other one is Daniel McMillian, who has 13 career tackles. But he's been healthy!
Yes, Rayshad Jackson may spend his 2015 season on special teams, but there's no way he'll redshirt, simply because Florida can't afford him to, given its lack of depth at the various linebacker positions.
Florida only reeled in two defensive backs in the 2015 class, and of the two, Chris Williamson is more pedigreed than Kylan Johnson; if just one of the two plays, on special teams or elsewhere, it will be Williamson. But I wouldn't bet money on Williamson (or Johnson) even playing special teams, simply because Florida has 10 defensive backs who won't redshirt to fill those roles. Why throw Williamson (or Johnson) on punt or kickoff coverage when Florida can have Duke Dawson or Marcell Harris or Deiondre Porter or Nick Washington do something similar?
Neither Williamson or Johnson strikes me as a surefire NFL player, so a year more seasoning couldn't hurt in either case — and while one could argue that the potential mass exodus of Florida DBs makes playing as many youngsters as possible prudent, Williamson, as a corner, is at the position where Florida should be more set with depth (thanks to Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson) in 2016.
Florida's underwhelming fan initiatives
"New Water Bottle Policy Highlights 2015 Fan Initiatives" should give you an idea of how exciting the new things Florida is doing for fans truly are. The new tolerance for water bottles isn't even a tolerance for all water bottles, even:
Fans are permitted to bring one (1) commercially branded (i.e. Aquafina) EMPTY plastic water bottle, no larger than 20 oz. There are several water bottle filling stations inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Non-disposable water bottles, sport bottles, Nalgene-type bottles, cans, heavy plastic, glass bottles, and thermoses are NOT permitted in the Stadium. There are 12 water bottle refill stations throughout Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
As a devoted user of Camelbak and Nalgene water bottles — and someone who uses them for water, not for sneaking alcohol into games — I find it disappointing that I can't bring in my empty bottle and use it, but can bring in a "disposable" bottle that costs me (and the environment!) more. I realize there's are some safety issues here — gotta prevent everyone from having Nalgene bottles to pelt the refs with, I guess! — but I humbly suggest that people who spend $10 or more on a reusable water bottle are actually significantly less likely to turn those tools into projectiles. (And the policy can't be about trying to sell more water in the stadium, not when cups of ice that can be filled with water at fountains are, have been, and likely always will be free to fans.)
But that's just the highlight of the initiatives: Also on the list are refillable 22-ounce cups (no word on whether they can be brought back on subsequent visits) for $8; free soda and popcorn for the people in premium seats that cost $2,500 a year; free sunscreen for fans (admittedly pretty useful); and student ticketing moving away from a lottery system (because not enough students were applying to make a lottery necessary).
The initiatives for students — including the return of a student pep rally, and a (presumably free) tailgate for students on game days — are slightly more interesting, but these are not things that get fans excited to go to football games. Good teams that make winning and exciting games possible are what get fans excited to go to football games.
And Florida's promotions staff can't just magically make one of those appear.
Snapchat gives peek behind the curtain
I have been aware of its existence for about three years, but I don't use Snapchat very much. Partly, this is because I'm very leery of it being used as the more, uh, adventurous among its user base do, but it's also partly because I don't know that many people who I'd interact with by snapping rather than texting.
But Florida deciding to use Snapchat to give users a peek behind the curtain of its closed fall practices is really ingenious. Since I followed Florida's (recruiting team's) official Snapchat account "Chompchat" last week, I've seen the video of Florida practicing rugby-style tackling that turned into a FanShot here, fun video of Demarcus Robinson and others mugging for the camera, Valdez Showers outmuscling Ahmad Fulwood for a jump ball (in something that backs up a lot of notions about Fulwood), and the incredibly cool filtered picture you see at the top of this post.
These are little things, to be sure — but that's exactly what some fans, myself included, really like to see. It feels progressive and hip for Florida to be using Snapchat to augment the access and information it doles out to fans, and with practices essentially closed, anything coming from a Snapchat account feels forbidden and cool.
I worry a bit that writing about this is praising the band before it gets big and sells out, but whatever: For now, it's really and truly worthwhile to follow Florida on Snapchat. And that's fun to realize.