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Florida will probably survive its rash of fall practice injuries

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Mississippi v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

An unwelcome change to the status quo of “Wide Receiver X is poised for a breakout season!” and “Freshman Y is going to contribute substantially this fall!” stories from Florida’s fall practices happened this week, in the form of news that will matter throughout the season.

Three Gators suffered serious injuries, with redshirt junior offensive lineman Antonio Riles tearing his ACL, freshman corner C.J. McWilliams following suit, and freshman safety Quincy Lenton breaking his foot.

Riles and McWilliams will be out for the season, Jim McElwain said Friday, while Lenton will probably be out for months at a minimum — McElwain gave a timetable of five to eight weeks for his recovery.

But while those injuries are significant setbacks for all three players’ chances of playing meaningful snaps for the Gators, they probably aren’t going to sideswipe Florida’s 2016 season.

Riles is the only one of those three players who was even remotely likely to start in 2016, having worked his way onto and off of Florida’s starting offensive line in 2015. Riles didn’t make a start after Florida’s win at Missouri, though, as Martez Ivey moved into the lineup at left guard and Trip Thurman shifted over to the right guard spot Riles had manned. Florida’s offensive line wasn’t demonstrably better with Riles coming off the bench, but Thurman was seen as a more reliable hand, and Ivey’s potential dwarfs that of any other Florida interior lineman, with his eventual future likely lying at tackle.

In 2016, Riles had a chance to take back that right guard spot, but was now competing with sophomore Tyler Jordan, who had capably played center in Cameron Dillard’s stead, and redshirt freshmen Nick Buchanan and Brandon Sandifer, each of whom are likely to eventually be better offensive linemen than the converted defensive tackle. Riles would have played in 2016, undoubtedly, but I would have been somewhat surprised to see him start without an injury to another player, and I’m confident that Florida now has enough depth to get something resembling his level of play in his absence.

The injuries to McWilliams and Lenton are even more easily absorbed: McWilliams likely sat behind at least five corners on Florida’s depth chart, and Lenton is almost certainly no better than a backup safety at the moment. Their injuries mean both players will redshirt — as they were likely candidates to do even as healthy players — and have the marginal benefit of a medical redshirt, which could eventually grant them a sixth year of NCAA eligibility.

The issue for the Gators that is common to all three players, though, is that their injuries mean Florida’s roster just got slightly shallower. And while the Gators might not suffer too much for these injuries on Saturdays, the Sunday to Friday work of building and teaching a team gets slightly harder when there are fewer players to run through drills.

If Riles being in a rotation at guard was soaking up 20 to 25 turns at a drill, for example, that probably means that players behind him (and perhaps ahead of him) will now get more work in practice. That’s good for, well, practicing skills, but it’s also sure to bring added wear and tear on those players, with each snap coming with the chance for a freak injury to occur or another subconcussive blow to accumulate.

Maybe that added work means Teez Tabor will turn his ankle on a snap that McWilliams would otherwise have taken. Maybe it means nothing.

But while fans can probably breathe easy about the relatively minor impact this spate of injuries will have on Florida’s two-deep, it’s worth remembering that the team is far more than just its best 22 players, and that the 61st man can impact the first.