UF freshmen stepping up


Florida freshman Cody Riggs (31) tries to break up a pass to Kentucky receiver Chris Matthews in Gainesville on Sept. 25.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 at 12:24 a.m.

With the regular season on its very last leg, Florida can finally look back at its No. 1 recruiting class and feel comfortable.

Facts

Florida at Florida State

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Gainesville-area TV: ABC
Gainesville-area radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

It's been a chaotic journey to say the least for this group. Entering the season with a wealth of hype, Florida's freshmen clashed with the established veterans during training camp. The freshmen were treated a bit harsher and were even called out at times during the early part of the year.

But as the season continued and attitudes changed, Gators, young and old, finally started meshing. Against Appalachian State, Florida's true freshmen were given an abundance of playing time as 10 saw the field against the Mountaineers.

“If you were to evaluate this freshmen class, you wish (development) would have happened quicker,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said.

“A lot of these players have accelerated their play in the last four or five weeks. We were hoping that was going to be much sooner than later, but I'm glad it's later and it's happening now because that's our future.”

Losing 23 seniors, Florida will have to rely on this group immediately following the bowl game, but it looks as if a few players will have no problem immediately filling in.

One player making probably the biggest strides of the year is defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell. Linked to numerous rumors that he was unhappy with his role at Florida early in the season, Powell has become a guy Florida's coaches have tremendously praised during games and practices.

Halfway through the season, Powell, who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation a year ago, moved from defensive end to strongside linebacker. Against Appalachian State, Powell started in place of injured senior linebacker A.J. Jones, who was dealing with a hamstring issue.

Powell promptly led the Gators with nine total tackles (six solo), causing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to describe Powell as “all over the place” against the Mountaineers.

Austin said Powell, cornerback Cody Riggs and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd have become Florida's most consistent defensive rookies this season. Riggs has played in 11 games, starting two, while Floyd has played in every game, starting one and recording 5.5 tackles for loss.

While those players are excelling as the season winds down, Austin said he'd like to get more out of guys like safety Matt Elam, who has played in each game and recorded 21 tackles and a fumble recovery, and corner Jaylen Watkins, who has five tackles in eight games. Austin has even been impressed with defensive tackle Dominique Easley, who returned Saturday after missing significant time due to disciplinary reasons.

“They're talented young men, and you'd like to get them going, but everyone goes at their own pace,” Austin said. “They'll be fine players in time, it's just a matter of when that time is.”

A staunch activist against the freshmen's actions at the beginning of the year, senior center Mike Pouncey appreciates the improvements from the underclassmen. He went from telling the class to “shut up ... and play” to embracing them as brothers.

“We've got a lot of great young players,” Pouncey said. “You see flashes of them every weekend. They'll get their act together and Florida ain't going nowhere. It'll be here forever. It'll be back to one of the premier programs in the nation next year.”

Riggs said the freshmen improvements have brought the team closer, especially the freshmen. Riggs considers it “special” to play with his classmates, but realizes there are still strides to be made to end this season the right way.

“It looks like we have a bright future,” Riggs said, “but we're not really thinking about the future right now. We still have Florida State this week, so we aren't thinking toward next year.”

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