Elam seeks breakout season
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 at 12:32 a.m.
Will Muschamp was tough on his safeties throughout Florida's preseason camp.
The head coach who played and coaches the position demands a high level of decision-making and communication.
Only one player has evaded his death stare and consistently earned public praise — Matt Elam.
The sophomore strong safety is also the only player in the entire secondary who has nailed down a starting job.
"Matt's just a really instinctive football player," Muschamp said. "He sees things on the back end. He's able to get a good jump on the ball where other guys may not see it as quickly. It doesn't naturally come to some guys as quickly.
"He's got great acceleration to the ball. He sees it and he goes and gets it. He's got that oomph. He's got that extra gear. He has some things from a coaching standpoint that you'd like to take credit for, but really it's just natural ability."
As a true freshman, Elam played in all 13 games and was one of the first players off the bench. He carved out a role as the Gators' nickelback in passing situations.
Playing behind senior strong safety Ahmad Black, Elam knew his time would come as a starter in 2011.
"I feel like this summer I built myself into the role of being a leader," he said. "I learned a lot of things about how to be a leader. ... We're young in the secondary so I know a lot of people will look up to me.
"I'm way more excited because I have a lot more on the line, a bigger role."
Elam admits the vocal part did not come naturally.
"It was a very difficult role because I wasn't used to that," he said. "Every day I try to get better at that.
"I was always a quiet guy. It's something I have to grow out of."
What Elam has been used to is letting his play speak for itself.
With his work ethic, Elam has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates. Sophomore defensive tackle Dominique Easley says Elam is the best player on the defense.
"My opinion? I think he's the best thing out there," Easley said. "He works hard at everything. Basically, he's relentless every play. He doesn't take off one snap.
"He's just a smart player. He can read the field. He's our quarterback of the defense."
Heading into camp, Elam expected to team up over the middle with junior free safety Josh Evans, the Gators' most experienced player in the defensive backfield.
The two grew close over the summer, with Elam calling Evans his "partner in crime."
Evans, in turn, said he felt most comfortable playing next to Elam.
"I feel pretty good with Matt Elam at my side," he said. "I love him. He's like a brother to me."
Evans said Gator fans won't have to think back very far in comparing Elam's game to his predecessor. And even though the memory is fresh, it is lofty, as Black was the best player on the defense in 2010.
"He's going to be a really good player this year," Evans said. "I'm expecting a lot from him. Absolutely I think this is going to be his breakout year.
"I saw in his freshman year coming in, I saw a little glimpse of it, and I think it's his time to shine and show what he really can do."
Contact Jeff Barlis at (352) 374-5066 or email@example.com and follow at Twitter.com/JeffBarlis.