Fans savor first-hand look at the Gators


Florida Gators running back Mack Brown runs upfield after catching a pass from quarterback Jeff Driskel during an open practice session at the Dizney Lacrosse Stadium on Thursday, August 15, 2013 in Gainesville, Fla.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 10:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 10:08 p.m.

The sea of orange-and-blue-clad Gator fans filtered into Donald R. Dizney Stadium at the Florida lacrosse facility shortly before sunset.

About 1,000 showed up to watch Florida go through a two-hour practice Thursday night. It's the first of four open practices the Gators will hold before their season opener Aug. 31 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium against Toledo. The next practice open to the public is Saturday morning at 9:05 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The crowd Thursday night was a mix of families and students and armchair coaches, all eager to see how Florida is progressing under third-year coach Will Muschamp. The biggest applause of the night came when freshman UF receiver Demarcus Robinson made a nifty, sprinting one-handed catch on a sideline go-route.

"I think it's a good idea for the community to see the Gators firsthand, to see the raw talent that we have and look at the expectations we might be facing on being in the SEC," said John Howell, who has lived on and off in Gainesville the past five years. "So far, it looks pretty good."

The four open practices are the most the Gators have held in fall camp under Muschamp. Last year, the Gators had only one open practice. In 2011, all UF's fall practices were closed.

Howell said he's been a Gator fan since he was "knee-high to a grasshopper" and reminisced about watching Don Gaffney play quarterback at UF in the 1970s.

"It's an honor to the team and the SEC and the University of Florida to allow the students and the community to see their players," Howell said. "It's a good idea. And it opens up a lot (of enthusiasm) for the fan base."

For students Saul Campos and Samantha Beekhuizen, it was just cool to watch the Gators live. Both UF juniors are looking forward to the season.

"I always keep up reading online whenever I can, so this actually opens up a lot of media availability," Campos said. "So even if I can't come, it's great for all the fans out there."

Said Beekhuizen: "It gets me excited about football season coming around. I like that they opened up the practice. I'm really excited. I think we're looking really good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."

The recently built lacrosse facility, with its aluminum bleachers and modern amenities, was a big hit for Gainesville resident Brady McDonald, who had three young children to look after. McDonald and his wife, Alicia, brought their son Chesley (4 years old), daughter Elle (2 years old) and son Jack (6 months old).

"The venue is awesome, too, because there are usually a ton of people who show up," McDonald said. "Especially with these guys running around, it's been nice to have a place to sit and hang out."

A UF rule barring fans from taking photos and video from their cellphones was strictly enforced throughout the practice. Security guards in yellow shirts patrolled the stands with their eyes and barked out reminders to unsuspecting offenders.

"That's no big deal at all because you get to see these guys in person," Howell said. "Saturday they are going to have the open field at Ben Hill Griffin and they are going to have the autographs in the O'Connell Center, which is another great idea. We're going to get to meet these guys face to face."

Said McDonald: "It would have been nice to get a picture or two with the kids. As long as everyone is playing by the rules … I totally get it. You've got to keep some stuff in your back pocket."

After Saturday's open practice at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (9:05 a.m.), the final two open practices will be held Monday and Tuesday at the Sanders Practice Fields at 12:21 p.m., the same time as kickoff for UF's season-opener against Toledo.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Read Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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