Updated [9-10-19, 3:38 p.m.] In the wake of some key injuries in the win over UT Martin, a handful of young Florida players, including three true freshmen, are going to be asked to step up when the Gators open SEC play at Kentucky on Saturday night.
Two prominent starters — cornerback CJ Henderson and wide receiver Kadarius Toney — were injured in the 45-0 win over the Skyhawks and are not expected to play in Saturday’s game in Lexington.
Toney (shoulder) is definitely out, while Henderson (ankle sprain) is listed as doubtful and is not expected to be available, UF coach Dan Mullen said Monday.
“Kadarius Toney is going to be out for a couple of weeks. We’ll see how that goes, how he heals,” Mullen said. “But we expect him to be out for a couple of weeks. CJ Henderson, I think will be doubtful this week. He’s got a minor ankle sprain. Just as a skilled athlete, sometimes that’s a little trickier. But hopefully he’ll be back pretty quick.
“Talking to him, he wants to play this week, but we’re going to see how it goes. We’re not going to put him out there unless he’s 100-percent healthy. (Amari) Burney and Jeawon Taylor, we expect to get them back this week off of injuries, so that will help with depth on the defensive side of the ball.”
The loss of Henderson could have a big impact in a secondary where the depth was already paper thin and consists of three true freshmen — Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough.
“It’s a big loss,” junior safety Donovan Stiner said. “(He’s) one of our best defensive players. Our freshmen corners have to step up, and all the veterans back there just have to make sure we’re communicating and helping them be ready for the game.”
Elam, Hill and Kimbrough all saw extensive playing time in the win over UT Martin, and all made plays. Elam intercepted a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter, Hill broke up a pass in the first half and Kimbrough had a nice open-field tackle.
“I thought they did good,” Mullen said. “Kaiir had a great interception. Jaydon Hill made a touchdown-saving tackle coming off the back side, coming off his man. Chester’s got some experience out there on the field.
“One of the things that we talked about was getting them all in the game very early, not just, ‘Hey, we’ll get a lead and put them in.’ They started right in the second series, we started rolling those guys through. I think they gained that knowledge and that experience of being out there on the field playing with the one defense, and so that’s going to help them moving forward.”
Henderson and fellow starting cornerback Marco Wilson have been working closely with the three true freshmen since the start of preseason camp, trying to help get them game ready knowing they would be in the playing rotation this season with the lack of depth at the corner sports.
Stiner said he’s confident the newbies will be prepared for what they will face Saturday night.
“They’ve come a long way since they’ve been here,” he said. “They look up to CJ and Marco, so they’ve been getting ready. They got a lot of playing time in this last game, so I know their confidence is boosted. We just have to go out there this week and build their confidence even more in practice.”
Replacing Toney, one of UF’s best offensive playmakers, should be a little less stressful because the depth situation at wide receiver is so much better than at cornerback.
One of the deepest position groups on the team, the Gators had nine different receivers catch passes in Saturday’s game, including redshirt freshman Jacob Copeland, who had a 9-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter and also ran for 15 yards on a jet sweep in the third quarter filling in for Toney.
Copeland, like Toney, has the potential to be an explosive, and versatile, playmaker, senior wide receiver Josh Hammond said.
“He definitely has a lot of juice to him,” Hammond said. “That speed is one thing that’s big with Cope. You saw it with the jet sweep and little plays like that. Those are things that he can take to the house.
“With KT being out, we can get Cope into the swing of things and use him in a lot of different ways that we didn’t use him before just because we always used KT. It’s going to be exciting. I think we can use him in a lot of different ways. He is going to be excited as well.”