ARLINGTON, Texas — Opening day is usually the most anticipated game of the season, and it’s certainly true in this case, given the big-time matchup between traditional powers on a national stage.
But some of the enthusiasm, energy and excitement that comes with the opener — especially one like this — has been zapped from the Florida football team.
Drained from the Gators by the troubling specter that is now swirling around the program.
The number of suspended players from today’s game against Michigan grew by two Wednesday, raising the total to 10 in all. Among the 10 are UF’s leading pass receiver (Antonio Callaway) and leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett).
Scarlett and reserve wide receiver Rick Wells were the latest players swept up in UPD’s ongoing investigation into allegations of credit card fraud. There could be more as the investigation continues.
The news that broke Wednesday — the same day UF Jim McElwain had decided to announce his starting quarterback — was a stunning blow to the program. And it turned this local scandal into a national story.
Now, instead of the focus being on the start of a new season with a new quarterback (Feleipe Franks) and a lot of new players on defense, it has turned to who’s not here for the Gators — and who might be next.
This whole (and growing) mess is a huge potential distraction for a team that’s been locked in and looking forward to this game for the past month.
The concern for Florida is whether the suspensions will affect the Gators emotionally, which could affect performance.
McElwain is hoping his team follows his approach and looks at it as an opportunity for the players who are moving into the starting lineup (and into position to play in a backup role) due to the suspensions.
“People think of the distractions and that type of thing, and yet, it’s an opportunity for more guys to go and play and play their tails off,” McElwain said. “Based on what we’ve done in practice this week, guys have had a really good week, a good week of preparation. I know they are excited to go to Dallas and excited to play the game. We’ll have some new faces in there, some guys taking a lot of valuable reps. That’s why they came (to Florida). They came to play.”
And play they will.
At running back, senior Mark Thompson and sophomore Lamical Perine will be counted on to produce in Scarlett’s absence. And now the two promising true freshmen — Malik Davis and Ardarius Lemons — are in a position to possibly contribute.
At wide receiver, Tyrie Cleveland, Brandon Powell, Dre Massey and others will be asked to replace the playmaking ability of Callaway, UF’s most dynamic offensive player. In the return game, it will be Powell, Cleveland, and two true freshmen — Kadarius Toney and C.J. Henderson — making up for the loss of Callaway.
Other players not usually in the playing rotation will be.
“Well, as competitors it’s next man up,” McElwain said. “You know, it’s not something you’re excited about, but it’s also something you deal with. And as you go through life you’re always going to have bumps. It’s how you deal with the bumps, and in this case we’re going to find out on Saturday how we’re dealing with them.”
There are lots of potential bumps, lots of concern about distractions.
But what could detract from the possible distractions is the fact the Gators are starting the strong-armed Franks at quarterback and some gifted true freshmen will be seeing their first playing time, led by Marco Wilson, who is slated to start at cornerback.
McElwain certainly doesn’t sound like he’s concerned about the focus of his new quarterback, whose first start is coming on a national stage in front of a soldout crowd of more than 100,000.
“The big thing, he’s going to be excited, there’s no doubt about it, but in that big stage the guy’s got a big arm, too,” McElwain said. “He’s been in those. He’s played in state championship games. He’ll be ready to go.”
Overall, McElwain is taking a positive approach to a difficult situation, and he’s anticipating his players following his lead.
“The way I look at it more than anything is, this is going to be a fun event. And some guys are gonna miss it,” he said. “The thing you hope is in doing that, it helps turn some of those lives around.
“And the guys that are here, the guys that are going to jump on that plane, the guys that are going to run out in a pretty cool stadium, that have an opportunity to go play, they’re going to play their tails off.
“There are no excuses. I don’t think we’ve ever made excuses for anything we’ve ever done or anything I’ve ever done. It’s just whatever hand you’re dealt, you go play it. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.