Fab freshmen proving worth early for Gators

Florida freshman wide receiver Kadarius Toney runs with the ball after making a catch during Saturday's game against Tennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The Gators won 26-20. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

Once again, CJ Henderson turned an interception into six points. Kadarius Toney displayed the athleticism in the open field that has had fans chanting his name. And Malik Davis’ 72-yard run could have padded a UF lead in the fourth quarter of a 26-20 win over Tennessee on Saturday.

In short, Florida has already relied heavily on freshmen, and it seems inevitable their roles will continue to expand as the season progresses.

Henderson signed with the Gators over Miami on National Signing Day, but his play in Florida’s first two games has resembled that of an experienced upperclassman rather than an 18-year-old freshman. Tasked with defending Tennessee wide receiver Marquez Callaway, Henderson simply put himself in the right position to make a play on a tipped ball. The Miami native jogged untouched into the end zone for the first touchdown at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this season and his second in just two collegiate appearances.

“I was just in the right place in the right time,” Henderson said. “I really think it’s coach (Randy) Shannon. He really simplifies it for us and makes it real easy for all the players. And we just go out there and play fast.”

For Toney’s part, the dynamic freshman had four receptions for 40 yards in his home debut, with much of his yardage coming after the catch. Florida’s offense put Toney in a position to make plays, which didn’t come as a surprise to the Gators who routinely see Toney’s dazzling speed and agility in practice.

“You all saw it today, they couldn’t tackle him at all,” senior wide receiver Brandon Powell said. “It doesn’t surprise us. It’s just a matter of time. He got his chance today and made two people miss in the open field. That’s what he always does.”

And Davis’ fourth-quarter run displayed the big-play ability the Gators offense has consistently needed, even if the end result gave the ball back to the Volunteers. Part of a three-horse race at running back due to Jordan Scarlett’s suspension, Davis also broke free for a 16-yard run early in the first quarter that led to a 41-yard field goal for Eddy Pineiro.

After the game, Gators coach Jim McElwain emphasized UF will need to continue improving on offense rather than relying on last-second heroics to defeat conference rivals. “Obviously, it was not pretty,” McElwain said. “We’ve got work to do.”

But if McElwain is looking to take some weight off of quarterback Feleipe Franks’ plate, Saturday’s victory showed the freshmen deserve to be fed first.

Up next

Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850


  1. Toney needs more touches, he is electric. I’d like to see him returning punts, Powell isn’t the threat Callaway was, but Toney may make us forget Callaway, which we may well need to do.
    Davis has the most ability to make people miss at RB since perhaps Rainey. Again, more touches needed.
    Henderson has those two pick sixes, but in each case he was not exactly right on the WR, it was right place at the right time, as he said. A FR with no picks who I think has played even better than Henderson is Marco Wilson. He has been blanketing WRs, he may be better than big brother before it’s all said and done.

    • Henderson and Wilson are going to be the next two great DBs Florida sends early to the NFL. Another kid (a redshirt freshman) I was impressed with was McWilliams. He covered the Tennessee RB (Kelly) like a blanket on that 3rd and goal play on the Vols last possession, forcing an overthrow by the Tennessee QB. He picked up the pass pattern quickly and picked up Kelly out of the backfield immediately. It is going to be fun watching these DBs play in the future. They are very talented. But one thing I noticed is that Gardner needs to work on his tackling skills. He missed a bunch of tackles in this game, including one near the line of scrimmage on Kelly, who then ran for that long TD after Gardner missed on him. Maybe he needs to stop trash talking so much and concentrate on executing fundamentals on plays more often.

  2. Toney and Malik Davis need more touches.

    Where was the jet sweep btw? Draw plays? Toss sweeps? Swing passes to the RB’s? Keep attacking the edges more and MAKE the defense CHASE our players. Use these players on plays like these, and get Massey into the mix too.

    I was relieved when we attacked the sidelines and edges more and tried to get more one-on-one situations to our playmakers in space. KEEP DOING THAT. It opened up the run a lot better and took a lot more pressure off the QB.

  3. and how many misdirection plays were there ONE? thats all I remember and it went for 70plus! where is the imagination and suspense a good mix of offensive play calls are meant to reflect to keep a defense on their heels? We have the speed USE IT!

    • Marshall. Florida does not run a misdirection offense. Tennessee does. Two completely different offensive schemes. Florida relies more on different sets and shifts to cause confusion for the defense. And it often does, but execution by the QB and the OL has been an issue. Franks did not make very good reads during the Tennessee game. But the OL played much better.

  4. Steve. I was in the south end zone for the game. The play calling expanded in the second half of the game and Florida started to open up more. But QB execution was an issue still. The OL was not. One of the major issues is that Franks locks onto one receiver too much. He misses on other wide receivers running wide open as second options when the first option is covered. And he often forces the ball into coverage instead of checking down or up. But Florida’s playbook expanded during the second half as Franks become more and more comfortable. But Franks lack of development in that area makes me wonder why he started the Michigan game. He was not ready for that game. But, then again, the options at QB were not much better at the time.

    • Well considering Franks is in his second game playing QB with someone that can tell him what he’s doing right and wrong, I think he’s doing alright. We once had a guy named Tebow that used to do the same thing….it was one of his biggest issues in the NFL. Anyways….he didn’t do that for the whole game, otherwise, he never would’ve seen Cleveland breaking behind the UT defense. The announcers actually gave a good observation in that coaches will call a play designed to get the ball to “the guy”, and with a young, inexperienced QB, they tend to do just that, whether the play is there or not. Give him time….I personally think he’s going to be a great one for us.