With a month until the season opener against Charleston Southern, and as the Gators prepared to commence preseason camp, Gators coach Dan Mullen revealed at media day some promising information: the entire team had been medically cleared to participate.
But one of the team’s vital pieces on offense — redshirt sophomore guard/center Brett Heggie — would remain in a red no-contact jersey for the time being. Heggie, Florida’s highly regarded offensive lineman out of Mount Dora who is expected to realize his potential in 2018, was shill in the process of returning to the field after suffering a torn ACL last season, an ailment that caused him to miss the team’s spring camp.
To make matters worse, Heggie’s comeback effort was at risk when he went down with a bad case of turf toe in fall camp, causing him to once again sit out during critical portions of practice, as Florida installed a new blocking scheme under offensive line coordinator John Hevesy.
For a unit lacking depth and experience, the loss of Heggie could have been an unfortunate blow at a time when momentum was trending in Florida’s favor.
Yet following the completion of camp, Mullen announced Heggie had been fully cleared to return to practice, news that likely brought a sigh of relief from Florida’s offense and fans alike.
But no one is as relieved as Heggie, who has dealt with frequent health issues since arriving on Florida’s campus in 2016.
Florida, in search of its starting center — a vital piece for a team lacking all-around depth on the offensive line — needs Heggie at full strength to maximize the potential of the offense this season.
“I struggled a little bit at the beginning of camp, you know, I was coming off my ACL (injury). I ended up messing up my toe a little bit, got a little turf toe,” Heggie said Tuesday of his absence throughout both spring and fall camp. “I couldn’t do anything during camp, came back last Thursday, so today would be my third day of practice. So really just trying to get back in the groove of things.”
Before the season-ending injury at Missouri last season, Heggie was beginning to make a name for himself. Starting seven games at guard last season, Heggie looked poised to claim a starting role in Florida’s rotation before going down in a heap against the Tigers.
Considering it’s been just shy of a year since Heggie saw contact on the field, the plan has been to bring him along slowly, although it’s no secret the Gators would like to quickly regain his services.
“I’m playing center and guard with the twos right now, just kind of rotating with guys, just trying to get a feel for both positions again,” Heggie said, “because I haven’t played in a long time.”
Heggie pointed to the mental anguish that often comes with the severing of a major ligament as the toughest obstacle to conquer in his return to the field. To make matters worse, the only thing to erase the feelings of doubt and insecurity is to get back on the field and overcome the initial fear — which is why Heggie’s absence throughout fall camp, while expected for someone coming off an ACL injury, drew concerns about his durability and role this season.
“That ACL was kind of a mental deal with me. I had a lot of support from my friends and family and teammates and coaching staff, everybody, and really worked hard in rehab and was able to get back in six months, six-and-a-half months, so then I got into my summer training and really got back into the season,” he said. “It’s kind of frustrating because of the timing, because I came back from the ACL and then I did that to my toe, I got a little turf toe. It’s frustrating, but I’m taking it day-by-day and trying to focus on my fundamentals again.”
Injuries may be commonplace for offensive linemen, but Heggie is hoping the renewed focus on strength and conditioning coupled with his return to full health will keep him on the field and reverse a stretch of injuries going on three years now. Because Florida’s offensive line needs Heggie’s depth and talent if the quarterback and backfield hope to live up to their potential this season.
“You know, just gotta bounce back. That’s just how it is. I had my wrist when I came in, got a concussion, ACL and the turf toe,” Heggie said. “You’ve just got to keep going. That’s how it is. You can’t really do much about it. Just got to keep going.”