Saturday was a victory lap for the 20 Gators who participated in Senior Day ceremonies. But the product on the field displayed Florida’s future.
Florida’s 63-10 win over Idaho featured 37 first- or second-year players, with four recording touchdowns. In the process, Florida fans witnessed significant contributions from UF’s offensive freshmen tandem — quarterback Emory Jones and running back Dameon Pierce.
With the Gators comfortably in front with just under four minutes until halftime, Jones entered the game in relief of quarterback Feleipe Franks and quickly displayed improved poise — and an upgraded arm, too. Jones’ first pass fell through the hands of fellow freshman Kyle Pitts, but Jones kept firing. Three plays later Jones found Josh Hammond for an eight-yard touchdown, in turn giving Jones his first collegiate passing touchdown.
Pierce, meanwhile, carried the ball a career-high 13 times for a team-high 77 rushing yards against the Vandals, and added a four-yard touchdown pass from Jones midway through the third quarter.
For two of Florida’s nine early enrollees, Saturday was a culmination of all the work the group had put in since arriving in Gainesville at the top of the year.
“It was great seeing all my fellow classmates play. The older guys really set the tone the first two quarters and gave us a chance to go out there,” Pierce said. “We had a chance to see where we were as an athlete and where we were as a student of the game. Everybody performed, for the most part.”
In what might have been the final appearance in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for running backs Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett, much of the fanfare surrounded Pierce and fellow freshman Iverson Clement. Scarlett didn’t record a carry, although he did play a critical role in Josh Hammond’s touchdown on a reverse, while Perine rushed just six times on the afternoon. Pierce made sure to shout out the two members of the backfield and how they’ve impacted him in 2018.
“They taught me everything I know when it comes to just playing the next play, you know just being, just having fun. They taught me how to have fun with it. Because when I first got here, I was so uptight. I’m on myself about this, I’m on myself about that, but they have been great big brother figures,” Pierce said. “I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”
When it comes to Jones’ long-term potential, however, that’s another question entirely. He’ll be the first to tell you that a quality performance against an FCS opponent isn’t an indication of future success, especially against SEC competition. While the offense may not have had to fret much when it came to keeping Florida comfortably ahead, Pierce believes it wouldn’t have affected Jones either way. From what he’s seen, the true freshman signal-caller has continued progressing as a leader during his brief tenure in Gainesville.
“He’s come far as a leader, taking on that leadership role once he’s on the field. With him being one of my best friends here, it’s just a great vibe when we’re out there. We’re calm when we’re in the backfield. Emory is a cool, calm, collected guy. He’s going to make plays,” Pierce said. “And sometimes when adversity hits, he handles it very well. That’s one thing I admire about Emory, that’s one thing I look up to Emory about. He handles adversity. He just goes out and plays like nothing happened.”
Although he can’t speak for Jones or the rest of the 2018 class, Pierce said his production to date — 410 rushing yards and three touchdowns while seeing action in all 11 games — is validation of the early enrollment process.
“I’ll tell you this: If I didn’t come early, I don’t think I’d be talking to you on this podium right now. The transition from high school, the high school playbook to a college playbook is by far one of the most hardest things I had to endure in my athletic career, because it’s not about you,” Pierce said. “In high school, the playbook is going to revolve around you, but in college everyone has their role and you have to do that role to your (best). And if you don’t, the whole play could fall apart.”