ATLANTA — Along with being a reward for a successful season, a bowl game also provides an opportunity for some of the younger players to accelerate their development through the extra practices and reps.
In regards to Florida, the Gators have multiple young players who apparently have benefited from the extended season and appear on the cusp of emerging as potential impact players in the near future.
“We’ve got a lot of great young guys that are going to come in and continue to progress and contribute in the spring and next season,” junior linebacker David Reese said. “It’s great for them to get the experience and get used to taking reps and getting ready to play in a game.”
Some of the true freshmen began to emerge over the course of the season (one, Trey Dean, became a starter at cornerback). Others have begun emerging over the past few weeks during preparation for Saturday’s Peach Bowl.
In interviews with coaches and some veteran players Thursday, the names of numerous true freshmen came up as players who have a chance to be major contributors in the spring and next season.
Here are the players who were mentioned: quarterback Emory Jones, running back Dameon Pierce, tight end turned wide receiver Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Jacob Copeland, cornerback Trey Dean, linebacker Andrew Chatfield, safety John Huggins, defensive back Amari Burney, linebacker David Reese and defensive end Malik Langham.
The offensive player drawing the most impressive reviews was 6-foot-6 Pitts, who had a 52-yard TD reception against Idaho.
“He’s just like a freak, a freak athlete,” quarterback Feleipe Franks said. “He’s going to be somebody. He has a tight end body but he can line up at receiver and run past guys and make those tough catches.
“He’s a big target for a quarterback. He’s a favorite target for a quarterback to throw to. Size and ability, he’s a freak. He’s somebody you want to go to when it’s one-on-one coverage. He’s a mismatch on the outside.”
Pitts made progress over the course of the season and has continued to grow as a player during bowl practices.
“He almost makes dudes fall down (with his route-running ability),” junior wide receiver Van Jefferson said. “He’s going to be really good.”
Two other offensive players — Jones and Copeland — also are drawing praise for the progress they’ve shown over the past few weeks.
Jones played almost the entire second half against Idaho and had success running the offense. He can play in Saturday’s game and still redshirt.
“Emory is going to be a really good player,” Franks said. “I love his mentality, I love how he approaches each day. I’m a big fan of Emory.”
Jones is expected to have a package of plays to run in Saturday’s game.
“I think he’s really ready,” junior running back Jordan Scarlett said. “He’s a lot more comfortable now. In the game he played in, he said, ‘I should have done this, I should have done that.’ I like that about him.
“He’s always in the game plan, watching film. He’s going to be a great player in years to come.”
Copeland also is expected to see playing time against Michigan. One of the highest-rated prospects in the 2018 recruiting class, Copeland missed the first eight games recovering from knee surgery. He’s now 100 percent.
“Copeland is going to be a really good player,” Franks said. “As soon as the offense starts to click for him, he’ll really start to make strides.”
Jefferson said Copeland and Pitts have a chance to be special. “I help them out because I know they’re going to be great players,” he said.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham seems excited about the ongoing development and potential of some of his true freshmen.
He singled out Huggins, Chatfield, Burney, Reese and Langham.
“Huggins is a guy we’re going to continue to develop. He could be a good safety for us,” Grantham said. “David Reese, we’re getting him some work to allow him to utilize his athletic ability and speed. Chatfield is a guy that I like his work ethic and attitude.”
Burney has seen significant playing time this season and is the heir apparent to standout star/nickel Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is leaving early for the NFL.
“He has a lot of position flexibility,” Grantham said. “He’s really fast, he’s a smart kid, got good instincts. He brings a physical presence when he tackles you.
“The biggest thing is his position flexibility. He could play linebacker.”
Langham, a four-star prospect out of Alabama and one of the highest-rated players in the 2018 recruiting class, has played in two games at defensive end. His days at that position may be numbered, Grantham said.
“He’s a big guy that is an end,” Grantham said. “He continues to grow. The more he grows, the question is will he be an end or an inside guy (tackle). Usually, they get bigger, not smaller. He’s moving in that direction right now.
“The biggest thing is we’ll continue to give him a really good strength and conditioning program, develop his size and continue to add weight. If he becomes an inside guy, he becomes an inside guy.”
It’s all part of the process of developing young players. For some Gators, that process has been accelerated by the extra practices and reps.
“All those are guys that we’re really focused to try and develop,” Grantham said. “We’ll try to get it to where as we move forward with our program, into spring practice, they’ve gotten some reps and are familiar with what we’re doing.”