Gage Wilcox suffers career-ending injury; Billy Napier says UF will be aggressive in portal

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Florida tight end Gage Wilcox suffered a career-ending injury, according to UF head coach Billy Napier. Neither Wilcox’s injury diagnosis nor his recovery time were divulged by Napier, who revealed the loss of Wilcox at the conclusion of Florida’s first spring scrimmage on Thursday. 

“He’s injured. It’s going to be a career-ending injury for him. Very unfortunate for Gage, but certainly while he was here with us he did a fantastic job,” Napier said. “Tough, but part of the game.”

A redshirt freshman out of Tampa, Wilcox made his collegiate debut in Florida’s second game of the 2021 season, a 42-20 victory over USF at Raymond James Stadium. A four-star prospect by 247Sports, Wilcox played on special teams in the Gasparilla Bowl loss to UCF, and he was expected to continue vying for a role in UF’s open tight end competition during spring practice.

After being witnessed when the Gators opened camp, Wilcox wasn't seen since, though he was hardly the only tight end absent when Napier’s first spring in Florida concluded its first week.

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Assistant coach William Peagler instructs tight end Gage Wilcox (80) during the first day of spring practice at the Indoor Practice Facility at the University of Florida in Gainesville, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

Gators look at tight end options

Jonathan Odom, a fellow Tampa native, suffered an injury early into spring camp that was later diagnosed as a torn labrum. Odom underwent successful surgery Wednesday, sidelining him for the remainder of spring and into the summer. Nick Elksnis will also miss the rest of spring camp with a broken scapula. 

“We’re thin. When you have three guys get injured, scholarship players at a position that’s already a little thin,” Napier said, “that throws a wrench in your plans.”

Devoid of depth, the Gators moved defensive lineman Griffin McDowell to tight end, a position he’ll likely remain in throughout spring camp. It doesn’t sound as if McDowell’s just another body in the room either. 

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In Thursday’s scrimmage, McDowell lined up at his new position and came up with a reception.

“A long snapper caught a pass today and Big Griff (McDowell) caught a pass today," Napier said, "if that gives you any indication.”

But of the tight ends, it wasn’t McDowell who received the most praise from Florida's head coach. That honor went to Dante Zanders. 

The Boca Raton native played both tight end and defensive end at the high school level, and it appeared early into his UF career he’d be lining up on the offensive side of the football. But in 2020, his redshirt sophomore season, Zanders, formerly known as Dante Lang, was moved back to the defensive line.

He got on the field in 23 games over the next two seasons, recording a total of 11 tackles, though he was rarely a consistent contributor. Combine the fact the tight end had a high usage rate in Napier’s offense at Louisiana along with UF’s availability concerns at the position, and it’s understandable why Zanders would be an ideal candidate to line up at tight end in Napier’s offense. 

Florida's Tyreak Sapp (94) and Dante Zanders (18) run a drill during spring practice atthe University of Florida in Gainesville, on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

What was a surprise, however, was how profusely Napier praised Zanders, a player who has hardly had an opportunity to key in on any position.

“Dante Zanders has moved from defensive line to tight end and has really done well. There’s no question in my mind that, not only is he going to be able to play, but he’s going to be able to do his job,” Napier said. “He has been a godsend to some degree, relative to his ability. He’s really bright. He’s picked it up quickly. He’s able to go out there and execute.”

Napier, suboptimal situation aside, isn’t keen on making excuses. He pointed to the prestige of the university, saying the Gators are in the business of looking for solutions rather than pity. Some may come in the form of walk-ons. 

“We're literally going to give five walk-ons scholarships this spring,” Napier said.

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And some relief may soon come in the form of true freshmen. UF signed tight ends Arlis Boardingham and Hayden Hansen, along with dual-threat tight end/defensive lineman Andrew Savaiinaea, in the first week of February.

“We’ve got two defensive tackles that are over there. We’ve got a long snapper just taking reps,” he said. “That’s an area on our team where we anticipated potential depth issues. We signed three. We’ve also had injuries.”

UF will be active in transfer portal

There’s also the watering pool of Division I talent officially known as the NCAA’s transfer portal for Florida to scour.

The Gators will be active at the conclusion of spring when it comes to seeking out prospective athletes, said Napier, adding Florida's needs are "approaching double digits."

It may be too early to shift focus into the talent-acquisition aspect of the roster, though Napier is clearly taking stock of UF’s issues as he oversees his first spring camp in Gainesville.

“I'm very pleased with every player we've had. We were fortunate to get six (transfers) at mid-year, all six have contributed to the team in a positive way. I was talking the other day, what if we didn't have those guys? What would practice be like? So, I think we need to continue to acquire more talent, I think that's the name of the game,” Napier said. “You can anticipate us being very aggressive in the portal this spring. We need players. I think the approach is going to be to acquire as many good players as we can at any position.”