Justin Shorter back for Florida Gators football and likes what he sees in coaching staff
There were no long, drawn out talks with coach Billy Napier when it came to Justin Shorter’s decision to return to the Florida football team, nor were there any pacts between Shorter and his teammates.
The experience of the 2021 season was enough motivation for Shorter, UF’s leading wide receiver from last season, to return to college for one last ride.
"I didn't really know too much about (Napier), but all I really know is I wanted to come back here, regardless of who was here,” Shorter said. “We've got players that are hungry and just hate losing, like me — just thinking about last year, every loss, it makes me so angry, like, upset.
“I just want to be the best, like I want my name under (Kyle) Pitts over there in the stadium, so I feel like you’ve just got to put the time in and just everyday just do it, no matter how you feel."
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Passing up the NFL a tough choice for Justin Shorter
That didn’t mean it was a no-brainer of a decision, however. Putting his dreams of making the NFL on hold and passing up potentially life-changing money, even temporarily, was an agonizing decision for Shorter and his family.
"I would say, definitely a hard (decision). Me and my family sat down, and I just felt like, just ending the way that we did, I feel like I can do so much more to help this team win games,” Shorter said. “I feel like that was the main goal of me coming back: I just want to come back and be with all my teammates, all my brothers, and really win, go out with a bang."
His mind made up, Shorter didn’t call each teammate individually and inform them of his decision, and he still was unaware of the intentions of his fellow draft-eligible Gators. Judging by the elevated work ethic he’s witnessed since Napier arrived, Shorter gets the sense they’re all in it for the same reason.
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It wasn’t just Shorter — nobody back in UF’s building for the 2022 season wanted to end their collegiate careers on such a low note.
“Everyone really has that mindset with the way that we ended last year. Everyone (who) came back is working extremely hard, harder than I've seen,” Shorter said. “Everyone’s really putting in the work, so I feel like this year is going to be a huge year for us."
There’s clearly much to be done when it comes to Florida’s wide receiver group. Gone are five of the team’s top seven pass-catchers from last season, including tight end Kemore Gamble and the team’s second-leading receiver behind Shorter in Jacob Copeland.
Florida’s contingent of offensive weapons took another hit in spring camp with the loss of a trio of tight ends in Nick Elksnis, Jonathan Odom and Gage Wilcox.
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The voids out wide have further increased the need for UF’s inexperienced players to make a leap and be dependable playmakers sooner than anticipated.
From what Shorter’s seen through nine spring practices, Napier’s practice setup makes it a realistic possibility that the Gators who opted to return are in the best position for success.
“They take more time to make sure that every single detail is fixed and touched upon, which is good, because greatness takes time (and ) repetitions over and over and over again,” Shorter said of practice. “If you love being out there, you're going to like it."
He'll have his mom's help again, too
Though Shorter is no stranger to hard work, nor is he unfamiliar with going the extra mile. For stretches of his first two seasons at Florida after transferring from Penn State, Shorter notoriously brought his mother, Paula, to live with him in Gainesville.
The reason? For Shorter to continue catching passes away from the practice field. The plan is for Paula to return to her role as her son's personal quarterback before the Gators open the 2022 season.
"Actually she’s back in Jersey," he said, "but she’ll be back, hopefully in a few months.”
Until she arrives, Shorter's putting in his additional work either at Florida's indoor practice facility or the adjacent outdoor fields, where he's often one of the first to arrive and the last to depart, though that's nothing new for Shorter, nor is it a recent development for his UF teammates.
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"Usually after practice, we'll be out there catching. My goal usually is to be the last one off the field after there was no practice, so obviously I have teammates out there with me who enjoy doing the same thing," Shorter said. "'I'm always the one going hard at everything. For me, like 100 percent, I don't like taking any off days. I just feel like I'm wasting time."
'Every single coach in the building cares'
It’s not just Napier who has provided a necessary change on the practice field – his position coach, Keary Colbert, has brought both NFL experience and a relatable message to the unit.
Less than three weeks into spring practice, Colbert’s methods have left a positive impression on the Gators under his watch.
"He's a great, great, great dude. I was very happy when we had got him, because looking at his history, he has coached a lot of, like, bigger wide receivers,” the 6-foot-5, 228-pound Shorter said of his position coach. “So, just meeting with him for the first time, I was like, 'Hey, I want you to coach me and I'm going to be this huge sponge that soaks in everything.' He's a great guy. He cares about every single player and he just coaches well. I feel like I've learned so much from him already, you know, and we're only (a few) weeks into spring ball."
Colbert’s ability to partake in the drills he teaches doesn’t hurt either. Formerly a second-round draft pick in the 2004 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers, Colbert may be approaching his 40s, but he hasn’t lost much of a step on the practice field. Even so, it’s his NFL wisdom rather than his athletic ability that has the Gators praising his addition.
“He’s super fast, so I was actually telling him I wanted to see him do some one-on-one versus the defense one day,” Shorter said of Colbert. “It's definitely nice to be able to know that he's been there, he's been down that path, so he can be someone that I can go to if I need help with anything or I have questions about that stuff."
Napier and his inaugural coaching staff have provided affirmation to players like Shorter, a former five-star prospect with NFL size, who returned to Gainesville for one last ride.
“Every single coach in this football building cares about us, I can say that 100 percent," Shorter said. "They all want us to win, and they do everything in their power to make sure that we are at our tip-top day in and day out, so that's all we can ask for. I'm just thankful that this coaching staff came in here."