By Shannon Snell – OnlyGators.com Featured Columnist
Hello, everyone. Did you miss me? After a long, boring summer of sports that really, honestly do not interest me one bit, college football almost back and soon to be gracing our beautiful high definition television screens once again.
Quite a few things have changed on the college sports landscape since you last heard from me following the Florida State loss, and the Florida football team has a legitimate opportunity to surprise some doubters as the 2014 season progresses.
I got the chance to do something this offseason that I have not done since I stopped playing for the Gators in 2003. I hung around with the team and met some of the current players. And most importantly, I came away impressed.
After I hung up my cleats in 2007, I had zero interest in going back to the game and being one of those guys who could just not let football go. Even though I live and own a business in Gainesville, Florida, and follow the team closely, Ron Zook had left a real bad taste in my mouth.
Hanging around Florida’s football facilities, trying to relive my glory days, did not interest me. I have a family, two sets of twins with my wife, a great job and excellent health. For most of my life, I think I let football define who I was. It was the one reason that people knew me, and I always hoped that they instead knew me off the field. Mentally, I just refused to ever be a part of it again…but I knew I was lying to myself.
Back in March, I got to talk to one of my old strength coaches, Mark Campbell. Some of you might remember him as during the mid-1990s he was a part of some of the best Gators defensive lines in history. We talked at length about the epic failure of the 2013 season and what we might be able to expect for 2014. As positive as he was that the players had “bought in” more than ever under Will Muschamp, I was still unconvinced after what happened last year.
There was no better way to try and convince myself otherwise than by seeing it with my own two eyes, so I decided to attend a few of the practices to see the “buy-in” myself.
I will say this: You would never think the players on this team lost eight games a year ago. These guys were genuinely excited to be out there not just playing football but working on their craft. It seemed like everyone was flying around having fun, something that had been sorely missing for the last few years. It reminded me of why I had grown to love the game myself as a youngster.
Perhaps the most notable conclusion I can draw from my observations is that Florida is not lacking in the leadership department anymore.
The one guy who impressed me the most was Dante Fowler, Jr. He has certainly put it all together, gaining a good deal of muscle in the weight room and beginning to truly play to his potential.
He reminded me of Jarvis Moss with a higher ceiling, not just with his play and love for talking but with his ability to lead by example both on the field and in the locker room. Fowler backs it up, and he is primed for a big year.
Another guy who impressed me simply with his physical gifts is first-year running back Brandon Powell, who I got a chance to meet in the weight room on Monday. Sure, he’s 5’9” and only 175 pounds…but that 175 pounds is pure muscle. This dude is jacked, and he’s fast as hell. I would not be surprised if he has a significant role in this offense from the get-go. If not, he will next year.
What bothered me from my experience is that the Gators will be relying on a lot of freshmen to help the team move forward in 2014. Ideally, you would have a set of established players that are leading the way while the freshmen are brought along slowly, filling in a couple gaps when necessary, especially in reserve roles.
Florida does not have that luxury this season.
Other than that, this is very much like any offseason, one filled with questions and uncertainty. The Gators, however, need to prove that they still belong among the nation’s elite. Even when Florida was floundering under Zook, the program was still respected and ranked high in the preseason polls. UF needs a jolt real quick and must prove itself from the get-go in 2014.
Needless to say, I expect an entertaining ride.
A three-year starter for the Florida Gators who played under Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, former guard Shannon Snell joined OnlyGators.com in 2012 as a football columnist to provide his unique perspective on the team. He is now in his third year sharing his musings and will do so through the 2014 season. Snell, who played in 46 games over four seasons and started 36 of those contests, was named a First Team All-American by Sporting News in 2003 and spent two seasons in the NFL.