The Florida Gators have now officially lost eight players, five of which were starters, to season-ending injuries. For a team that was already forced to replace 13 starters from the previous season and currently stands 4-3 (3-2 SEC) with some tough games ahead, it sounds like an insurmountable predicament.
But head coach Will Muschamp on Wednesday, during his only media availability of Florida’s off week, mentioned a number of freshmen who could join cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and (more recently) punter Johnny Townsend in becoming key players for the Gators over the latter half of the regular season.
The first of which is running back Kelvin Taylor, who received five carries in garbage time during the first game against Toledo but only touched the ball once over the following four contests. When sophomore Matt Jones tore his meniscus against LSU and saw his season come to an end, Florida had no choice but to give Taylor more work behind redshirt junior Mack Brown.
Taylor averaged 5.2 yards per carry in that very game, looking sharper and more decisive than Brown. Against Missouri on Saturday, he took the majority of the carries, rushing 74 yards on 12 touches and scoring the first touchdown of his career. Muschamp admitted Wednesday that the Gators should have leaned on Taylor more in the game, and it would be no surprise if he earned his first career start against Georgia on Nov. 2.
“I thought he played well. I thought he ran the ball extremely well. He continues to improve in all facets of the game. We’ve been very pleased with where he is right now,” Muschamp said.
He has not been as impressed with another set of offensive playmakers – wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood. Muschamp said both players have had their opportunities to shine; Robinson has not taken advantage of his to this point, and Fulwood has struggled at times but is showing “continued improvement.”
Those three were never going to redshirt this season, but Florida planned on doing just that with a number of other players including a pair of its freshmen defensive linemen.
Defensive tackle Jay-nard Boswick and defensive end Joey Ivie have yet to step foot on the field but likely should have against Mizzou as UF, according to Muschamp, only had 13 healthy defensive players heading into the game. In addition to senior DT Dominique Easley being sidelined for the season after tearing his ACL, classmate and position-mate Damien Jacobs did not travel the team after suffering a head injury in Baton Rouge, LA. He is questionable to face UGA.
“We probably should have played [them] in the game,” he admitted. “We were very thin defensively. We probably should have played those guys and just gone with it. Those guys have been progressing very well. … Again, those are two guys that probably should have played.”
But they didn’t. And neither did offensive linemen Octavius Jackson. Offensive lineman Trenton Brown, a JUCO transfer and in his first year with the Gators, did see the field but has not seen as much playing time as he might deserve considering the fact that Florida’s front has been manhandled each of the last two weeks.
“I think Trenton’s a guy that needs some opportunities and some turns. We’ve got to get him in there and let him play some,” Muschamp said.
“Octavius Jackson has been repping with us. There’s some possibilities there. We’re continuing to get some continuity up front.”
Asked whether he thought some struggling veterans – especially the offensive linemen – would be angry about freshmen taking their places, Muschamp scoffed at the notion.
“I’m not worried about upsetting anybody,” he said. “My track record speaks for itself as far as playing young guys. If they’re ready to play, we’re going to play them and we’re going to go with them.
“You look at the amount of guys, since I’ve been at Florida, that have started as true freshmen, that have played a lot as true freshmen. If they’re ready to play, we’re going to play them. If they give us the best opportunity to win the game, we’re going to play them.”
And that is exactly what Muschamp and the Gators might have to do in order to mitigate an incredible rash of injuries that has left them shorthanded and save what could otherwise be a disastrous second half to the season.
Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/Associated Press