- Jeff Barlis, College Football
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp is quick to list the biggest reasons for his team's improvement -- depth, maturity, more talent at key positions and another year of experience in his system. But underneath all of those factors, the key to who plays and how well they play is practice.
"The guys understand you've got to practice to play here now," Muschamp said after a win on Saturday that saw several true freshmen either start or make significant contributions after their practice performances earned playing time.
Two of the most prominent freshmen contributors for Florida are buck linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, who started in place of an injured Dominique Easley on Saturday and earned high praise from a senior teammate.
"That's special," defensive lineman Omar Hunter said of Bullard. "Any time a defensive lineman can come in and play like that as a freshman, it's unbelievable. We had a lot of defensive linemen in the past come in as freshmen and even from juco, and they couldn't do the things that these guys are doing right now.
"They've really been locked in and trying to improve and get better each and every day. They stay with Coach [Dan] Quinn and try to learn the plays and the different schemes. It's really working for them."
Thanks to Muschamp's two solid recruiting classes, the Gators are deeper and more talented. That infusion has led to a direct improvement in the competitiveness at practice, and it has allowed the coaching staff to more rigidly enforce its philosophy of earning playing time in practice. Florida started four different true freshmen in its last two games, as the Gators' No. 4-ranked recruiting class of 2012 has begun to assert itself.
"When you have a deep team and a deep roster, that's what you want. That's when you've got great competition," he said. "Competition is my best motivator. My stuff falls on deaf ears after a while. ...
"They know we don't care where you're from, what grade you are, what you've done before or how many stars you got."
Another true freshman who has gotten on the field early, left tackle D.J. Humphries, saw his most significant playing time in the Kentucky game.
"D.J. deserved to play. He's played well. I don't care what year he is," said Muschamp. "He plays well, he practices well, he prepares himself well, he deserves the opportunity."
Hunter parrots his coach when asked what has enabled true freshmen to make important contributions so early in their careers.
"Practice," he said. "That's the number one thing, practice. They've been showing they can do it."
Muschamp cited NFL linebackers Jason Taylor and Junior Seau as two of the best practice players he's ever been around.
"They're going to be in Canton, Ohio for a reason," he said. "God blessed them with a lot of ability, but they took advantage of the ability. They took it to another level."
A look at the true freshmen who are starting to carve out roles for the Gators this season:
LB Antonio Morrison: After playing solid minutes in UF's linebacker rotation, Morrison started the last two games in place of injured junior Jelani Jenkins. Morrison has flashed great closing speed, an aggressive mindset and good instincts against the run.
DE Bullard: He started his first game on Saturday against Kentucky with Easley hurt. Bullard gives the Gators more size on the edge in a natural end than they've had since the departure of Carlos Dunlap, showing the strength to bull-rush the passer and contribute against the running game.
OL Humphries: At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Humphries doesn't yet have the bulk you'd think of in an SEC left tackle, but he has played well enough to be in the mix in an extremely challenging position at a very young age. Muschamp went so far as to be noncommittal when asked on Monday who would start at left tackle moving forward. It's impressive for a true freshman to even make it a competition against an experienced senior like Xavier Nixon.
LB Fowler: Playing extensively behind senior Lerentee McCray, Fowler has given the Gators a backup with little drop-off in production. He has shown advanced edge-rushing technique and, along with Bullard, has helped improve UF's pass rush overall.
RB Matt Jones: He earned a start in his third collegiate game on the road at Tennessee. Muschamp said the talented Jones has a lot to learn about running north and south, but he gives the Gators a third running back with the potential to grow into next year's starter.
WRs Raphael Andrades, Latroy Pittman: Both play roles as blockers, but the fact that they get on the field ahead of upperclassmen is a testament to their effectiveness. It's a matter of time before one of them has a chance to evolve into a pass-catching threat. Pittman was the breakout star of Florida's spring camp, while Andrades started his first game last Saturday.