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Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Hernandez has been quite a catch at tight end


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When Cornelius Ingram went down with his freakish knee injury during the preseason, Florida's offense took a big hit.

 
 J. Meric/Getty Images
 Aaron Hernandez's five touchdown receptions led all SEC tight ends.

One of the most athletic and best pass-catching tight ends in the country, Ingram was primed for a huge senior season.

But even more importantly, the Gators had a two-tight end package in along with sophomore Aaron Hernandez that they thought would give opposing defenses fits.

"Almost half of the offense was going to be with two tight ends," said Ingram, who tied for the team lead with seven touchdown catches in 2007. "We had a lot of stuff in, and I was really looking forward to it. But I knew we wouldn't miss a beat with Aaron."

The Gators had to tweak their offense some without Ingram, but the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Hernandez quickly developed into one of the best playmaking tight ends in a league full of talented tight ends.

There was D.J. Williams at Arkansas, Richard Dickson at LSU, Jared Cook at South Carolina and Nick Walker at Alabama, just to name a few. But no tight end in the SEC caught more touchdown passes than Hernandez's five, and he also ranks third on Florida's team this season with 29 catches for 324 yards.

"It's awesome to be a tight end in this offense," Hernandez said. "You get to do such a variety of things. They use you a million different ways, as a fullback, an H-back, a wide receiver, a true tight end. It just makes you that much better."

Senior receiver Louis Murphy says Hernandez has "just scraped the surface" of what he's capable of doing at Florida.

And Florida coach Urban Meyer still winces when he thinks about teams having to match up with both Ingram and Hernandez on the field at the same time.

"I don't even want to think about it," Meyer said. "To have C.I. and Aaron Hernandez would have been a tough one to stop."

The key with Hernandez is that he's become an every-down player and not just a specialty player when the Gators want to throw the ball or get him isolated on a linebacker. He's as comfortable catching the shovel pass as he is making a key block on the edge.

"We knew Aaron would be something special down the road, but he's just really accelerated it and done it earlier in his career," Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. "He's taken that role and increased it ever since C.I. went down.

"Those crossover guys are what make this offense go. Percy Harvin can play tailback or receiver. Aaron Hernandez is a receiving tight end or a fullback. That's what you've got to have in this offense."

Meyer said the last two weeks of practice have been Hernandez's best since he's been at Florida, meaning Oklahoma defenders might not want to forget about him Thursday night in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game when they're trying to deal with all the Gators' speed on the outside.

"He's a big-time player," Meyer said.

Ingram's not the least bit surprised, either.

"I was at practice with him and in the same huddle with him," Ingram said. "I knew what kind of guy he was and knew how much he likes to compete. I knew the position was in good hands."

Still, that vision of the Florida offense with both Ingram and Hernandez lining up together is difficult for some on the Gators' team to get out of their heads.

There was some chatter about Ingram possibly being ready to play in this game. He's ahead of schedule in his recovery from an ACL tear, an injury that occurred in a one-on-one drill. He finished the practice back in August and had no idea he'd done anything serious to his knee until getting a precautionary MRI the next day.

He said he's as good as new now and has been running routes, catching balls and doing just about everything leading up to this game.

But having not been in a football game all season and not been hit, it's simply too risky to come back this early and chance re-injuring his knee.

"I'm still going to dress, and if it was up to me, I would play," said Ingram, who initially declared for the NFL draft last year before changing his mind and returning to school.

In fact, there may still be a scenario where Florida fans do see Ingram on the field one more time Thursday night.

The victory formation at the end of the game.

"That's the plan," said Ingram, wearing a wide smile. "So we're going to roll with that."