Asking too much?
UF has great needs for freshmen to fill in 2013, but history says not to get hopes up
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Whether it's because of graduation, early departures to the NFL or because a position is so bereft of talent, Florida is going to need significant contributions from freshmen in 2013.
The most glaring need is at wide receiver, a position that has underperformed for the past three seasons. The Gators already have one freshman on campus (early enrollee Demarcus Robinson) and have four others committed and scheduled to sign on Wednesday. The general feeling is that at least two of those players have to make a substantial impact next season for the offense to have any chance of getting better.
Then there's linebacker, where the Gators lost Jon Bostic to graduation, and Jelani Jenkins declared for the NFL draft. Coupled with UF's decision to part ways with recruit James Hearns because of academics, the Gators are scrounging at middle linebacker. Jenkins could have moved from outside linebacker to fill that role, but now the Gators are without an experienced linebacker to man the middle of the defense.
That job could fall to sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside as a freshman at 218 pounds, or possibly early enrollee Daniel McMillian, ESPN's No. 3 outside linebacker and the 31st-ranked player in the ESPN 150.
But how realistic is it to expect three or more players to make significant impacts as freshmen? Going back to 2006, the Gators have had 16 freshmen play key roles. Considering UF has signed 162 players in that span, that works out to just 10 percent.
Some years it has been three players -- like 2006, 2007 and 2011 -- but other years it has been fewer.
Here's a look at the freshmen who have made the biggest impacts since 2006:
QB Tim Tebow -- It was Chris Leak's team, but the Gators likely would not have been able to play for the national title had it not been for Tebow. His fourth-down run at Tennessee -- when everybody in the stadium knew it was coming -- kept UF's game-winning drive alive. He also broke a 7-7 tie with LSU with his jump-pass TD to Tate Casey just before halftime in a game the Gators would go on to win 23-10. Tebow finished with 358 yards and five touchdowns passing and ran for 469 yards and eight touchdowns.
WR Percy Harvin -- Despite battling a nagging hamstring injury, Harvin played in 13 games and started five. He was named a freshman All-American and named the SEC's Freshman of the Year by the media and the league's coaches after accounting for 855 yards of total offense and averaging 11.4 yards per touch. Harvin was at his best in big games. He was named the MVP of the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas after rushing for a season-high 105 yards and one touchdown and catching five passes for 62 yards and another touchdown. He led the Gators in receiving in the BCS National Championship Game (a career-high nine passes for 60 yards) and rushed for 22 yards and one touchdown against Ohio State.
PR/KR Brandon James -- Coach Urban Meyer was reluctant to sign James because of his size (5-foot-7) but relented after some pressure from co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and James' high school coach. An injury kept James out until the Gators' second game of the season, and he took the first kickoff he received 30 yards. The following week at Tennessee he was the Gators' No. 1 punt and kickoff returner. James nearly had two punt returns for touchdowns, but he was tripped by the punter as he was breaking free and had an 83-yard return called back because of a penalty. James eventually got his punt return touchdown (against Western Carolina) and averaged 11.0 yards on 33 punt returns and 18.2 yards on 21 kickoff returns that season. He was named a freshman All-American
CB Joe Haden -- Haden was a quarterback in high school who also played safety, but he moved to cornerback when he enrolled in January. He became the first true freshman to start at cornerback on opening day in school history and went on to start 12 games and earn freshman All-American honors. He made 63 tackles and broke up a team-high 12 passes.
OL Maurkice Pouncey -- Pouncey played in every game and started 11 games at right guard. He also took some snaps at center, which is where he would play as a sophomore and junior. He was named a freshman All-American.
OL/DL Mike Pouncey -- Because of several injuries on the defensive line, the coaching staff moved Pouncey to defensive tackle. Despite only having played on the defensive line in goal-line situations in high school, Pouncey ended up starting the final four games of the regular season there and made eight tackles and picked off one pass. Pouncey played in all 13 games (eight on offense).
CB Janoris Jenkins -- Jenkins became the second true freshman to start at cornerback on opening day in school history and went on to earn freshman All-American honors. He made 39 tackles, broke up 11 passes and had three interceptions -- including one against Tennessee in the end zone at the end of the first half. Jenkins also forced a fumble against the Vols that the Gators turned into a field goal.
RB Jeff Demps -- Demps' Olympic-caliber speed made him a big-play machine for the Gators as a freshman. He rushed for 605 yards and seven touchdowns, and five of those TDs were from at least 36 yards. Demps also blocked two punts and caught his only touchdown pass of the season against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
OL Xavier Nixon -- Nixon played in 10 games and started the last five at left tackle. He was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team by the league's coaches.
CB Marcus Roberson -- He started the first 10 games of the season before a season-ending neck injury. Roberson finished with 22 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery.
S De'Ante Saunders -- Saunders played in 12 games and made nine starts as a freshman, finishing with 26 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He took one of his interceptions back for a touchdown.
FB Hunter Joyer -- Joyer played in all 13 games with one start (Auburn) and played a big role in the Gators' rushing attack, which averaged 143.0 yards per game. He helped Chris Rainey and Demps combine to rush for 1,430 yards. Joyer also got 18 carries and rushed for 82 yards and two touchdowns.
DE Jonathan Bullard -- He played in 13 games (two starts) and made 27 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a team-high seven quarterback hurries.
Buck Dante Fowler -- Fowler played in 13 games (one start) and made 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
LB Antonio Morrison -- Morrison played in every game and made three starts (Kentucky, Vanderbilt and the Sugar Bowl) because of injuries to Jelani Jenkins. Morrison had 34 tackles, one sack, one quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. The fumble came against Florida State, when he hammered quarterback EJ Manuel and jarred the ball loose early in the fourth quarter. That turnover led to the Gators' go-ahead touchdown.
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