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Chris Johnson

Former UF football player Chris Johnson (No. 32) died over the weekend in Pennsylvania. (File photo)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The cryptic tweets began to pop up on Twitter during Saturday night’s Gators-Tennessee basketball game.

None were from traditional media or bloggers who cover the Gators regularly.

A quick Twitter search of “Chris Johnson” and “Chris ‘Juice’ Johnson” discovered what appeared to be a small group of friends and former classmates of Johnson’s at Ocala Trinity Catholic High School sharing their sadness about his death.

No one seemed to have any details.

Chris Johnson

Sadly, shortly before midnight, the first news story appeared on Ocala.com, the website of Johnson’s hometown newspaper. The 22-year-old Johnson, who signed with the Gators in 2011 and played 26 games over the next two seasons -- primarily on special teams -- was dead.

Of course, it was shocking news. Life has barely begun at 22, and certainly not supposed to end.

Soon, the Ocala.com story began appearing on my timeline often as word spread. And then early Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette posted a story on its website that confirmed Johnson died on Friday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound according to the Alleghany County (Pa.) medical examiner’s office.

More stories surfaced on the Internet throughout the day Sunday spreading the news, and many current and former UF student-athletes reacted to the tragedy, sharing their memories of Johnson as detailed here by the Orlando Sentinel.

Johnson’s most meaningful moment at UF happened on Oct. 20, 2012. In Florida’s 44-11 victory over South Carolina at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with ESPN “GameDay” in town for the SEC East showdown, Johnson brought the sellout crowd to its feet.

Late in the second quarter South Carolina’s Damiere Byrd fielded a kickoff and returned it to the 16-yard line when Gators receiver Solomon Patton forced a fumble. Johnson scooped up the loose football at the 14 and raced toward the end zone.

As South Carolina’s Justice Cunningham gripped Johnson’s legs and brought him down to the turf, Johnson stretched every inch of his 5-foot-10 frame trying to get the football to break the goal line.

Johnson fell a yard short, but two plays later Jeff Driskel hit Jordan Reed for a 1-yard touchdown pass and 21-3 Florida lead that was never threatened.

The play was the first memory that flashed in my mind when I heard of Johnson’s death. The second was his big grin whenever I saw him around the locker room or at practice.

I won’t pretend to have known Johnson very well other than for a couple of  quick chats about topics I can’t recall, but it was obvious he was well-liked by his teammates and was a solid contributor on special teams in his two seasons.

His final game for the Gators was in the Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville in January 2013 when he was ejected for throwing a punch on an on-sides kickoff. It was a forgettable night for the Gators and an unfortunate moment for Johnson, who transferred to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for his final two seasons.

While the details of Johnson’s death remain scarce, somewhere along the path from his shining moment at UF to his death on a cold Pennsylvania day, Johnson apparently lost hope.

If you or anyone you know are in that same dark place, there is help available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers assistance 24/7, and Suicide.org is another good resource.

If you have lost hope, they can help.

The hope here is that the player his teammates and coaches simply referred to as “Juice” can rest in peace.

Sunday March 1, 2015 Tobias hits his way into UF record book

Updated: 11:43am, March 2

Josh Tobias

Senior Josh Tobias tied a school record Sunday with his eighth hit in eight at-bats. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At some point in Florida’s 6-2 win against Stony Brook on Sunday afternoon, Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan heard someone mention Josh Tobias’ prolific streak in the batter’s box.

O’Sullivan turned to the chatterbox with his own punch line.

“Say another word and you’re out of here,’’ O’Sullivan said.

In the superstitious world of baseball, the predominant thought is why risk jinxing a no-hitter or a hitter’s hot streak by talking about it.

Tobias had the kind of weekend in Florida’s three-game sweep of the Seawolves that fit the bill.

And it came after the senior third baseman wasn’t even in the starting lineup on Friday night.

Tobias went 5-for-5 in Saturday’s 14-3 victory, and on Sunday he tripled off the right-field wall his first at-bat and followed that up with a solo homer in the third. He flew out to right field in his final two at-bats Sunday.

That was after seven hits in seven at-bats. But wait. Tobias singled in his final at-bat Tuesday in a victory at Florida Atlantic. The 8-for-8 streak tied a school record for most consecutive hits, matching Kurt Keene’s mark from 16 years ago.

“I don’t know if I can remember an 8-for-8,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s remarkable.”

The performance raised Tobias’ season average to .409 and penciled him into the lineup when the Gators play at UCF on Tuesday night.

Tobias used the same approach in answering questions about eight consecutive hits as when he stepped to the plate.

“I wasn’t trying to do too much,’’ he said. “I was just trying to barrel the ball really and hit a line drive somewhere. I got some pitches up and put a good swing on them and they happened to go out, happened to find a gap. I kept it really simple.”

He was unaware of matching the record until someone told him after the game.

“That’s an honor,” he said. “It’s my last year here so it’s kind of nice to leave your name in the record books.”

One of only two seniors on the team, Tobias has played in 10 games and started five. He has always been above average with the glove, but inconsistent results at the plate have kept him out of the lineup at times during his UF career.

O’Sullivan said that will change if Tobias can produce regularly when he’s holding a bat.

“That was a weekend that Josh probably won’t ever forget,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He doesn’t have to have this type of weekend every weekend. Certainly Josh has put himself in a position to where we’ll keep him running out there.”

Saturday February 28, 2015 Sloan Fires Up Crowd in Home Debut, Nearly Pulls off a 10

Updated: 11:39am, February 28

Bridget Sloan

Bridget Sloan made a triumphant return to the O'Connell Center on Friday night. (Photo: Jim Burgess)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Bridget Sloan unveiled a different look on Friday night at the O’Connell Center.

She ditched the warm-up attire and bulky protective boot she had worn at previous home meets. Instead, Sloan was in her leotard and more importantly, back on the floor competing.

The junior All-American suffered a severely sprained right ankle in the Gators’ opening meet of the season at Ball State. So for the first two months of the season, she served as the team’s head cheerleader during home meets.

The role suited Sloan’s bubbly personality, but she had bigger things in mind.

“Competing at home is honestly one of my favorite things about college gymnastics,” she said. “Obviously the O’Dome has a very special place in my heart, but being back here and competing it was just incredible.”

Sloan returned to action a week ago at LSU, easing into the lineup on the bars. She made her home debut Friday night in Florida’s win over Kentucky and didn’t disappoint.

Once again competing only on bars, Sloan nailed a career-high-tying 9.975 to electrify the O’Dome crowd and provide the Gators with a jolt of energy as only she can.

“Her energy is so fun,’’ said teammate Rachel Spicer. “It keeps us light.”

The 2009 World Champion and arguably the biggest talent in college gymnastics, Sloan had doubts she would be able to return this season when she injured her ankle during the floor routine at Ball State in her native Indiana.

But intense physical therapy, daily workouts and twice-a-week acupuncture sessions has her reinvigorated as the back-to-back national champion Gators prepare for the stretch run toward the postseason.

In typical Sloan fashion, she was on a mission to make her home debut Friday night one worth remembering.

“I was really going for that 10,’’ Sloan said. “I kept telling everyone, ‘tonight is going to be the night; tonight is going to be the night.’ I guess it will have to wait. Either way, I was so happy with the way things went. I’ll take a 9.975 any day.”

The 9.975 was the fifth of her career on bars, the only event in which she has not scored a perfect 10 during her UF career.

Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn has seen enough since Sloan’s return to feel confident about her potential to provide the Gators a huge boost in the postseason.

The plan is for Sloan to continue to ease back into competition. She warmed up on beam Friday night and also practiced her floor routine before the meet started. Faehn expects Sloan to be ready for competition on beam perhaps as early as next week.

“That was a beautiful routine from Bridget. And it was nice to see her really going for the stick, which shows us that her ankle is getting stronger,” Faehn said. “It’s great having her doing more out on the competition floor.

“She is excited. she is motivated. I think this will only continue to help her.”

Sloan’s return can only help a Florida team that is a strong contender for a third consecutive national title. She has clearly turned her focus to the future instead of the challenges she faced in the wake of the most serious injury of her college career.

“I really didn’t know if I was going to be back at all,’’ Sloan said. “When I first injured myself at Ball State, I thought I was done for the season. Luckily my body is just really responsive to treatment. I can make the impossible possible if I believe I can. I definitely believe I can and my team believes I can. That’s what drives me, having my team behind me.”

Two months later, the impossible appears on the verge of turning into reality.

Faehn is ready for the mission to be complete.

“She has that competitive fire. She definitely wants to be out there doing everything as quickly as possible,” Faehn said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that she will be there.”

Friday February 27, 2015 Gators have packed on weight in trenches since end of last season

Updated: 4:17pm, February 27

Andrew Mike

Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Andrew Mike has added team-high 26 pounds. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s updated football roster reveals some significant weight gain among the offensive and defensive linemen.

The biggest gainer is redshirt freshman offensive lineman Andrew Mike, who was listed at 6-foot-6, 276 pounds last season. Mike now checks in at 302 pounds, a 26-pound boost for a young player the Gators hope to contribute in 2015.

Another redshirt freshman offensive lineman, Kavaris Harkless, is now listed at 292 pounds, adding 10 pounds to his 6-5 frame. Redshirt sophomore Cameron Dillard is now at 309 pounds, up from 297 pounds last season.

Redshirt offensive lineman Antonio Riles Jr., who is 6-foot-4, has added 17 pounds and is listed at 312 pounds. Meanwhile, sophomore David Sharpe, who played a year ago at 330 pounds, is now listed at 6-6, 350 pounds. Sharp is the heaviest player on the roster.

On the defensive line, redshirt freshman Taven Bryan is up to 275 pounds. He was listed at 6-5, 260 last season. Junior Joey Ivie, a member of the regular rotation last season, has increased his weight from 285 pounds to 293. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Thomas Holley has added eight pounds and now checks in at 6-3, 320 pounds.

Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who recorded 21 tackles in 12 games last season, has bulked up to 319 pounds, a 24-pound increase over his 6-2, 295-pound measurables from last fall.

Both early enrollees have benefited from Florida’s offseason conditioning program heading into spring practice. Freshman tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe has added 13 pounds and is now listed at 6-3, 225 pounds. Freshman receiver Kalif Jackson (6-4, 201) has added 10 pounds since he joined the program.

Overall, 10 scholarship players have added 10 or more pounds from a season ago, including redshirt freshman defensive back Deiondre Porter (from 165 to 176) and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Justus Reed (from 213 to 226).

Thursday February 26, 2015 UF President on athletics, Gators extend Nike deal, SEC coaching turnover, more tidbits

Updated: 10:39am, February 26

VIDEO: New UF President Kent Fuchs discusses role of athletics at a university such as Florida in this interview with WCJB-TV20 (around the 1:05 time stamp)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Hey folks, good Thursday morning to you.

Getting ready to write a feature on Gators gymnast Rachel Spicer and why tomorrow night’s home meet at the O’Connell Center has extra, extra meaning to her this year.

For now, here are some fresh links from around the World Wide Web with items of interest to Gator fans:

--UF recently extended its deal with Nike to be its official athletic supplier through 2024 writes Matthew Kish of the Portland (Ore.) Business Journal.

--Former UF standout Udonis Haslem, playing more in absence of Miami Heat teammate Chris Bosh, knows what Bosh is going through with blood clots on his lungs writes Shandel Richardson of South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Jim McElwain

Gators head coach Jim McElwain has a pretty good job according to ESPN.com. (File photo)

--ESPN.com writer Edward Aschoff ranks Florida’s head coaching job as the best in the SEC.

--Fans storming the court has always been unpopular with Gators AD Jeremy Foley writes Mike Bianchi of The Orlando Sentinel.

--David Morrison of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune has updated his SEC Coaching Staff Turnover chart to reflect football staff changes at each SEC school since 2001.

--D1Baseball.com writer Aaron Fitt filed this lengthy post with his impressions from the Miami-Florida series.

--Gators defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. on Giants’ radar writes Nick Powell of NJ.com.

--Who is Lynden Trail? SI.com writer Andy Staples explores that question regarding the former UF player who found success at Norfolk State.

--Former Gators defensive lineman Leon Orr discusses some of the tough questions he faced at the NFL Combine writes Landon Watnick of Rivals.com.

--Actor James Franco, one of the stars of the controversial film “The Interview,’’ spoke at UF on Wednesday night writes Cyanne Dunn of the Independent Florida Alligator.

 

🌴GATORS SELFIE🌴

A video posted by James Franco (@jamesfrancotv) onFeb 25, 2015 at 6:23pm PST

Tuesday February 24, 2015 UF Pro Day scheduled for April 7

Rob Ryan

New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan at last year's UF Pro Day. (File photo)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In preparation for the NFL Draft, nine Gators participated in the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last week.

They will have another opportunity to impress NFL scouts in familiar territory when UF hosts its annual Pro Day on April 7. Several UF players not invited to the combine are also expected to attend.

The annual event held at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium starts with players performing drills in the weight room and later includes an on-field workout.

Friday February 20, 2015 McElwain: 'I didn't come to have a participation ribbon, you know'

Updated: 7:47am, February 20

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Gators head coach Jim McElwain was interviewed by Chris Fischer of WTSP in the Tampa Bay market on Thursday.

McElwain discussed many of the same issues he already has in his two-plus months on the job, including the goal to modernize the program's infrastructure.

My favorite quote comes when McElwain is asked what has him convinced that the 2015 Gators can compete for the SEC East title.

"I didn’t come to have a participation ribbon, you know. I think everything you go out – no matter what you do in life – you go out to be the best and to win,'' he replied. "I try to approach every day just like that. You got to win the now, and the only way you win a championship is by getting better today.”

You can watch the entire interview in the video above.

Ryan Larson

Ryan Larson connects for one of Florida's six home runs in sweep of Rhode Island. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A recent headline in Baseball America magazine asked: Can new baseball revive longball?

The question headlined a story about the flat-seamed baseballs the NCAA approved to be used in competition this season. According to Baseball America, in testing done by the NCAA, flat-seam balls thrown at the same speed and struck with the same bat speed travel 15-20 feet farther than the raised-seam balls the NCAA had been using.

If the first weekend of the season is an accurate sample, the answer is a resounding “YES.”

The Gators can attest to that.

In a three-game sweep of Rhode Island to open the season, Florida scored 37 runs and hit six home runs. A year ago the Gators hit 26 home runs all season and didn’t connect for their sixth longball until the 21st game.

“I think the ball maybe has something to do with it,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan told reporters Saturday after a 22-3 rout in which the Gators hit four three-run homers. “I think you’re going to see as the season goes on that there’s going to be more offensive production. I didn’t know how much the ball was going to change it, but I knew it was going to change it some. Maybe it’s going to be a little more than we thought.”

Barry Allen, a longtime college baseball chronicler and a statistician and researcher for FOX Sports and ESPN, posted a tweet late Sunday night that garnered attention on social media.

According to Allen, in 41 games involving Southeastern Conference teams on the first weekend of the 2014 season, there were 21 home runs hit and an average of 6.6 runs per game. In 43 games to start the 2015 season, there were 34 home runs and 9.1 runs per game.

That’s a game-changer for a college game that had turned 180 degrees from the gorilla ball era of the 1990s that routinely featured 16-14 slugfests that more resembled softball contests in your uncle Chuck’s Tuesday night beer league.

The introduction of the new BBCOR (Batted-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bat in 2011 to improve player safety – the bats are designed to play more like wood bats – had a damaging effect on home runs. In records dating to 1970, teams averaged a record-low 0.39 home runs per game last season.

The Gators, after clubbing 75 home runs in 2012, only hit a combined 54 over the next two seasons. Part of that was a drop-off in offensive firepower, but the combination of the BBCOR bat and raised-seam ball certainly played a role.

The lack of power dampened some of the excitement around the game, including at spacious TD Ameritrade Park, which opened in 2011 and is home to the College World Series. In 29 games at the CWS over the past two seasons, only six home runs were hit – or the same number Florida hit in three games over the weekend.

A look around the SEC scoreboard this weekend revealed that McKethan Stadium wasn’t the only place balls were flying out of the park.

While the flat-seam ball used in college isn’t wound as tightly as the ones used in professional baseball, it has closed the gap between what college players once used and later had to adapt to in the minor leagues.

So what does the first weekend of the season mean? No one can say for sure this early, but the new flat-seam ball seems to have added hope back into the life of the longball, which appeared on the verge of extinction the past few seasons.

Florida baseball

The Florida baseball team opens the season with a three-game home series. (File photo)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gator sports calendar is full this weekend.

The UF baseball team opens the season at home Friday, the UF softball team hosts N.C. State in its home opener, the UF gymnastics team is at home against Missouri, the UF lacrosse team is home Saturday, the UF men’s golf team hosts the SunTrust Invitational, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams and track teams are on the road.

Did you get all that?

Here are some fresh links to help you get caught up:

--Gators lose heartbreaker on last-second shot to Ole Miss writes Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel.

--This is a couple of weeks old, but a good read on Gatorade’s 50th anniversary from Neil Amdur via Miami Herald.

--Gator gymnasts doing a good job of dealing with injuries writes Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun.

--Florida AD Jeremy Foley says facility upgrades will get done writes Robbie Andreu of the Gainesville Sun.

--The UF men’s golf team seeks a strong performance at SunTrust Invitational writes Ryan Summers of the Independent Florida Alligator.

--FightinGators.com writer Cody Jones previews the UF baseball team as it opens season this weekend.

--Freshman showcasing versatility for UF softball team writes Luis Torres of the Independent Florida Alligator.

--Plenty of coaching moves on the footballscoop.com news wire, including former USF quarterback Marquel Blackwell joining UF as a quality control assistant.

--Gators women’s basketball coach Amanda Butler impressed with way her team played in Thursday’s win at Georgia. Watch an SEC Network video interview here.

A look at new Gators DL coach Chris Rumph at work. (Video: Longhorn Network)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The newest addition to Jim McElwain's inaugural staff at UF, defensive line coach Chris Rumph, was on McElwain's radar from the moment he took over the Florida program.

The two worked together at Alabama in 2011 and developed a mutual respect for one another.

Rumph has a reputation as an excellent X's and O's coach and equally important, he is a proven recruiter who has deep ties in the Southeast after stops at Memphis, Clemson and Alabama.

While McElwain hired Terrell Williams to be his defensive line coach with Rumph having just completed his first season at Texas, when the Miami Dolphins convinced Williams to return to the NFL following his one-month stay at Florida, McElwain focused on hiring Rumph away from the Longhorns.

A deal was struck this week and on Friday, Florida officially announced the hiring of the 43-year-old Rumph.

In Texas, Rumph's departure was perceived as a big loss. In Florida, another victory for McElwain in the wake of a strong finish on National Signing Day on Wednesday.

"He joins a group of like-thinkers on our staff and is someone who will positively affect our players’ lives – both on and off the field,'' McElwain said.

It's understandable why Texas fans were disappointed in Rumph leaving. The Longhorns are in a similar situation as Florida, trying to rejoin the nation's elite after a leaner-than-normal stretch.

Both programs are 29-21 in their last 50 games, well below the expectations of their fan bases.

Like McElwain, Texas coach Charlie Strong knows Rumph is one of the country's top assistants. A year ago Strong hired Rumph away from Alabama after Rumph spent three years on Nick Saban's staff.

In his only season at Texas, Rumph played a critical role in accelerating the development of defensive lineman Malcolm Brown, who led the Longhorns with 15 tackles for loss and 6 1/2 sacks last season. He is projected as a first-round draft pick by most analysts following his breakout senior season under the tutelage of Rumph.

Rumph also played a significant role in a strong Texas recruiting class, which ranked the best in the Big 12 Conference on Wednesday. Rumph served as the chief recruiter for Texas signees Du’Vonta LampkinDeShon ElliottQuincy Vasser and Charles Omenihu.

Rumph inherits a defensive line at Florida that includes Jonathan Bullard, Alex McCalister, Bryan Cox Jr., Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie among regulars in the rotation a season ago.

Rumph has talent to work and a proven track record of producing results. In addition, Rumph has SEC playing experience, which never hurts in trying to connect with young players. Rumph was a four-year letterman at South Carolina and was a sophomore in 1992 when the Gamecocks joined the SEC.

That's a win-win combination for the Gators.

*****

Needless to say, it's been an interesting couple of days after Wednesday's National Signing Day. You folks know why. As an employee of the University Athletic Association, I am not permitted to write about recruits until they are officially signed.

Want to get that out there for those of you who have emailed with questions. As of now, Florida's 2015 signing class includes 20 players, including a pair of early enrollees in tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe and receiver Kalif Jackson.

Under the circumstances, McElwain and his staff deserve a tremendous amount of credit for salvaging what was a minimal-impact class a month ago and turn it into a top 25 class.

Jim McElwain

Florida coach Jim McElwain discusses the Gators' haul on National Signing Day. (Photo: Tim Casey)

SportsIllustrated.com ranked Florida as one of the "winners" on National Signing Day, and they weren't the only ones. SBNation.com writer Andy Hutchins, who writes about Florida for AlligatorArmy.com, offered more insight into a class that came together late, but came together nicely.

Of the 20 players currently signed, 14 played offense in high school, including a pair of players listed as athletes -- D'Anfernee McGriff from Tallahassee Lincoln and Kylan Johnson of Skyline High in Texas.

With an offensive background, McElwain has a lot of new weapons as he revamps that side of the ball, although there is always the potential for position changes as coaches begin to evaluate the team's needs and each player's strengths through spring practice and fall camp when the newcomers arrive.

The biggest takeaway McElwain offered was how the program built much-needed momentum.

"We still have a couple of [scholarships] that we will hold for some possible late additions as we move forward, and then obviously look for guys in next year's class as we get into possible early enrollees,'' he said. "We are already looking towards the 2016 class. That was kind of the plan going in. I thought we executed our plan very well.

"And you know what, there are a lot of positive things for the Gators."

*****

With the departure of Jeff Driskel to Louisiana Tech, Florida currently has three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster: Treon Harris, Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg.

The Gators would like to add at least one more. While they didn't sign a quarterback on Wednesday, there is always the possibility of a late addition or transfer over the summer.

Two quarterbacks the Gators tried to swing in recruiting, Lamar Jackson (Louisville) and Deondre Francois (Florida State), opted to honor their original commitments.

Still, McElwain had no need for a Kleenex.

"I really feel good about our quarterbacks,'' he said. "Obviously it's a position you recruit every year. You don't settle. You try and go out and get what there is. There may be some that are still out there as this kind of goes forward."

*****

In an off-the-record, get-to-know-you meeting with Florida beat reporters last month McElwain may have become the first Gators football coach to promote the mindset of a British economist who has been dead for more than 70 years.

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes once championed the thought that "the difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones.”

McElwain called on the knowledge of Keynes once again this week in an interview with Pat Forde of Yahoo.com in a story about his quest to rebuild the Gators.

In his short time on campus, it's obvious McElwain arrived with a plan that he strongly believes in and one he is confident will produce the kind of success the Gators are accustomed to.

*****

Offensive lineman Tyler Jordan (6-foot-4, 275 pounds) out of Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville earned a special distinction when he committed to the Gators soon after McElwain took over the program.

Imatorbhebhe was the first player to commit to McElwain and enrolled in school soon afterward. Meanwhile, Jordan became perhaps the Gators' most prominent recruiter on social media among commitments, promoting the program and the new coaching staff to other players over the past month.

"I've got to tell you, Tyler, Kalif, Bhe-Bhe, those young guys were the first to jump in,'' McElwain said. "Those guys were fantastic. And Tyler, in particular, he was real positive on his visit that he made up here and did a good job of staying in touch. They were recruiting teammates."

*****

They work behind the scenes but play as vital a role in recruiting as the coaching staff.

Drew Hughes, Florida's director of player personnel under former head coach Will Muschamp, and Kevin Barbay, the former director of player personnel under McElwain at Colorado State, received some public recongnition from McElwain this week.

"I thought Drew did a really good job,'' McElwain said. "He's a guy that was able to hold it together. We were able to add Kevin [too]."

Kevin Barbay

Barbay (photo, left) comes to Florida after a season at Colorado State. Prior to that, Barbay spent two seasons as receivers coach at Lamar and two years as athletics director/football coach at Warren (Texas) High.

As McElwain continues to revamp the program from the inside out, building a deeper player personnel department is one of the goals.

"We are still in the process of adding some people that have a lot of experience in those areas that are going to help us,'' he said. "That's part of the infrastructure change that we are getting ready to make."

*****

QUOTE OF NOTE: "The guy is a great ball coach and he had obviously some insights that I'm sure they were able to use. Yet, it's never about anybody else. It's about what we have and who we are. We are very secure in that and know we are going to move forward and be successful in what we are trying to accomplish.'' -- McElwain on impact of recruiting against Muschamp, now defensive coordinator at Auburn

Friday February 6, 2015 Nine Gators invited to NFL Combine later this month

Updated: 10:39am, February 12

Dante Fowler and Matt Jones

Dante Fowler Jr. (left) and Matt Jones are two of nine Gators invited to NFL Combine.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The NFL Scouting Combine is scheduled Feb. 17-23 in Indianapolis and on Friday the official list of invitees was released. 

Nine Gators are among the more than 300 players invited to participate in the most critical pre-draft event. The combine will be broadcast extensively on NFL Network. UF's nine invitees ranks fourth among all schools nationally.

Linebacker Neiron Ball, punter Kyle Christy, offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, running back Matt Jones, center Max Garcia, offensive lineman Trenton Brown, offensive lineman Chaz Green, defensive lineman Leon Orr and defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. are on the official list of invitees.

Receiver Andre Debose, offensive lineman Tyler Moore, linebacker Michael Taylor, defensive lineman Darious Cummings, receiver Quinton Dunbar, running back Mack Brown and defensive back Jabari Gorman are among the group of Florida regulars not on the invitation list to the combine.

Those players will have an opportunity to perform in front of NFL scouts at Florida’s Pro Day at a date yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, Humphries is one of four players (Fowler, Moore and Jones) to forego their final year of eligibility to enter the draft. While some questioned if he was ready, at least one NFL analyst thinks Humphries is a first-round pick.

Thursday February 5, 2015 National Signing Day a Big Hit with Gator Fans

Updated: 11:28am, February 6

Information Compiled by the UAA Communications Staff.

The Florida football team had a successful signing day on Wednesday, picking up several important pieces to add to the roster as head coach Jim McElwain and his staff continue preparations for the 2015 season.

With all the excitement throughout the day, as evidenced by a quadrupling of traffic on GatorZone.com from a year ago, National Signing Day is a great event for Gator fans to follow on social media as decisions are being announced. To illustrate that, we've compiled some data from our various social media accounts to see how powerful the impact of today's social media can be.

As announcements were being made on Wednesday, the first official announcements were made from Coach McElwain's personal twitter account (@CoachMcElwain). Shortly after, the official football twitter account, @GatorZoneFB, announced each signing with a personalized graphic welcome each new Gator.

For the day, the @GatorZoneFB account made a total of 52 posts that were posted over 1.2 million Twitter users. For comparison, that figure is higher than seven game days from the fall. The posts totaled over 92,000 engagements, a 7.4 percent engagement rate, which is higher than any single game day from the 2014 season.

@GatorZoneFB By the Numbers

1.2 million

Overall Impressions

7.2%

Engagement Rate

6.7K

Link Clicks

6.1K

Favorites

4.1K

Retweets

In addition, the @GatorZoneNews twitter account had a total reach of nearly 750,000 for the 12-hour time span of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

The keywords “Florida Gators” had an even bigger impact, with a potential reach of 11.9 million and over 38,000 mentions. The conversation surrounding “Florida Gators” was 61% positive as measured through social media analytic software.

With the help of social media analytic software, we are able to track the conversation surrounding certain hashtags and keywords for a given time period. The #Gators15 hashtag, created to centralize the conversation around Florida's signing day, totaled nearly 6,600 mentions and had a potential reach of 4.1 million. The conversation had peaks at different points throughout the day, as illustrated by the tweet below.

 

The image in the above tweet seemed to be the hit of the day with Gator fans, as highly-touted offensive lineman Martez Ivey signed his letter of intent to play for the Gators in the fall.

The official announcement of Ivey's signing from @GatorZoneFB produced the single tweet with the highest reach of the day at over 61,000 impressions.The tweet and graphic welcoming Ivey to the Gators' signing class also had the most retweets (477) and favorites (568) of any post on the day.

 

We also found out that The Gator Nation enjoys some light-hearted fun. The tweet below, sent at 2:22 p.m. after Florida had just received official confirmation of several commitments, had the highest number of engagements of any post on the day at nearly 12,000.

An engagement includes any interaction with a single tweet, including clicks anywhere on the Tweet (hashtags, links, avatar, username and Tweet expansion), retweets, replies, follows and favorites. With an overall reach of over 60,000 for the below tweet, the engagement rate of around 20 percent was astoundingly high. 

Dan Quinn

Former UF defensive coordinator Dan Quinn introduced as Atlanta's head coach today. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Former Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was dressed in his usual dark attire on Tuesday, but this time the threads were more expensive than his preferred black shirts at Florida.

Decked out in a black suit and wearing a red and black striped tie, Quinn was introduced as new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Quinn finished a two-year stint as Seattle’s defensive coordinator on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX.

“So fired up to be here,’’ Quinn told the audience at his introductory press conference. “The ending [of the Super Bowl] was as difficult and hard as it could be, but I knew the next day I was going to have an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Quinn spent two seasons at Florida as Will Muschamp’s defensive coordinator from 2011-12.

He left shortly after Florida’s loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl in January 2013 to replace Gus Bradley, hired as Jacksonville’s head coach, in Seattle.

A veteran assistant with more than 20 years of experience, this is Quinn’s first head-coaching job.

“It was the leadership challenge that you’re after,’’ he said. “It was that challenge that it was gong to take to run an entire football team. This one was the best fit for me.”

Quinn has been linked to several NFL vacancies the past two seasons, but with Seattle playing in the Super Bowl each year, teams opted to go in another direction.

The Falcons waited and Quinn wants to bring the same kind of attitude to Atlanta that he brought to his other stops.

“One of our goals here, we’re going to try and bet the best fundamental team in football,’’ he said “I certainly want to be involved on the defensive side. The brand of football we’re going to play is fast and physical.”

Quinn announced his Atlanta coaching staff on Tuesday, retaining defensive line coach Bryan Cox, the father of Florida junior defensive lineman Bryan Cox Jr.

Quinn is the first former Gators head coach or assistant coach to be an NFL head coach since Chan Gailey led the Bills from 2010-12. A former UF player, Gailey started his coaching career as a UF graduate assistant in 1974 and also was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys for two seasons (1998-99).

Other former Florida coaches to serve as head coaches in the NFL include Steve Spurrier (Redskins, 2002-03), Lindy Infante (Packers, 1988-91; Colts, 1996-97), Mike Shanahan (Raiders, 1988-89; Broncos, 1995-2008; Redskins, 2010-13), and John Rauch (Raiders, 1966-68; Bills, 1969-70).

Meanwhile, former UF player Mike Mularkey was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012.

Jim McElwain

Gators head coach Jim McElwain has player ties in Super Bowl XLIX. (File photo)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Since Super Bowl I 48 years ago at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Gators have usually been represented in the biggest sporting event of the year.

In that very first Super Bowl between Green Bay and Kansas City, former UF punter/kicker Don Chandler was part of Green Bay’s 35-10 victory over the Chiefs. He was back a year later in Green Bay’s 33-14 win over Oakland in Super Bowl II.

Chandler’s four field goals against the Raiders still stand as the most ever in a Super Bowl, tied by San Francisco kicker Ray Wersching in Super Bowl XVI at the now-decrepit Pontiac Silverdome.

Logo

A year ago in Seattle’s 43-8 rout of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, former UF star Percy Harvin turned Florida fans nostalgic when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

In Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIX between Seattle and New England, the only former UF player on either roster is defensive tackle Dominique Easley, the Patriots’ first-round draft pick.

Easley played in 11 games this season and started two, recording 10 tackles and an interception before New England shut him down so he could further rehabilitate a knee injury he suffered as a senior at UF. He is currently on injured reserve.

However, there are plenty more UF connections in the game, including a trio of Seattle assistants, most prominently Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Quinn was Florida’s defensive coordinator in 2011-12 and is heading to Atlanta to become the Falcons’ head coach after the Super Bowl.

Former UF defensive back Marquand Manuel is a defensive assistant for Seattle and Will Harriger, a graduate assistant at UF in 2012-13, is in his first season as an offensive assistant with Seattle.

Meanwhile, Florida’s new coaching staff is well-represented in this year’s Super Bowl.

Head coach Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, associate head coach Randy Shannon, strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Kent, offensive line coach Mike Summers and defensive line coach Terrell Williams all have former pupils in the game.

Thanks to research by Florida football sports information director Dan Apple, a look at those connections:

Player                    Team                    Pos.        Connection

Ryan Wendell       Patriots                  OL           McElwain was Fresno State’s OC his senior season in 2007

Vince Wilfork        Patriots                  DL           Shannon was Miami’s defensive coordinator while he was at UM

Deontae Skinner  Patriots                  DL           Practice-squad player coached by Collins at Mississippi State

Darrelle Revis      Patriots                  DB          Kent was strength coach at Pittsburgh when Revis was there

Cliff Avril               Seahawks             DL           Williams was his position coach at Purdue

Alvin Bailey           Seahawks            OL           Summers coached him at Arkansas his redshirt freshman season

James Carpenter Seahawks             OL           McElwain was OC at Alabama during his career

Jermaine Kearse Seahawks             WR          Nussmeier was OC at Washington his final three seasons

Kevin Norwood    Seahawks             WR          McElwain and Nussmeier served as OC at Alabama in his career

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The UF women’s basketball team hosts Missouri tonight in search of a second consecutive win. The gymnastics team hosts Georgia on Friday night, and on Saturday the men’s basketball team welcomes Arkansas to the O’Connell Center.

Meanwhile, baseball and softball seasons are right around the corner and National Signing Day is Feb. 4.

To help you keep up, here are some fresh links from around the Internet:

--In its position-that-needs-improvement series, ESPN.com writer Ed Aschoff writes that position is quarterback for the Gators.

--Chris Walker shows signs of promise in Alabama writes Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun.

--Return of guard Carlie Needles and win over Arkansas encouraging for Gators writes Graham Hall of the Independent Florida Alligator.

--Freshman Alex McMurtry producing for UF gymnastics despite back pain writes Graham Hack of the Independent Florida Alligator.

--Cody Jones of FightinGators.com provides some baseball scrimmage observations with Florida preparing for Feb. 13 opener against Rhode Island.

--CBSSports.com columnist Dennis Dodd ranks offseason coaching hires in college football.

--Former UF receivers coach Joker Phillips resurfaces as next receivers coach of Cleveland Browns writes Tom Reed of Clevland.com.

--Gators lefty Delanie Gourley has room to grow in sophomore season writes Luis Torres of the Independent Florida Alligator.

--Former UF quarterback Tim Tebow showed off his golfing skills Wednesday writes Kevin Zimmerman of FOXSportsArizona.com.

--Former Gators standout Al Horford, whose Atlanta Hawks have won a franchise-record 17 consecutive games, sees some similarities with the back-to-back champion Florida teams he played on.

Orange & Blue Debut

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There are more details to be finalized, but mark your calendar for April 11.

That is the date of the annual Orange & Blue Debut spring game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Kickoff time and other details will be announced in the coming weeks.

This will be the first spring game for new Gators head coach Jim McElwain, who was introducted as the 25th head coach in school history in early December.

Marcus Maye

As part of its National Signing Day coverage, ESPN will report from UF on Feb. 4. (File photo)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Two behemoths in the modern-day sports landscape – ESPN and National Signing Day – will be dominating the airwaves on Feb. 4.

ESPN logo

ESPN announced Tuesday plans to televise 11 hours of National Signing Day across its various network platforms, including live coverage from 14 campuses.

One of those is Florida.

ESPN reporter Laura Rutledge, a UF graduate, returns to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day Special. The reporters will also provide regular updates on “SportsCenter.”

Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Southern California, Tennessee, Texas and Texas A&M are the other campuses ESPN will report live from on National Signing Day.

Monday January 26, 2015 Butler hopeful Gators can parlay Sunday's much-needed victory into something more

Updated: 5:24pm, January 26

Gators

The UF women's basketball team is fighting to finish strong down the stretch. (Photo: Jim Burgess)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Amanda Butler woke up Sunday morning and headed to the O’Connell Center for a rare noon tipoff against Arkansas.

Outside, a beautiful day. The same could be said of inside the O’Dome for the first time in three weeks.

The Gators women’s basketball team snapped a four-game losing streak with a 72-58 victory against the Razorbacks, earning Butler her 150th victory as Florida’s head coach.

The Gators pulled back even with .500 (10-10, 2-5 SEC) in a much-needed victory over an Arkansas team that, like Florida, has struggled in conference play.

Amanda Butler

In her eighth season at her alma mater, Butler has led Florida to the postseason every year (three NCAA trips, four WNIT berths). However, that streak appears in jeopardy as the Gators prepare to host Missouri on Thursday.

Florida has nine regular-season games remaining and five of those are against teams currently ranked in the Top 25.

Nothing has been easy this season, and nothing will be down the stretch.

The Gators are 10th in the SEC, ahead of only Arkansas (1-6), Missouri (1-6), Alabama (1-6) and Auburn (0-6) in the league standings.

On paper Missouri looms as a good shot at victory for Florida, but when the teams met Jan. 11 in Columbia, the Tigers won their only SEC game of the season, 66-47.

Florida shot 23 percent (14 of 61), including 6 of 32 in the second half after holding a slim 24-22 halftime lead.

The Gators needed a win in the worst way Sunday and they got one. It was as if the fog finally lifted and the sun splashed down on Butler’s team.

“It’s always important to win games for various reasons, obvious ones your record and positioning and those sort of things,’’ she said Monday. “You can work really, really hard, but at the end of it all, getting the win and experiencing success in that black-and-white objective column is sometimes more powerful than some of those other ideas that we try to make important.

“I think it puts us in a great place mentally.”

The short-term goal now is to still be in that place when they walk out of the O’Dome on Thursday night.

Mike Holloway

Florida track coach Mike Holloway builds his teams around strong relay squads. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The NCAA Indoor Track & Field National Championships are not until March 13-14 at the University of Arkansas.

A lot can happen between now and then. Still, as early favorites go in the 4x400 relays, the Gators men’s and women’s teams made loud statements over the weekend at the Rod McCravy Memorial in Lexington, Ky.

First, the UF women’s 4x400 relay team of Robin Reynolds, Destinee GauseKyra Jefferson and Claudia Francis set a new school record with a time of 3:29.58, which is the best time in the NCAA and world so far in 2015. The mark was the 12th-fastest all-conditions indoor time and just the 14th sub-3:30 mark in collegiate history in the process.

“I thought we could run fast, but I didn’t necessarily think we would run that fast,’’ Florida head coach Mike Holloway said Monday. “They’re four very talented young ladies. They’ve been there before.”

The Florida men’s 4x400 team of Najee GlassHugh Graham, Jr.Nick Uruburu and Gino Hall made history too, setting a new Nutter Fieldhouse record with a NCAA- and world-leading 3:04.22.

The McCravy Memorial is an early season meet that featured 15 teams, including 12 ranked in the Top 25.

Holloway got a better gauge of where the Gators stand heading into the heart of the indoor season. The impressive relay performances were an added bonus.

“We are never surprised when we run fast relays,’’ he said. “I tell people this all the time I don’t think there is anybody that looks at what we do and goes, ‘wow, I can’t believe Florida did that.’ We have a very talented group of people here. The relays are a staple of what we. We build our team from the relays out.”

That could mean trouble for the rest of the field in March. The Gators are ranked No. 1 in both the men’s and women’s poll. If the Gators go on to bigger and better things the rest of the season, they will look back at the McCravy as a sign of what was to come.

“There was kind of a championship feel to the meet,” Holloway said. “I think that’s why you saw our athletes step up the way they did. They knew coming in that it was going to be a great meet.”

Trenton Brown

Gators offensive lineman Trenton Brown certainly has the size to play in the NFL. (Photo: Tim Casey)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For the past two seasons Max Garcia and Trenton Brown were stalwarts on Florida’s offensive line.

Today at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Garcia and Brown are teammates on the North Team as they try to improve their stock in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators.

Max Garcia

Voted Florida’s Offensive MVP in 2014, Garcia (photo, left) transferred from Maryland and developed into the Gators’ most consistent offensive lineman the past two seasons. He moved to center as a senior and performed admirably considering he had never played the position.

In an interview with 247Sports.com this week, Garcia said he has faced questions about where he sees himself playing after moving to center as a senior.

“Teams are asking me where I feel most comfortable playing,’’ he said. “I’ve been playing center for a year, and I just like having the ball in my hand and being able to direct offensive linemen on the calls before the snap.”

Meanwhile, Brown transferred to Florida from Georgia Military College in 2013 and split time between starting and filling a reserve role. Brown’s size -- he measured 6-foot-8, 376 pounds this week in Mobile -- has draw attention from scouts and media this week.

Brown told 247Sports.com this week that his size -- and work ethic -- have been a topic in his interviews with teams.

“In my interviews, a lot of times the word ‘lazy’ had come up,’’ Brown said. “I’m not lazy. I’m just even-keeled, chill guy. I don’t get too high or too low.”

The Senior Bowl is at 4 p.m. today and will be shown live on the NFL Network.

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