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Freshmen such as Jarrad Davis (No. 40) and Vernon Hargreaves III (No. 1) have earned playing time and respect.

Monday November 18, 2013Freshmen Faces: Gators Turn to Newcomers to Fill Void

Freshmen such as Jarrad Davis (No. 40) and Vernon Hargreaves III (No. 1) have earned playing time and respect.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – With the regular season down to two games and a lineup depleted by several well-documented injuries, the Gators are relying on more young players in key roles than they ever expected.

Two more freshmen were asked to contribute in a significant way in Saturday’s 19-14 loss at South Carolina: starting quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg and linebacker Jarrad Davis.

Mornhinweg made his first career appearance and finished 10 of 13 for 107 yards. The only blemish on Mornhinweg’s performance was an interception on Florida’s final drive when the redshirt freshman from Philadelphia was asked to lead the Gators on a game-winning drive.

Skyler Mornhinweg

His inexperience showed on the interception to Jimmy Legree with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the game. As Mornhinweg (photo, left) rolled away from pressure, he tried to force a pass into coverage on first-and-10 from South Carolina’s 48-yard line.

“I thought he would manage the game very well because of who he is, and he did,’’ Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “I’ve got confidence that Skyler can go out and execute our offense very well.”

Meanwhile, with starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison out for the season after knee surgery, Davis was a regular at linebacker Saturday. He finished with five tackles, including one for loss.

A 6-foot-2, 226-pound true freshman from Kingsland, Ga., Davis has played mostly on special teams but has progressed to earn more defensive snaps.

Davis made his biggest play of the season with the Gators nursing a one-point lead. When South Carolina opted to go for it on fourth-and-3 from UF's 43 early in the fourth quarter -- Florida led 14-13 -- Davis (photo, right) chased down Gamecocks running back Mike Davis along with teammate Brian Poole to give Florida the ball.

“He really has played well,’’ Muschamp said Monday. “He made a huge play on fourth down [Saturday]. He’s an explosive young man. He’s very smart. He’s probably been our most productive special-teams player. Everything we’ve put him in, he’s been productive.”

Mornhinweg was the 20th freshman to make his UF debut this season – 12 true freshmen and eight redshirt.

The most notable freshman has been cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who has made eight starts and has a team-high three interceptions and nine pass break-ups. Hargreaves was ranked the second best freshman in the country (true or redshirt) behind Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston recently by Athlon Sports.

Jarrad Davis

While playing this many freshmen was not necessarily the plan, it has become a necessity due to the wave of injuries.

“A lot of times, playing as a freshman comes down to maturity,’’ Muschamp said. “You look at the guys that are really contributing a lot for us -- they’re all very mature guys. They all work hard. They come to practice every day. They’re accountable for what they do and how they handle themselves.”

Muschamp said he looks at primarily two factors when deciding to play freshmen: first, game-ready ability, and second, need for the team which often creates unexpected opportunities.

Hargreaves and Davis, like defensive linemen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard a year ago, earned playing time because they came in ahead of the learning curve because of their natural ability. Meanwhile, players like freshman running back Kelvin Taylor and Mornhinweg are playing key roles primarily because of key injuries to others.

Taylor (96 yards on 21 carries Saturday) has really come on since starting tailback Matt Jones was lost for the season due to a knee injury, and Mornhinweg got on the field after starting quarterback Jeff Driskel suffered a season-ending knee injury and his backup, Tyler Murphy, was unable to play against the Gamecocks on Saturday due to a shoulder injury.

Mornhinweg took the field Saturday night with the same mentality he did in high school, relying on his smarts and confidence developed over the years as the son of a veteran coach, New York Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

Muschamp said the plan heading into Saturday’s home game against Georgia Southern is for Mornhinweg to take first-team snaps and if Murphy is able to practice later in the week, then re-evaluate the situation then.

“I’m confident in my abilities and I’m confident in the coaches’ game plan, so whatever they want to run out there we’ll execute it and I think we’ll have a shot to win,’’ Mornhinweg said Monday. “You’ve always gotta go out there thinking you’re gonna by the guy.”

Following Saturday’s game, Gators starting center Jonotthan Harrison said Mornhinweg showed no signs of being overwhelmed on the biggest stage of his young career.

“He was very composed,’’ Harrison said. “He kept great poise throughout the entire game no matter what adversity was hitting him. That shows maturity from him at the quarterback position. Some people may tank if things go wrong or your head starts spinning with all the adversity, but he actually kept cool, calm and collected.”

Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease devised a run-heavy game plan to take some of the pressure off Mornhinweg against a Gamecocks defense featuring Jadeveon Clowney, considered the likely No. 1 pick in next April’s NFL Draft.

While Murphy is listed day-to-day and could start against Georgia Southern, Mornhinweg is taking a veteran approach.

Asked if he thinks he can earn more playing time than one start, Mornhinweg answered “definitely.”

“I think I’m ready,’’ he said. “I’m going to go out there and play to the best of my ability. I feel like I can prove something out there on the field.”

Mornhinweg is not alone. Several other freshmen have done the same this season, a ray of hope during Florida’s most difficult season in more than 30 years.

 

FRESHMEN FACES

A look at the 20 UF freshmen to make their career debuts for the Gators in 2013:

Redshirt freshmen: QB Skyler Mornhinweg, TE Colin Thompson, DB Marcus Maye, LB Alex McCalister, LB Jeremi Powell*, K Austin Hardin, DL Bryan Cox Jr., FB Rhaheim Ledbetter

True freshmen: RB Kelvin Taylor, LB Alex Anzalone, LB Jarrad Davis, DB Nick Washington*, WR Ahmad Fulwood, WR Chris Thompson, WR Demarcus Robinson, DL Joey Ivie, LB Daniel McMillian, DB Keanu Neal, P Johnny Townsend, DB Vernon Hargreaves III

*Injured, out for season

 

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