Will Muschamp surprises pair of Gators walk-ons with scholarships

Wide receiver Michael McNeely (left) and kicker Frankie Velez were surprised with the news that they'll be on full scholarship this season.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If you happen to be at the Publix on 34th Street Sunday and see a short but stout young man bagging groceries, give that kid an "Atta Boy!"

It’ll be the second-best thing Michael McNeely received this weekend.

McNeely, a wide receiver, and placekicker Frankie Velez lived out childhood dreams Friday when Florida coach Will Muschamp announced after practice the two walk-on players would be placed on scholarship this season.

Immediately, the pair was mobbed by their teammates.

"I didn’t cry, but oh my gosh," an emotional McNeely said mere moments after he learned his tuition would be paid for. "I was overwhelmed there."

"It’s like the greatest day of my life," said Velez, who was hoisted into the air by a mob of a fellow Gators. "This is insane."

Not according to the UF coaching staff. McNeely and Velez have put their value on tape. And in games.

McNeely, a fourth-year junior from Clearwater, Fla., played in all 12 games last season on special teams and will be a key member of the kicking-game squads again. Velez, a fifth-year senior out of Ocala, Fla., went 6-for-8 on field goals and converted all six extra-point attempts in 2013 and is in a battle with Austin Hardin to be the team’s starting placekicker when the season opens Aug. 30 against Idaho.

Muschamp made it clear. This wasn’t a gift, but a reward.

"My favorite day of the year," said Muschamp, who tracked a similar path as a walk-on safety from Rome, Ga., in the early 1990s, eventually earning a scholarship at the University of Georgia. "Those guys certainly deserve it. They’ve put their time in and there’s nothing I enjoy more than giving a guy a scholarship. In life, it’s about earning respect and that shows you’ve proven yourself to your staff and to your teammates. This is a statement."

Is it ever.

Velez recalled his first visit to the UF football office after a decorated career at Ocala Trinity Catholic. He was told the chances of ever getting on the field for the Gators were 1 percent.

Now there’s a 99 percent chance he will play — and 100 percent on scholarship.

"My mom and dad have always given me what I needed, but it’s going to feel good this year to actually help them out with that — and not have to ask them for money," Velez said before leaving the field to call his mother with the news. "She’s going to freak out."

With the opener a week away, Muschamp gave the Gators the weekend off, with some players heading home to be with their families. Others will stay in town.

One is scheduled to work at Publix.

"If you come by Sunday afternoon," McNeely said, "I’ll be there."

He’ll be the one with the mile-wide grin.