Gators open camp with group of players fighting injuries
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Gators officially reported for fall camp Thursday and they start practice Friday. Prior to Florida’s media day Thursday afternoon, coach Will Muschamp gathered his team for the first time in its new meeting room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
In the new surroundings Muschamp relied on an old message, pulling his "man down, man up" mantra out of his preseason playbook to set the tone for the start of camp.
The Gators will need to take the message to heart, at least in the early portion of camp.It was common knowledge prior to when Muschamp stepped to the podium Thursday that junior quarterback Jeff Driskel was going to miss the start of camp following an emergency appendectomy Tuesday.
But during his opening statement, Muschamp updated the status of other players who will be unavailable:
— Sophomore running back Matt Jones is out indefinitely due to what Muschamp called a "serious viral infection."
— Starting right guard Jon Halapio is out due to a partial tear of a pectoral muscle.
— Transfer Max Garcia, listed as the starter at left guard at the end of spring practice, is out due to back soreness. Garcia is scheduled to visit a back specialist Aug. 6 and hopes to be cleared.
— Sophomore linebacker Antonio Morrison, suspended from team activities for off-the-field issues over the summer, remains unavailable. "I'll let you know when he joins our football team," Muschamp said.
While it's not the ideal way to start camp, the Gators are confident that the absence of four projected starters won't disrupt their preparation for the Aug. 31 season opener against Toledo.
"It happens all the time during the season. The next guy's going have to step up," Driskel said. "That's the beauty of our team. We do have depth."
With Driskel sidelined, redshirt junior Tyler Murphy will take the first-team snaps early in camp. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Tyler Moore, a transfer from Nebraska, will work at left guard in Halapio's absence and redshirt junior Ian Silberman, who started two games at left guard last season, will replace Garcia.
With Moore projected to start at right tackle, redshirt junior Chaz Green will work at right tackle, where he made 10 starts a season ago. Halapio has started 27 consecutive games and will be re-evaluated Aug. 9 to see if he can return to full-contact drills.
Muschamp said there will be extra periods for the young players to adjust to their roles at the start of camp and that despite the rash of injuries he is determined to get camp off to a good start Friday.
"I worry about the things I can control and the guys that are on the field," he said. "We're going to coach them hard and we're going to have a good football team. I cannot wait for tomorrow."
The absence of Jones opens the door for redshirt junior Mack Brown, freshman Kelvin Taylor, the versatile Trey Burton and fullback Hunter Joyner in the run game.
Still, the Gators would like Jones to get back on the field as the primary replacement for Mike Gillislee, who became the program's first 1,000-yard rusher in eight years in 2012. Jones is a physical runner who has a nice combination of speed and size that defenses cannot ignore.
Muschamp said there is no timetable on Jones' return. The sophomore from Tampa rushed for 275 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a freshman.
"We’re a little uncertain in Matt's situation," Muschamp said. "[He] came down with this in the last four or five days, and right now, we're filling him full of antibiotics and how his body responds will tell me how quickly he can come back."
In Muschamp's second season, Florida overcame the loss of Driskel for a game due to injury, the absence the entire season of defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell to a knee injury, and other assorted ailments to turn a 6-6 regular season in 2011 into 11-1 in 2012.
They did it by buying into Muschamp's philosophy that every job is on the line each week and if injuries do take players out of the lineup, the next player on the depth chart must be ready.
"It takes a team to win," Brown said. "You have to have a guy who can fill in for the starter. You can never rely on too many of the same guys."
All the injury news Thursday wasn't bad.
Muschamp said freshman linebacker Alex Anzalone (shoulder), freshman linebacker Matt Rolin (knee) and Powell have all been cleared for contact. Meanwhile, reserve offensive lineman Trip Thurman (shoulder) and freshman defensive lineman Jordan Sherit (meniscus) could be cleared by mid-August.
Receiver Solomon Patton, who suffered a season-ending broken leg in last season's loss to Georgia, looked around the room at his teammates Thursday as he sat alone at a table.
Sure, the Gators could do without the injuries, but Patton likes the Gators' resolve too much to be too concerned. Eight come-from-behind wins a year ago showed this team's mental toughness.
"I just feel like it's a good chance for the young guys to make their way onto the depth chart to where they can play Aug. 31," Patton said. "Coach Muschamp is all about that."