Florida football’s orange and blue game may have had many memorable moments in the past, but the bar isn’t particularly high when it comes to the recent history of the Gators’ annual end-of-camp scrimmage. of spring.
Prior to the two-year gap in the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, former coach Dan Mullen used ex-players – and pranked Georgia’s expense with attendance numbers – at every spring game during his tenure.
It may not have been the most beneficial use of Florida’s limited training window, but it was entertaining nonetheless, and it was a sign that Mullen respected the players who helped make the program. of Florida what it has become.
And at least the event happened. As many remember, Florida head coach who preceded Mullen, Jim McElwain, had a much harder time in his first round in Gainesville when it came time to organize a scrimmage for the home crowd. .
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The Gators lost all of their starters along the offensive line at the end of the 2014 season, leaving the team with eight scholarship offensive linemen, six of whom were fully healthy. It wasn’t the era of the NCAA transfer portal either – there wasn’t much the Gators could do except rely on available players, as well as several extras that made up the squad. scouts. Help was on the way in the form of six first-year offensive linemen, including Apopka’s highly touted five-star prospect Martez Ivey, though that provided little solace at the time. The Gators moved Antonio Riles from the defensive line to the offensive line, a move that proved to be sound early on.
Throughout spring training 2015, Florida offensive line coach Mike Summers joked that he could barely watch when the team’s offensive linemen found themselves at the bottom. of a game, knowing that another injury could lower the team cap even further, as well as spell the end of UF’s hopes of staging a public scrimmage in mid-April.
“Every time there’s a stack, I turn around and look the other way, and then I look at the huddle,” Summers said. “With the numbers as they are, we will assess and review every opportunity.”
Following much uncertainty throughout spring training in 2015, the Gators announced that a spring game would actually take place two days later, even though the offensive line had to change jerseys mid-game.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the construction drama overshadowed Florida’s two-hour scrimmage this Saturday, and it’s now a reminder of just how far things went in Billy Napier’s first orange and blue game with the program. UF. .
Napier almost immediately increased depth along the offensive line, ensuring the game — and Florida’s ability to execute its offense in 2022 — would be beyond doubt.
O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites join the Gators
The Gators brought in a pair of offensive linemen from Louisiana in O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites to bolster a unit tasked with replacing a pair of starters from last season’s team in Jean Delance and Stewart Reese. The two often stood out, in more ways than one.
“Kam is a monster. Kam is, he’s a great guy. I thought we had big dudes with, you know, Stone and Des, but Kam is like those two put together,” UF offensive lineman Ethan White said of Waites, a freshman in a shirt. red who weighs 6 feet 8 inches and 358 pounds. “He is massive. He can also move. He is weird.
Napier also prioritized the position when it came to his coaching staff, opting to hire two offensive line coaches with significant NFL experience in Rob Sale and Darnell Stapleton.
After 13 spring workouts, weekly visits and an abundance of meetings, Florida’s offensive line room under Napier is now a far cry from what the room looked like in the not-so-distant past.
“It’s a hard-working group. As you walk in you always try to feel a group going out. These guys, they put their heads down, they go to work,” Stapleton said of Florida’s offensive line. “They want to be pushed, they want to be challenged, and that’s what we love about them.”
Not taking anything away from Florida student-athletes, but Stapleton said the unit’s play was a reflection of the coach’s position. It’s a trickle down effect in a sense, from a Super Bowl winner to those hoping to win one of their own.
“Every day, we come and we set a tone and a tempo. I think our attitude as coaches rubs off on them: no-nonsense. We’re going to try to be bullies the right way, to be physical from the start,” Stapleton said, “and these guys, they’ve taken on the challenge of being healthy both mentally and physically. So I’ve enjoyed working with these guys so far.
He knows what it takes to succeed against all odds.
Darnell Stapleton joined the Steelers in 2007
Stapleton joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007 as an undrafted free agent, although he was inactive in every game of his rookie season despite being on the active roster of 53 players. Stapleton was again a reserve in his first four games of his second NFL season, but injuries are common in football, and soon the starting player ahead of Stapleton at right guard, Kendall Simmons, was lost for the season. , which put the Steelers’ competitive hopes in jeopardy.
Stapleton stepped in and started the final 12 games of the regular season, as well as all of the team’s first two playoff games to reach Super Bowl XLIII. There, Stapleton helped the Steelers to a four-point victory over the Arizona Cardinals in a game ranked No. 1 by NFL Network in the network’s “Top 10 Super Bowls” program.
It wasn’t the path he dreamed for himself – a knee injury ended Stapleton’s playing career a few months later – but it was worth it nonetheless.
“It was a road most don’t take as an undrafted free agent. Making a roster as an undrafted free agent is not the way most offensive linemen do it,” he said. “But I was very lucky and blessed to take advantage of the opportunities that were given to me. And when you give me an opportunity, I’ll make it count.
The Super Bowl ring doesn’t come out often — at least, not for current players.
“I can use it at some point in recruiting,” Stapleton said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think it will win us games.”
It’s a hands-on approach rather than what’s in Stapleton’s hands that should push Florida’s offensive line to the next level under Napier. With double-digit offensive linemen to hone and push, Stapleton thinks one voice in the room isn’t enough to ensure every player gets the attention they need. He and Sale must work together, and often in sync. From someone who’s been there before and done what many dream of, hearing the message in one voice isn’t as effective as hearing the message echoed by another coach in the room .
“It’s also that two pairs of eyes are better than one, two brains are better than one,” Stapleton said. “…As long as we get our guys to play and understand exactly what we’re trying to do, we’re successful.”
The approach puts Florida in a desirable position: in the middle of progress. Overall numbers may still be lacking, but the Gators have made sure those in the building at the offensive line position have the resources to continue their development — and get into a spring game.
Then, when the lights go out on Thursday, Sale and Stapleton can focus on finding the next linemen to develop in Gainesville.
“As many (offensive linemen) as you give me, that would be my number. I don’t want to put a cap on it. And, again, I think that’s what you have to create: you create an atmosphere where everyone believes there’s a chance,” Stapleton said. “Once there is no hope left in the room, they stop working. When everyone has the mindset like, “Hey, I got a chance to contribute to this 2022 team.” They go out and work. Everyone is fighting for a starting job.
What: Orange and blue game
Or: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
When: 7:30 p.m., doors open at 6 p.m.
TV: SEC+ network