GAINESVILLE -- By the time they see him, it’s usually far too late.
The “him” is Florida sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy. The “they” are the return men tasked with fielding a punt against the Gators.
With claimed sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, Purifoy, a sophomore from Pensacola, puts it to good use as the main gunner on the Gators’ special teams unit. As a freshman last year, Purifoy led UF with 22 tackles on special teams, and that production has continued into this season with several highlight hits, such as the devastating blow he delivered to LSU returner Odell Beckham after UF’s first offensive series three weeks ago.
“They asked me to go force fair catches and make plays, so I tried to take it like it was one snap of defense,” Purifoy said. “If the returner so happens not to call a fair catch, he just gets blew up.”
But for Purifoy, snaps on defense were hard to come by as a freshman. He played in all 13 of Florida’s games, but Purifoy did not make a start at his normal position of cornerback all season.
Senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said he was a “head case” in his first year on campus, calling Purifoy a wild card and saying “you never know what Loucheiz is going to do or say.”
“He was doing everything he was asked to do as a player,” Hunter said. “Just last year, I don’t think he was ready to play.”
Hunter said Purifoy has taken a different approach this season, and it is paying dividends.
“He was a head case. But now, man, he’s much more mature,” Hunter said. “I love being around Loucheiz. He brings excitement to the team. ... This year, he had a great offseason and he got right into a playing situation. Loucheiz has really stepped it up for us.”
Purifoy has started at cornerback in six of Florida’s seven games this season and is fourth on the team with 27 tackles. He’s also quickly developed into one of the defense’s biggest playmakers, such as the first play from scrimmage in Saturday’s win over South Carolina when Purifoy was sent on a corner blitz and stripped the ball from quarterback Connor Shaw. The Gators recovered at the Gamecocks’ 3 and took a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn created the term “violators” (opponents who are prone to fumble) to help enforce the need for turnovers, and he said Purifoy has responded to the challenge and simply has a knack for the ball.
“He brings an energy to the team, to the defense and to the special teams in terms of the way he covers. He’s physical,” Quinn said. “He has, like all good players do, that internal drive that you want to earn that respect from other people — not just your teammates — to show that I can get the job done and here it is on tape.”
Fellow corner Jaylen Watkins said Purifoy has actually helped the Gators’ offense because his desire to get the ball off of people does not stop in practice against his teammates. Florida has only turned the ball over four times this season after giving it up 26 times last year.
“They’re probably not doing it in games because of guys like Loucheiz,” Watkins said. “The receivers hate him, the running backs hate him. … That was nothing new to us when he knocked the ball away from [Shaw].”
Although the big play might have been expected by his teammates, Shaw, like most punt returners, had no idea what was coming Saturday. But Purifoy did.
“[Shaw] was their No. 1 violator,” he said. “If you’re running around with the ball out, you might as well give it to us.”