GAINESVILLE -- Back in October, with Florida and LSU knotted in a physical battle in which every yard gained seemed to be a struggle, Gators safety Matt Elam made what his teammates this week have called the biggest play of the season.
Facing a third-and-7 from inside UF territory, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger hit streaking wide receiver Odell Beckham in stride down the right sideline. A blown coverage resulted in Beckham picking up the game’s longest gain of 56 yards, but what stopped the play helped jump-start Florida’s resurgence to the top echelon of college football.
Coming over from his safety spot, Elam chased down Beckham and stripped the ball. A review confirmed the fumble. The Gators recovered and used the momentum to score on the ensuing possession and all but put the game away.
“That play defined our season,” cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. “He could have gave up on the play or just make the tackle, but he went the extra mile to make the strip. It turned the whole game around.”
Elam, named an Associated Press All-American earlier this month, played arguably the most important role on UF’s fifth-ranked defense.
A versatile defensive back with the ability to play nickel cornerback and both safety spots, Elam provided defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the flexibility and trust to get creative with the calls in front of Elam. He finished the regular season second on the team with 65 total tackles, including 10 for a loss of yards. He also intercepted four passes and batted down another five.
Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said Elam embodies everything a coach wants from a safety.
“He’s a guy that can impact the game,” Watson said. “He can wreck the game for you.”
But with his stock peaking and the NFL an attractive option for a player ranked at the top of most analysts’ boards at his position, it’s becoming less and less likely that the Gators can expect Elam to return to that role next season. Elam on Saturday declined to comment on questions regarding a decision to go pro, but he did not state an intention to return and all indications point to him entering the draft in April.
Elam’s older brother, Abe Elam, is a seven-year veteran safety in the NFL currently playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Matt said the advice he has received from Abe has been paramount.
“Without him, it probably would have been a lot more difficult,” Elam said. “[Having a brother that’s been though it] takes a lot of burden off of me.”
Still, despite Elam playing an integral role on the nation’s best defense against the pass, defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd said players leaving is just the nature of the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s college,” Floyd said. “Your seniors are going to move on. Your juniors, if they’re talented, they’re going to move on, too. You’ve got to get the next one ready to play. Show him the way to go, especially if you’re one of the ones leaving.”
• Florida has sold just 7,000 of its 17,500 ticket allotment forWednesday’s Sugar Bowl game against Louisville. Last time UF was in the Sugar Bowl in 2010 for Tim Tebow’s last game the school also fell short,failing to sell 5,000 of its allotment.