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Preparations shift to high gear for Florida Gators

Apart from final exams, college football players love December.

The month represents a break from the steady grind of the season, a chance to decompress and get away from the game for a week or two before beginning preparations for a bowl game. When Florida steps onto the turf inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 2 to play Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, more than a month will have passed since the team’s win against Florida State on Nov. 24.

But that month is also paramount for certain players, and it’s not all rest and relaxation. Florida practiced Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, then had almost a week off before returning to the field on Friday. They will start working on Louisville on Tuesday, giving Florida two full weeks of game preparation for the Cardinals.

“You look at bowl games with this much of a layover, it’s a one-game season,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said Monday. “That’s really how you have to approach it. You’ve got to put all of your energy into it.”

Muschamp said the Gators have been focusing mainly on fundamentals while trying to work younger players into the mix. During bowl practices last year, then-freshman cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy burst onto the scene for the Gators, carving out a role for himself in a crowded secondary.

“It’s huge for a young player to take steps forward [in December],” Muschamp said. “They need to cherish this opportunity they’ve got sitting in front of them. It’s another spring ball, another opportunity to improve yourself as a player and it helps our football team. Loucheiz is a perfect example.”

Purifoy started all but one game for Florida this season as a true sophomore, and although Muschamp has mentioned players such as cornerback Brian Poole and even quarterback Jeff Driskel, the leading candidate for a similar rise from relative unknown to household name is freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison.

Key play

Coaches and teammates have raved about Morrison’s talent and ability since fall camp. But that potential hadn’t materialized into noticeable production until Morrison replaced injured starter Jelani Jenkins in the second half against Florida State and came up with one of the most memorable plays of Florida’s season. After squandering a halftime lead, the Gators trailed the Seminoles 20-16 early in the fourth quarter when Morrison crushed Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel and caused a fumble that Florida recovered, helping propel the Gators to a 37-26 win in Tallahassee.

“Antonio is a very instinctive, tough, physical player,” Muschamp said. “He enjoys the physical contact of the game. He really does. … We knew he was the type of guy we wanted in our program.”

Jenkins underwent surgery recently on the injured foot and will miss Florida’s bowl game. That means Morrison will start in Jenkins’ place throughout practice this month and have the opportunity to do what Purifoy was able to do last season.

Inspirational tale

Muschamp said he told Purifoy’s story on the first day of December practices in an attempt to inspire other younger players.

“[Purifoy] was a guy that was really only a special teams player. He played very little, if any, on defense throughout the season — came into bowl practice and just had an outstanding bowl practice,” Muschamp said. “So we’ve really challenged our young players to step forward and understand this is another spring practice for them. … It’s another 15 days of practice, so they have a great opportunity to springboard themselves into the offseason program and really put a mark on our mind as a staff of where they are as a player.”

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